When Dennis Ross, a hawkish, pro-Israel adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, was elevated in February to the post of special adviser on “the Gulf and Southwest Asia”–i.e., Iran–Ross’s critics hoped that his influence would be marginal. After all, unlike special envoys George Mitchell (Israel-Palestine) and Richard Holbrooke (Afghanistan-Pakistan), whose appointments were announced with fanfare, Ross’s appointment was long delayed and then announced quietly, at night, in a press release.
But diplomats and Middle East watchers hoping Ross would be sidelined are wrong. He is building an empire at the State Department: hiring staff and, with his legendary flair for bureaucratic wrangling, cementing liaisons with a wide range of US officials. The Iran portfolio is his, says an insider. “Everything we’ve seen indicates that Ross has completely taken over the issue,” says a key Iran specialist. “He’s acting as if he’s the guy. Wherever you go at State, they tell you, ‘You’ve gotta go through Dennis.'”
It’s paradoxical that Obama, who made opening a dialogue with Iran into a crucial plank in his campaign, would hand the Iran file to Ross. Since taking office, Obama has taken a number of important steps to open lines to Iran, including a remarkable holiday greeting by video in which the president spoke directly to “the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” adding, “We seek engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” He invited Iran to attend an international conference on Afghanistan, where a top Iranian diplomat shook hands with Holbrooke; he’s allowing American diplomats to engage their Iranian counterparts; and he’s reportedly planning to dispatch a letter directly to Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet Ross, like his neoconservative co-thinkers, is explicitly skeptical about the usefulness of diplomacy with Iran.
Widely viewed as a cog in the machine of Israel’s Washington lobby, Ross was not likely to be welcomed in Tehran–and he wasn’t. Iran’s state radio described his appointment as “an apparent contradiction” with Obama’s “announced policy to bring change in United States foreign policy.” Kazem Jalali, a hardline member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, joked that it “would have been so much better to pick Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert as special envoy to Iran.” More seriously, a former White House official says that Ross has told colleagues that he believes the United States will ultimately have no choice but to attack Iran in response to its nuclear program.
Not quite a neoconservative himself, Ross has palled around with neocons for most of his career. In the 1970s and ’80s he worked alongside Paul Wolfowitz at the Defense and State Departments, and with Andrew Marshall, a neoconservative strategist who leads the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessments. In 1985 Ross helped launch the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Israel lobby’s leading think tank.
From the late 1980s through 2000, Ross served as point man on Arab-Israeli issues for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, acquiring a reputation as a highly skilled diplomat, albeit one with a pronounced pro-Israel tilt. He led the US side at the July 2000 Camp David summit, but he was deeply mistrusted by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, and the feeling was mutual. At a crucial moment in the negotiations, Ross threw a tantrum, hurling a briefing book into a table full of juice and fruit. Not surprisingly, when Arafat rejected the Israelis’ less-than-generous offer, Ross heaped blame on the Palestinians for scuttling the talks, the failure of which led directly to Ariel Sharon’s rise to power and the second intifada. Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew who served as US ambassador to Israel and Egypt and who was one of Obama’s top Middle East advisers last year, co-wrote a book in which he explained, “The perception always was that Dennis started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs.”