Pressure the rogues

Why would Iran's mullahs capitulate after the West has failed to put serious pressure on them?

assad cool 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad cool 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
On Wednesday, Iraq closed its borders with Syria and Iran. US forces are busy arresting Iranian agents in Iraq, and the White House is stepping up its charges against official Iranian support for terrorism in Iraq. Belatedly, the connection is being made that the "civil war" in Iraq is being actively fueled from outside, and that it is impossible to secure Iraq while allowing Iran and Syria to meddle with impunity. Meanwhile, though Syria has not made any noises lately about wanting to talk to Israel, the supposed Syrian offer of peace with Israel remains in the background, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is widely regarded as having blocked the idea of opening a Syrian diplomatic track. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that Israel is refusing to engage Syria at the request of the US, and therefore, Israel might be paying a price for being a good soldier rather than undermine US attempts to isolate Syria. This conventional wisdom, however, is misguided. The leader who is holding Olmert back is not really Bush, but Bashar Assad. This is true because, while Bush may have asked Olmert not to engage with Assad, Assad can effectively override Bush's request any time he wants to. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if Assad were to expel Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal from Damascus, stop smuggling weapons to Hizbullah, return the remains of executed Israeli spy Eli Cohen, or, most dramatically, offer to talk to Olmert in Jerusalem. It is obvious that, under such circumstances, Olmert would not refuse, nor would Bush ask him to. Instead, what Assad is trying to do is a version of the old Palestinian tactic of proposing negotiations under fire. He is saying, "you talk to me while I keep shooting at you." This time, however, it is not just Israelis and Palestinians in the mix, but in addition, Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. So Syria's proposal to Israel, if there is one, is "you talk to me while I shoot at you and your American allies." There is nothing particularly tempting about such an offer, even aside from the question of whether any conceivable deal with Syria could be worthwhile. Assad is essentially offering to remove the pressure on himself, in the form of the UN investigation into the assassinations of Rafik Hariri and Pierre Gemayel, without ending his proxy warfare against Israel and the US. Rather than accepting Assad's "offer," the alternative is for the West to see Syria and Iran in the context of what has happened with Libya and North Korea. The Iranian regime is not the same category as the other three, in the sense that it has regional and global ambitions, and is not just trying to perpetuate its own brutal dictatorship. But the two cases in which deals, however faulty, have been made - Libya and North Korea - demonstrate that sanctions can effectively pressure rogue regimes. A recent official European Union report explicitly, and the Baker-Hamilton report implicitly, argued that sanctions are doomed to failure against Iran. But these same pessimists often pretend that negotiating without first imposing serious sanctions will yield concessions. This makes no sense. Why would Iran's mullahs, or any other rogue regime, capitulate after the West has demonstrably failed to put serious pressure on them? The clear conclusion should be that if we want to see real, meaningful concessions from Syria or Iran, then the West has to show it can turn up the diplomatic and economic heat, and can keep turning it up if they choose to "retaliate." The US and Israel, then, are not in conflict with respect to Syria, but in the same boat. Prematurely relieving pressure will reduce the prospects for the real change in Syrian behavior that would be the objective of any peace process. By the same token, continuing to turn up the pressure on Damascus will not squander opportunities but create them.