Dennis Ross, until recently U.S. President Barack Obama's senior Middle East adviser, believes international sanctions against Iran are working.
"The fact is [Iran's] currency has devalued by half in the last six weeks," said Ross, speaking to Haaretz in his office in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to which he returned after more than two years in the State Department and the West Wing of the White House.
"I'd say sanctions are working, if that's the case... Point two, they can see Europeans are going to boycott their oil, and that's already had an effect on what the Chinese [who are not cooperating with the sanctions] are doing - they are buying from them half, and they are trying to force them to discount."
India, which is also refusing to boycott Iran, wants "to play a role internationally, but then they want to be able to play by their own rules," Ross said. "Having said that, 45 percent of the oil that they will buy, they will buy with their own currency, the rupee, which means Iran can only buy goods in India, whether they need them or not."
These sanctions, Ross said, are the crippling sanctions Israel has called for, and can affect Iran's behavior. When the Iranians feel they are under sufficient pressure, they look for a way to reduce it, Ross said, and right now they are under pressure they have not been under before. "It's not an accident that suddenly they want to meet with the P5 +1," Ross said, referring to the forum of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
Ross received an award last week from the Anti-Defamation League for his "leading role in shaping the U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process." When Haaretz asked him how he felt about the fact that some people hold him personally responsible for the stalled peace process because of his long involvement in trying to achieve a breakthrough, he shrugged.
Then he said: "Have I done everything perfectly? No. Does anyone do everything perfectly? No. Are there some things I could do differently? Sure. Do I think I am the reason there is no peace? No. I think some of the progress made was because of me. Getting criticized, it comes with the territory. It's worth trying".
Ross said he still acts as an adviser to the administration. "I get asked questions. I am asked for my views. That's not a huge shock," he said.
As for the opinion that the United States has distanced itself from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process due to election-year politics, Ross said: "Right now, high visibility from us raises expectations you cannot necessarily deliver on. Lower visibility may be able to manage the process and create some kind of foundation for progress. What the Jordanians are doing moves in that direction," referring to the Jordon-based, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Regarding the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, Ross said: "If it's real, then it's a problem, unless in fact Hamas is ready to accept the conditions of the Quartet. That's the only way such an agreement can move them in a positive direction."
The attempts this week on the lives of Israeli diplomats in New Delhi and Tbilisi did not surprise him, he said. "It's been in the public domain that Iran has been behind couple of such efforts around the world against the Israelis, and the Israelis have frustrated these attempts by Iran and its proxies," he said.
Asked about the increasingly loud debate over a military strike against Iran, Ross said: "The president has been very clear about it, saying he takes no options off the table. That's what he means. But he prefers diplomacy to work, and so does Israel. Israel's position has been that they want it to be the world against Iran, not Israel against Iran," Ross said.
As for as the widely reported gap between the United States and Israel about the point of no return for Iran's nuclear program, Ross said: "I can't fully account for why there are all these reports now. It may partly be the desire to motivate the world to pursue crippling sanctions. That's probably also partly a function of trying to create an environment if Israel exits at some point - the world will be in a condition to expect this. But I don't think it's imminent. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said couple of weeks ago, it's far off, and I think it actually reflected the way the situation is," he said.
Relating to events in Egypt, Ross said: "The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly winning elections where they are held so far, but they have a lot of built-in advantages, because they have a clear identity, they have a clear agenda, they have an authenticity because of Islam and their identity with it. They embodied social justice, because they would provide clinics and material support to distribute food, they were identified with welfare in ways that the regimes were not. They were not corrupt. And they could organize in a way secular forces could not organize."
When asked whether this meant that the Muslim Brotherhood should be given a chance, Ross answered: "It's not up to us to give them a chance or not - they are there. They got elected, and they will have to deliver."
Responding to the argument that Hamas was also elected, Ross pointed out differences between the two. "In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, they are operating exclusively in Egypt and are not trying to supplant their neighbor, which Hamas does. They are not committed to violence the way Hamas is," he said.
But Ross also said: "I have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is not going to be in a position to rule the way [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak ruled. They are going to have to govern... They are going to need help from outside, and then they are going to need to feel their international obligations, including standing by the peace treaty with Israel."
Ross counseled "careful judgment" in the face of the region's uncertainties. "What is happening in Syria now is going to change the balance of power against Iran. This will be a loss for Iran," he said.
Ross said he was certain that Syrian President Bashar Assad would be ousted because "the fact is he is using this incredible coercion and it's not working. A regime that depends on coercion, when the coercion is not working anymore, sooner or later is doomed."
Ross said that rather than arming the Syrian opposition, as some U.S. senators are advocating, more efforts must be made to convince Russia that it is not in their best interest to resist a transition in Syria away from Assad.
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