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February 3, 2009

Breaking: Ross not envoy to Iran

dennis_ross_01301Photo: Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Dennis Ross will not be appointed Obama’s special envoy to Iran, and that he will instead act as a “strategic advisor” on Iran and the Persian Gulf at the State Department.
After months of speculation, it appears that the Obama administration was not comfortable with naming Ross to such a high-profile position handling the Iran portfolio.
Contributing to the eventual decision not to give Ross the envoy job was the swirling controversy over some of his recent publications–notably the Bipartisan Policy Center report–as well as some of the (less than prudent) actions on the part of Ross’s friends and employers.  The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Ross is the Zeigler Distinguished Fellow, released a congratulatory memo that proved a bit premature:

We are delighted to share the news that Ambassador Dennis Ross, counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, has accepted an invitation to join the Obama administration as ambassador-at-large and senior advisor to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton.

In that seventh-floor job, designed especially for him, Ambassador Ross will be the secretary’s top advisor on a wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran.

Ambassador Ross is expected to take his post immediately after inauguration.

Those following recent appointments would recognize the position described here as the one given to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.
niacINsight has been told that insiders in the Obama administration were upset at the memo–which was released the first week in January–and that it raised questions about Ross’s discretion.
Then, on January 23, United Against Nuclear Iran released a congratulatory note to Ross and Richard Holbrooke on their appointments to the Obama administration.  (Holbrooke will serve as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he will be advised by the eminent Iranian-American scholar Vali Nasr).  Again, the announcement proved premature, and again the lack of discretion ruffled feathers in the Obama administration.
Finally, reports have surfaced in recent days of a possible conflict of interest due to Ross’s involvement with an Israeli government funded think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute.  According to some, Ross could face possible legal challenges under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which is intended “to protect against stealth propoganda and foreign lobbying through strict public disclosure filings,” according to PR Newswire.

Since 2002 former American diplomat Dennis Ross has filed no FARA activity declarations. This could be a problem according to IRmep director Grant F. Smith. “The US Department of Justice has always asked US recipients of Jewish Agency funding — whether the American Zionist Council and its US executives, or the Jewish Agency’s New York office — to register as agents of a foreign principal. With US-Iran diplomacy and restoration of productive relations looming so urgently, now is certainly not the time to resurrect foreign agent registration battles.”

Add that to the barrage of criticism Ross has received in the media and the blogosphere for his hardline stance on Iran, and it seems that the chances for his appointment as special envoy were effectively squashed.
His role at the State Department will obviously have less significance on Iran policy than was previously expected, but he will by no means be shut out in the cold.  Rather, he will advise the Secretary and Ambassador-at-Large Mitchell on the administration’s dealings with Iran.

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