Monday evening, the State Department released an announcement that Dennis Ross — who had originally been expected to handle the Iran portfolio for the Obama administration as an ambassador-at-large — will be “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.”
Diplomatically speaking, it was about as quiet as an announcement could be: an after-hours web posting about the intention to “integrate our policy development and implementation across a broad range of offices and senior officials in the State Department.” Iran was not mentioned in the announcement.
About half of yesterday’s State Department press briefing was taken up with questions about the announcement. The spokesman described Ross’s role as providing Hillary Clinton with “strategic advice” and ensuring “coherence in our policies and strategies across the region.” He confirmed that Iran (along with a lot of other countries) is part of the region. Asked if Ross would have a “specific role in the Iran review,” the spokesman said Clinton “will certainly seek out his advice with regard to, you know, Iran.”
But the spokesman seemed most anxious to make clear what the role will not involve:
Let me be clear, he’s not an envoy. He will not be negotiating. He’ll be working on regional issues. He will not be – in terms of negotiating, will not be involved in the peace process. But again, he is going to be advising the Secretary on long-term strategic issues across the region.
Why the emphasis on so many things Ross will not be doing? There are several possible answers, but one of them undoubtedly lies in the pre-reaction of the country not named in the announcement. Earlier this month, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Iran had raised a lot of questions about Ross:
In Iran, Mr. Ross has been vilified as too hawkish and too close to Israel and pro-Israel lobbies in the US to be effective.
Iran’s hard-line Kayhan newspaper called Ross, who is Jewish, a “pioneer of the American-Zionist lobby,” whose pick would be an “insult.” [. . .]
A Ross appointment would be “dangerous” and amounts to “shooting the confidence building with the Iranians,” says [former Iranian ambassador to Paris Sadegh] Kharazi, adding that Iranian officials will be reluctant to deal with Ross. [. . .] Iranians are not happy [about] this.”
Iranians are probably happier now.