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Iran Amok

Dennis Ross's mission impossible.

When the Obama White House rolled out its star diplomatic fixers for the Middle East and Afghanistan, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, it did so with a ceremony designed to draw maximum attention. Barack Obama and Joe Biden motorcaded over to Foggy Bottom for the late-January event, joining Hillary Clinton and their new hires in the State Department's ornate eighth-floor Benjamin Franklin room, where they spoke before golden curtains to a room packed with reporters and diplomatic VIPs.

By contrast, when the State Department announced the appointment of Dennis Ross as a special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia last week, there was no star-studded press event. Instead, a bland statement was e-mailed to reporters at the conspicuously late hour of nine p.m. Not only had Ross not been included in the Holbrooke and Mitchell rollout, but his appointment didn't even come with a photo op. Most curious of all, perhaps, Ross's announcement made no mention of the country that will be the focus of his job: Iran. At the next day's Foggy Bottom briefing, irritated reporters wondered why. “What is he in charge exactly of?” asked one. Pressed on whether Ross would focus primarily on Iran, State Department spokesman Robert Wood was circumspect. “Iran will be one of those countries that he will be, you know, looking at in his portfolio.” Well, not exactly. Iran will indeed be Ross's primary focus, and, according to one senior State Department official, he “will be playing a key role” in writing an Iran policy paper that will be sent to the White House within “a few more weeks.”

The confusion caps Washington's strangest diplomatic drama of late. Originally headed to the National Security Council to manage Middle East affairs, Ross was roped into the State Department after Clinton resisted seeing such a powerful figure outside her purview, and then found himself in bureaucratic limbo as responsibility for significant slices of the region were doled out to fellow diplomatic heavyweights. It's enough to make one former colleague of Ross's liken the process to a “Where's Waldo?” book. “Waldo here is Dennis,” he explains.

The Ross saga, in short, symbolizes the competition among power centers and policy priorities underway in an Obama administration swamped with foreign policy emergencies. But the world waits for no transition. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran has stockpiled enough low-enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb after a brief period of further processing. The revelation instilled top Obama officials with a new sense of urgency, says one source following Iran policy, and convinced some that Iran is “a 2009 problem.” But where that problem fits among all the others facing the United States remains something of a mystery. What's all too clear is that there's little time to solve it.

ROSS'S DEFENDERS say it doesn't matter that he was unveiled by e-mail under the cover of darkness. Unlike Mitchell and Holbrooke, he will not be an envoy or negotiator who poses for photos with foreign dignitaries: His influence will be in Washington. According to the State official, Ross will play a “strategic policy planning" role, akin to the department's Office of Policy Planning, which currently lacks strong expertise in Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs. One former Foggy Bottom official likens Ross's shop to “an in-house mini think tank” focused on Iran policy. And, when it comes to guiding policy, he's likely to make his mark fast. Ross is a workaholic with what one person who knows him calls “legendary” bureaucratic maneuvering skills, which have allowed him to flourish in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A lanky, sometimes bedraggled Bay Area native and UCLA grad, Ross started in government as a Soviet specialist at the Reagan State Department. He went to work for Paul Wolfowitz soon after writing a paper that presciently trashed an alarmist CIA report on the USSR's capabilities and intentions. After serving as one of George H.W. Bush's key campaign advisers in 1988, Ross emerged as James Baker's right-hand man at the State Department. After the 1992 election, incoming secretary of state Warren Christopher asked Ross to hang around for the transition—but quickly hired him to lead the Clinton team's Arab-Israeli negotiations.

After Clinton left office, an exhausted Ross decamped to the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, a pro-Israel think tank. During the 2008 primaries, he remained publicly neutral, but, by summer, Ross was a key member of Obama's foreign policy circle, joining the candidate's summer trip through the Middle East. Ross, who is Jewish, even toured several Florida synagogues on Obama's behalf last fall, donning a yarmulke to assure audiences that Obama would keep Israel safe.

