Ross addresses Iran, Egypt in talk in S.F.

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Ambassador Dennis Ross wants to drop a term in the popular lexicon. Henceforth, the “Arab Spring” shall be called the “Arab Awakening.”

Speaking to a packed house Nov. 7 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, Ross delivered the keynote address at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s annual Day of Philanthropy. The event brought together donors, lay leaders, and professionals.

There was “no flowering, no glowing democracy,” Ross said of the decidedly unspringlike revolutions in Arab countries formerly governed by dictators. “The change was never going to be fast, linear or produce the kind of change we wanted to see,” he said.

Dennis Ross speaks at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco on Nov. 7. photo/courtesy of jcf

Ross, who has served five U.S. presidents as a Middle East envoy or adviser, said the choices facing newly re-elected President Barack Obama are “fairly limited” when it comes to key geopolitical issues.

Addressing the effort to prevent the Iran regime from obtaining nuclear weapons, Ross stated that 2013 would be the “decisive year,” thanks in large part to international sanctions, which he believes are working.

“[Iranian Supreme Leader Khameni] said the sanctions are brutal,” Ross said. “The currency has been devalued by half. Oil production is down by half. They have lost the ability to gain technology and capital for their dilapidated oil infrastructure.”

Despite this, Ross added, Iran’s nuclear program is nevertheless proceeding.

“They will look for a diplomatic way out,” he said. “If there is no decision to stop the program, we will no longer be in a position to know what their capability is.”

That’s because Iran’s nuclear facilities are being built underground, impervious to air strikes, he said. Ross thinks the Obama administration will proffer one more diplomatic initiative to resolve the problem, allowing Iran some civil uses of nuclear power, with an aggressive inspection regimen, attached.

As for Israel’s next-door neighbor, Egypt, Ross expressed concern that the Muslim Brotherhood has consolidated its power there, starting with the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. But he also said that the Egyptian people finally have a voice.

“People see themselves for the first time as citizens,” Ross noted. “They have expectations. We’re seeing an increasing manifestation that Morsi has to deliver.”

Regarding U.S. support of the new Egyptian regime, which leans Islamist, Ross understood why Israel and supporters of Israel would worry. But, he added, “We do not have an interest in Egypt being a failed state. That would be a profound threat to Israel.”

He was wary of supporting Morsi, but felt the United States should press the regime to live up to certain principles: respect for the rights of minorities and women, preserving political pluralism, and respect for Egypt’s international obligations, including its decades-old peace treaty with Israel.

Can the United States have leverage and influence over the Morsi regime?

“[The regime] would say no,” Ross said, “but we should be prepared to help.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.