February 20th, 2009
08:16 AM ET

Just who is going to talk to Iran?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/19/art.dennisross.jpg caption="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

Dennis Ross is one of the world's most influential and accomplished diplomats. But is his role growing or shrinking?

Ross has been an architect of Middle East peace talks for more than 12 years, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, brokering key agreements with Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan and talks with Syria.

His next mission looks no easier: Iran.

But now sources tell us that Ross's new job in the State Department won't be quite what many expected. Rather than being called an "Iran envoy," Ross will have a title along the lines of Special Adviser to the Secretary of State dealing with Middle East issues.

Senior officials tell us the announcement will come early next week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returns from Asia.

What's the difference? The problem with the "envoy" title is expectations. It sets them too high.

Yes, Ross will be handling the Iran portfolio. But "envoy" is such a lofty title that it would suggest that Ross would talk with Iran, and visit Iran, and deal directly with this nation that the State Department has listed as the State Department lists Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism because its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were directly involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts.

During his campaign, President Obama faced plenty of criticism for saying he'd be willing to talk with Iran.

So Ross will have a more ambiguous title. It might sound smaller - or bigger, depending on how you look at it. But that doesn't change his job.

The so-called "p5 plus one" - the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia and China) plus Germany - will continue to be the public face of engagement with Iran .

But officials say Ross's mission is to try to develop a back channel to the Iranians, with the aim of reaching solutions - and having talks - someday.

Filed under: Global 360° • Iran
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Justin

    I'll accept "influential" but what exactly has Ross ever "accomplished"?

    George Mitchell was Senate Majority Leader and negotiated the Northern Ireland peace agreement. Richard Holbrooke was UN Ambassador and negotiated the Dayton Accords. Dennis Ross was a State Department bureaucrat who oversaw one failed negotiation after another. One of these men is not like the other.

    Finally, what does it say to the Iranians that we're sending men of Mitchell and Holbrooke's stature elsewhere in the region but sending a nobody like Ross to talk to them? It's practically insulting. Why not send someone like Chuck Hagel: a smart, tough Republican who's spoken at length about the importance of talking to Iran?

    February 22, 2009 at 5:49 pm |
  2. Even More Skeptical

    I think of Ross as someone deeply, philosophically at peace with failure, non-movement, inaction.

    Others say he took Israel's side during e.g. the Wye accords, but to view it more positively, he may just be very incompetent. I bet it's true that the Israeli right and AIPAC love the guy, though, because either way, he's somebody they can really, really push around.

    Putting him in this slot may be a clever way of telling those interests, "See, you wanted your boy, right? Well, we put him right on the front lines for you so you gotta be mighty pleased about it." And that can only work, of course, if Ross isn't really (heaven help us) making Iran policy.

    I sure hopes that's the angle. And I hope Hillary's got his number in a big way: *never rely on him.* Invite him to every D.C. reception, though, and have him prominently glad hand,

    February 21, 2009 at 4:35 pm |
  3. Lester Garfield

    Could you please tell us what type of peace Iran is looking for?
    This way "We the People will know" what this peace look like, so we don't miss it.

    February 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm |
  4. blgeorgia

    I agree with "John's" statement; I too don't know who Ross will represent. How can we be an honest broker of peace in the Middle East if we keep sending such biased negotiators to the region? I guess I will just have to be grateful that Ross isn't also handling the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

    February 20, 2009 at 11:21 pm |
  5. Dawn from NJ

    This is awful. Dennis Ross is one of the preeminent pro-Israel Likuniks who won't change serious policy towards Iran, as Obama promised.

    I guess this is Sen. Clinton's payback to Obama and a message that I run the State Dept. Its quite scary that Obama would give her that much leeway.

    Ross will just peddle the same old failed "Iran must be accountable" claptrap and you may all now kiss peace with Iran goodbye and expect more hotair.

    February 20, 2009 at 9:20 pm |
  6. ron, ny

    will Ross represent israel? LOL...be carfeul john. you may be acused of being anti semite.

    February 20, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
  7. John

    Will Ross represent Israel or the US?

    February 20, 2009 at 5:18 pm |
  8. Heather,ca

    I can not believe we are going to negotiate with terrorists. Iran held our people hostage, remember? The guy who is the mouth piece is one of the men who held them hostage. They finance terrorism against Israel and us. You dont talk to a terrorist. You take them out.

    February 20, 2009 at 1:30 pm |
  9. Michael C. McHugh

    My main hope for Iran has nothing to do with diplomacy or anything we can do from the outside. We just have to wait until internal change takes place, and quietly hope that the younger population will get sick of the fascists running things there now. In the past, I think we often played into the hands of these fascists by being overly hostile and militaristic in our foreign policy. I think we have to be more subtle and clever in our foreign policy than Bush Junior, which admittedly is not a very high standard.

    We also have to offer these developing countries a chance to participate in a reformed global system that will actually meet their social and economic needs, and not just those of wealthy Republicans in Texas or on Wall Street. This is a tall order, but this crisis is also a chance for some major changes in our thinking.

    February 20, 2009 at 10:45 am |
  10. Dan Stewart

    8 years of failed foreign policy has left Iran holding the majority of the cards. News that they have enough uranium for a nuclear weapon is worrying as is the fact that the whack job Netanyahu is now going to form an Israeli Government.
    Thanks Bush for another massive crisis for Obama to try and fix.

    February 20, 2009 at 10:00 am |
  11. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    It is so important to match the "title" with the person--in the meantime--the relationships are almost non-existent-–they are all missing the boat.

    February 20, 2009 at 9:35 am |
  12. Cindy

    Well Dennis should have known with Hillary taking over as SOS that his roll would greatly diminish and that she would be doing most of the wheeling and dealing especially with the "big" nations. Because then when things are worked out she gets the glory for it.


    February 20, 2009 at 9:08 am |