Is Dennis Ross Poisoning the Well?

As President Barack Obama continues this week his diplomatic mission toward a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, Iran looms as the wild card. Also looming is the puzzling presence of Dennis Ross, who has been alternately described as "out of the loop" and the administration’s "point man on Iran."

Whatever his contribution, Ross’ name is already being associated with the administration’s ill-defined strategy for containing a nuclear Iran. But consider this: how far will Obama’s commitment to diplomacy with Iran go if he is indeed engaging Ross, whose ties to hawkish pro-Israel groups here in the U.S. and to Israel itself are so obvious that many in the foreign policy community are incredulous that he would even be considered an honest broker in these delicate negotiations?

Just last week, in response to a "long-standing request" by USA Today, the U.S. State Department released Ross’ personal financial disclosure records, revealing that the former Clinton-era Middle East envoy, former chair of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (a nonprofit created by the Israeli government-funded Jewish Agency), and co-founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had received $421,775 in speaking fees in 2008.

Nearly $220,000 of that money came from Israeli and Jewish political and religious organizations, including $40,000 from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for five appearances throughout the year.

The number of speaking engagements at Muslim or Arab-American organizations: zero. The closest Ross came were three appearances on al-Arabiya and the U.S-government sponsored al-Hurra, to the tune of $1,650.

Craig Holman, who heads the lobbying watchdog division at Public Interest, says these hefty sums suggest a "personal conflict of interest" and threaten the integrity of the work Ross is doing on behalf of the new administration.

"Any conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean it will taint an individual’s opinion-making capacity – but the potential is there," said Holman. "It is the appearance of the relationship: that a special interest has given you money and as an official, you are giving them something back. The real point is how the public perceives it."

In the Middle East, Muslims’ perception of the U.S. and its ability to be a fair agent, free of pressure from Israel, is everything. What is more important in Ross’ case is not so much the tens of thousands of dollars he has pocketed, but his numerous hawkish public statements on Iran and his long-standing participation in pro-Israel think-tanks and foreign policy study groups advocating stiff sanctions and even military force against Iran.

In a damning complaint in the New York Times on May 23, former Bush administration National Security Council staffers and Iranian experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett asked “Have We Already Lost Iran?” and blamed in part the inclusion of Ross and hard-line parroting from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for crippling U.S-Iran diplomacy before it begins in earnest.

The Leveretts openly admit to having voted for Obama. They advocate a "grand bargain" of diplomacy with Iran over the harsh sanctions and the threat of force pushed by Israel, Washington neoconservatives, and other hawks. They say Obama "has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran."

Flatly put, his Iran policy has "in all likelihood, already failed," thanks in large part to "Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department."

"Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an ‘engagement with pressure’ strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

"In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past ‘diplomacy’ would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

"Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views – and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, ‘an offer we can’t accept,’ simply to gain international support for coercive action.

"Understandably, given that much of Mr. Obama’s national security team doesn’t share his vision of rapprochement with Iran, America’s overall policy is incoherent."

If the policy is incoherent, however, Ross’ real influence in it has been murky at best, despite the Leveretts’ misgivings.

Ross: Cog or Key Man?

When Ross’ appointment as special adviser to Secretary Clinton for the Gulf and South Asia was announced in February, there was no lack of almost gleeful chatter about the apparent rebuff it seemed to entail.

Comparing it to earlier announcements by the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy and the Washington rumor mill that Ross would be named an "ambassador-at-large" and "the secretary’s top adviser on a wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran," Inter Press Service Washington Bureau Chief Jim Lobe said the actual post "seems to fall significantly short."

New America’s Steve Clemons, an admirer of Ross, wouldn’t say outright that Ross’ pro-Israel ties tainted the well, but in a blog entry following Ross’ appointment, Clemons wrote that any posting that would have brought Ross closer to negotiations with Iran would have provided "too much fodder for the populist campaign of President Ahmadinejad who is up for election in June and be seen by Iran as a sign that Obama was not serious about a strategic leap out of the current U.S.-Iran relations mess into a different arrangement."

