Why Dennis Ross is the wrong man for Obama and Iran
After the election in November, as I mulled over what kind of radical change in US foreign policy might be possible with our new president, I was heartened by reading this anecdote in the New Yorker:
Not only did Barack Obama strongly believe in tough-minded diplomacy as a centerpiece of foreign policy, but he fought against that criticism (oddly enough, from his soon-to-be Secretary of State) against the initial instincts of his campaign staff. To me, this signified that he was serious about changing how the US interacts with the world, which is why it’s even more disappointing to hear about some of his potential appointments in key national security positions. The latest name being floated as an envoy to the Middle East, with a focus on Iran, is Dennis Ross, whose activities and positions could undermine the very change President Obama campaigned proposed in the United States’ relationship with Iran.
While it is important to be realistic about the US relationship with Iran and the costs of a failure to ameliorate the relationship, Dennis Ross actively hypes the threat from Iran in a way that encourages rash decision-making. That kind of heated rhetoric is dangerous from anyone; from a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, it is particularly troubling.
Shortly before the election, Ross joined three others in penning an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal, ominously titled “Everyone Needs to Worry About Iran.” The authors claimed that, “even the most conservative estimates tell us that they could have nuclear weapons soon.” This is in direct contradiction to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of 16 intelligence agencies, that stated that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Iran hawks made an effort to increase the fear factor based on a report in November that Iran had enough material to make a nuclear bomb, while conveniently leaving out the fact that the milestone was “mostly symbolic,” and was “not an imminent threat.”
One of Ross’ main vehicles for cultivating this fear is a group known as United Against a Nuclear Iran. I wrote in November about the newly formed organization, whose sole purpose appears to be giving people nightmares about Ahmadinejad with his finger on the button. I have still not heard any concrete policy proposals from the group, and the only grassroots action they have encouraged in the past few months is writing a holiday message to President Ahmadinejad asking him to forgo nuclear weapons. Having heard about the angry rallies UANI supporters have attended when the Iranian president is in town, I’m sure they asked very nicely.
I’m strongly in favor of conveying the urgency of forging a new path in our relations with Iran, and we are working to convey that it needs to be a top foreign policy priority. However, that urgency is based on the strong strategic interests the US has in working with Iran on issues like stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than on a trumped up idea that Iran poses an imminent threat to the US. In his belief that Iran is the most urgent threat facing the US, Ross is out of step with, among others, General David Petraeus, who recently spoke in favor of working with Iran on areas of shared interest, and rightfully focuses on Al Qaeda as a more pressing threat. Nobody wants Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, but we do not want to see a lead policymaker who believes that a nuclear Iran is just around the corner, and signed on to a bipartisan report that argues “a military strike is a feasible option.”
To his credit, Ross recognizes that the Bush administration’s approach has failed, and cites the need for negotiations with Iran. What is troubling, however, is that he wants to intensify some of the least effective measures the Bush administration and Congress pursued in recent years. In a recent piece in Newsweek, Ross wrote:
Iran has been under various types of sanctions since the revolution of 1979, and they have done little to weaken Iran or elicit changes in behavior. Yet Ross wants to squeeze harder. As we saw with the constant saber-rattling between Bush and Ahmadinejad, the looming threat of the United States hardens support for Ahmadinejad (who is not terribly popular with the Iranian public), and gives him a rallying cry to protect Iran from US aggression. Increasing sanctions, and broadening them to have a greater impact on the civilian population, will only serve to increase resentment of the US within Iran, make support of a positive relationship with the US more difficult for reformers within Iran, and possibly alienate allies with whom we want to work for a better relationship and stability in the Middle East.
Another disconcerting aspect of Ross’ approach is the implication that talks with Iran serve largely to recruit other countries for a harsher punitive approach:
will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure. In the past, the Europeans feared a slippery slope to confrontation. Talking to Iran will ease that fear while justifying increased sanctions.
We’re not going to meet our security goals through a cursory attempt at engagement, so the US government can tell the international community, “we tried, it didn’t work, it’s time to bring down the hammer.” This counterproductive sentiment was also expressed recently by Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, who called for talks with Iran limited to eight to twelve weeks, to encourage other countries to buy into “crippling sanctions.” If we truly want to deal with tension with Iran (not to mention Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine), we need to make a good faith effort to negotiate directly and put all issues on the table, not put on a show for the international community so the US can continue a failed policy that makes the US less safe.
As we have watched various appointments come in, I have heard many arguments that it is too early to question President-elect Obama’s choices, and he may be selecting more centrist people as cover for pursuing bold, progressive policies. I would love that to be true, but as advocates, we cannot assume that things will move in our direction; we need to make our voices heard. President-elect Obama has encouraged an ongoing dialogue, and if we want direct diplomacy with Iran to be a priority, we need to engage, and express our respectful disagreements. And regardless of whether Ross eventually gets this appointment, we need to aggressively push back against the UANIs of the world and create the political space for a bold new diplomatic relationship with Iran.