Amb. Dennis Ross Spring 2009 Mideast Trip Background
In February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named Ambassador Dennis Ross the Special Advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia—a portfolio encompassing Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen. This week, Amb. Ross embarks on his first official trip to the region in that capacity. His itinerary reportedly includes stops in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states – namely, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar – as well as Egypt.
The issue of U.S. policy towards Iran – and the complex threat posed by Iran’s illicit nuclear program, sponsorship of terrorist proxy groups, and destabilizing activities in the region – will figure prominently on the agenda for the countries hosting meetings with Amb. Ross. Egypt’s recent experiences with Tehran-backed groups, for example, help illustrate the threat it faces from Iranian proxies. Between November 2008 and January 2009, Egyptian authorities arrested nearly fifty members and supporters of Iranian-backed Hezbollah who were suspected of smuggling weapons and plotting attacks from Egypt.  Iranian-backed HAMAS also used Egyptian territory to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip. Ray Takeyh, who currently serves as an advisor to Amb. Ross, wrote in a December 2008 editorial that “Iranian leaders have come to believe that their projection of influence in their immediate neighborhood is best achieved through diplomacy rather than subversion and violence.” That view apparently contradicts the recent reports demonstrating the nature of Iranian proxy activity in Egypt.
Egyptian officials have made clear their concerns about the regional implications of U.S. engagement with Iran – and its potential for validating Iranian behavior. In April 2009, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki stated that “Any talk about dialogue with Iran is complete admission and submission to the fact that Iran has an influential role [in the region].” Egypt’s insecurity over U.S.-Iran engagement goes beyond Iranian proxy activity on Egyptian soil. The prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons serves as a major source of anxiety for Egypt. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit indicated this concern in December 2008 when he released a statement to underscore Egypt’s support for “international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Egypt also joined the U.S. in supporting the referral of Iran’s nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in 2006. Recalling a private conversation, Amb. Ross testified before a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in April 2008 that a senior Egyptian official had previously said to him that if Iran succeeds in its nuclear ambitions, “it will mean the end of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].”
Under this scenario, the “end” of the NPT – to which Egypt and Saudi Arabia are party – removes a major barrier to the development of illicit nuclear programs in the region. Signatories of the NPT have the right to develop nuclear energy under the condition that they bear responsibility for meeting certain obligations. Under Article III of the NPT, signatories must adhere to specific safeguards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and verifiably prevent the “diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” In 2007, Amb. Ross asserted that “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would greatly increase the chances of war—between Sunnis and Shia or between Israelis and Muslims—through mistake or calculation. For this reason alone, we must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Amb. Ross has also previously debated laying the foundations for greater cooperation with other nations – including Saudi Arabia – in order to deal with the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. In 2007, referring to the development of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy program, Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal expressed a commitment to transparency and underscored that it seeks a “whole Middle East that is free from weapons of mass destruction.” Could the U.S. plant the seed for enlisting Saudi Arabia to leverage its existing economic clout with European and Chinese trading partners in an effort to muster a stronger response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions? According to Amb. Ross in 2008, it depends:
"They would only do so if they became convinced that the United States and others actually have a strategy and that their steps are an important piece of it. We will need to explain to the Saudis how such action will ratchet up pressure on Iran and what we will and will not do to reach a deal with the Iranians…Our readiness to spell out a strategy of pressure and inducements and the likelihood that force may have to be used if there is no increased pressure on Iran will be a necessary part of convincing the Saudis to use their financial clout with the Europeans and the Chinese."
Amb. Ross’s view of engagement with the Iranians has consistently espoused the tactic of applying both “pressure and inducements.” Amb. Ross has conceded that, ultimately, pressures – not inducements – are “the key to altering the Iranian position.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly referred to such pressures in congressional testimony this month, stating that the Obama administration is “laying the groundwork for the kind of…crippling sanctions that might be necessary in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful.” Stronger sanctions against Iran, according to a report citing White House nonproliferation czar Gary Samore, require the active participation of Russia, China, and Europe. 
As recently as March 30, Russia’s United Nations envoy Vitaly Churkin stated that “The question of additional sanctions against Iran is not on the UN Security Council’s agenda. No new discussions are planned.” Russia and China’s resistance to additional sanctions in September 2008 forced the United Nations Security Council to produce a resolution simply reaffirming existing sanctions.
During the 2008 Senate committee hearing, Amb. Ross articulated three diplomatic options that could change Iranian behavior: 1) “tightening the economic noose,” 2) engagement without preconditions, and 3) engagement without preconditions, but with pressures.
In his testimony, Amb. Ross aligned himself most closely with the third hybrid option whereby the U.S. drops preconditions to engagement – such as the suspension of uranium enrichment – and maintains “pressures.” The hybrid nature of this option would incorporate the second option’s “grand bargain” proposal, including acceptance of an Iranian civil nuclear program – albeit with “intrusive inspections” and safeguard measures to deter Iranian stockpiling of enriched uranium. Amb. Ross argues that the logic of that option “is that Iran must see that the costs of pursuing the nuclear option are real and will not go away, but that Iran has a door to walk through and can see what is to be gained by giving up the pursuit of nuclear weapons—and those gains are meaningful to the Iranian leadership.”
The potential economic and diplomatic pressures and inducements Amb. Ross alludes to hinge on whether the U.S. can elicit greater cooperation from Europe, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia. In the case of gaining cooperation from Europeans to increase pressure on Iran, Amb. Ross has opined that “Europeans have…complained that if they reduce their business with Iran, the Chinese will pick up the slack…having the Chinese onboard will allay that fear.” Enlisting cooperation from China and Europe in this regard remains elusive; the Chinese have yet to indicate a shift in their opposition to increased sanctions and according to a November 2008 Wall Street Journal report, Germany – Europe’s main trading partner with Iran – increased its exports to Iran by double digits through the first seven months of 2008.
On the question of “how” the U.S. could pursue engagement with Iran, Amb. Ross has previously argued for a “direct, secret backchannel” that engages Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Even so, Amb. Ross has stated that he holds “no illusions about such talks” and that ultimately “agreement may be impossible.” In that case, Amb. Ross contended in 2008:
"We will need to hedge bets and set the stage for alternative policies either designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear or to blunt the impact if they do. Those represent two different policy choices with very different implications. Whichever path we take will be more sustainable if we have directly engaged Iran first. Tougher policies—either military or meaningful containment—will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion."
The State Department expressed that the purpose of Amb. Ross’s trip is to “advance…the U.S. commitment to a renewed diplomacy in the region.” In 2006, GCC secretary general Abdul-Rahman al-Atiya described Iran’s nuclear program as “worrisome for the region.” The convergence of those two statements represents one element of the agenda for Amb. Ross during this week’s trip.