Four months earlier, Clemons said Ross is "much more comfortable with neoconservatives than realists or liberal internationalists." In fact, he would make a better U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Clemons, rather "than someone tasked with negotiating with Iran or trying to broker the birth of a viable Palestinian state."

The State Department, pressed by reporters to define which countries Ross would actually have in his portfolio, said it would include, among other others, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. But it still wasn’t clear where Ross fit in with the other uber-diplomats, Richard Holbrooke (special Afghanistan/ Pakistan representative) and George Mitchell (special envoy to the Middle East), whose territories all have the tendency to overlap.

But suddenly, Ross’ role became more defined, even as Obama’s Iran plan turned less so. In late April, according to diplomatic gumshoe Laura Rozen, Ross was dispatched to the Persian Gulf states and Egypt "to reassure them on U.S. plans for outreach to Iran."

Weeks earlier, Jim Lobe said in a blog post titled "Ross Is Clearly a Major Player" that he might have been mistaken about Ross’ place in the food chain. Not only had Obama elevated Ross in his speech at Camp Lejeune on Feb. 27, but Secretary Clinton had begun echoing Ross’ tough language on the Hill and overseas.

"This insensitivity to Palestinian and Arab public opinion bears all the hallmarks of Ross’ failed Mideast diplomacy during the 1990s," wrote Lobe, adding that Ross and his personal interests vis-à-vis the "so-called Israeli Lobby" believe they can help to rally regional and other key world players "behind a policy of confrontation with Iran."

Meanwhile, Robert Dreyfuss at The Nation announced that Ross was "building an empire" at Foggy Bottom, quoting an unnamed Iran specialist saying, "Everything we’ve seen indicates that Ross has completely taken over the issue. … He’s acting as if he’s the guy. Wherever you go at State, they tell you, ‘You’ve gotta go through Dennis.'”

Still, Rozen places Ross on the second tier of power players in the Obama foreign policy shop. Another head-scratcher.

Whom Does Ross Speak For?

In more recent weeks, Ross – once again overseas to reportedly lay groundwork – has been directly linked to the hawkish strain of Obama’s elusive Iran strategy.

In early May, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that none other than Ross had told a "senior European official" that October is the firm date to conclude a first round of talks with Iran over its nuclear program before pursuing sanctions.

"Ross said that unless the U.S. sees a change in Iran’s position on its nuclear program, Washington’s stance toward Tehran will stiffen at that time," the source explained in a supposedly "classified notice" obtained by the Israeli government. Shortly after, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was indeed looking at an October timetable and is "developing specific benchmarks to gauge Iranian behavior," citing a U.S. official working on Iran policy.

But the report of timelines and benchmarks was quickly denied by State Department officials. "We’re not interested in setting any kind of specific or even notional timeline," said spokesman Ian Kelly on May 14.

Well, that depends on the meaning of "notional." After talks last week between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the president announced there would be no "artificial deadline," but he said his administration would assess the progress of engagement with Iran by year’s end, according to the Associated Press.

But in the same AP report, "U.S. officials" said Iran probably "won’t get until the end of the year," and they pointed out that Clinton told lawmakers last Wednesday that “the strategy which we are laying out does have a time frame.” The AP also called Ross the administration’s "point man on Iran" and resurrected his claims about a fall timetable.

Obama is clearly engaged in the delicate act of trying to thread a needle, and perhaps he is using Ross to placate and distract the hawks here and in Israel. He may in fact be using Ross in an elaborate good cop/bad cop pre-negotiation strategy, to be reined in later, if necessary, as an incentive in more serious deliberations. Certainly, the extent of Ross’ true influence is still speculation. But as Craig Holman said, public perception is everything, and giving Ross such a visible role today could eventually queer the deal tomorrow.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.