Has Dennis Ross been “ousted as Obama’s envoy to Iran”?

Guest Post by Marsha B. Cohen

In an article posted on the website of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz early this morning, Dennis Ross reportedly revealed that he had been abruptly “reassigned”.

Since late February, Ross’ position in the Obama administration has been that of “Special Adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia” to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton [see Jim Lobe’s LobeLog post on Feb. 23]. Despite a title that makes no mention of Iran, it has been widely accepted in diplomatic circles and by the media that Ross was in charge of the State Dept.’s Iran portfolio. Ravid claimed that Ross would now be dealing primarily with “regional issues related to the peace process.”

According to Ravid:

Washington sources speculate that a number of reasons moved the administration to reassign Ross. One possibility is Iran’s persistent refusal to accept Ross as a US emissary given the diplomat’s Jewish background as well as his purported pro-Israel leanings. Ross is known to maintain contacts with numerous senior officials in Israel’s defense establishment and the Israeli government.

Ross began his career as a high level policymaker during the Carter administration, working in the Pentagon under Paul Wolfowitz. His track record as a foreign policy hawk continued during the Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 presidencies. A Fellow of the hardline pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Ross was an advocate of the policies of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC).

At the time of Ross’ appointment, objections were raised as to his appropriateness for the highly sensitive post, not only in light of his neoconservative contacts but because of his bluntly expressed “liberal hawk” views.

Iran’s leaders have long insisted that they are not anti-Semitic and have nothing against Jews who are not Zionists. Iran’s 25,000 Jews elect their own member of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. They continue to resist inducements offered by the Israeli government to emigrate to Israel. A delegation of rabbis from Neturei Karta, a small ultraorthodox anti-Zionist Jewish subsect that participates in anti-Israel demonstrations, has been warmly welcomed in Tehran. The marginal group has defended Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and welcomed his 2007 visit to New York, in constrast to mainstream Jewish organizations who protested the visit.

But Ross is hardly an anti-Zionist, nor can he claim any pretense of neutrality on issues concerning Israel. Ross served as the chairman of the Board of Directors and the “Professional Guiding Council” of the Jewish People’s Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI) between its founding in 2002 and February 2009, when he assumed his State Dept. post. Although JPPPI describes itself as an “independent think tank,” its website notes that it was established by the Jewish Agency, an Israeli quasi-governmental organization. Links provided on the JPPPI website include AIPAC and Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which have been increasingly involved in advocating a hardline position toward the Islamic Republic.

Ravid noted that “Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem surmised that another possibility for Ross’ ouster is his just-released book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace – Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.” Ross’ co-author, David Makovsky, is a former journalist who is now a WINEP fellow.

According to Ross and Makovsky, the primary rationale for the US to attempt diplomatic engagement with Iran is not because the effort will succeed, but because failure, which they view as inevitable, will eventually elicit support among allies of the US and Israel for harsher measures against Iran: “Tougher policies–either militarily or meaningful containment — will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion.” These tougher policies include the possibility of military action. The book, released last Thursday, opposes any linkage between progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues and unwavering US opposition to an Iranian nuclear program.

Questions about the differences between the hardline positions advocated in the book and the Obama administration’s approach have been raised twice during the past three weeks during State Dept. press briefings. On June 10, State Dept. spokesman Ian Kelly was asked:

QUESTION: If -– a question you were asked a couple of weeks ago about what Dennis Ross wrote in his book –- you didn’t have an answer for us at that time. But there’s a school of thought in the Middle East and that the President, President Obama, seems to subscribe to it, is that if you solve Israel-Palestine, that will help solve other problems in the region. Dennis Ross, in his book, says that’s not necessarily the case. I was wondering if you have any comment on that.

MR. KELLY: Dennis Ross co-wrote this book before he became a member of the Administration, and I’m just – I’m not going to comment on anything that he said in the book.

Kelly had given a similar reply to a reporter on May 29, except in his earlier answer, he had stated he was unfamiliar with the book’s contents and therefore was unable to comment.

