In New Book, Ross, Top Envoy To Iran, Is Skeptical of Diplomatic Engagement

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 04, 2009, issue of June 12, 2009.
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Since assuming his post as special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Iran matters, Ambassador Dennis Ross has stepped back and refrained from discussing in public his suggestions for dealing with Tehran.

However, in a book he co-wrote before assuming his new position, Ross reveals a skeptical approach toward one of the Obama administration’s key foreign policy goals: diplomatic engagement with Iran.

In his role as special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to Secretary Clinton, Ross is expected to lead efforts to engage Iran — a move that has marked one of the most visible shifts in United States policy in the new Obama administration. Talks between the United States and Iran are expected to begin soon after results of the June 12 elections in Iran become clear.

In their upcoming book, “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” Ross and his co-author, Middle East scholar David Makovsky, set out to debunk misperceptions of both neo-conservatives and realists. The authors take issue with three ideas that shaped policy toward the region in recent decades: the belief that solving the Palestinian problem is the key to all the Middle East’s problems; the debate over whom America should engage with, and the balance between values and interests in dealing with regional players.

“We talk about engagement without illusions,” said Makovsky, director of the Project on Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the same think tank where Ross worked before joining the Obama administration.

The book reveals Ross to be a savvy diplomat who values negotiations and engagement, but is not averse to using coercion and military involvement. His approach toward Iran, based on “bigger carrots and bigger sticks,” puts a significant emphasis on the sticks after providing an open-eyed, dispassionate analysis of the prospects of diplomatic engagement.

Ross’s idea of engagement with Iran combines tightening sanctions while offering the regime a way out of its nuclear program. At the same time, he urges the Obama administration to make the threat of war loud and clear.

“When we say that we are not taking force off the table, that must be more than a slogan,” write Ross and Makovsky. They also encourage Obama to declare that any Iranian attack against Israel will be seen as an attack against the United States.

The success of diplomatic engagement, according to Ross, is not guaranteed and could be unlikely. Still, he and Makovsky believe that negotiations will serve a purpose even if results are not satisfying. “By not trying, the U.S. and its refusal to talk become the issue,” said Makovsky in a June 1 interview with the Forward. “What we are saying is that if the U.S. chooses engagement, even if it fails, every other option will be more legitimate.”

The attitude of Ross and Makovsky seems closer to that of the Israeli government then to that of the Obama administration. The public stance of the Obama administration is that engagement with Iran has a chance of succeeding. After Obama took office, Israel reluctantly agreed to America’s suggested approach of engagement, seeing it is a necessary step before stronger actions.

Ross and Makovsky try to debunk any link between reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and dealing successfully with the Iranian nuclear threat. The authors conclude that Arab leaders link the two missions in order to proclaim that they are concerned only with the welfare of Palestinians when they are actually more concerned with their own national issues.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to believe there is a connection between the two issues, although not a pre-condition.

According to Ross and Makovsky, the key to successful dealing with Iran is getting the European Union, Russia and Saudi Arabia on board.

The Europeans could be a partner to the United States in talks with Iran, and those talks should not require ending uranium enrichment as a precondition, Ross and Makovsky say.

To achieve success, Ross and Makovsky offer an unorthodox idea: Send in Israelis. “There may be value in enlisting Israel to send a high-level delegation privately to key European capitals,” they suggested.

Ross believes that Europe must be ready to adopt tougher sanctions toward Iran in order to play a positive role in the American-led diplomatic effort. The message Israel could convey to Europe, the authors wrote, is that “if you want to avoid the use of force, we need to see that you are going to raise the costs to Iran.”

Ross has written in earlier articles that he prefers a secret-channel approach for negotiating with Iran, one that would connect to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who is viewed by the West as more moderate than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ross’s approach is not popular with the left. In a scathing critique of the Obama administration’s approach in the May 23 New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two former National Security Council members, argue that Obama’s engagement with Iran is doomed to failure, partly because he chose Ross to lead. “Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, ‘an offer we can’t accept,’ simply to gain international support for coercive action,” they wrote in the article.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.


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