Ex-Mideast Envoy: Diplomatic Solution with Iran is Still Viable

Article Summary
Joyce Karam interviews Dennis Ross, fromer envoy to the Middle East and Iran, regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian Crisis. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran have been positive, he says, but they must evolve into regular meetings.

Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former adviser and special envoy to the Middle East and Iran, declared during an interview with Al-Hayat that a diplomatic solution is still viable with Tehran because of “economic pressures” and “the changes in the regional balance of power.”

On the other hand, he acknowledged that the new Israeli government is “capable of making important decisions that can impact either national security or the peace process.”

As for Syria, he believes that the potential “collapse of central authority” and the pillars of the state poses the greatest danger. According to Ross, communicating with the Alawites and reassuring them is currently a priority.

Al-Hayat met Ross in his office at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What would constitute a success for the Baghdad summit between the Group of 5+1 and Iran?

I do not see this meeting as a crucial turning point for success or failure. These meetings should eventually turn into regular, organized ones. Meeting only once a month gives a very small chance to produce any tangible results or to study a potential solution. Meetings between Tehran and the P5+1 should be more frequent and intensive. They should also lead both parties to schedule an agenda and follow-up meetings. Outstanding issues should be dealt with, and measures should be imposed to stimulate confidence and transparency. The two sides need to discuss a mutual definition of the judicial protocol and how to implement it

Are some worried that Iran might use the negotiations to buy time [for their nuclear program]? How can this be avoided?

If  we are able to hold meetings more regularly, we would have a better idea what Tehran’s intentions are. In the past, when proposals were made to the Iranians it usually took them months to respond. Without regular meetings, there is a growing fear that the negotiations will drag on while Iran completes its uranium enrichment.

Do you think that sanctions should continue in the light of the negotiations?

Yes, as long as Iran continues with its enrichment, it should not assume that the sanctions will expire.

Do you think that the diplomatic solution with Iran on the nuclear issue is possible?

I think that Iran is open to a solution because the regime is under pressures that it wants to reduce. This has become a known pattern with Iran. There is a possibility to reach a solution because the framework to do so has been developed: Iran is isolated internationally, the balance of power in the region is turning against it and the economic sanctions are having tragic effects for them.

What would be the characteristics of such a diplomatic solution? Would it be sufficient to avoid a regional arms race?

It would allow Iran to possess only civilian nuclear power, which means that their nuclear technology cannot be used to create a nuclear weapon. There are two ways to reach this solution: either they do not enrich the uranium on their land and bring the power from an international tank, or have only limited enrichment capabilities. The first solution is the best in terms of fighting nuclear proliferation; if they do not enrich the uranium themselves they cannot not re-enrich it later. This would prevent other states from using their current program as a model. But if they are to have a limited capacity to enrich uranium, it must be very low.

How low?

A 3.5 percent enrichment rate. I am not advocating for this solution, but it is an option to prevent Iran from developing weapons-grade nuclear capabilities.

Do you think that such a solution would be acceptable to Israel and other countries in the region?

If we impose real limits and procedures for transparency, the credibility of such a solution will increase. There is no doubt that the preference is to stop enrichment altogether.

What if the diplomatic solution fails? You have worked on the Iranian issue in the White House, is Barack Obama's administration serious about preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities or can the United States live with Iran as a nuclear state?

President Obama was very clear when he said that the goal was to prevent Iran from acquiring these capabilities, not contain it once it has done so. This was an issue that has been studied, and the President has made ​​his decision.

Do you think that Obama will resort to a military option if all means of diplomacy fail?

When Obama said that he does not bluff, the message was addressed to the Iranians; they should not misread it. Obama means what he says; he prefers a diplomatic solution and such a compromise is in Iran's interest. If the Iranians want civilian nuclear power, they are allowed to possess it. What they cannot possess is the breakthrough ability to convert that civilian nuclear power into a weapon.

What is your assessment of the Israeli position, and do you fear a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran?

I think that the Israelis are serious about their readiness to use force if diplomacy fails. But I also think that the United States is ready for this as well.

Do Israel and the United States share the same opinion on this issue?

The truth is that the Israelis do not have the same time that the we have for testing diplomacy. They believe that the Iranians are continuing the enrichment process and that’s why sanctions should remain. They are worried about losing the effectiveness of their military option at some point. When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to Israel he declared that their military move against Iran is not measured by days or weeks, but also not by years. There is some time between weeks and years for Israel’s window of opportunity for a military strike, but that window is closing.

The Peace Process

The new Israeli government includes three former Chiefs of Staff, is this a war government?

It is undoubtedly a government that is capable of making big decisions, either on the national security level or in peace-making.

Is there any chance for peace [with the Palestinians]?

