At a release event for the U.S. Institute of Peace’s (USIP) Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Power — an exhaustive collection of new writings on the country — the opening address came from Dennis Ross, a top national security adviser to President Barack Obama on the Mid East.
Ross is an influential adviser to Obama on Iran issues, where he’s thought to be the prime architect of a policy aimed foremost at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“The president has made it clear he is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” said Ross. “The president has been very active in this area to mobilize the international community to the aims we want to pursue. Every meeting he’s had around the globe, Iran has featured very prominently.”
Ross gave a sweeping account of U.S. policy toward Iran since the start of the Obama administration, discussing motivations behind the both aspects of the White House’s “dual-track” engagement and pressure plan for Iran, noting the failures of the former and the successes of the latter.
As a Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory, Iran is entitled to nuclear power and repeatedly denies the widely held Western belief its program is aimed at producing weapons.
“We’re prepared to respect Iran’s rights, but rights come with responsibilities,” said Ross. “They have to restore the confidence of the international community in order to get those rights.”
Though Ross said there were many reasons for tensions, he believed the lack of a formal diplomatic relationship between Iran and the United States — “an absence of contacts between officials” — for the past thirty years has been a factor.
“Absence of contact had done nothing to prevent Iran from pursuing it’s nuclear program and it didn’t do anything to prevent Iran from increasing its reach in the region,” said Ross.
“If there’s one thing President Obama wanted to change it was that. He wanted to have an engagement program,” he continued. “He was prepared from the very beginning to reach out and did.”
Some analysts have suggested the United States never seriously tried engagement. Comments from diplomats, including those found in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, reveal many believed negotiations were bound to fail even at the start of implementing the dual-track strategy.
“It is unlikely that the resources and dedication needed for success was given to a policy that the administration expected to fail,” National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi observed.
“The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Obama was never sincere about his engagement strategy,” wrote Columbia professor and Iran expert Gary Sick. “It has yet to be tried.”
When asked directly about diplomatic engagement, Ross responded: “Everyone we have been dealing with knows quite clearly — they understand that we are quite serious and remian quite serious,” he said. “The president believed it was important to pursue diplomacy not as some kind of charade, but to change Iran’s behavior.”
He said that the robust sanctions passed in the UN Security Council last summer — which he hailed as a major success of the overall policy — are an indication of the U.S. seriousness.
“If we were seen as not being for real we would not have been able to do that,” he said.
On Tuesday, Iran announced it agreed to join the P5 + 1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the U.K, and the United States – and Germany) for negotiations next week in Geneva. Ross said he had hopes for serious talks, which he reportedly will attend.
Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), where Ross used to work, asked whether there will be talk of “pursuing other steps” at the P5 + 1 meetings — perhaps a nod at using the “military option” or addressing a choice the administration might face between that and pursuing the containment of an Iran with a nuclear weapons (or the capability to make them).
Either way, Ross deftly dodged the question: “I think you give plan A a chance before you go to plan B.”
“I think the most important thing is that we want these negotiations to get underway,” he added. “The expectation should not be that you go into the meeting and everything gets resolved.”
Addressing the aims of the Western negotiating group more broadly, Ross said, “The 5 +1 was created to deal with the nuclear issue. If you want to put other issues on the table, that’s fine. But there has to be a discussion of the nuclear issue.”
Last month, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said of the upcoming talks that Iran’s nuclear rights were “not negotiable,” though many diplomats and experts thought the statement reflected Iran’s longstanding defense of its rights to nuclear power under the NPT.
“We will be watching the nuclear issue,” he continued. “[Obama is] not in talks for their own sake. If (the Iranians) are not serious, we’re going to see that.”
Ross dedicated much of his prepared comments to discussing Western successes in pressuring Iran, citing the UN and U.S. Congressional sanctions.
“There’s no doubt the impact of the sanctions is being felt,” he said, naming examples of many international companies that have reduced business with Iran, especially in the energy sector. “What it all adds up to is something pretty clear: The pressure on Iran is starting to grow.”
“Iran has the possibility to be (in the international community),” he said. “I hope it will take the chance because if not it will be squeezed more.”