Obama’s New Iran Envoy Met With Skepticism

The appointment of Dennis Ross as a special advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has found a cool reaction in Tehran and some U.S. policy circles.

"The appointment of Ross is an apparent contradiction with [President Barack] Obama’s announced policy to bring change in United States foreign policy," said Iran’s State Radio on Wednesday, accusing Ross of being in league with Israel.

Announcing the long-anticipated appointment, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said that Ross would offer "strategic advice" and perspective on the region, coordinate new policy approaches and take part in "inter-agency activities."

"It would have been so much better to pick Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert as special envoy to Iran," joked Kazem Jalali, a conservative member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s Parliament.

"The appointment of Dennis Ross, whose track record shows his unacceptable radical viewpoints about Iran, is inconsistent with Mr. Obama’s claims about his willingness to create change in Iran-U.S. relations and contains no positive messages for Iran," Jalali told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran.

Ross, who is currently a counselor at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, served as the point person on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations. He has advocated tough policies to force Tehran to halt its nuclear program, which Iranian authorities have repeatedly said is for peaceful purposes.

Mohammad Abtahi, a former deputy to President Mohammad Khatami, believes that Iranians must face this appointment cautiously. "Difficult circumstances are shaping up for Iran, as though everything is heading toward a final ultimatum," said Abtahi, a moderate ranking cleric in Tehran, told IPS. "I think things are heading toward a point where a unanimous confrontation of Iran may coalesce."

Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst at Tehran University, said he was not surprised by the appointment. "You will find few political figures within the U.S. foreign policy establishment who have a background of friendship or a positive outlook toward Iran," Zibakalam told IPS in a telephone interview.

"This is only natural, just as you will not be able to find a single public figure, either fundamentalist or reformist, among Iranian politicians who may have publicly defended the idea of establishing dialogue with the U.S. or one who may have declared that animosity with the U.S. is detrimental to Iran’s national interests," he added.

"Likewise in the U.S., there are some who oppose relations with Iran due to Iran’s nuclear program, its policy vis-à-vis Israel, and its violations of human rights," he added.

Since Obama’s election, many right wing politicians in Iran have argued that there is no real difference between George W. Bush and the new president, save for their rhetorical tones. They believe Bush was plotting a military overthrow of the current Iranian regime headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while Obama is pursuing more of a "velvet revolution."

"Some people in Iran or in the Middle East may be under the impression that Obama’s promise of change in U.S. foreign policy may have a far reaching extent," said Elaheh Koolaee, a former member of Parliament and professor at Tehran University.

"Mr. Ross’s appointment shows a continuation of existing U.S. foreign policy in the region, not a change," she told IPS.

Although it’s not clear how the Obama administration’s special envoy will bring change to U.S.-Iran relations and initiate a dialogue with Tehran, he is not the only player to have a significant role in any thaw.

"It’s my understanding that Undersecretary of State Bill Burns will continue to play a key role in formulating Iran policy, which I think is an ideal choice," said Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Middle East researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"He’s a highly intelligent and capable diplomat, and at the same time very thoughtful and respectful," he told IPS. "He’s got the perfect temperament to deal with the Iranians, [and] our European allies hold him in great esteem, as do the Russians and Chinese."

After former Senator George Mitchell, who was appointed special envoy to the Middle East, responsible for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and experienced diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was a key figure in the Clinton administration’s effort to end the war in Bosnia, appointed as special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ross is the third appointee on the Persian Gulf region, including Iran and southwest Asia.

Unlike Mitchell and Holbrooke, who have the title of "special envoy", Ross’s title is "special advisor", signaling that Clinton expects him to play a somewhat different role.

"The priority for the Obama administration will be on the U.S. and world economy and they don’t want to try to make major foreign policy moves at the same time they are concentrating on rebuilding the economic structure of the world," Prof. William Beeman, a specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, told IPS. "The administration does not expect him to do anything dramatic."

Beeman believes that Ross’s anti-Iran background could be an obstacle to initiating constructive talks. "It is widely known that he is unacceptable to Iran, and no one believes that he can advance U.S. -Iranian relations," he said, adding that, "He is signatory to the Project for a New American Century, which called for the invasion of Iraq in the 1990s, and a consultant to the AIPAC-supported Washington Institute for Near East Policy."

"The problem will arise if Netanyahu precipitates a crisis," stated Beeman. "It is a gamble, but if the U.S. does not seem to be too friendly toward Iran, it may keep the Israelis from panicking and taking some rash military action."

Others believe that Ross’s appointment might actually prove effective. "President Obama cannot bring in untried people and run them against the Democratic Party, because if there is an opening with Iran, there will be a connivance of Israel, maybe a silent one, simply because the Israelis have to go along," Robert Baer, a former top Central Intelligence Agency operative and the author of The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, told IPS.

Ali Reza Eshraghi, a former newspaper editor in Iran and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism, told IPS that, "The United States and Israel’s interests are blended in the Middle East and the appointment of Dennis Ross, who is completely familiar with both Tel Aviv and Washington, would be a positive factor in making the result of any negotiation in the future more effective."

But is Tehran ready to sit at the negotiating table? Iran’s former vice president is not optimistic.

"I believe there are problems with a lack of trust and optimism about results of a dialogue," said Abtahi. "Iran has to come to terms with the fact that radical foreign policies are outdated. Also, Iran’s interest in leadership of the world’s anti-American movement is one added factor which altogether create an atmosphere where a dialogue is not received warmly."

Author: Omid Memarian

Omid Memarian writes for Inter Press Service.