Still Waiting for Obama's Iran Diplomacy

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Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty

Dennis Ross

When President Barack Obama visited the State Department on Jan. 22 and rolled out heavy-hitter envoys to handle Israeli-Palestinian and Afghan-Pakistani affairs, the question of the day on the diplomatic circuit was: Where's Dennis? That's because the rumor mill in the capital had been predicting that, along with George Mitchell (Israeli-Palestinian affairs) and Richard Holbrooke (Afghanistan-Pakistan), longtime U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross would be named as Obama's point man on Iran, tasked with implementing the President's campaign promise to employ "tough, direct diplomacy" with Tehran.

So what did Ross's absence from the envoy rollout signal about the Administration's Iran policy? Although Ross remains studiously silent, sources who have spoken with him recently provide two credible, not necessarily incompatible explanations — both of which underline just how difficult it will be for the new Administration to deliver a successful policy based on Obama's campaign promise. (See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.)

The first version emphasizes traditional turf battles. Ross wants the job as described three weeks ago in a memo from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the pro-Israel think tank where Ross was based after leaving the government in 2001. The WINEP memo to its board of trustees announced that Ross had accepted a position as ambassador-at-large in Hillary Clinton's State Department with a broad regional policy role in which he would advise Clinton directly on a "wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran." But that job definition would potentially undercut Mitchell's role as Middle East envoy reporting to Clinton. In this telling, Ross, who in the Clinton Administration had played the role now assigned to Mitchell, doesn't want his responsibilities limited strictly to Iran. "He's frustrated," says one person who spoke with him recently. And until a title and responsibilities can be agreed upon, Ross can't be rolled out.

The alternative explanation is that Ross is already hard at work on Iran, which will be his primary responsibility, but he can't be named as an envoy tasked with engaging Iran until the Administration's top players agree on a basic approach to the issue. "He's on board," says another Ross friend, but "it would be the height of folly to roll out Dennis [now] ... There's just a lot of very careful and, I would say, quiet spadework to be done [first]."

Engaging Iran is a lot more complicated than the rhetoric of "tough, direct diplomacy" suggests. For nearly three years, the U.S. and Europe have been trying to start meaningful talks with Iran, even showing a willingness to bend on key issues regarding Iran's nuclear program. As far back as 2006, for example, the U.S. agreed with European diplomatic proposals that included the possibility of allowing the Islamic republic to obtain enriched uranium for energy production sometime in the future. But Iran, in the words of one European diplomat, has been "less than forthcoming."

The Europeans not only approached the Iranians with an offer of a potentially peaceful nuclear future but said they would be eager to hear any counterproposal for talks from the Iranians on any set of issues. Tehran's response was simply to stall. "We've been knocking on Iran's door," says a senior European diplomat. "They've never responded." Given the price of gas in recent years and the limited levers for pressuring Iran, their reticence is not surprising.

So the first and most urgent task facing the new Administration may not be how to talk to the Iranians, but how to get them to talk to us. Ross may believe that only a broad policy portfolio will enable him to make that happen, because Iran's activities and interests are so deeply entrenched in the dynamic of the greater Middle East that a diplomatic opening would have to involve Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, among others. And introducing Ross as an Iran envoy would risk Tehran immediately announcing that they have no interest in talking to him.

The other problem facing the Administration is that launching any diplomatic outreach to Tehran right now could help hard-liners like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the run-up to Iran's presidential election in June. The Administration is "very cautious," according to the senior European diplomat. That explains the delicate walk-back by the White House after newly named U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice announced that the U.S. would begin direct negotiations with Iran. "There are no specific initiatives" at the moment to talk to Iran, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, in response to questions about Rice's statement.

When there is an opening to Iran, Dennis Ross will emerge as one of its key architects. But for now, if the question outside the Administration is "Where's Dennis?" the question that he and others struggling to shape a diplomatic opening to Tehran might pose in response is "Where are the Iranians?"

See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.

See pictures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting New York City.