Dennis Ross, the Obama Administration's special adviser on Iran, will be leaving his post at the State Department to become a senior adviser at the National Security Council (NSC) with an expanded portfolio, Administration officials told TIME.
The new White House position puts him closer to the center of foreign policy power, placing him in the top ranks of Obama's in-house aides, said an Administration official. "He is closer to being able to provide advice to the President." But Ross's exact duties remain unclear.
News of Ross's departure from the State Department was first reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Officially, the White House press office has deflected questions about the Haaretz report. "There is no personnel announcement to make today," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, when asked about a possible job change for Ross.
Behind the scenes, though, senior officials in several branches of the Administration confirm the move and knock down speculation that it is a demotion in response to concern over Ross's positions on Iran. "Everybody knew his positions," said an official. Ross wrote several papers in 2008 embracing tough economic sanctions against Iran if it failed to respond positively to diplomatic offers of compromise and engagement, especially with regard to its nuclear ambitions. In a new book co-authored by Ross called Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, Ross argues that tougher policies toward Iran "either militarily or meaningful containment" will be easier to sell if diplomacy is attempted first.
Ross's new brief is described by Administration officials as "expanded." It remains unclear, however, whether his formal duties will include continuing to advise the President directly on Iran. Ross is likely to have a greater role advising the President on the Arab-Israeli peace process. He was Bill Clinton's top envoy for Middle Eastern peace and knows the region and its players well. He also served as head of policy-planning at the State Department under George H. W. Bush, and his new role at the NSC appears to be similarly broad. The NSC has been looking to establish a "strategic planning cell" that would oversee long-term Administration initiatives around the world, and Ross may head that.
At the NSC, Ross will have a freer hand in some regards. Though there are already senior advisers for Arab-Israeli affairs and for Iran and the Gulf, he will be closer to Obama, who relied on him for advice on the region during the 2008 presidential campaign. At State, Ross had to navigate a crowded field of players, including Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan; Bill Burns, who leads the stalled negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program; and George Mitchell, the Administration's envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs.
The timing of the change and its leak is intriguing. If Ross remains central to the Iran outreach, it could send a tough signal to Tehran that Obama is bringing Ross closer to him in the wake of the disputed presidential win of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If he is locked out of the Iran portfolio, it will be read at home and abroad as a further softening of the Administration's approach to Tehran. Critics on the left in the U.S. had said Ross was pursuing engagement with Iran only in the most "pro forma" fashion so that he could advance tougher measures.
The change comes at a challenging moment for Obama, Ross and the Administration. Before the election chaos in Iran, the White House had been planning a final summer push to engage Tehran. If diplomacy failed, the Administration planned a new effort at economic sanctions in the fall. Before it can proceed with any moves, however, it needs to see the outcome of the dramatic power struggle unfolding in Tehran.