Obama, Dennis Ross and the Iran conundrum


In his piece in The New York Times Magazine about the challenge posed to the Obama administration’s Iran policy by the disputed election in Iran, Roger Cohen spills a lot of ink questioning whether Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East peace negotiator, is hampered in his ability to "be an honest broker with Iran or the Arabs" because of his ties to Israel and American Jews.

Cohen writes:

Balance is something this meticulous diplomat prizes. But a recurrent issue with Ross, who embraced the Jewish faith after being raised in a nonreligious home by a Jewish mother and Catholic stepfather, has been whether he is too close to the American Jewish community and Israel to be an honest broker with Iran or Arabs. Miller, after years of working with Ross, concluded in a book that he “had an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel’s vantage point rather than that of the Palestinians.” Another former senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with the administration, told me, “Ross’s bad habit is preconsultation with the Israelis.” Ross earned $421,775 from speeches last year, of which more than half came from Israeli and Jewish groups, according to a financial-disclosure statement…

Ross’s old and new obsessions — Israel and Iran — have merged in a perilous countdown. As he moves to the N.S.C. to work alongside his old friend Tom Donilon, he faces a fundamental question: can this baggage-encumbered veteran who wrote an 800-page tome on Israel-Palestine called “The Missing Peace” overcome ingrained habits and sympathies to uncover what’s been missing? Obama is trying to reinvent Middle East thinking. He’s questioning America’s uncritical stance toward Israel, drawing Syria in and pursuing the Iran gambit against great odds. Conventional thinking will not deliver what the president seeks…

One Iranian-American sometimes consulted by the administration told me he’d had calls from the White House, asking, “Will the Iranians be prepared to meet with Ross?” That was a reasonable question given Ross’s well-known ties with the American Jewish community and the sometimes hawkish views on Iran — including endorsing a report that called for Obama to “begin augmenting the military lever right away” — that he expressed before his appointment. (Ross also argued at other times for unconditional engagement backed by the threat of draconian sanctions.)

Cohen also writes about the debate within the administration of Israel’s intentions regarding Iran:

Would Israel attack Iran against express U.S. objections? Opinion is divided. The Ross team does not rule that out. Indyk thinks not. “Remember, Israel has second-strike capability,” he told me. “It wouldn’t be easy to live with an Iran that’s a virtual nuclear power, but at the end of the day, it’s not a complete disaster.”

Normalization with Iran is a heady idea, comparable to the China breakthrough of 1972. It would create a far less dangerous world. The history-making idea captivated Obama, and it lingers still. Engagement remains on the table, and its unsettling effect on Iran’s domestic politics seem likely to endure. But since June 12, prospects of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement have darkened. The possible explosion that now looms in Iran, were Israel to attack, could assume devastating proportions and expose America to heightened danger. Obama has staked a lot — arguably his whole “smart power” doctrine — on preventing that.

For Ross, diplomacy is not just about realized goals, but about what you prevent, what you limit, what you contain, what you defuse. Successful diplomacy will take more than Obama-doctrine outreach. It will require a new form of American power to work, in avoiding the worst even if it cannot attain the dream.

Full story here.

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