Ross’ appointment to the Iran portfolio at the State Dept. has been regarded by advocates of rapprochement and engagement as curious as well as counterproductive. “It’s paradoxical that Obama, who made opening a dialogue with Iran into a crucial plank in his campaign, would hand the Iran file to Ross,” Robert Dreyfuss wrote in The Nation on April 8:

Widely viewed as a cog in the machine of Israel’s Washington lobby, Ross was not likely to be welcomed in Tehran–and he wasn’t. Iran’s state radio described his appointment as “an apparent contradiction” with Obama’s “announced policy to bring change in United States foreign policy.” Kazem Jalali, a hardline member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, joked that it “would have been so much better to pick Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert as special envoy to Iran.” More seriously, a former White House official says that Ross has told colleagues that he believes the United States will ultimately have no choice but to attack Iran in response to its nuclear program.

About a month ago, Jim Lobe raised the “intriguing question” here on LobeLog as to whether there were signs that Ross might be headed for trouble. Two recent articles, one in the Wall Street Journal by Jay Solomon (US, Allies Set October Target for Iran Progress) and the other in Haaretz headlined US Puts October Deadline on Iran Talks, also by Ravid, reported that Ross had set an autumn target date for concluding the first round of talks between the US and Iran during a meeting with an unnamed senior European diplomatic official. Nevertheless, Jim noted, Kelly explicitly denied there was any “deadline” or even a “notional timeline” for progress in talks with Iran.

Today’s intriguing question would seem to be not “Why was Dennis Ross ousted as Obama’s envoy to Iran?”, but rather, was he? If he was, why does the State Dept. appear to be denying it? Why has the story disappeared from the Haaretz website?

If Ross wasn’t ousted, why would Barak Ravid, a respected journalist for what is arguably Israel’s most credible newspaper, claim that Ross had said he was? Would Ravid have invented the story of Ross’ revelation to Haaretz with no basis in fact? Did Ross “leak” the news (as he often appears to, particularly to Israeli journalists), believing it to be true, or perhaps to vent his displeasure with the Obama administration’s expressed determination to engage Iran? Or had a decision in fact been made in the State Dept. to shift Ross to another position, which has since been reversed on account of developments in Iran?

Update: At today’s State Dept. daily press briefing, Ian Kelly was asked about Ross’ current employment status. His answer was unequivocally ambiguous:

QUESTION…are a lot of reports about Dennis Ross, based on one specific report in an Israeli newspaper. What’s his status? Has he been fired?

MR. KELLY: He has not been fired.

QUESTION: Is he being ousted?

MR. KELLY: He is not being ousted.

QUESTION: Is there an abrupt change to responsibilities?

MR. KELLY: I — there is — there is — look, he is in — he is in the building today. I was in his office today. He’s working very hard on the same issues that we’ve been discussing the last, whatever it is, 15 minutes. And you know, if and when there is some kind of personnel announcement, I’d be happy to let you know. […]

QUESTION: … assigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: Anything’s possible. I could be fired today, too. I mean…

… if you guys keep probing me on this.

QUESTION: Isn’t it true that he’s been reassigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: Like I said, I have — there — I have no personnel announcements.

QUESTION: So the secretary has full confidence in Dennis Ross to continue in his present role?

MR. KELLY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: So Dennis Ross — Dennis Ross is going to continue in his role as adviser to the secretary on — what was it? –….Southwest Gulf affairs?

MR. KELLY: He is — as I say — he is working very hard. He worked hard throughout the weekend and he’s continuing to do his job today.

QUESTION: Has the book that he and David Makovsky have published recently caused any problems for him internally in this administration?

MR. KELLY: No. No. It’s a very good book, by the way. I started reading it over the weekend. …

QUESTION: Oh, so you’re doing reviews from the podium (inaudible). […]

QUESTION: Was there any concern about this authorship of this book, of some of the opinions that he and his co-author expressed in the book…


QUESTION: … during the time leading up to his appointment?

KELLY: No, not at all.

QUESTION: Why not?

MR. KELLY: Well, I mean — Mr. Ross is — he is in the administration now. He is a very close adviser of the secretary on a number of issues related to Iran and the region. But he also came out of — came out of the academic community and he — he’s entitled to — he was entitled to his opinion. He wrote the book before he came on board here.

