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International Affairs


Remarks by Dennis Ross to the ADL National Leadership Conference

Posted: May 5, 2010

Remarks by Ambassador Dennis Ross (as prepared)
to the Anti-Defamation League
National Leadership Conference
Washington, DC, May 3, 2010

Thank you for welcoming me here tonight to your annual conference in Washington.  The ADL is a historic organization that has been championing the rights of all Americans and people everywhere for nearly 100 years – it represents the values that define what is special about the United States.  As you all know, your remarkable leader Abe Foxman has never met an issue of injustice he has not taken on with his unmatched energy.  And he has been so effective because of the megaphone provided by your civic activism.

I know you have had a full day of discussions on many of the issues that I care deeply about.  You should thank Jess Hordes, a quiet but ever-present Washington insider, for putting together some of the best minds in this town to analyze and debate many of the key foreign policy challenges we face today in the Middle East and beyond.

You heard from my colleague on the National Security Council staff Dan Shapiro who works tirelessly to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, Ambassador Dan Benjamin, our expert coordinator for counterterrorism policy, and Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal, who takes on anti-Semitism internationally.  They represent the commitment and dedication of the men and women who lead this administration's efforts to make the United States more secure and to produce a more peaceful world.

That commitment starts with President Obama.  The President is focused on solving international challenges even while tackling great domestic concerns.  He is determined to keep America safe and to use American leadership to advance a more peaceful and just global order.  And he is unwavering in his pursuit of policies that are right and effective regardless of the political cost.

As special assistant to the President and senior director for the Central Region, I see a region in which we have over 175,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are fighting al Qaeda and its terrorist off-shoots from South Asia to North Africa. We are mobilizing the world against Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. We are bolstering those who are threatened by Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas. And we are trying to resolve historic conflicts that provide breeding grounds for extremists and are exploited by those who reject peace, threaten the safety and security of our friends and allies, and are hostile to the United States of America.

The President does not shy away from assuming our responsibilities to lead in all these areas or from making the tough decisions that are required for us to do so.  He understands the stakes but also understands that to counter terror and extremists, we must employ all the tools of statecraft: military, economic and developmental, diplomatic, technological, organizational, and our public messaging —or what I call the framing of our aims and the threats we are confronting.  The same mix of tools must be employed in preventing proliferation and denying those who threaten our interests the ability to build their leverage.  We must be able to isolate those who are threatening our interests, even while we offer them the opportunity to change their behavior.  They must see what they have to gain in taking a new path and what they stand to lose if they do not.

Making their bad behavior the issue —not our unwillingness to engage—as it relates to state-actors like Iran can affect their calculus, particularly as it builds more international support for our position.  And, pursuing peace is instrumental to shaping a new regional context.  It is neither a substitute for dealing with the other challenges in the region nor is it a panacea.  But, especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, it would deny extremists—whether state or non-state actors—a tool they use to exploit grievance and anger.

Having set out this framework, let me talk a little about how President Obama has directed us to apply it in practice.

In Afghanistan, the President has significantly increased our forces while also greatly enhancing our efforts to promote good governance, combat corruption, and foster development.  He used our readiness to do more to mobilize more forces—combat and trainers—from our allies.   By securing and improving the daily lives of ordinary people, we are undermining the forces that fuel violent extremism.

This strategy that our military, diplomats, and assistance providers are implementing on the ground—in coordination with our NATO and other international partners—grew out of a systematic and serious review of our policies led by the President himself.   t involves an enormous commitment of our servicemen and women as well as a significant financial cost, but the President has made clear that no price is too high when it comes to protecting American security.  That is why the entire national security team is continually focused on ensuring that our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is working and doing whatever necessary to make it succeed.

In Iraq, we are moving forward with responsibly ending the war.  In recent weeks, we have seen Iraqi security forces leading successful military operations against al-Qaeda.  The United States will end our combat mission in Iraq by the end of August, and in accordance with the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement, all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of next year.  And we continue to encourage Iraqi political leaders to act with transparency and to form an inclusive and representative government.

