When Dennis Ross's job title as "special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia" was finally announced in an after-hours State Department press release Monday evening, it wasn't exactly the high-profile rollout that U.S. special envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell, presented side-by-side with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton, had previously received.
Indeed, the three-paragraph State Department press release on Ross's job was so vague that State Department spokesman Robert Wood soon found himself besieged by questions about what tasks and indeed what countries exactly were included in Ross's portfolio.
"Is it Iran? And if it's not Iran -- if it's Iran, why is it not written in the statement?" one journalist asked Wood Tuesday.
"Well, let me just start off by saying, the secretary is very happy that Dennis Ross agreed to serve as her special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia," Wood answered gingerly. "What Dennis is going to be charged with doing is trying to integrate policy development and implementation across a number of offices and officials in the State Department. And, you know, he is going to be providing the secretary with strategic advice. He will be also trying to ensure that there's a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region."
"Let me be clear," Wood added. "He's not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He'll be working on regional issues. He will not be -- in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. But again, he is going to be advising the secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region."
On Wednesday, Wood provided more clarity on the list of countries that fall into Ross's portfolio -- Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen, apparently -- but it was hard to escape the impression that State is diplomatically flummoxed about how to describe Ross's job.
Sources suggested a variety of explanations. Some had to do with the fact that the U.S. government is currently in the midst of an intensive policy review on Iran, which is not expected to be ready until early March. (March 10, one source said). Therefore, to describe Ross now as an "envoy" on or to Iran would be premature, they said, since the policy hasn't yet been articulated. Ross might gain the "envoy" title after the policy review is complete, another source suggested.
Other sources suggested the U.S. government was sensitive to Iran's perception that Ross, a former senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a pro-Israel hawk whose writings on U.S. policy toward Iran have suggested a high degree of continuity with the Bush administration's approach of carrots and sticks.
"I understand the Iranians have let it be known that they won't deal with him," said one former senior U.S. official who has dealt with Persian Gulf issues.
"I think the stealth nature of the announcement and the fuzzy job description indicate that folks in the administration are aware" that the Ross appointment is problematic, the former senior official continued. "But that will not make it more workable -- even if the real heavy lifting is done by [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William] Burns, as some insiders claim.
"Perception is important," he added.
But Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute, stressed that each side gets to designate who they would send for negotations. "Iranian government officials designate who they want, and the U.S. designates who we want. We are very open to having negotiations," he said.
Regarding an idea Ross espoused in recent paper about exploring options for engagement with Iran, beginning with an initial secret backchannel, Clawson said that history demonstrates that such "pre-negotiations" are often conducted clandestinely, "spy to spy." Asked whether such a secret backchannel was even possible given the likely intense international scrutiny regarding what Obama would do on Iran, Clawson said he thought it was conceivable. It might increase confidence on both sides to have an initial channel outside the public eye, he said.
In a September 2008 paper (pdf) published by the Center for a New American Security, "Iran: Assessing US strategic options," Ross recommended a hybrid approach toward Iran of engagement without preconditions but with pressures. "When I say engagement without conditions, I mean that there would be no preconditions for the United States talking to Iran," Ross wrote. "Iran would not, for example, have to suspend its uranium enrichment first. But to avoid Iran misreading this as a sign of weakness, pressures must be maintained. [...]
"So how to talk and preserve the pressures without making either side appear weak?" Ross continued. "One way to do so would be for the United States to go to the Europeans and offer to join the talks with Iran without Iran having to suspend uranium enrichment. To avoid misleading the Iranians into thinking they had won, the price for our doing this would not be with Iran but with Europe. The European Union would adopt more stringent sanctions on investments, credits, and technology transfer vis-à-vis Iran in general or at least on the Iranian energy sector. The Iranians would be informed that the United States is joining the talks but that these sanctions are now being adopted by all European countries."
State Department sources said that Ross was deeply involved in the Iran policy review, but was not the only figure by any means. Other key officials with a stake in the policy, they said, include Secretary Clinton, Undersecretary Burns (who has been serving as the U.S. envoy to the multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program and met with Iranian officials in Geneva last summer), and officials from State's Iran office.
Also involved, other sources told The Cable, is Puneet Talwar, the new NSC senior director on Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf and a long time Middle East staffer on the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is considered a moderate. Also thought to be involved, although it's not clear to what degree, are Gary Samore, the NSC's nonproliferation coordinator, and Robert Einhorn, the expected State Department undersecretary of state for nonproliferation.
(The Cable previously reported that Samore, among other new Obama administration officials, had participated in track two meetings with Iranian officials last year in Europe. Talwar also attended some of the meetings, The Cable has learned.)
Sources noted that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, has hired Vali Nasr, a noted expert on Shiism, and has expressed his intention to involve Iran in regional discussions about stabilizing Afghanistan.
Asked at the Wednesday press briefing whether Holbrooke and Ross would be jostling for turf regarding Iran and Afghanistan, Wood, the State Department spokesman, said no.
"Afghanistan is one of those issues where you have a lot of individuals who have some interests and equities in dealing with it," Wood said. "If we get to a point where there is a need to have both Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke engaging on different elements of [Afghanistan] they will," Wood said. "There's no turf war going on here."
UPDATE: David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post column Thursday: "The administration official who oversees the Iran file is William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Although Dennis Ross will take a broad strategic look at the region in his new post of State Department adviser, senior officials stress that Burns is the address for Iran policy."