Dennis Ross and Iran
By Sasan Fayazmanesh
February 27, 2009 “Counterpunch” — – In October 2008 I presented a paper, entitled “What the Future has in Store for Iran,” at a conference on Middle East Studies. The paper, which was subsequently posted at Payvand.com , examined what the US policy toward Iran might look like if either Barack Obama or John McCain came to office. The conclusion of my essay, stated in its last two lines, was: “In the case of McCain, the war [waged against Iran] might come sooner than later. In Obama’s case, one might see a period of ‘tough’ or ‘aggressive diplomacy’ before hostilities begin.”
My conclusion was based on the argument that the US foreign policy toward the Middle East has become institutionalized and it makes very little difference who is the president. The starting point of the argument was an analysis that appeared in The Jerusalem Post just before the Bush Administration took office, predicting that the US Middle East policy would be made more by the neoconservative forces within the new administration than anyone else. In one essay, on December 8, 2000, The Jerusalem Post wrote that both Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz “are the type of candidates the pro-Israel lobby is pushing.” In another article on January 19, 2001, entitled “All the president’s Middle East men,” The Jerusalem Post expressed how the “Jewish and pro-Israel communities are jumping for joy,” knowing that people like Wolfowitz will be in the new administration. The essay predicted: “What you will have are two institutions grappling for control of policy.” It then added: “It is no secret in Washington–or anywhere else for that matter–that the policies will be determined less by Bush himself and more by his inner circle of advisers.”
The message of the Israeli analysts was clear: the Middle East foreign policy of the US has become institutionalized; and rather than watching the US president, one has to watch the institutions that would make the policy. Given this message, my analysis of what the future has in store for Iran concentrated on a few neoconservative institutions and individuals. In particular, I predicted that if Obama were to be elected, the US policy on Iran would be made mostly by Dennis Ross, the “consultant” to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP or simply Washington Institute), a “think tank” affiliate of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). That prediction has now come true. On February 23, 2009, it became official that Dennis Ross is the “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.”  The title, as will be explained below, is not what Ross had hoped for, but he would still be in a position to influence the US policy toward Iran.
Who is Dennis Ross, what does he advocate, how was he positioned to become the adviser on Iran in the Obama Administration and what will he do to Iran if he gets the chance? Let me briefly review the case.
Dennis Ross is best known as the dishonest broker who led the so-called negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the Clinton Administration. He was “Israel’s lawyer,” to use Aaron David Miller’s apt description of the role that Ross’s “negotiating team” played in the Clinton era, particularly in 1999-2000. 
Ross, along with Martin Indyk—who was Clinton’s national security advisor and the US Ambassador to Israel—is a cofounder of the Washington Institute.  After leaving office in 2000, Ross became the director of the WINEP. Once the 2008 presidential election approached, Ross jockeyed for a position, left his directorship job and became a “Consultant” to the institute. Originally, Ross and Indyk represented one wing of the WINEP, a wing which appeared to be close to the Israeli Labor Party. Another wing, closer to the Likud Party, and particularly Benjamin Netanyahu, consisted of individuals such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, individuals who played a pivotal role in planning the invasion of Iraq.  The difference between the Likud and the Labor wing of the Washington Institute was mostly one of the means employed rather than the end sought.  Both wings of the WINEP, similar to Kadima, strove toward a “Greater Israel” (Eretz Yisrael) that includes all or most of “Judea and Samaria.” They both saw Iran’s support for the Palestinian resistance as the biggest obstacle in achieving that goal. As such, the charge that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and posing an “existential threat” to Israel became a convenient tool for “containing” Iran and stopping its support for the Palestinians.  What separated the two sides was that the Labor wing believed that sanctions will eventually bring Iran to its knees, cause either a popular uprising to overthrow the Iranian “regime” or make Iran ripe for a US invasion. The Likud wing, however, had very little patience for sanctions. It wanted an immediate result, a series of military attacks against Iran, replacing the Iranian “regime” with a US-Israeli friendly government, as was done in Iraq. With the emergence of the Kadima Party in Israel in 2005, which brought together the likes of the Likud Party member Ariel Sharon and Labor Party member Shimon Peres, the differences between the two wings of the Washington Institute has mostly disappeared. Clinton’s Middle East men, such as Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Richard Holbrooke, are hardly distinguishable from Bush’s men, such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. But since the latter group is temporarily out of office, the former is filling in. Ross has become the designated senior Israeli lobby man in Obama’s Administration. He has no expertise when it comes to Iran. But he knows that for the cause of Eretz Yisrael Iran must be contained; and given this goal, he knows how to recite, ad nauseum, all the usual lines of Israel and its lobby groups against Iran.