We are also actively encouraging our partners in the region to reintegrate Iraq into the Middle East.  The Iraqi people will continue to have a partner in the United States as they face their longer-term challenges of building a stable, secure and prosperous future.

Our commitment to security and countering those who threaten our friends is also reflected in our approach throughout the Middle East.  In the Gulf, we are upgrading our defense relationships with our partners by improving their defensive capabilities, and ensuring greater interoperability with our own forces to solidify our security partnerships for the long-term.

We are working with our partners in Yemen to aggressively combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula whose own dangerous capabilities and intentions were revealed in the attempted Christmas Day attack.

In Lebanon, we seek to strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state, including the Lebanese Armed Forces, to limit the influence of Hizballah.  Hizballah must not be allowed to continually strengthen its arsenal, and those who supply it with increasingly dangerous and sophisticated arms are playing a dangerous game.

By transferring weapons, including long-range missiles to Hizballah, Syria is undertaking provocative and destabilizing behavior.  As Secretary Clinton said the other night, "President Assad is making decisions that could mean war or peace for the region."  Having spent countless hours working with his father, President Hafez al-Assad, who often said that he had taken the strategic option for peace, I know what Syria stands to gain if it takes the path of peace – prosperity and economic modernization, long-term stability, and a renewed relationship with the United States.  But Syria must understand that continuing to arm Hizballah will yield none of this.  It will only produce further instability and heighten the prospect of war—and that is not a path that will serve Syria's interests.

But the greatest challenge to peace and security in the Middle East lies with Iran—and I want to address it in a little more detail.

When President Obama took office, Iran had already assembled thousands of centrifuges and accumulated nearly a bomb's worth of low enriched uranium. 

Iran was in active violation of five UN Security Council Resolutions, and its sponsorship of terrorism throughout the region – in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza – was imposing violence and coercion across the Middle East.  Iran was deliberately undermining our efforts to bring stability to Lebanon, peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and security and sovereignty to Iraq.  The situation was unsustainable and stood to grow far worse should Iran succeed with its nuclear ambitions.

A nuclear-armed Iran would almost certainly precipitate a dangerous arms race in the Middle East, where states are already hyper-sensitive in their competition for regional influence and security. 

The Middle East is a dangerous and challenging enough place today; the dangers of a nuclear Middle East where there are multiple triggers for conflict are not hard to imagine.

A nuclear-armed Iran would deal a devastating blow to the non-proliferation regime, something the President is determined to strengthen.  Last month, the President brought together 46 nations in the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit to work collectively to secure vulnerable nuclear material.  He signed the New Start Treaty with Russia to reduce our nuclear arsenals as a step on the way toward the President's goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.  And we are actively engaged in the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference this month in New York where we seek to promote compliance and make it harder for non-nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapons.  Iran's ongoing nuclear program undermines this entire nuclear security agenda.

And finally, a nuclear-armed Iran would send the unacceptable message that defiance pays – that there is no price for ignoring international obligations and openly defying UN Security Council Resolutions.

For all these reasons, this administration sought a new approach to Iran – an approach that offered the best chance at changing Iran's dangerous behaviors.   President Obama made clear to the leaders and people of Iran that he sought a new relationship between our countries, one based on mutual respect.

And we sought to engage Iran on the full range of issues that have divided our countries for 30 years.  Not engaging Iran failed to change Iran's behavior, so we offered engagement without any illusions, understanding that Iran must be faced with a choice:  to live up to its international obligations and reap the benefits of normal relations with the United States and the world – or to continue its defiance and face increased isolation and painful consequences.

So far, Iran's answer to us and our international partners in the P5+1 has been, "No – not interested."  Iran has turned down a creative offer from the IAEA supported by Russia, France, and the United States, to produce nuclear fuel using Iran's own low enriched uranium.

It was an offer with humanitarian benefits, ensuring that Iran would meet its need for medical isotopes.  And it was an offer that gave Iran the opportunity to demonstrate clearly that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes.  It would have built the confidence of both sides that further agreements could be possible.  We went to great lengths to demonstrate our commitment to this proposal and to offer assurances about the delivery of the fuel assemblies.  Unfortunately, the Iranians have rejected the proposal at every turn and sought to redefine its terms in way that reinforces suspicion rather than builds confidence.

