US sends mixed signals with new Iran advisor

Dennis Ross
Barack Obama said during his presidential campaign that he would work hard to engage, not enrage, the Islamic Republic of Iran. So how do we explain his choice of Iran advisor?

Late Tuesday night, veteran Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross was assigned as a special advisor to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Although Ross’ formal title is "advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia,’ the Washington Post, citing state department sources, says the title is a euphemism for Iran.

On Wednesday, political news sites were having a field day with comments by US State Department spokesman Robert Wood, who went to great pains to explain exactly what Ross will be doing:

“Let me be clear, he’s not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He’ll be working on regional issues. He will not be – in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. But again, he is going to be advising the Secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region.”

Yes, it is always delightful to see high-level spokesmen at a total loss for words. It usually means they are misinformed, or they are concealing something. And given the number of times the spokesman denied that Ross would be negotiating, we are almost tempted to believe that Ross really will be negotiating. Of course, this is just a professional hunch.

Next, when the spokesman is asked to identify the countries that will fall under Ross’ ‘advisory’ jurisdiction, again he is at a loss for words:

“Look, it’s more – he’s going to be providing advice to the Secretary on a number of regional issues, and I would not try to limit Dennis’s advice to, you know, just those regions. He may have other – you know, he may have advice that he wants to give the Secretary on other issues. I don’t think we’re trying to narrow it here.”

So if we try to read, like soggy tea leaves, between the quagmire of these sentences, we may be tempted to conclude two things:
1. Ross will be a negotiator;
2. Ross will be negotiating on issues involving Iran, and possibly even helping to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, which could be part of a Middle East peace plan package including Iran.

Ross, 61, has worked with both Republican (George H.W. Bush) and Democratic (Bill Clinton) presidents on Middle East issues, and worked with former secretaries of state James Baker, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.

In 20 years of academic and diplomatic work, Ross’ perspectives on hot-button issues have shown a tendency to change with the times.

In 2007, for example, Ross co-convened a special report entitled, “How to Deepen the U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge,” which strongly objected to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The paper also lambasted the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that reported that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapon program in 2003.

When the question boils down to a matter of deterrence or prevention, the report stressed that “Americans should recognize that deterrence is, in Israeli eyes, an unattractive alternative to prevention, because if deterrence fails, Israel would suffer terribly.”

One year later, Ross put out a slightly less provocative paper entitled, “Diplomatic Strategies for Dealing with Iran”. In it, he gives much more sanction for engagement with Iran, mostly through secret “backchannel” methods. Although the differences between North Korea’s nuclear weapon program, for example, and Iran’s are significant, there remains the possibility that Iran will put aside its nuclear ambitions for serious changes in the Middle East, including the recognition of a Palestinian state, an issue that continues to fuel the Islamic radicalism in Iran and elsewhere.

There is one last thing worth mentioning about Dennis Ross. In the past, his peace efforts in the Middle East often came under harsh suspicion due to his Jewish heritage. Yet Ross has managed to walk the tightrope between warring camps, and is cited in both Israeli and Palestinian literature.

However, according to Aaron David Miller, a member of the Clinton administration’s Middle East efforts (it seems that every presidential administration gets the chance to play peace broker), the US too often behaved as Israel’s lawyer.

“Unfortunately, too often we lose sight of the need to be advocates for both Arabs and Israelis. The most recent example of this was the Clinton administration’s effort in 1999-2000 [of which Ross was the lead negotiator] to broker final deals between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.”

Finally, in 2006, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (rather tellingly published by the London Review of Books), written by John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University), Ross is criticized as part of the US “Lobby,” the powerful pro-Israeli political group that was largely responsible, the researchers argue, for getting America militarily involved in Iraq.

Ross was quoted in the Sun as saying the report is “masquerading as scholarship.”

Now, Barack Obama seems willing to bet that Dennis Ross can further change his position with the times.

Robert Bridge, RT