The Cable

Introducing the Central Region

When the White House announced Dennis Ross's new title yesterday as special assistant to the president and senior director for the Central Region, Washington foreign policy hands scratched their heads. "Central Region?"

"Why isn't this just called 'Near East/South Asia,' as it was from 1945-ish to 2002?," CSIS's Jon Alterman asked. "It's weird."

"I give them credit for inventing an entirely new term in international affairs," a Hill foreign policy aide said.

Queried on it, a White House spokesman said he was exploring the genesis of the new term.

But it's known that National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones, currently traveling in India, has been wanting to harmonize the regional bureaus across U.S. government agencies according to a single standard, and that he leaned toward adopting the military regional command structure. By that basis, Central Region would seem to roughly correspond to the U.S. military's Central Command. But Ross, according to yesterday's announcement, works with three senior directors whose territorial purview stretches from North Africa to India, which is bigger than Centcom's footprint, and includes parts of Africom and Pacom. So what countries central region actually includes is still unclear.

It's not the first time Ross's job title has prompted some head-scratching and pondering of the map. When Ross was announced in an after-hours press release in February as "special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia" to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, journalists spent a good part of the next day's press conference asking spokesman Robert Wood exactly which countries were included in the Gulf and Southwest Asia.

"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.

Wood later clarified that the countries included in the "Gulf and Southwest Asia" are Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen.

Back then, the contorted regional terminology seemed designed to include Iran without saying as much. Numerous Iran hands at the time said that Iran had communicated to the United States through U.N. channels that it refused to deal with Ross. With his promotion to the White House this week, Ross would seem to become a less visibly front-line player on any Iran engagement policy even as he arguably becomes a more influential White House coordinator of how U.S. Iran policy fits with Obama's Middle East peace efforts and the drawdown in Iraq.

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