Why Dennis Ross is the wrong man for Obama and Iran

 In 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:

Several Obama aides believe that a crucial moment came after a debate sponsored by YouTube and CNN in July of 2007. During the debate, Obama was asked, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your Administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama answered simply, “I would.” Hillary Clinton pounced on the remark as hopelessly naïve, and her aides prepared to emphasize what appeared to be a winning argument. Obama’s aides had much the same reaction. “We know this is going to be the issue of the day,” Dan Pfeiffer, recalling a conference call the following morning, said. “We have the sense they’re going to come after us on it. And we’re all on the bus trying to figure out how to get out of it, how not to talk about it.” Obama, who was listening to part of the conversation, took the telephone from an aide and instructed his staff not to back down. According to an aide, Obama said something to the effect of “This is ridiculous. We met with Stalin. We met with Mao. The idea that we can’t meet with Ahmadinejad is ridiculous. This is a bunch of Washington-insider conventional wisdom that makes no sense. We should not run from this debate. We should have it.”

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:

Hitting the economy more directly would force Tehran to make a choice. Iran has profound economic vulnerabilities: it imports 43 percent of its gasoline, and its oil and natural-gas industries—the government’s key source of revenue, which it uses to buy off its population—desperately need huge amounts of new investment and technology. Iran also faces high inflation and unemployment. Tough sanctions that exploit these problems would force Iran’s leaders to see the high costs—as they measure them—of not changing their nuclear behavior.

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:

The irony is that the more Washington shows it’s willing to engage Iran directly, the more these other parties, especially the Europeans,
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.

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Showing 7 comments
  • libhomo

    This guy is almost as frightening as Hillary Clinton. Is this administration going to be absolutely flooded with warmongers?

  • Ethan Bair

    I’ve heard Dennis Ross speak and he’s a thoughtful and articulate person. I think cultivating an alliance with Iran would be good for overall peace and stability in the middle east. Yet I am also very much against Iran gaining nuclear capabilities. It’s hard to know what kind of diplomat can be most effective in curbing Iran’s nuclear program. I am intrigued by the thesis of this article, which seems to argue that a mutually supportive relationship between Iran and the US would increase our safety. Could Iran become a trustworthy regime? How do our nations begin to build trust, without giving Iran a green light to accumulate nuclear capabilities?

  • Reply

    Ethan, thanks for your comments. As an organization founded to stop the threat of nuclear weapons we too are extremely concerned about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. And yes, Ross is not only articulate, he is a experienced diplomat. But as Becca’s post points out he brings far too much baggage, blindspots and bias to be effective with such a delicate relationship as that with Iran. There may be a place for him in Obama’s team but the Iran post is the last place he should be.
    Iran simply will not take seriously an envoy who has a reputation — not unearned — for being aggressively inclined towards their regime. Ross’s position that military action will be necessary against Iran if there is not a quick diplomatic solution would create the wrong dynamic from the get go. And most experts we talk to at Peace Action West believe the military “solution” would in fact cause Iran to become more devoted to building up a nuclear arsenal after any setbacks caused by U.S. or Israeli airstrikes. It’s not a solution at all, so why leave that “gun on the table”.
    In addition Ross’s unsubstantiated assumptions regarding the state of and intent of Iran’s nuclear program undermine his credibility.
    Your comment points out how difficult diplomacy with Iran will be. We need someone with less strikes against them to take this one.

  • David E. S. Stein

    As a member of Peace Action West, I differ with your assessment, on three grounds.
    1. Your claim that Obama is changing course by continuing to trust Ross is not convincing. Ross has been an insider on Obama’s foreign policy team for a long time. The President knows what he’s getting.
    2. Ultimately the Iran hawks will need to be satisfied in order for any agreement to be ratified by Congress, so why not involve them now? Indeed, Obama should appoint a hawk to the position in question, because doing so forestalls criticism that the Administration is being “soft on Iran.” Such criticism could easily sabotage an agreement.
    3. Although in your alert today to members, you wrote that “Ross will have trouble establishing credibility with the Iranians” due to perceptions of his having favored Israel in prior negotiations, that judgment is not the only possible one. Nor does it account for all the facts. Consider what reporter Nathan Guttman wrote recently in the weekly Jewish newspaper _The Forward_:
    «Less known is Ross’s involvement . . . on two Ramallah-based projects focused on empowering Palestinian reformists within Fatah. The programs — one for young activists, the other for more established political figures — were part of an attempt to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Palestinian leadership.
    Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, said Ross’s close ties with Israel should not deter the pro-Arab community. “Having failed in the past would give him a personal incentive this time around,” he said.»