After breaking the back of the Palestinians and pushing for the invasion of Iraq, the Israeli lobby groups concentrated their forces to contain Iran. Given the Iraq fiasco and the neoconservatives falling from grace, the Israeli lobby groups settled on Dennis Ross, “Israel’s lawyer,” to lead the task of containing Iran. Since Ross has no knowledge of Iran, other members of the lobby, particularly their Iran “experts,” have been assisting Ross in his new role. Among these is the ex-Trotskyite, neoconservative Patrick Clawson, WINEP’s “deputy director for research” and an anti-Iran zealot who has been obsessed for decades with the containment of Iran and Iraq.  Over the years, with the help of these individuals Ross has developed a strategy to contain Iran. The strategy consists of arguing that: 1) Iran is developing nuclear weapons; 2) Iran is a threat to the US and an existential threat to Israel, and Israel will not tolerate “mullahs with nukes” (Sydney Morning Herald, October 16, 2004); 3) “nuclear deterrent rules that governed relations between the United States and the Soviet Union” do not hold when it comes to Iran, since Iranians, especially their president, are irrational and believe in the “coming of the 12th Imam” (The Washington Post, May 1, 2006); 4) Iran’s nuclear ambitions will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; 5) the Bush Administration’s policy of dealing with Iran did not work, because it did not have enough sticks or carrots; 6) the US should push for a direct, but “tough” or aggressive diplomacy to stop Iran from enriching uranium and supporting “terrorism” (Newsweek, December 8, 2008) ; 7) the aggressive diplomacy should include pressuring the Europeans, as well as the Chinese and Russians, to stop trading with Iran; 8) the prohibition of trade should include preventing Iran from importing refined oil products and, ultimately, blockading Iran; and 9) once this tough and aggressive diplomacy fails and Iran does not change its “behavior,” then the US could legitimately launch military attacks against Iran, arguing that the it did everything in its power to resolve the situation peacefully.
The above arguments were summarized on March 13, 2008, in a news report in The Jerusalem Post, entitled “Visiting Obama Middle East adviser: He’d be great for Israel.” According to this report, Mel Levine—a “staunchly pro-Israel” former congressman from Los Angeles and, along with Dennis Ross, “one of Obama’s seven Middle East advisers”—told The Jerusalem Post during a visit to Israel that Obama believes that “the way to stop Iran was with a combination of carrots and sticks.” Levine was further quoted as saying: “He believes that if you use carrots and sticks and engage in multilateral aggressive diplomacy then if you need to use the military option or do anything that needs to be done you are much more likely to get support of allies, more international support and broader American support.” Mr. Levin had cut to the chase and stated clearly what Dennis Ross had been advocating for years, but in a more convoluted and diplomatic language. The “tough” and “aggressive diplomacy,” as Mr. Levin had made clear, was nothing but a series of motions that would set the stage for military action against Iran.
Ross’s arguments are often devoid of any factual content, as I have shown in “What the Future has in Store for Iran.” For example, in June 2008 the Washington Institute published a “Presidential Study Group Reports” entitled “Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge.”  One of the two “co-convenors” of the report was Dennis Ross.  Subsequently, the advisors to both presidential candidates endorsed the report.  As I argued in my October essay, this 6-page WINEP report—which was funded by a foundation supporting neoconservative causes, and was drafted in consultation with the WINEP’s “Israeli counterparts”—contains almost nothing factual and, indeed, in several places contains errors. For example, like much of Ross’s other writings, this report tries to give the reader the false impression that Iran is building nuclear weapons. Yet, anyone familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reports knows that after many years of inspection, the IAEA has been unable to show any evidence of diversion of nuclear material in Iran. Or the report claims that the UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend its enrichment program have been “unanimous.” As I have stated in my essay, even a cursory look at the news would reveal that this claim is false. For example, the third UN Security Council resolution, Resolution1803, did not pass unanimously. Indonesia abstained during the vote.  Furthermore, as most news sources pointed out, “Libya, South Africa and Vietnam joined Indonesia in expressing reservations [about the resolution]” (AFP, March 3, 2008). Ross’s arguments, as I have shown in my October essay, are also often quite illogical. It is, for example, not at all clear why Iran’s nuclear ambitions will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, while Israel’s decades-old possession of nuclear weapons has not led to such an arms race. Similarly, it is not clear why Iranians, who might have certain religious beliefs, are irrational, but Israelis, who justify the existence of Israel on religious grounds, are rational.
