In an interview with George Stephanopoulos earlier today President-Elect Barack Obma reaffirmed his belief that “Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges” during his first year in office.  Obama went on to say that “engagement is the place to start” and that his policy would send “a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people”.  This new approach is music to the ears of those of us who have have found the stubborn silence of the Bush years to be dangerous and counterproductive.  However, recent moves by the President-Elect’s transition team have signaled that there may not be as much change as some have hoped.

The possible appointment of Dennis Ross as a special envoy to the Middle East and Iran has many activists and analysts worried.  Ross is a veteran ambassador who has served in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and who has also been a key negotiator in talks between Israelis and Palestinians throughout the 1990’s.

In some ways Ross would appear to be a logical candidate for a post dealing with the Middle East in the Obama administration.  He has extensive experience in the region, as noted in an article by the Middle East Times.  He has openly critiqued the tactics of the Bush administration and he shares President-Elect Obama’s views that the US will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and that the US should engage Iran diplomatically. In a recent piece in Newsweek he wrote that strengthening unilateral and multilateral sanctions will “show Iran what it stands to lose by going nuclear” while promises of economic, political, and security benefits could “show [Iran’s] leaders what they would gain by moderating their behavior”.  These views all fall in line with the President-Elect’s stated strategy of a system of sticks and carrots.

What is concerning to many, however, is the nature of the sticks that Ross has advocated using.  Ross is one of the authors of a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center entitled Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development.  This report contains some heavy-handed suggestions about the military options available for the incoming administration.  It calls for the augmentation of the US’ military presence in the region as an overt “signal to Iranians and our regional allies” and it notes that increased troop presence would make it easier to “insert Special Forces and intelligence personnel into Iran”.

These suggestions of militaristic gesturing and covert intervention are, quite frankly, a familiar tune and not one that has produced many results over the last eight years. It seems rather contradictory that Ross could advocate for “smart statecraft” in one article and a “show of force” in another. As the confirmation hearings for Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and therefore Ross’ potential boss, begin on Tuesday, I hope that members of Congress will ask for some more clarification on Ross’ exact views on the role of military might in diplomatic engagement.