We need both parties [the Palestinian and the Israelis] to move forward. There is no doubt that the current Israeli government is able to make progress in areas that the previous government found more difficult due to political reasons.

Since the first day of the Obama administration, it has tried to revive the peace process. When you look at the past four years, what are, in your opinion, the reasons for failure?

Everyone wants to look at the United States and what it can achieve. The US alone cannot make peace; it is up to both parties. The U.S. administration can help, but only those two sides can play the role that they are supposed to play.

In my opinion, we reached a situation where Abu Mazen [ Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas] decided that the Israeli government will not make peace, and saw a high price for, according to him, useless negotiations. Thus, he set conditions on the Israeli government that no one had previously placed on them. This caused Netanyahu to wonder why he should pay a price that none of his predecessors has paid before.

There is now a possibility for change because the majority of the current Israeli government is more center-right than right-center; this will perhaps push Abu Mazen to change his thinking as well. The exchange of messages between the two parties was positive and more importantly, it created a means of communication between them.

The people factor makes things hard for the two leaderships. Israelis and Palestinians alike have reached a point where they believe that the other party is not serious about the two-state solution. It would be beneficial for the two parties to study the steps that they can take to demonstrate a commitment for the two-state solution.

How does the Arab spring affect the peace efforts?

We have a contradictory phenomenon here. On one hand there is a severe impact on Israeli and Palestinian leadership due to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Abu Mazen, this fact puts him in the most difficult situation if he makes ​​concessions for the peace process, this will generate a negative reaction. For Netanyahu, he looks at the vagueness around him and asks himself: “If I take any steps, will this expose Israel to a greater risk? What will be the implications?”

The contradiction lies in the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Arab countries are currently occupied with internal matters, giving Abu Mazen and Netanyahu greater freedom to maneuver.

Many believe that Netanyahu comes from an ideological background that is not serious about peace. What is your response to this?

Each party is trying to make assumptions about the other party and what it will or will not do. Let’s test this. Netanyahu says he wants peace; it would be intelligent to test this.


Are we facing a long conflict in Syria?

I hope not, but [Syrian president Bashar] al-Assad has proved to be a purely sectarian leader, and not a national leader. He witnessed peaceful protest movements because he was a sectarian leader. He is trying to convince the Alawites that their fates are intertwined, when in fact he is the one who is endangering them. He is the guarantor for a long civil war and more deep and painful sectarian divisions.

It is important that the Syrian Opposition, in addition to Saudi Arabia and others, communicates with the Alawites, and gives them assurances against reprisals and against a purely sectarian future. They want a stable Syria, not a torn one. It would greatly help if they deliver a letter assurances directly to the Alawites, not just publicly but through all of their many channels.

What will be the turning point in Syria?

The economic situation is very bad, and their reserves are very low. The sanctions will only increase. The Iranians have their own economic troubles. The turning point will come when Assad threats to Syria become more pronounced. He is currently using the same military forces, alternating them from one place to another. He has imprisoned many and killed many, but the Opposition has not faded. The turning point will then be when those who are presently neutral become against him.

You have studied Russian politics. How do you explain the current Russian position on Syria?

I think that the Russians, up to this point, continue to believe that Assad can overcome the crisis. The turning point will affect them as well. It is also important for Russia to see a more consistent opposition and evidence of Assad’s weakening popularity. Therefore it is important to communicate with the Alawites.

The Arab states should also be very clear with Russia, and present Moscow with two choices: to maintain the relationship with Assad, or the relationship with them. If Russia wanted to draw a way out for Assad similar to the Yemeni model, then we have no objections.

Will Assad be able to overcome the crisis?

No. His regime relies upon power and oppression, and uses them without limits. Eventually, the level of anger rises beyond the fear caused by his regime. He has killed a lot of people and there is no way for reconciliation with him. The money will run out and the situation is not susceptible to remain perpetually. It is very important to accelerate the process, for the sake of Syria and its future. The longer the crisis lasts, the higher the risks will be. A civil war has actually started already, but the biggest dangers lie upon possibility of the central authority’s dissociation, the collapse of state institutions and the worsening sectarian divide reaching an irreparable point. No one wants Syria to be a failing state.

Does this pose a military option to avoid the collapse of the Syrian state?

The military option does not give any guarantees, and it must be studied. A part of the turning point is to say to the Assad supporters that he does not have an insurance policy against military intervention.

Is the door still open if Assad decides to leave?

It would be intelligent on his part to leave as long as he still has an opportunity to do so. However, the time factor is not in his favor.


Found in: syrian crisis, syrian, regional politics, p5+1, netanyahu, mahmoud abbas, iranian nuclear program, dennis ross, benjamin netanyahu, arab-israeli conflict

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