Former Obama Adviser Discusses Iran

Robert Siegel speaks with Dennis Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross recently left his post as special assistant to President Obama on Iran and the Middle East at the National Security Council. Ross' involvement with Middle East diplomacy dates back to the Reagan administration. They discuss Iran's nuclear program, the possibility of a U.S. military strike against Iran, and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now a talk with Ambassador Dennis Ross who, until a couple of weeks ago when he left the government, was a special assistant to President Obama. At the National Security Council, he was in charge of the region that includes Iran, also the Middle East, Afghanistan and much else. Before that he was at the State Department and his involvement in Mideast diplomacy dates back to the Clinton administration, the George H.W. Bush administration, even the Reagan administration.

Welcome back to the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be back. Thank you.

SIEGEL: First Iran, we just heard Peter Kenyon's not entirely encouraging report on diplomacy. Just this week, Defense Secretary Panetta said that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, and that Iran can assemble a bomb in a year or potentially less. General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he worries that the Iranians may miscalculate American resolve.

In your view, how likely is an attack on Iran in the coming year?

ROSS: You know, I think a lot depends upon whether the Iranians are prepared to take advantage of diplomacy. The reality is they have not been very interested in diplomacy. The Obama administration has not given up on diplomacy, but it's also made it very clear that there's a price for Iran to pay if they don't change their posture.

And what you're hearing, I think, from the Defense secretary and what you're hearing from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is that we are about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state, not simply living with it. And there still is time available to avoid them becoming a nuclear weapons state, but it's going to require also the Iranians to be responsive.

There has been, I think, if you look historically, a pattern to Iranian behavior which is they don't adjust their behavior unless they feel they're in a position where they have to.

SIEGEL: But with those remarks, from both Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey, were pretty unmistakable saber rattling, saying a strike is not off the table here. And we heard in Peter Kenyon's report that what the Iranians consider an acceptable resolution involves them retaining some kind of nuclear program.

Is that realistic or do they have to even back down from that point?

ROSS: Well, you don't really make a judgment on where the final outcome of this is, as it relates to exactly what they can have and what they can't have, until you've had a negotiation. But also, you have to have a negotiation where the Iranians can have civil nuclear power. But they can't be in a position where they can translate that into a weapons capability.

The Iranians lost the confidence of the international community because they basically don't live up to their obligations, under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. So, they need to take certain steps that would restore the confidence of the international community. The exact nature of what would be an acceptable agreement could emerge from a negotiation, but it's a negotiation that, again, has to take place acknowledging a certain reality.

SIEGEL: On to Israel-Palestinian relations. You've spent as much time in the peace process as any American I can imagine. What likelihood is there, if any, of an agreement over the next year that would advance the cause of a peaceful two-state solution?

ROSS: Well, I would love to say that there's a high probability of an agreement in the coming year but I don't think that's the reality. We have a psychological gap between the two sides now, in my mind, which actually exceeds a substantive gap. You look at the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and he is convinced that with this Israeli government there's no deal, and therefore he imposes conditions for having talks.

You look at this Israeli government and the prime minister says how come the leader of the Palestinians imposes conditions on me that he didn't impose on my predecessors, wants me to pay a price even to come into negotiations, and tries to put us in a corner. That psychological gap makes it very difficult to get at the substantive differences that exist between the two sides.

SIEGEL: Some people look at what you're describing and say a part of the responsibility for a psychological gap resides with the leadership that didn't come from Washington. And that President Obama could have dealt with the psychological gap - he can't move lines himself. Has that been a shortcoming? Has the U.S. aggravated the problem of a psychological gap?

ROSS: Yeah, I really don't believe so. I think there have been all sorts of efforts that were made to try to find ways to clarify for each side, reassure for each side, find ways to address the concerns of each side.

I do think there's a tendency to believe that somehow when the two sides can't resolve their problems, someone else must be able to step in and do it. And it's not that the United States doesn't have a significant role to play, because we clearly do have a significant role to play. But, at the end of the day, both sides are the ones who have to make the really hard decisions and live with it.

Our role frequently is both to clarify and reassure, and put them in a position where they feel safe enough to take these kinds of steps. But ultimately, they have to be prepared to do it and that's what's been so difficult I think to achieve.

SIEGEL: Dennis Ross, one personal question. Why did you leave the government?

ROSS: I left because I made a promise to my wife that - who knows the toll these jobs take - that I would come back in for only two years. Now, of course, because I operate on Middle Eastern time, two became three.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSS: But she still held me to it. And, you know, these jobs are temporary. She's not.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much for talking with us.

ROSS: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Ambassador Dennis Ross, who recently left the post of White House adviser. He's now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.