Just as they rejected the Tehran Research Reactor proposal, Iran has refused to discuss its nuclear program with the P5+1, a commitment it made in October.  Iran recently began to enrich a portion of its uranium to 20 percent, and is still not providing the IAEA with complete information about its previously covert enrichment site whose construction further violated Iran's NPT obligations.  At the same time, Iran continues the brutal repression of its own citizens and prohibits their universal right to express themselves freely and choose their own future.

President Obama has stated that our offer of engagement with Iran still stands and we remain prepared to pursue a better, more peaceful future.  Iran does have rights, but those rights also require living up to responsibilities that Iran has a track-record of ignoring.  Iran seeks rights without responsibility.  We are not singling Iran out; it is choosing to single itself out.  We are actively working with our international partners to clarify the choice Iran faces and to impose a real cost to Iran for its continuing failures to live up to its obligations.  That includes adopting a meaningful UN Security Council resolution in the coming weeks.

For the sake of regional security and for the preservation of international order, Iran must face real consequences for its continued defiance of the international community.  If Iran makes the right choice and acts to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program, it stands to gain much.  But that is an Iranian choice.  For if it continues on its path of defiance, Iran has much to lose.

The President has been very clear about the meaning and danger of Iran's pursuit of nuclear arms.  And no one should doubt President Obama's seriousness when he says that the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Countering Iran's efforts to build its leverage and coercive capabilities in the region is necessary if we are to see a more stable and secure Middle East.   Clearly, one way that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  The continuation of the conflict strengthens Iran's rejectionist partners, Hamas and Hizballah.

And Iran deliberately uses the conflict to expose even the moderate leaders in the region by stoking the fears of their populations and playing to the worst anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist prejudices.

I won't repeat for you tonight what we are doing to try to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East since you heard earlier from Dan Shapiro who will travel later this week with Senator Mitchell in our ongoing efforts to revive Isreali-Palestinian negotiations.   But I will say that our efforts to advance the cause of peace – something I have dedicated much of my own life to – are in our interests, and the interests of the Israelis and Palestinians.  That is a reality that has been recognized by every administration I have worked in and an objective that we seek today with even greater urgency because the status quo is not sustainable.

The status quo is not sustainable because demographic realities mean that Israel cannot be a secure, Jewish, democratic state without a resolution to the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The status quo is not sustainable because it only strengthens and emboldens the rejectionists who want to see Israel disappear at the expense of those in the region prepared to live in peace.  And the status quo is not sustainable, because the longer it persists, there will be a diminishing constituency on both sides who support the two-state solution.

Our push for peace is rooted in the principle that Israel must be secure, and our security cooperation with Israel is a core pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  As Secretary Gates said last week, "our defense relationship is stronger than ever, to the mutual benefit of both nations.  The United States and our ally Israel share many of the same security challenges, from combating terrorism to confronting the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons."

This commitment to Israel's security is real.  It is reflected in the billions of dollars we provide annually in security assistance to Israel; in the reinvigorated consultations we have undertaken to preserve Israel's qualitative military edge in the region; in the joint training exercises we pursue; in technological cooperation as we work to develop innovations in missile defense, air defense, and short-range rocket defense; and in regular defense and security exchanges where we benefit from lessons learned in Israel's own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.

A strong and secure Israel is in the interests of the Untied States of America.  For President Obama, our commitment to Israel's security is not an empty slogan.  It is real, it serves the cause of peace and stability in the region, and it is something that is unshakable.  Like with all allies, we may have differences, but as the President recently wrote, "No wedge will be driven between us.  We will have our differences, but when we do, we will work to resolve them as close allies."

The challenges of the Central Region are many, complicated, and daunting.  But President Obama has shaped a framework for dealing with them and has demonstrated the determination to do what is necessary to secure our interests.  Thank you very much.

 

 

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