Iran, Israel, Obama and Dennis Ross


Time’s Massimo Calabresi looks into why the Obama administration has yet to live up to the D.C. rumor mill by tapping Dennis Ross for an Iran-related post:

The first version emphasizes traditional turf battles. Ross wants the job as described three weeks ago in a memo from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the pro-Israel think tank where Ross was based after leaving the government in 2001. The WINEP memo to its board of trustees announced that Ross had accepted a position as ambassador-at-large in Hillary Clinton’s State Department with a broad regional policy role in which he would advise Clinton directly on a "wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran." But that job definition would potentially undercut Mitchell’s role as Middle East envoy reporting to Clinton. In this telling, Ross, who in the Clinton Administration had played the role now assigned to Mitchell, doesn’t want his responsibilities limited strictly to Iran. "He’s frustrated," says one person who spoke with him recently. And until a title and responsibilities can be agreed upon, Ross can’t be rolled out.

The alternative explanation is that Ross is already hard at work on Iran, which will be his primary responsibility, but he can’t be named as an envoy tasked with engaging Iran until the Administration’s top players agree on a basic approach to the issue. "He’s on board," says another Ross friend, but "it would be the height of folly to roll out Dennis [now] … There’s just a lot of very careful and, I would say, quiet spadework to be done [first]."

The idea of Ross as a U.S. envoy to Tehran is not popular there, to say the least, the Christian Science Monitor reports from Iran:

But it is Obama’s expected pick to handle the Iran portfolio – former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross – that has raised most questions in Tehran. Though not officially announced, diplomats say the appointment is all but certain. In Iran, Mr. Ross has been vilified as too hawkish and too close to Israel and pro-Israel lobbies in the US to be effective.

Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper called Ross, who is Jewish, a "pioneer of the American-Zionist lobby," whose pick would be an "insult."

When Ross was Mideast envoy, Kayhan said, US policy was "not one millimeter different from Israeli policy."

"There is no doubt they are all going to look at Ross as an Israeli proxy," says one Western diplomat.

"Of course the policy is more important than the personality," says Sadegh Kharazi, a former ambassador to Paris, who helped draft a secret 2003 Iranian offer to Washington to discuss all issues from terrorism to nuclear programs.

A Ross appointment would be "dangerous" and amounts to "shooting the confidence building with the Iranians," says Mr. Kharazi, adding that Iranian officials will be reluctant to deal with Ross. "It shows that the Americans appointed Dennis Ross by the eyes of the Israelis. It means flying to Tehran by the connecting flight via Tel Aviv. Iranians are not happy [about] this."

Roger Cohen writes at that a U.S. attack against the Islamic Republic should be off the table:

I’ve read think-tank scenarios that have the United States bombing Iran’s nuclear installations at Natanz, hitting Iranian military bases to limit the response, imposing a naval blockade and infiltrating special forces from Iraq or Afghanistan. After eight Bush-Cheney years, such plans exist at the Pentagon.

To which my response is: Hang on a second.

The United States’ role in the 1953 coup here that deposed the Middle East’s first democratically elected government lives in memory. Any U.S. attack would propel 56-year-old Iranian demons into overdrive and lock in an America-hating Islamic Republic for the next half-century….

In short, the U.S. military option is not an option. It is unthinkable.

This is the poisoned chalice handed Obama by Bush, who responded to Iranian help in Afghanistan in 2001 by consigning Iran to the axis of evil, rebuffed credible approaches by the former moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and undermined European diplomacy.

The problem facing Obama is that a Netanyahu-led Obama will feel the need to act:

No, the real “Red Line” will be set by Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s leading candidate to become prime minister after elections next week, has said “everything that is necessary” will be done to stop Iran going nuclear. I believe him.

Never again is never again. There’s no changing that Israeli lens, however distorting it may be in a changed world. That could mean an Israeli attack on Iran within a year. If the U.S. military option is unthinkable, equally unthinkable is the United States abandoning Israel.

That is Obama’s dilemma.

Cohen is down on sanctions, as well. Says they won’t work. So what’s the answer? Cohen doesn’t offer a clear one. But David Ignatius of the Washington Post sure does (though it probably won’t go over well with some): send Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft to Tehran.

The advantage of sending these two distinguished senior statesmen is that they would make it harder for the Iranians to play political games. Brzezinski and Scowcroft are part of what I call "the great chain of being" of American foreign policy. Their presence as emissaries would signal that engagement with Iran is a matter of the greatest seriousness to the United States, equivalent to their predecessor Henry Kissinger’s secret diplomacy with China in 1971. Perhaps most important, the two would have the confidence to walk away from the talks if they made no progress.

One of the few things Brzezinski and Scowcroft disagreed about was whether the initial contacts with Iran should be open (Brzezinski’s view) or secret (Scowcroft’s preference). Both believe that America’s emissaries must meet with an Iranian representative who is close to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I’m biased. I like Brzezinski and Scowcroft, and I don’t know anyone who thinks more clearly about foreign policy. If they did become President Obama’s emissaries, they should take along someone who could coordinate the dialogue and its aftermath. Dennis Ross, expected to be the State Department’s senior adviser on Iran, could play that role.

This one matters, and President Obama would be wise to send the A-team.

And while the Obama administration puts together its plan, Benjamin Weinthal writes in the Wall Street Journal that European money continues to flow into Iran:

While the U.S. has ratcheted up its efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms, the Islamic Republic is reaping a windfall from European companies. These firms’ deals aid a regime that is bent on developing nuclear weapons and which financially supports the terror organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.

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