- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

The board of governors of the world’s nuclear watchdog meets next week in Vienna, Austria, to discuss Iran, but the Obama administration may not have much to say.

Focused on domestic economic issues and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration is still putting in place the personnel to draft policy on Iran.

At the center of the policy review will be Dennis Ross, a former lead negotiator on Arab-Israeli issues under the Clinton administration and adviser to candidate Barack Obama.

On Monday evening, the State Department issued a press release naming Mr. Ross special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Gulf region and southwestern Asia - a vague title that department spokesman Robert Wood later said encompasses Iran.

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Ross will be helping prepare a national security policy directive on Iran that will outline both how to approach negotiations and additional financial sanctions if necessary.

There are few indications so far of specifics in a situation complicated by Iran’s upcoming presidential elections and Israel’s apparent choice of a hawkish new administration.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama said he favored talks without preconditions but did not specify who would be talking with whom.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Mr. Ross worked before rejoining the State Department, predicted that the Obama administration will pursue talks directly with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as opposed to waiting to see whether Iranians elect a former president, Mohammad Khatami, to a new term in June.

“Khatami has a record of not being able to accomplish very much,” Mr. Clawson said. “The key decision maker is Khamenei and not the Iranian president. Therefore, U.S. policy should concentrate on how to engage with the supreme leader.”

The most pressing issue for negotiations likely will be the nuclear issue, although U.S. officials also want to talk to Iran about Afghanistan, Iraq and Tehran’s support for groups that have opposed Arab-Israeli peace.

The latest assessment from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran underestimated its production of low-enriched uranium and actually had 2,222 pounds as of the end of January.

That’s enough material, if further refined, to build a bomb, said David Albright, a former IAEA inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank.

At the same time, the latest IAEA report said Iran has not installed as many centrifuges - the spinning machines that enrich uranium - as it could and is not using all of the several thousand it possesses to enrich uranium.

Iran’s efforts to construct a nuclear warhead also are unclear.

The Obama administration has stuck by a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that says Iran halted efforts to design a nuclear warhead in 2003 and had not resumed work by mid-2007.

However, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, told Congress Feb. 12: “We assess Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons - and such a decision is inherently reversible.”

The statement reflects U.S. recognition that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to deprive Iran of the capacity to make nuclear bombs.

“There is no way you are going to prevent them from having the capability,” said Lawrence Korb, a scholar at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. “What you can do is prevent them from making nuclear weapons.”

John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, told Bill Gertz of The Washington Times in October that preventing Iran from making a nuclear weapon could only be achieved through persuasion.

“Iran’s nuclear program is something we have to make sure we get ahead of; we cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Brennan said. “But intimidation is not going to convince the Iranians to give it up. We have to outmaneuver our adversaries and outwit them.

It remains unclear who will be the lead negotiator with Iran. The low-key announcement of Mr. Ross’ appointment - without the fanfare given to special envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell - led to questions about Mr. Ross’ authority. Mr. Holbrooke is to deal with the Afghan war and may try to poach Mr. Ross’ territory, while other advisers at the White House will deal with proliferation and the Persian Gulf.

Former colleagues of Mr. Ross said, however, that he prefers a background role as Iran prepares for its presidential elections.

Some Middle East specialists have said it would be a mistake for Mr. Ross to be the lead negotiator if a U.S.-Iran dialogue begins because of his lack of direct experience with Iranians and his association with the Washington Institute, whose donors tend to be outspoken supporters of Israel.

“I know Dennis to be a capable, professional, loyal American diplomat, but from the Iranian perspective, they might wonder whether he is just an American envoy or has an agenda based upon bias toward Israel because of his background at the Washington Institute,” said David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with Iraq and Iran.

Mr. Clawson, however, said Mr. Ross would be an effective envoy.

“He will be perceived by the Iranians as somebody influential, with a track record of being charged with delicate and difficult tasks. Typically, Middle East governments are more interested in someone who will be effective than someone who will be sympathetic,” Mr. Clawson said.

Mr. Clawson added that Mr. Ross’ credibility with Israel was an asset, not a liability, because Israel regards an Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat.

The late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat “wanted the United States to lead negotiations with Israel, not because he saw the United States as a neutral arbiter but because he saw the United States as the only government that could persuade Israel to make concessions,” Mr. Clawson said.

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