Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
Dennis Ross, a State Department special adviser on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, could be moving to the White House. He is shown above during a May 2009 visit to Cairo.
Dennis Ross, a State Department special adviser on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, could be moving to the White House. He is shown above during a May 2009 visit to Cairo. Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
A key personnel move at the White House could signal a sharper administration focus on Iran and other issues in the Middle East. Rumors of the move surfaced amid turmoil over the outcome of Iran's election, which gave hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another four-year term.
After a flurry of rumors that the State Department's top envoy on Iran was about to be ousted, administration officials have said privately that Dennis Ross will move to the White House for what are expected to be wider responsibilities.
A veteran of U.S. efforts to mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Ross, 60, would reportedly join the National Security Council to advise President Obama on Iran policy and issues affecting the broader Middle East.
Move Related To A New Strategy On Iran?
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs deflected reporters' questions about Ross on Tuesday.
"I don't have any personnel announcements about the State Department or the White House. I know the president has enormous confidence ... in Dennis Ross and what he brings to our foreign policy team," Gibbs said.
Analysts say the allegations of election fraud clouding Ahmadinejad's victory and massive demonstrations on the streets of Tehran add to the U.S. challenges of dealing with the Islamic republic.
Obama and other administration officials have reacted cautiously to the disputed vote while continuing to address concerns over Iran's nuclear program. The administration is navigating a delicate course: Becoming too involved in the Iranian political debate could backfire and disrupt diplomacy over the nuclear issue, while reacting too softly could leave the impression of U.S. weakness in the region.
"If we've learned anything about the Middle East, it's that there are these moments where all the cards are just thrown up in the air, and you have to be humble enough to say you don't know how they're going to land," said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of a book with Ross.
Managing An Empire Of Envoys
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East adviser who worked closely with Ross in the 1990s, says moving Ross to the National Security Council would make sense. Miller says the administration has created "an empire of envoys" to handle different parts of related issues.
He notes that former Sen. George Mitchell was put in charge of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Richard Holbrooke was made envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Ross was given an Iran portfolio at the State Department.
"Getting an astute and very skilled bureaucratic operator to manage all these disparate issues strikes me as smart politics and smart policy," Miller says.
The story that Ross was being ousted from his job as the State Department's special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia first appeared in the online edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Monday. The article quoted Washington sources as saying that Ross would be "abruptly relieved of his duties."
One possible reason for Ross's removal, the article said, is that he co-authored a newly released book called Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East. It said the book raised the possibility of military action against Iran.
The co-author, Makovsky, says that is a mischaracterization. "We believe the goal should be a unified strategy, where there are clear incentives for Iran, and if it doesn't work, then there have to be consequences," he says. "But our goal shouldn't be to isolate them or to threaten them with a military strike at this time."
The Haaretz article also suggested that Ross would be regarded by Iran as having "pro-Israel leanings," a charge that was leveled at him during his work on Arab-Israeli issues in the Clinton administration.
Robert Malley, who worked with Ross during that time, says Ross was accused of being too pro-Israeli, "but I think there's a stereotype that's been built around him that simply doesn't correspond to reality."
Malley, now the Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, says moving Ross to the National Security Council would, "at least symbolically, be putting Iran front and center" on the administration's foreign-policy agenda.
Malley says it would also be an acknowledgment that Middle East issues are interconnected. "What happens on the Israeli front has an impact on Lebanon, on Syria and on Iran. In some ways, it makes sense to bring it all together."
Miller, who profiles Ross in a recently published book, The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, says Ross "did have a very pro-Israel perspective when it came to promoting Arab-Israeli negotiations, but that was then. This is now."
"And the reality is that you're obviously going to need someone who understands the Israelis and can relate to them," Miller adds, "because they are a rather important part of this whole equation."