  • Rebecca Griffin

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. To answer your points:
    1. Our argument was not that President Obama is necessarily changing course because of Ross. However, we cannot assume that people with Ross’ views will not make attempts to influence Iran policy in a counterproductive direction. If Obama’s policy is as he promised on the campaign trail and in his early statements, the public face of the negotiations and a major decision maker around those issues should be someone who wholeheartedly supports direct negotiations as the approach to Iran, which Ross clearly does not. While we certainly hope that Obama will stick to his position on Iran, there will be many forces pushing back against the idea of engaging Iran, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that direct diplomacy is given the time to work.
    2. I disagree that Iran hawks need to be satisfied. Obama won a clear victory in the November elections, and he campaigned on directly engaging with Iran and maintained that position despite receiving criticism for it. Polls also show that the public is strongly in favor of diplomacy with Iran. Rather than placate the hawks, the Obama administration should make the powerful argument that direct engagement is the only pragmatic approach to effectively reaching our goals. Our role in this is to reinforce his position by demonstrating the strong public support for diplomacy. The Iran hawks and advocates for sanctions have no evidence that their recommendations would be effective, and there’s no reason to entertain their ideas as part of our Iran policy.
    3. You cite here Ross’ personal incentive to perform well this time around. But our argument isn’t about his personal incentive, it’s about how he will be perceived in the Middle East and the broader global community. While I disagree with his positions on Iran and many of his policy proposals, I am also concerned that many in the region do not see him as an honest broker. This article gives another example:
    “Iranians have serious misgivings about Dennis Ross because of his close ties to the pro-Israel lobby … not to mention Ross’ recent writings that push for tough actions against Iran while de-prioritizing the Israel-Palestinian issue,” said Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former Iranian nuclear-issues negotiator.”
    There are plenty of other more qualified people who would be welcomed by proponents of diplomacy within the US and Iran.

  • Lynne Monds

    As I have followed his career, Dennis Ross has become one of my most admired envoys and I believe he embodies the ideal quality of the career diplomat who is able to see beyond ideological filters in order to truly apprehend the genuine needs of the people of a region.
    This includes the need for tough love when dealing with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Friday morning on NPR I happened to hear a story on Ali Khamenei. I wonder if Rebecca Griffin heard it before sending Friday’s email to PAW members about the “need to make sure our voices in favor of diplomacy are louder and stronger than the hawks who will be pressuring the Obama administration every single day..” Below is an excerpt:
    “If the U.S. wants to improve relations with Iran, it can happen only with the approval of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is Iran’s supreme leader, with all the power that the job title suggests. He controls everything from Iran’s nuclear program to full authority over foreign policy.
    ‘Only the supreme leader of the country is involved in negotiations with the United States,’ says Tehran political analyst Said Laylaz….”
    Now, Ms. Griffin and other advocates for diplomacy with Iran at all costs might be interested in learning whether the Supreme Leader who has “full authority over the foreign policy of Iran” shares their enthusiasm for diplomacy between his country and the US:
    “…One key question is whether Khamenei would welcome contacts with American officials to resolve their concerns about issues like terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program.
    “For many years now, Khamenei’s answer to that question has been found on a gigantic mural that’s painted on the side of building in Tehran.
    The mural is of an American flag, although the stars have been replaced by skulls.”
    So what is Khamenei’s “bottom line” when it comes to developing diplomatic relations with America? The story goes on to say that beneath the flag of skulls is the slogan “Death to America,” and beneath that, a quote attributed to Ayatollah Khamenei:
    ‘We will not get along with America even for one single second.'”
    I would ask Rebecca Griffin how effective would her all-carrot-no-stick brand of diplomacy be with the Supreme Leader of Iran.
    Khamenei is the kind of ruler that requires an experienced, fair-minded, yet no-nonsense counterpart from the US to enter into negotiations between our two countries—and that kind of envoy he would have found in Dennis Ross. For this reason, I was disappointed to hear that Ross will not be our envoy to Iran; I feel we have missed a great opportunity in this round.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    I am well aware of the structure of the Iranian government and the influence that the Supreme Leader has over foreign policy. In your comments, you seem to imply that Khamenei would not support diplomacy, and yet somehow Ross would be the right person to carry out negotiations.
    As I have noted before, Iran has shown a willingness to engage the US diplomatically, most notably in the 2003 offer that was ignored by the Bush administration:
    This offer would surely not have come to the US without approval from Khamanei, a positive sign that he may be open to negotiations based on mutual respect, as President Obama has proposed.
    In my comments above, I alluded to the fact that Iranians do not consider Ross trustworthy and even-handed, which would likely undermine whatever openness to negotiations exists with the Supreme Leader and other players in Iran’s government.
    The Iranians and their leaders are proud people who want to be treated with respect, not offered “carrots” and “sticks.” What we are proposing, along with countless other experts, is direct negotiations with Iran that offer incentives like lifting of sanctions and security guarantees, in return for commitments from Iran on issues like ceasing support for terrorism, nonproliferation safeguards, and help in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not about “diplomacy at all costs,” it’s about pragmatic foreign policy solutions that actually address the US’s fundamental security concerns. This Joint Experts Statement on Iran offers a great overview of myths about Iran and good approaches to diplomacy:

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