Former White House Middle East adviser: Obama would ‘absolutely’ use force against Iran if diplomacy fails

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

A former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama said Thursday that he is “absolutely” convinced that the president would use military force against Iran to forestall its nuclear program if diplomacy failed.

“The president thought about it very carefully, the debate was between prevention and containment, he made a very conscious decision for prevention,” Dennis Ross said in response to a question asked by The Daily Caller at a post-election foreign policy forum hosted at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“And I think once he made that decision, he also understood that has implications. If diplomacy fails, it leads you down the path towards the use of force. Do I think he would act on it? I think that absolutely he would act on it.”

A longtime Middle East foreign policy hand for both Democratic and Republican administrations, Ross began in the Obama administration as a special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with a focus on Iran.

In 2009, he moved to the White House, advising President Obama on the Middle East as a special assistant to the president and as the National Security Council’s senior adviser to the Central Region until the end of 2011.

Though Ross, who now holds the title of counselor at the Washington Institute, says he is confident Obama would use force to set back Iran’s nuclear program, he emphasized that the president would obviously prefer to solve the problem through diplomacy.

“But I think, like anyone, he would like to achieve this through diplomatic means,” Ross said.

“Ultimately, I think our best bet to achieving it through diplomatic means is continuing to have the pressure felt, which is being felt, making it clear that when it comes to diplomacy we want it to succeed, but the Iranians have much more to lose from its failure than anyone else.”

During his presentation at the forum, Ross said that he believes that 2013 will be the “decisive” year for dealing with Iran and its nuclear program.

“What I’m suggesting to you is that the combination of the pressure on the one hand, the pace of their program on the other and the likelihood that they will at least be given a way out means we will see this come to a head,” he said. “Either we’ll find a diplomatic way out during the course of this year or the prospect of the use of force goes up dramatically. “

Ross said he believes that the Iranian regime is beginning to feel the pain of international sanctions spearheaded by the Obama administration.

“I think actually the impact of sanctions is profound,” he said.

“For the first time it is truly profound in the case of Iran. We had the Supreme Leader two weeks ago referring to the sanctions as being brutal. His word, the sanctions are ‘brutal.’ Now this is someone who has said on an on-going basis ‘look, we’ve lived with sanctions since the beginning of the Islamic Republic. The sanctions make us stronger, the sanctions make us self-sufficient.’ He has a long litany of describing how the sanctions are something that ultimately Iran will turn to its benefit. Now he’s saying that the sanctions are brutal and the truth is, they are brutal.”

After noting how the sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, Ross said there are signs that the Iranian regime might be finally open to coming to a deal with the West over its nuclear program.

“If the focus on their economic problems has become more acute, and in a sense what that suggests to me is, again, they may be well increasing their interest in looking for a way out,” he said.

“You look at some of their commentary today that’s emerging, you know, when you have Ministry of Intelligence’s website offering a kind of analysis where it even suggests that diplomacy could make sense, and is obviously better than seeing the use of force — these are not the kind of commentaries you necessarily see in the past.”

“It doesn’t mean that diplomacy is necessarily guaranteed to produce an outcome that we want, but it means in my mind that the chances for diplomacy working and producing something may be greater now than before,” he added.

But, at the same time, Ross said the regime is rapidly moving forward with its nuclear program, which he said is perhaps the most important reason 2013 will be decisive for U.S. policy towards Iran.

“Even though they’re under great economic strain and penalty, their nuclear program continues,” he said.

“And the problem from our standpoint is that the president has made very clear our objective is prevention, not containment — preventing them from having a nuclear weapon, not living with it after the fact. Now the problem is by the end of 2013 if the pace of the current development of the nuclear program continues, we may no longer be in a position to know that we could prevent them from presenting the world with a fait accompli.”

Such a predicament increases “the sense of urgency about getting something done,” he argued.

“The combination of what the impact of sanctions have been, the reality that prevention, if it’s going to have meaning, we may have to act on it before the end of 2013, leads me to conclude that we will see some kind of significant diplomatic initiative by the president, by the Obama administration, on the nuclear issue with the Iranians because no president is going to end up using force without having demonstrated unmistakably to the world and to the American public that we exhausted every possibility before we ended up resorting to the use of force,” he added.

Earlier this week, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett was secretly communicating with the Iranian regime for the Obama administration. Though born in Iran, Jarrett has no expertise in foreign policy generally and the Middle East particularly. Asked if he knew whether the report was accurate, Ross said he had no idea but would be surprised if she had taken the lead on dealing with Iran.

“I have no idea whether that’s true,” he said. “I would be very surprised were it to be the case. The administration has plenty of highly skilled people who know the issue and are immersed in it so if there is going to be a negotiation at some point I am quite confident it will include those people.”

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