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Could Dennis Ross Set the Stage for Future War with Iran?

The threat that the United States would launch a military attack on Iran has never been "taken off the table," but you'd be hard pressed to find many people who think that a U.S. attack on Iran in the near term is a realistic possibility.

Even the Bush Administration nixed an Israel attack on Iran, as the New York Times reported Sunday. (Haaretz reported this months ago.) President-elect Obama pledged as a candidate to abandon the "strategy" of isolation and engage Iran diplomatically. And the U.S. already has two wars going (three, if you count the war on Gaza, which is being waged with U.S. weapons and approval, and which is doing as much political damage to the U.S. in the Muslim world as any war waged by the U.S. directly.)

But many of the decisions and actions that led to the U.S. attack on Iraq in March 2003 were not taken in 2003, but long before. If we had the opportunity for a do-over, wouldn't we scrutinize those decisions and actions much more carefully? Decisions are being taken now which could set the stage for war with Iran in the future.

Recent press reports have indicated that Dennis Ross has the inside track to be a "super-envoy" in the Obama Administration with responsibility for diplomacy concerning Iran. Putting Dennis Ross in charge of diplomatic outreach to Iran would be a akin to putting Bernard Madoff in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ross's views on diplomatic engagement with Iran are the mirror image of the diplomatic engagement President-elect Obama promised during the campaign.

A November 3rd article in the New York Times noted that a report from the "Bipartisan Policy Center" proposed blockading Iran's gasoline imports - an act of war - and says that "a military strike is a feasible option." The article noted that the report's authors included Dennis Ross.

According to press reports, Ross's portfolio at State would include the issue of the relationships between Iran and Palestinian groups. During the Clinton Administration, Ross played a leading role in failed U.S. negotiations with the Israelis and Palestinians.

Daniel Kurtzer, an adviser to Obama, has written that American and Arab negotiators saw Ross as biased and not "an honest broker." One Arab negotiator said, "The perception always was that Dennis [Ross] started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs." Aaron David Miller, who also served on the U.S. team, has written that under Clinton U.S. negotiators acted as "Israel's lawyer," rather than focusing on what would enable both sides to reach agreement.


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We're seeing today the disastrous consequences in Gaza of Dennis Ross-style "diplomacy." Do we really want "Israel's lawyer" in charge of U.S. diplomacy with Iran?

I fear that if Dennis Ross succeeds in obtaining this position, he will be the Elliot Abrams of the Obama Administration, sabotaging the reasonable initiatives of other officials, as Abrams did in the Bush Administration. The Guardian recently reported that sources close to the Obama transition team say the incoming administration is prepared to abandon Bush's doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the group. This is the sort of realistic and reasonable initiative - one that could prevent war in the future - that Dennis Ross could easily thwart.

Indeed, U.S. diplomacy towards Iran under Dennis Ross would likely be akin to the "face bargaining" that anti-union employers in the U.S. often engage in (and which the Employee Free Choice Act would significantly curtail, at least with respect to a first contract, by providing the opportunity for binding arbitration.) After the "failure" of Dennis Ross's fake diplomacy, we'd be told that "diplomacy has been tried" and "now there's no option but military force."

In such a scenario, the opponents of military conflict with Iran might very well be in a much weaker position politically than they are today. The folks who voted for Obama, expecting him to pursue diplomacy with Iran, should insist on the real thing, not the fake version that Dennis Ross will likely supervise.

The appointment of Ross is not a done deal. Tuesday and Thursday, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation hearings as Secretary of State. It has been reported that there is opposition to Ross on the Obama transition team and that Hillary herself is not convinced Ross should be appointed to this position. If Senators point out the contradiction between Team Obama's promise of real diplomacy and Dennis Ross's advocacy of confrontation, it could tip the scales to the "real diplomacy" faction of Team Obama.

If your Senator is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - you can find the list here - you can use this link to urge them to ask Hillary a question about Dennis Ross. [Note that the committee list still formally includes Senator Biden, but he will not be participating in the hearing, for obvious reasons - the hearing will be chaired by Senator Kerry.]

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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