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Veteran Mideast negotiator will be Clinton's Iran advisor

Dennis B. Ross, who was expected to be named presidential envoy, receives a less ambitious mission. The assignment suggests Obama is not convinced the time is right for direct talks.

February 25, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Veteran Mideast peace negotiator Dennis B. Ross, who was widely expected to be named special envoy to Iran, has been given a less ambitious mission as the Obama administration continues to weigh how best to deal with the Islamic Republic.

President Obama named prominent negotiators to represent the administration in the Middle East and South Asia, and Ross was expected to be given a corresponding assignment for Iran.

But instead of serving as a presidential envoy, Ross has been assigned as a special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, providing advice on the entire area between Afghanistan and Egypt, officials said.

In that post, officials say, Ross, who has been serving as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, won't be dealing directly with Iranian officials, and issues related to Iran may not even be the primary focus of his work.

The new assignment suggests that even though Obama called for diplomatic engagement with Iran while he campaigned, the administration is not convinced that the time is yet right to offer direct talks.

Robert A. Wood, the chief State Department spokesman, said Clinton decided she needed "broad strategic advice to look at a range of issues . . . and it was felt that his skills could be better used to do that type of work given the years of experience he's had dealing with the Middle East."

Wood said that there would be no diplomatic opening to the Iranians until an internal study of Iran policy now underway is finished.

The administration's decision to delay direct diplomacy is likely to cheer European diplomats who have been arguing that the United States should not take such an approach until after the Iranian presidential election in June.

To do so, they have argued, would be to enable Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners to argue that his government had forced Washington to seek a compromise with Tehran.

Ross has argued for an aggressive approach to efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear know-how, including ratcheting up economic pressure. He is co-founder of a group called United Against Nuclear Iran.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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