QUESTION: But, I mean, his opinion and his book and everything notwithstanding, are you saying that Dennis Ross is not being reassigned to another position at the White House?

MR. KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: But you’re not saying no?

MR. KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not saying he’s…

MR. KELLY: I’m not going to predict the future…

Another Update: Time Magazine is now reporting that Ross is not going out but up, and that he will have more control over Iran policy:

Dennis Ross, the Obama Administration’s special adviser on Iran, will be leaving his post at the State Department to become a senior adviser at the National Security Council (NSC) with an expanded portfolio, Administration officials told TIME.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. The big question is: why did the Obama administration think Ross would be acceptable to the Iranians as an interlocutor? Looks like a case of triangulation gone bad to me. Who was behind the Ross appointment to begin with — Mrs. Clinton?

  2. I think you’re jettisoning political nuance and overstating Ross’ hawkishness. Not every Jewish policy maker who deviates from your worldview is a full-fledged neocon. Ross has a certain undeniable affinity for Israel and occasionally sides with neocon views. However, he probably dissents from them more frequently (unless you’re defining ‘neocon’ broadly enough to render it meaningless). He’s not viscerally impartial on the Israel/Paelestine question but he has clearly been in favor of negotiating a viable two-state solution, one which would have a chance of working and thus offer autonomy, land, dignity and hope to the Palestinians (i.e. not the sort of Palestine that Bibi outlined in his speech, or the sort grudgingly offered up by true necons). You do yourself a disservice in lumping a Ross with a Wolfowitz, and ignoring essential distinctions.

  3. The Ravid article has been updated. The following has been added which indicates that Ross could actually be getting a promotion. Also, Time reported that Ross could have a role in Arab-Israeli negotiations in his new role.

    Another possible reason for the reshuffle could be Ross’ dissatisfaction with his present standing in the State Department, particularly given the fact that Washington’s two other envoys to the region – George Mitchell, who is overseeing the Mideast peace process; and Richard Holbrooke, who is dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan – wield great influence and are featured prominently.

    A diplomatic source in Jerusalem speculated that perhaps Ross preferred to work for the National Security Agency, which answers directly to President Barack Obama, and would thus be considered a more enhanced role.


  4. If anyone thinks Ross is going to have clear sailing over at the NSC with retired Marine Corps general James Jones as NSA to the prez and all the other principles on the council, than they sure as heck don’t know beans about what is going on in ‘Dodge.’ Jones is a lot tougher customer than Hillary, Mitchell and Holbrooke combined! Who, by the way salutes and supports the presidents M/E initiatives far more resolutely, if for no other reason than his knowledge of the lack of readiness of US armed forces in fighting another war.

    Jones is also restructuring and expanding the role of the NSA within the chief executive and staffed it with a lot of personalities more in tune with his policy preferences than Ross’s. I don’t think Dennis is going to find too many like minded souls in his new ambiguous role. After all, Ross is a committed Zionist ideologue and wasn’t all that great a fit in that bastion of pragmatism and realism, the State Department. He’ll be an even odder duck out of water in his new environment.

    I believe the administrations rationale for dallying with Ross is merely the necessities of politics. A politics that’s becoming increasingly byzantine with new players, evolving constituencies, interests foreign & domestic and a weakening lobby as the world turns and changes. Ironically, Ross himself has been a chief aider, abettor and promoter of policies that have destroyed US uni-polarity and led to today’s multi-polar world order. A chief accomplishment of his not likely to be highly regarded at State or the NSA. Of course that’s not what he imagined or wanted, but then playing with the fires of chaos, war and upheaval does have its consequences.

    That’s the big problem with ideologues. They’re great at stating things, but never fit enough or smart enough to finish them.

  5. Ross wants to bomb Iran. Maybe Hillary does too. What the hell is wrong with Obama? Is he so buried with a myriad of issues that he is unable to see the apparent subterfuge around him? Why does Obama constantly pander to the right at the expense of his base? Or does he just take us for granted? If he doesn’t begin to change our foreign policy in substantive ways (not merely ever so slight subtle nuances), I’ll sit out the next election.

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