The U.S. State Department has announced that veteran diplomat Dennis Ross is to be a special adviser to the secretary of state for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Ross will be responsible for a region characterized by the State Department as a place where "America is fighting two wars and facing challenges of ongoing conflict, terror, proliferation, access to energy, economic development and strengthening democracy and the rule of law."
There is no specific mention of Iran in the State Department press release announcing Ross's appointment. But analysts say his job will include handling the Iran portfolio and developing a new U.S. strategy for dealing with the Islamic republic.
Washington is reviewing its policy toward Tehran to find ways to open a dialogue with Iran after some 30 years of hostility. The State Department says Ross would offer "strategic advice" and perspective on the region, coordinate new policy approaches, and take part in "interagency activities."
Ross has over a decade of experience in Middle East peacemaking efforts. He was the top U.S. envoy on the Middle East in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.
Neil Partrick, a professor of political science at the American University of Sharjah, describes Ross as an experienced and widely respected diplomat whose appointment will likely reassure Israel.
"If I wanted to speculate I might say that the fact that he's seen, to some extent in the region, as sympathetic to Israel might help to calm its concerns about U.S. engagement with Iran," Partrick says.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's comments denying the Holocaust and his fiery rhetoric against Israel have alarmed the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu recently described Iran as "the greatest threat that Israel has ever faced." He has repeatedly warned that Israel will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
Sticks And Carrots
In the United States, much of the policy debate on Iran within the new administration is going on behind closed doors. Many agree that a new approach is needed, but there is comparatively little room to maneuver.
"The Washington Post" says Ross's efforts may remain hidden for some time. But his recent articles on Iran could offer a clue.
In a September paper published by the Center for a New American Security, Ross wrote that preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and altering its "destabilizing, anti-peace policies" in the Middle East should be the United States' basic objective toward Iran. He also recommended approaching Iran by setting up "a direct, secret back channel."
Ross wrote in the December 8 issue of "Newsweek" magazine that the United States must balance "sharp sticks" with "appetizing carrots" to convince Iran to change its behavior on its nuclear program and terrorism.
Ross added that smart statecraft was needed to avoid what he called two possible terrible outcomes: a nuclear-armed Iran, or a military conflict to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Partrick expects Ross to follow a tough line on Iran. "The general message we're getting is that there is a willingness, to some extent, to pay attention to Iranian concerns, which we did get from the previous Clinton administration," he says, "but they will remain the demands which we had under George Bush junior, and that concerns the civil nuclear program, and it also concerns links with groups perceived as being terrorists, so there will be a number of aspects of the previous agenda but with perhaps more effort to try and reach an agreement."
Ross's appointment as a special adviser dealing with Iran and the larger Middle East had been rumored since December. And it was met at the time with pessimism in Tehran. IRNA, Iran's official news agency, described Ross as "a staunch supporter of the Zionist regime," who is likely to take an anti-Iranian stance.
Hassan Fathi, a Tehran-based analyst, says that the IRNA commentary gives a taste of Iran's official reaction to the appointment. "While I think the important thing is that the [United States] wants to negotiate with Iran, someone has to be in charge of this mission, be it Ross, or someone else," Fathi says.
"But unfortunately in Iran, instead of listening to the message, they always apply a 'Zionist' label in order to boycott that person so that they don't have to enter the main process."
Iranian officials have so far sent mixed messages on whether they're ready to engage with the United States or not. And the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say, has remained silent.
Fathi believes Iranian leaders are ready to engage with Washington only on their own terms. He says Iran's hard-liners see their survival in their opposition to the United States.
Ross's appointment follows last month's appointments of former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke has said that Iran should play a vital role in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Ross, whose brief includes both countries, would presumably play an important role in coordinating such an effort.