After the June 2008 “Presidential Study Group Reports,” which was endorsed by Obama’s and McCain’s advisors, Ross and company wrote the September 2008 “report of an independent task force sponsored by the bipartisan policy center” on “U.S. policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development.”  In this report they put forward the same falsehoods and illogical arguments. At the same time a neoconservative campaign was launched, under the title “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), in which Ross played a prominent role as the “Co-Founder and Co-Chairman.” The “Advisory Board” of UANI included, beside Ross, such notable figures as the neoconservative Mark Wallace, the President of UANI, advisor to Sarah Palin and a John Bolton recruit for a position at the UN; R. James Woolsey the neoconservative and member of the advisory board of The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; Henry Sokolski the neoconservative signatory of the “Project for the New American Century signatory”; and Richard C. Holbrooke, another “Co-Founder and Co-Chairman” of UANI.  The neoconservative campaign included a slick and scary video advertisement, which is still available on the web.  The video started with the message “Stop Terrorism, Stop Human Rights Abuses, Stop Nuclear Iran.” Small prints at the bottom of the message read “Paid for by the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc.” Following the introduction six hands appeared, black and white, joining in a circle around a map of Iran. The viewer was asked to “join the cause” by clicking on the video. If followed, a note would appear that read: “Send a message to the nation that Iran’s nuclear program is unacceptable. Join United Against Nuclear Iran today and receive news updates and event reminders.” Then the viewer was asked for name and email address. This was followed by an ominous video about Iran’s alleged development of nuclear weapons, repeating the same falsehoods and illogical arguments put forward by Dennis Ross and company on behest of the Israeli lobby groups.
After President Obama took office, the media was filled with the news of the impending appointment of Dennis Ross as Iran envoy. Yet the appointment appeared to be postponed. Various explanations appeared in the media for the postponement. Some reasoned that the postponement was at least partly due to Ross’s close ties with Israel. For example, on February 3, 2009, Robert Naiman wrote in the Huffington Post that “allegation of ‘dual loyalty’ is being raised against Dennis Ross.” He further mentioned that Ross is “still chair of the board of the Jerusalem-based ‘Jewish People Policy Planning Institute,’ as indicated by that organization’s website.”  Others emphasized the fact that as far as Iran is concerned Ross’s appointment might kill any chance of rapprochement between Iran and the US. For example, The Christian Science Monitor reported on February 5, 2009, that from an Iranian perspective Ross is the “pioneer of the American-Zionist lobby” and under his leadership during the Clinton years the US policy was “not one millimeter different from Israeli policy.” The report quoted a “Western diplomat” as saying: “There is no doubt they [Iranians] are all going to look at Ross as an Israeli proxy.”
Some of the explanations given for the postponement of Ross’s appointment also explain his vague and broad job title, “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.” Before the end of the 2008 presidential election there were rumors that Ross might be considered for the position of the Secretary of State (Haaretz, October 24, 2008). Once Obama was elected, and Hilary Clinton became Secretary of State, Ross apparently hoped to become at least the “special envoy to Iran.” But given his close ties with Israel and the fact that his containment plans were well known to the Iranians, he had to settle for a less provocative title. Needless to say that the new title, “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia,” is still quite provocative as far as Iran is concerned, since changing the name of the Persian Gulf to simply “Gulf” is offensive to many Iranians.
Whatever the reason for the postponement of Ross’s appointment and change of title, one thing is clear: the sly fox is now guarding the chicken coop. As Mel Levine said about Ross: “He’d be great for Israel.” With the help of Richard Holbrooke, Stuart Levey—Bush’s Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, who is now in Obama’s Administration—and all the other “president’s Middle East men,” Dennis Ross might be able to finish the unfinished business of the neoconservatives, the containment of Iraq and Iran. The Israelis and pro-Israel communities must be jumping with joy once again!
Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor of Economics at
California State University, Fresno. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. See Daily Press Briefing, The U.D. Department of States: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2009/02/119730.htm or The Washington Post.
2. See “Israel’s Lawyer,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2005.
3. See Swisher, Clayton E., 2004, The truth about Camp David: the untold story about the collapse of the Middle East peace process, New York: Nation Books, p.35.
5. The name of these individuals appears on the “Board of Advisors.” See “About the Institute,” available at: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/.
6. Ross, for example, supported the invasion of Iraq, even though he was critical of some of the post-invasion policies of the Bush Administration (see “Obama’s Conservative Mideast Pick,” Time, July16, 2008).
7. For different meanings of “containment” see my book: The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment, Routledge, 2008.
8. For Clawson’s relentless attempt to contain Iran see The United States and Iran Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment Routledge, 2008.
9. Dennis Ross, “Iran: Talk Tough With Tehran”: http://www.newsweek.com/id/171256/output/print
10. The report’s title was: “2008 Presidential task Forces: Task Force on the Future of U.S.-Israel Relations: Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen the US-Israel Cooperation on The Iranian Nuclear Challenge.”
11. The other “co-convenors” was Robert Satloff. The two Washington Institute participants, who apparently wrote the piece, were the neoconservatives Patrick Clawson, “deputy director of research,” and David Makovsky, “senior fellow and director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process.”
12. On behest of Obama Anthony Lake and Susan Rice endorsed it, and on behalf of McCain former congressman Vin Weber and the neoconservative R. James Woolsey signed the document.
13. See Security Council Resolution 1803, March 3, 2008.
15. See “Leadership” of “United Against Nuclear Iran”: