By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Diplomatic troubleshooter Dennis Ross is a legendary talker, a specialist in developing peace processes -- long ones. For 12 years, in the first Bush presidency and both terms of the Clinton presidency, he was at the center of the seemingly endless effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As one of the main architects of the Obama administration's Iran policy, Ross is crafting a way to reach out to Iran to persuade its leaders to abandon any plan to develop nuclear weapons. President Obama says this effort will have to show results by the end of the year.
If engagement fails, Ross probably will have to shift course and help devise a blunt-force strategy to accomplish the same goal. That process will also have a deadline: Israel has hinted for years that it would attack Iran to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear bomb.
Ross is undertaking this assignment amid questions in Washington about whether he has sufficient clout in the nascent Obama administration. And in the Middle East, many officials view him as too pro-Israel, raising concerns about whether he is the right person for the job of coaxing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Even a former colleague, Aaron David Miller, wrote last year that "Dennis, like myself, had an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel's vantage point." Ross has written that his admiration for Israel has not hurt his effectiveness as a negotiator.
Nevertheless, Iranian officials "think any policy will be run through Israel before it gets to them and they will be stuck with policies that are unworkable," said Flynt Leverett, a former National Security Council staff member who recently met with Iranian diplomats.
Ross, a serious-minded policy maven who wrote an 800-page memoir on his Arab-Israeli diplomacy, is regarded by friends as warm and empathetic, able to synthesize diverse points of view into a coherent whole. He also is known for giving little hint about what he is thinking. "Dennis never keeps anything written down," said Patrick Clawson, an Iran analyst who worked with Ross at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross, 60, and other State Department officials declined to be interviewed for this article.
But in a new book, Ross and co-author David Makovsky lay out the elements of a strategy for approaching Iran. "Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East" recommends the establishment of a "direct, secret back channel" with Iran's leaders before any public talks commence, thus allowing for both sides to have a "thorough discussion and to see whether there is a common agenda that can be constructed." If such talks have taken place, they have not been revealed, but U.S. officials have publicly said they do not think Iran will be able to respond to U.S. initiatives until after presidential elections on Friday.
The book argues for a "hybrid approach," in which the United States seeks to talk to Iran but keeps up the pressure with aggressive enforcement of existing sanctions. "This option ends the image that there is a price just for talking to the United States, but does not give the impression that America has caved in," the men write, arguing that the "hard choices" of stern deterrence or military strikes on Iran would gain greater worldwide acceptance if diplomacy were tried first.
The administration appears to have adopted parts of this approach. Stuart A. Levey, a senior Treasury official Obama retained from the Bush administration, is responsible for a series of U.S. sanctions aimed at the Iranian financial services industry. Levey traveled to European capitals in late March to press allies to fully implement existing sanctions against Iran.
"We have no illusions, we are not naive, this is not something that we approach in an open-ended way. This is about changing the behavior of the regime, not about changing the regime," one senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, in a report issued last week, said that an engagement-with-pressure approach "risks triggering a negative Iranian reaction." Instead of adding leverage, as Ross argues, "Iranians perceive [it] as a disingenuous ploy to produce a broad consensus for toughened containment measures under the expectation negotiations will fail."
Ross is a star of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, but his debut in the Obama administration was inauspicious.
The official announcement of his appointment as the State Department special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia came in a late-night news release in February, in contrast to the public ceremonies that heralded the appointments of special envoys such as Richard C. Holbrooke and George J. Mitchell. Unlike Holbrooke and Mitchell, he reports only to the secretary of state, not also to the president, suggesting that Ross's views will carry less weight in the administration.
Obama's most public outreach to the Iranian government, issuing a videotaped greeting on the occasion of the Persian New Year, was the inspiration of Erica Thibault, a State Department public diplomacy specialist. Her suggestion reached a White House official dealing with Iran policy, who brought it to the attention of senior officials.
But during a recent appearance on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to place Ross at the center of the administration's efforts on Iran. "Right now we are just testing their willingness to have any kind of engagement," she told lawmakers. "Dennis Ross, who is handling our Southwest Asia policy, including Iran, is -- I'm sure you know him -- extremely thoughtful and smart about how to sequence this."
Puneet Talwar, a senior White House aide, has emerged as an important figure on Iran policy, according to several diplomats in contact with the administration. And Undersecretary of State William J. Burns -- who was Ross's deputy in the first Bush administration -- will be the chief negotiator at nuclear talks with Iran.
Ross's most visible action thus far was a trip to the Persian Gulf in late April to reassure anxious Arab officials that the United States would not cut a deal with Iran and abandon them. Many Arab officials are skeptical of Ross because of the perception that he tilted heavily toward Israel during the Clinton years.
Before joining the Obama administration, Ross co-founded a not-for-profit group called United Against Nuclear Iran, whose executive director is Mark Wallace, a Bush administration official. Wallace said the group grew out of discussions with Holbrooke and former CIA director R. James Woolsey about how to achieve bipartisan consensus on the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. Wallace declined to reveal the contributors to the group's $2 million budget last year, but two people familiar with the organization said many are pro-Israel advocates.
Ross has "a lot of baggage from the past, but his portfolio is different in his new role so it may not matter," said one Arab diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing personalities. "We don't trust the Iranians either."
Supporters of Ross argue that his Israeli connections make him the ideal candidate to sell a U.S. agreement with Iran to Israel, which itself has an undeclared nuclear arsenal.
Arab diplomats who attended Ross's presentation or were briefed on it said he provided few specifics on what the Americans planned to do. Many Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf region, are pushing for maximum pressure on Iran, arguing that the Obama administration's engagement approach might have made sense a few years ago but now that Iran may be on the cusp of acquiring the technology needed to produce a nuclear weapon, endless talking may be fruitless.
"Dennis's approach is very rational," said another Arab diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The question is: Are we running out of time?"
European officials ask the same question. A senior French diplomat met this year with Ross and offered words of caution: The biggest challenge for the United States will be how to decide that the talks are going nowhere. "It's difficult to stop talking once you start," the diplomat said.