Although Ross knows the wider Middle East as well as any American, critics point out that he's had scant dealings with Iran. (Remarkably, Iran is not mentioned in the index of his 872-page account of Middle East peace negotiations.) From his perch at the Washington Institute, however, Ross has recently focused on Iran's nuclear program, often in more hawkish tones than candidate Obama's emphasis on dialogue. Ross was the co-founder of an activist group, United Against Nuclear Iran, and, in his 2007 book Statecraft, he declared: “Put simply, Iran must not develop nuclear weapons.” And, while foreign policy doves cheered a December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran had suspended nuclear weapons research, Ross lamented that the NIE “misses the point”—namely, that enriching uranium, not assembling a bomb, is the hard part—and predicted, correctly, that the report would make isolating and pressuring Iran more difficult.

Ross has no problem with negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, but has said such talks should be initially conducted via a back channel—an idea he favors based on secret talks he brokered with Syria in 1989. He also insists that any talks be paired with strong pressure, believing, as he wrote in The New Republic, that “penalties, more than inducements, are the key to altering the Iranian position.” Thus, while Obama speaks of extending an open hand to a clenched fist, Ross is certain to call on America's European allies, as well as Iranian trading partners like China, Russia, and Japan, to tighten the economic screws on Tehran.

That's where the Obama administration faces a tough choice. U.S. military officials are wary of pressuring or threatening Iran in ways that might cause problems for U.S. forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. When he was the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus complained vociferously about Iranian backing for anti-American insurgents. But he also pushed for talks with Iran to stem that activity. When Bush administration officials pumped up their rhetoric in 2007 over alleged Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, the American NATO commander there at the time, General Dan McNeill, publicly pushed back against the charge—in what appeared to be an effort to defuse tensions. “I would assume one of the things [the commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan] would be thinking about is whether we're going to get into, short of war, a coercive conflict with Iran that would give them incentives to react in other ways that would raise the costs for us,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran experts say this friction could complicate Ross's mission. “I have quite a lot of confidence that the president appreciates you need the right balance,” says Robert Satloff, the Washington Institute's director (who stressed he was not speaking for Ross, his former colleague). “What is unclear is whether everyone in the administration is on the same page. One can appreciate that those whose principal responsibility for the moment is to engineer a different American posture in Iraq and Afghanistan would prefer that tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain as low as possible.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself has written: “Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need. In fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels.” Ross, by contrast, signed on to a think-tank report last year that concluded that “a military strike is a feasible option and must remain a last resort to retard Iran's nuclear development.”

Ross's desire to pressure Iran could step on diplomatic toes, as well. Holbrooke has said that Iranian cooperation could be critical to stemming the booming opium trade that is a major destabilizing force in Afghanistan, the country Holbrooke has been tasked with fixing. (In an apparent sign of his interest in Iran, Holbrooke recently hired Vali Nasr, a scholar who specializes in Shia history and culture. Afghanistan and Pakistan have small Shia populations, while Iran is almost entirely Shia.) In trying to broker a Middle East peace, special envoy George Mitchell will certainly be entangled with Iranian proxies in Gaza and Lebanon. Ross will also have to share space with Bill Burns, the State Department's top career diplomat and number-four official, who will continue meeting with the “P5 1” group—consisting of the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members (the United States, France, Great Britain, China, Russia) and Germany—which is currently coordinating the international approach to Iran. Aaron David Miller, Ross's deputy in the Clinton administration, warns that, without “adult supervision” from Clinton and Obama, the bureaucratic overlap could lead to “a bad and tragic soap opera.”

The real problem may be that the Obama team remains far from clear about how to deal with Iran. During the campaign, Obama said he was determined to open direct negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program. But how—and even whether—to do so are still not certain matters, administration officials say. An ongoing Iran policy review will last for several more weeks, and one of its challenges is figuring out what Iran, whose leadership has issued both conciliatory and belligerent public comments about the new Obama team, is really thinking. “We've received mixed signals [from Tehran],” says one White House official. Unfortunately, the Iranians may feel the same way.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 17, 2009, issue of the magazine. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.