Two days after taking office, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a press conference to announce the new administration's advisers for the hottest part of the globe: the Middle East. Obama handed oversight of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to former Democratic Senator George Mitchell; veteran Clinton-era diplomat Richard Holbrooke took control of U.S. foreign policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and possibly India. But what about Iran? Who would Obama choose to oversee policy to the country's chief adversary in the Middle East, the government that supposedly has been funding Hamas and Hezbollah, and stirring up so much evildoing?
While the Iran portfolio remains unassigned, one figure stands out as a likely Obama appointee: Dennis Ross, a former US ambassador to Israel and lead negotiator during Israeli-Palestinian talks under President Bill Clinton. The New York Times reported Ross's presence inside the State Department on January 28, however, his duties remain unspecified. Considering Ross's hand in crafting Obama's outreach to the Israel lobby, and his own recent orientation towards US-Iran policy, there is reason to believe he will get the vaunted Iran portfolio, a pivotal component of Obama's foreign policy.
During the campaign, Obama faced an onslaught of attacks on his Muslim background and insinuations that he harbored sympathies to enemies of Israel. Enter Dennis Ross. The veteran diplomat is widely believed to have crafted Obama's campaign address to the American-Israeli Political Action committee in which the candidate called for an undying commitment to America's alliance with Israel and ensured that Jerusalem would remain "undivided," a controversial proposal that contradicted President George W. Bush's "Road Map For Peace." Having helped consolidate Jewish support for the young senator, Ross positioned himself for a prominent position in the upcoming administration.
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Ross's hard line on Iran raised eyebrows. In the heat of the presidential race, Ross co-chaired an ad hoc group called United Against A Nuclear Iran. Members of the organization comprised a who's who of neocons and Iran hawks, including former Bush advisor Karen Hughes, neoconservative scholar Fouad Ajami, and Jim Woolsey, the former CIA chief who clamored for an invasion of Iraq well before Bush assumed power. In September, Ross added his signature to a report demanding that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment activities as a precondition for negotiation. Joining Ross in support of the statement were arch-neoconservatives Michael Makovsky and the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Rubin, with consultation from Patrick Clawson, the Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank formed by AIPAC.
Ross' support for the confrontational statement is no surprise. He is closely tied to the Israel lobby, currently serving as a counselor and distinguished fellow at WINEP. When Ross joined the Obama campaign, WINEP released a statement declaring Ross a "nonexclusive" advisor in accordance its non-partisan classification. Despite these ties, or perhaps because of them, Ross appears in line for an appointment as envoy to Iran, or a position like it. For anyone hoping for a break from the confrontational approach to the Islamic Republic that has prevailed for eight years, this is a disturbing prospect.