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February 24th, 2009
08:19 PM ET

Mongolian contortionists, Dennis Ross and Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's report from Dennis Ross on January 6, 2008 in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's report from Dennis Ross on January 6, 2008 in Jerusalem.

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

On his second full day in office, President Barack Obama made a grand State Department speech to announce Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell as special envoys for South Asia and the Mideast, respectively. Even Todd Stern, Secretary of State Clinton's new envoy for climate change, got a Ben Franklin room ceremony.

But on Monday night, while many Americans were watching the Bachelor talk about his 23 'rejects,' the State Department finally rolled-out its long anticipated announcement about Dennis Ross' new role at the State Department dealing with Iran.

But Iran wasn't mentioned once in the 235-word memo.

Ross will be the Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia. As we reported last week on this blog, Clinton's aides felt calling Ross a full-fledged "envoy" would set expectations too high for the first US engagement with Iran in 3 decades, and so his official title was left deliberately vague.

Last night, after the announcement, officials joked that any cartographer worth his salt knows Iran sits directly at the crossroads of Southwest Asia and the Gulf. The exchange below illustrates how far the State Department is stretching itself, some might say in ways reminiscent of Mongolian contortionists, to be as vague about Ross' mission as humanly possible.

QUESTION: What is he in charge exactly of?

MR. WOOD: Well, Dennis is –

QUESTION: Is it Iran? And if it’s not Iran – if it’s Iran, why is it not written in the statement?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just start off by saying, the Secretary is very happy that Dennis Ross agreed to serve as her special adviser for the Gulf and Southwest Asia. What Dennis is going to be charged with doing is trying to integrate policy development and implementation across a number of offices and officials in the State Department. And, you know, he is going to be providing the Secretary with strategic advice. He will be also trying to ensure that there’s a coherence in our policies and strategies across the region.

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.

QUESTION: Can you give us – well, what is the State Department’s definition geographically of Southwest Asia? What countries does that include?

MR. WOOD: Matt, I didn’t -

QUESTION: No, you guys named an envoy for Southwest Asia. I presume that you know what countries that includes.

MR. WOOD: Yes. Of course, we know. I just – I don’t have the list to run off – you know, right off the top of my head here. But obviously, that’s going to encompass – that region encompasses Iran. It will – you know, it’ll deal with -

QUESTION: Does it include Iraq?

MR. WOOD: Indeed, it does. He is going to be, again, as I said, providing her with advice – strategic advice, looking at the long term, the bigger picture and how we can make sure that our policies are coherent across the board in the region. And as I said, the Secretary is very pleased that Dennis has agreed to do this. He’s got years of experience in the region. And, you know, it’s a daunting task, but it’s one that she felt was necessary.

QUESTION: And so, does it include parts of the Middle East?

MR. WOOD: Yes.

QUESTION: It does? Does it include Syria, and it includes Israel and it includes Jordan?

MR. WOOD: Well, he’ll be looking at the entire region that will include, you know –

QUESTION: Where does that stop? I mean, you know, you have NEA which, you know, runs all the way to Morocco. So does it include –

MR. WOOD: Well, he’s going to be in touch with a number of officials who work on issues throughout this region.

QUESTION: Does it include Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, countries that are within the – within the Middle East or within the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, but are not necessarily technically part of Southwest Asia?

MR. WOOD: He will be providing advice to the Secretary on a – across that entire region, where appropriate, where she needs it, and that’s the position he will serve.

QUESTION: So he’s going to meet with the leaders in the region as well, so you said he is going to offer an assessment

MR. WOOD: That’s right. At some point, he will.

QUESTION: - including the Iranians?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not sure at this point. But again, our policy with regard to Iran is under review, so once that review is completed, we’ll be able to go forward vis-àvis Iran. But until that time -

QUESTION: Well, was there a consideration at some point that you would have a special envoy for Iran? And why didn’t you now go in that direction?

MR. WOOD: Well, a decision was made by the Secretary that she needed broad strategic advice to look at a range of issues across the entire region that we just talked about. And it was felt that his skills could be better used to do that type of work, given the years of experience that he’s had dealing with the Middle East, other parts of the world. And so, again, as I said, Iran will be one of those countries that he will be, you know, looking at in his portfolio. But -

QUESTION: The military sometimes refer to parts of the -stans, Central Asia, as Southwest Asia. Are those included in your -

MR. WOOD: Well, look -

QUESTION: Can you find out? Because, I mean, this is -

MR. WOOD: We can get you that. Yeah, we can get you a breakdown of -

QUESTION: I mean, does this – is there a geographic limit to his portfolio, or is it really an issues-based thing so that he could be dealing with Morocco and Algeria -

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: - and Tunisia -

MR. WOOD: I would look at it, Matt, as more of a regional -

QUESTION: - and Kyrgyzstan, and the -stans that are not covered by Ambassador Holbrooke? And does it include Turkey? Does it – you know, there are a lot of unanswered questions from – from the statement last night as to exactly what he’s going to be doing. I mean, I presume it’s all of the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, that makes sense. But does it include Somalia, which is – you know, that there is – does it include – I don’t know -

QUESTION: Or is it (inaudible) Iran?

MR. WOOD: Your question is – you know, let me answer your -

QUESTION: It could be anything. Or is he limited by the geographic -

QUESTION: Or did you just not want to put Iran in the name, and so this is your clever way of doing that?

MR. WOOD: Can I speak now?

QUESTION: Sure.

MR. WOOD: Thank you, and thank you. Look, it’s more – he’s going to be providing advice to the Secretary on a number of regional issues, and I would not try to limit Dennis’s advice to, you know, just those regions. He may have other – you know, he may have advice that he wants to give the Secretary on other issues. I don’t think we’re trying to narrow it here. If you’re looking for a geographical breakdown of those countries that he will be looking -

QUESTION: It would be nice to find out what the State Department considers to be Southwest Asia.

MR. WOOD: We can certainly do that for you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: And why Iran was not mentioned in the statement? And why was it published at 9:00 p.m.?

MR. WOOD: Well, it was published at 9:00 p.m. because we – that was the time when we had it ready to go. And so there was no – somebody had said to me in an email or something that we were trying to hide something, and that’s absolutely not the case. That’s when it was ready to go, and that’s when we – the Secretary wanted that announcement to go out at some point yesterday, and it did.

QUESTION: Yeah, but when she -

MR. WOOD: We just couldn’t get it out until late.

QUESTION: When she wants to announce the nomination of Richard Holbrooke, the President comes for announcing that. So it’s not the same kind of an announcement. It’s very different. Why?

MR. WOOD: It’s different because the duties are different here. He is serving as an advisor to the Secretary. And the reason why we didn’t mention Iran specifically is because his duties are going to engage the entire region, as I mentioned. So it’s not just Iran. It’s other countries in the region, other issues.


Filed under: Elise Labott • Iran
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Annie Kate

    Well, sounds like Mr. Wood needs a map, a job description he could have referenced for the questions, and some new dancing shoes. I bet after that dancing around the question Mr. Wood was tired. Good dancing though.

    February 24, 2009 at 7:42 pm |