As expected among the foreign policy community, Dennis Ross was appointed Iran's "special advisor" and curiously not the "special envoy"-- which begs the question of whether or not he will be the major voice in Washington on US-Iran relations.
Appointing an envoy or advisor to Iran has posed a challenge to the U.S. administration, considering the complex involvement of this country with most of the U.S. conflicts in the Middle East. The main concern has been to appoint a diplomat who can talk to Tehran, a regime that Washington loves to hate despite its significant influence on most of the U.S. foreign policy priorities in the region.
Dennis Ross is an experienced diplomat, whose connection to Israel ensures that the concerns of U.S.'s closest ally in the Middle East is addressed appropriately during any possible negotiations or mutual agreements, hence alleviating any backlash from Tel Aviv or their supporters in Washington. Israelis know that Dennis Ross will represent their interests and not betray them--making him a smart choice as the Persian Gulf special advisor, (although practically he is Iran's special advisor).
However, this is only half the story. Dennis Ross arrives at scene with considerable political baggage. For the authorities in Tehran, Ross' approach towards Iran is reminiscent of Bush's unpopular first-term policies. Placing Ross in this position is similar to Iran sending a hostage-taker or dubious Revolutionary Guard Commander to represent Iran--an uncomfortable situation for the U.S. at best. Iranians need to feel a level of comfort and trust in anyone they sit with at the negotiation table--an element sorely missing in this equation.
Iranians have a longstanding and historic mistrust of U.S. motivations and a psyche dominated by conspiracy theory, making negotiating with this new advisor synonymous to dealing with John Bolton. President Obama will be hard pressed to sell his premise of "change" to Iran through Dennis Ross.
In an interview for a piece I filed with IPS News Agency on the implications of this new appointment, a member of parliament in Tehran supposed that the choice of Ross as the man in Washington in charge of designing a new approach toward Iran, is recipe for failure in future possible negotiations with Iran.
However, although Dennis Ross, as the new man in town, might initiate new suggestions or directives on how to deal with Iran, he will not be the major figure on the scene.
The administration's approach to Iran is unique: George Mitchell was appointed as special envoy to the Middle East, with responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and Richard Holbrooke was appointed as special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Dennis Ross became "special advisor."
The nature of dealing with Iran is different than dealing with Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are not going to see any rapid or major changes in this relationship; while Dennis Ross takes "a broad strategic look at the region," others may act as the true envoys.
One key player will be William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, whose tone and gesture towards Tehran are far more preferable for Iranians. In an interview Karim Sadjadpour, a leading Middle East researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington told me:
"It's my understanding that Undersecretary of State Bill Burns will continue to play a key role in formulating Iran policy, which I think is an ideal choice."
Another key player is Lee Hamilton, the only person in Washington who has ever communicated with Iran's supreme leader:
"In addition to 34 years in Congress and his role as co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, he's the only American who has actually had a successful mediation with Iran's supreme leader. After Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center was arrested in Tehran in May 2007, Hamilton sent a careful letter, couched largely in religious terms, to Khamenei. The leader responded positively, and Esfandiari was released from prison." (Washington Post)
The fact that Hamilton has met the president twice since the inauguration, paired with his realistic approach toward Tehran, position him as a key figure in shaping the administration's strategy toward Tehran. Hamilton's plan to engage Iran, is a far cry from the Bush Administration's rhetoric and years of failed policies which only marginalizing Iran in the region and the world, while strengthened the hardliners in power in Tehran.
"The starting points for U.S.-Iran discussions, Hamilton said, would be to 'state our respect for the Iranian people, renounce regime change as an instrument of U.S. policy, seek opportunities for a range of dialogue across a range of issues, and acknowledge Iran's security concerns and its right to civilian nuclear power.' He said Obama has already signaled that he wants such a conversation, without preconditions." (Washington Post)
Burns and Hamilton are sure to play influential roles in the U.S. strategy towards Iran. Clearly, the appointment of Dennis Ross has more of a domestic consumption for the administration than an actual affect on what Obama's approach towards Iran. He wants to get the job done and does not want possible U.S.-Iran negotiations to become a bridge to nowhere. The triad of Ross, Burns and Hamilton will serve the President's pragmatism well.