Veteran Mideast Envoy Set To Lead New U.S. Strategy On Iran
By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The U.S. State Department has announced that veteran
diplomat Dennis Ross is to be a special adviser to the secretary of state for
the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Ross will be responsible for a region characterized by the State Department as a
place where "America is fighting two wars and facing challenges of ongoing
conflict, terror, proliferation, access to energy, economic development and
strengthening democracy and the rule of law."
There is no specific mention of Iran in the State Department press release
announcing Ross's appointment. But analysts say his job will include handling
the Iran portfolio and developing a new U.S. strategy for dealing with the
Washington is reviewing its policy toward Tehran to find ways to open a dialogue
with Iran after some 30 years of hostility. The State Department says Ross would
offer "strategic advice" and perspective on the region, coordinate new policy
approaches, and take part in "interagency activities."
Ross has over a decade of experience in Middle East peacemaking efforts. He was
the top U.S. envoy on the Middle East in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill
Neil Partrick, a professor of political science at the American University of
Sharjah, describes Ross as an experienced and widely respected diplomat whose
appointment will likely reassure Israel.
"If I wanted to speculate I might say that the fact that he's seen, to some
extent in the region, as sympathetic to Israel might help to calm its concerns
about U.S. engagement with Iran," Partrick says.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's comments denying the Holocaust and his
fiery rhetoric against Israel have alarmed the Jewish state. Israeli Prime
Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu recently described Iran as "the greatest
threat that Israel has ever faced." He has repeatedly warned that Israel will
not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
Sticks And Carrots
In the United States, much of the policy debate on Iran within the new
administration is going on behind closed doors. Many agree that a new approach
is needed, but there is comparatively little room to maneuver.
"The Washington Post" says Ross's efforts may remain hidden for some time. But
his recent articles on Iran could offer a clue.
In a September paper published by the Center for a New American Security, Ross
wrote that preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and altering its
"destabilizing, anti-peace policies" in the Middle East should be the United
States' basic objective toward Iran. He also recommended approaching Iran by
setting up "a direct, secret back channel."
Ross wrote in the December 8 issue of "Newsweek" magazine that the United States
must balance "sharp sticks" with "appetizing carrots" to convince Iran to change
its behavior on its nuclear program and terrorism.
Ross added that smart statecraft was needed to avoid what he called two possible
terrible outcomes: a nuclear-armed Iran, or a military conflict to prevent
Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Partrick expects Ross to follow a tough line on Iran. "The general message we're
getting is that there is a willingness, to some extent, to pay attention to
Iranian concerns, which we did get from the previous Clinton administration," he
says, "but they will remain the demands which we had under George Bush junior,
and that concerns the civil nuclear program, and it also concerns links with
groups perceived as being terrorists, so there will be a number of aspects of
the previous agenda but with perhaps more effort to try and reach an agreement."
Ross's appointment as a special adviser dealing with Iran and the larger Middle
East had been rumored since December. And it was met at the time with pessimism
in Tehran. IRNA, Iran's official news agency, described Ross as "a staunch
supporter of the Zionist regime," who is likely to take an anti-Iranian stance.
Hassan Fathi, a Tehran-based analyst, says that the IRNA commentary gives a
taste of Iran's official reaction to the appointment. "While I think the
important thing is that the [United States] wants to negotiate with Iran,
someone has to be in charge of this mission, be it Ross, or someone else," Fathi
"But unfortunately in Iran, instead of listening to the message, they always
apply a 'Zionist' label in order to boycott that person so that they don't have
to enter the main process."
Iranian officials have so far sent mixed messages on whether they're ready to
engage with the United States or not. And the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, who has the final say, has remained silent.
Fathi believes Iranian leaders are ready to engage with Washington only on their
own terms. He says Iran's hard-liners see their survival in their opposition to
the United States.
Ross's appointment follows last month's appointments of former Senator George
Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as special
representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke has said that Iran should play a vital role in efforts to stabilize
Afghanistan. Ross, whose brief includes both countries, would presumably play an
important role in coordinating such an effort.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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