The Cable

Ross “hard at work” (UPDATED)

Reacting to a report in Israeli daily Haaretz that said State Department Iran policy architect Dennis Ross might be being "ousted" and sent to work at the White House, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told The Cable Monday that Ross "is hard at work here at State." He did not respond to a further query of ...

Reacting to a report in Israeli daily Haaretz that said State Department Iran policy architect Dennis Ross might be being "ousted" and sent to work at the White House, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told The Cable Monday that Ross "is hard at work here at State." He did not respond to a further query of whether Ross would be moving to the NSC in the near-future.

Officials speaking on condition of anonymity seemed to leave room for the possibility of a future personnel announcement concerning Ross — conceivably a move to the NSC. But they knocked down any hint that such a move indicated any White House or administration displeasure with Ross or his policy ideas.

[UPDATE: Time magazine reports that Ross will be promoted to a senior advisor position at the NSC with an expanded portfolio. "The new White House position puts him closer to the center of foreign policy power, placing him in the top ranks of Obama’s in-house aides," the magazine reports.]

Another official said he’d had an email from Ross just last night, which would seem to indicate that Ross’s work helping craft U.S. government Iran policy continues apace. "I think he’s going to stay right where he is and with the same responsibilities."

A couple U.S. officials who said they had no specific knowledge of the matter said they wondered if there might be something to the report.

But there were no signs Ross was being taken off the Iran portfolio; on the contrary, Ross would seem to have been strengthened inside the interagency process by the recent tumult in Iran, which some veteran Iran analysts describe as an attempted coup by hard-liners to preemptively declare incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of Friday’s contested presidential elections.

Any move from the State Department to the White House would likely be a promotion, not a demotion.

Ross, along with the NSC senior director for Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, is a chief architect coordinating the crafting of U.S. Iran policy within the interagency process.

As with the other envoys, Ross’s team at State operates with a good deal of independence from the rest of the State Department bureaucracy, and much of his work is coordinated closely through the White House inter-agency process.

What might be plausible is if Ross is getting his title and chain of command shifted so that he is officially reporting not just to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but to the president as well, as two other special envoys, George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, do.

Ross is also said to be close with Clinton, and frequently is seen consulting with her, and she is said to trust him on many matters. He is also said to be on good terms with people at the NSC and White House, including deputy national security advisor Thomas Donilon.

UPDATE: From State/Ian Kelly press briefing Monday, a hint of equivocation:

QUESTION: Tangential to this, what — there seem to be — well, there not seem to be, there are a lot of reports about Dennis Ross, based on one specific report in an Israeli newspaper. What’s his status? Has he been fired?

KELLY: He has not been fired.

QUESTION: Is he being ousted?

KELLY: He is not being ousted?

QUESTION: Is there an abrupt change to responsibilities?

KELLY: I — there is — there is — look, he is in — he is in the building today. I was in his office today. He’s working very hard on the same issues that we’ve been discussing the last, whatever it is, 15 minutes. And you know, if and when there is some kind of personnel announcement, I’d be happy to let you know. […]

QUESTION: … assigned to another position at the White House?

KELLY: Anything’s possible. I could be fired today, too. I mean…

… if you guys keep probing me on this.

QUESTION: Isn’t it true that he’s been reassigned to another position at the White House?

KELLY: Like I said, I have — there — I have no personnel announcements.

QUESTION: So the secretary has full confidence in Dennis Ross to continue in his present role?

KELLY: Absolutely.

QUESTION: So Dennis Ross — Dennis Ross is going to continue in his role as adviser to the secretary on — what was it? –….Southwest Gulf affairs?

KELLY: He is — as I say — he is working very hard. He worked hard throughout the weekend and he’s continuing to do his job today.

QUESTION: Has the book that he and David Makovsky have published recently caused any problems for him internally in this administration?

KELLY: No. No. It’s a very good book, by the way. I started reading it over the weekend. …

QUESTION: Oh, so you’re doing reviews from the podium (inaudible). […]

QUESTION: Was there any concern about this authorship of this book, of some of the opinions that he and his co-author expressed in the book…

KELLY: No.

QUESTION: … during the time leading up to his appointment?

KELLY: No, not at all.

QUESTION: Why not?

KELLY: Well, I mean — Mr. Ross is — he is in the administration now. He is a very close adviser of the secretary on a number of issues related to Iran and the region. But he also came out of — came out of the academic community and he — he’s entitled to — he was entitled to his opinion.

KELLY: He wrote the book before he came on board here.

QUESTION: But, I mean, his opinion and his book and everything notwithstanding, are you saying that Dennis Ross is not being reassigned to another position at the White House?

KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: But you’re not saying no?

KELLY: I’m saying he’s working very hard here at the State Department.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not saying he’s…

KELLY: I’m not going to predict the future.

A State Department official contacted Monday night said he didn’t yet know if Ross’s team would go with him to the NSC. "We’re still trying to get the whole story."

 

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