x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Obama loses the services of Iran hardliner Dennis Ross

As President Obama's Middle East aide, Dennis Ross worked to harden US policy on Iran; now, outside government, he is doing the same.

Nobody who seeks a just peace in the Middle East will shed any tears at the news that Dennis Ross has resigned from his job as President Barack Obama's senior adviser on the region. Mr Ross, after all, epitomised Washington's shift from refereeing the bout to serving as Israel's unapologetic corner man. His signature principle has been that the US should never ask anything of Israel that the Israeli government is unwilling to do, an approach that precludes a credible two-state solution.

Mr Ross joined Team Obama from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank created by the flagship Israel lobbying organisation AIPAC, and it's back to WINEP that he'll go when he leaves the White House. But as happy as most of the Middle East will be to see the back of a man synonymous with a peace process designed to fail, nobody should be under any illusion that his departure portends any improvement in Mr Obama's Middle East policy.

Mr Ross didn't join the administration to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and it's unlikely to have played any part in prompting him to quit. Mr Obama persuaded Mr Ross to join him on the campaign trail in the summer of 2008 not because of any diplomatic nous, but because the candidate needed to reassure sceptical sections of the pro-Israel establishment, whose preferences determine the flow of large amounts of campaign cash.

Mr Ross was brought in for his star power in the pro-Israel community, to stand political surety for a relatively unknown candidate with a Muslim middle name.

But if Mr Ross' appeal to Mr Obama was his ability to seal the deal with pro-Israel donors, the veteran Middle East operative saw helping elect Mr Obama - who was seducing the world with his message of hope and change - as an opportunity to pursue his own agenda. And that agenda had little to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mr Ross' priority issue - like that of AIPAC - was stopping Iran's nuclear programme. He made clear that he supported Mr Obama because he believed the young senator would be more effective than George W Bush had been in bringing pressure to bear on Iran.

"The Bush policy on Iran has failed, and unless the next president can change Iranian behaviour, Israel will face an existential threat," Mr Ross wrote in the Jewish Journal a month before the 2008 election. "It is my Middle Eastern hat and my attachment to Israel that ultimately inspires my support for Obama ... I know he understands that neither Israel nor America can afford four more years of Iran and the radical Islamists gaining strategic leverage in the Middle East. Slogans won't prevent that ... But a leader who understands how to use all the elements of American power, revitalise that power and influence and get others to follow us in order to ensure we win the battle for hearts and minds will be able to do so."

Mr Ross took the senior Iran policy job at the State Department, but was soon promoted to the White House as a senior foreign policy adviser.

His "two-track" approach to dealing with Iran was laid out in Myths, Illusions and Peace, a book he co-authored with WINEP's David Makovsky before joining the administration. It recommends talks with Iran, but on a very limited timetable, backed by escalating sanctions and a credible military threat, including moving forces into position around Iran.

"The possibility of the use of force is a way to make diplomacy more effective," Mr Ross and Mr Makovsky wrote. "When we are saying we are not taking force off the table, that must be more than a slogan; it is essential that the Iranians continue to believe that they may be playing with fire if they persist in their pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Analysts who unlike Mr Ross had any working knowledge of Iran knew the "two-track" approach was doomed; Tehran, unlikely to offer concessions at the best of times, was never going to do so under duress. And it's hard to sustain a credible threat of force when the US military establishment makes no secret of its belief that attacking Iran is strategic folly.

So Mr Ross has stepped away from the administration at a point when it isn't exactly following the script laid out in Myths, Illusions and Peace. His departure is a political challenge for Mr Obama. "Ross was the only [Obama Administration] official in whom most American Jewish leaders had confidence," wrote Elliott Abrams, the hawkish former Middle East adviser to President George W Bush.

"They viewed his role as the assurance that a steady, experienced, pro-Israel hand was on or near the tiller ... No one else in this administration can now fill that role, as the President enters an election year with a powerful need to maintain the 78 per cent support he had last time in the Jewish community."

Nobody knows why Mr Ross chose last week to announce his decision to "return to private life", although it quickly became clear that he intends to have an effect on "the vital public debate on the direction and content of US policy towards the Middle East". That's according to WINEP, which announced within hours that Mr Ross would be rejoining the think tank.

Curiously enough, he has chosen to weigh in from a platform associated with the Israel lobby, at a moment when President Obama may be politically vulnerable. Mr Ross' constituency wants a sharp escalation of US pressure on Iran, including a credible threat of force, and many will make that a litmus test of love for Israel before committing their cash and their votes in the next election.

And Mr Ross will no longer be on the team to run interference for Mr Obama, though he could possibly still do that from his WINEP platform. But many who backed Mr Obama on Mr Ross' say-so will be paying close attention to his public statements on Iran policy in the months to come.

 

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron