Ambivalence is no way to handle Iran, Syria

November 04, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- For those who oppose any more U.S. adventures in regime change, last month presented a big challenge:

What do you do when Mideast leaders behave in ways that put them beyond the international pale?

Last week, Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." He was speaking to 4,000 students attending a conference called "The World Without Zionism."

Virulent anti-Israel sentiments are nothing new to Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But this was not a radical cleric spouting religious rhetoric for the masses. This was the president of a member state of the United Nations.

Mr. Ahmadinejad insisted before the U.N. General Assembly in September that Iran would not give up its nuclear energy program, which many experts believe is secretly trying to produce nuclear weapons. Six weeks later, he called for the annihilation of another U.N. member state.

The behavior of Syrian leaders also came under an international spotlight last month. On Oct. 19, U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis issued a report saying the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was organized by Syrian security officials. Mr. Hariri was opposed to Syrian domination of Lebanon. Mr. Mehlis named the brother and brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar Assad as key suspects in the plot.

Mr. Assad, of course, has denied responsibility, just as Syria has denied responsibility for the flow of Arab Islamists into Iraq. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa insisted that Syria had cooperated completely with the U.N. investigation. But the Mehlis report decried the lack of Syrian cooperation and accused Mr. al-Sharaa of lying to the U.N. team.

The behavior of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Syrian officials was so outrageous that much international criticism did follow. They might as well have painted a bull's-eye on their chests and asked the regime-changers to take aim.

Many world leaders - in Europe, Russia - condemned the Iranian's threats. As for Syria, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to compel Syria to stop obstructing the U.N. investigation of Mr. Hariri's death or face "further action."

But there was a distinct ambivalence about global reaction. Much of that ambivalence stems from fear that ganging up on Syria or Iran will play into possible plans by President Bush to oust those regimes.

Bush officials - chastened by Iraq chaos - claim they only want to change Syrian behavior. Few in the region or elsewhere believe them. And despite the minuscule chance that the Bush team would risk bombing Iran's nuclear energy sites, many expect such action.

So there is little willingness to go beyond words in pressing Iran or Syria. It's not clear whether the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency will vote this month to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council over doubts that its nuclear program is peaceful. Nor is it clear that Arab leaders, fearful that America seeks Syrian regime change, will squeeze Mr. Assad to deliver Mr. Hariri's killers.

There is good reason to fear efforts at further regime change in the region. In Syria, there is no serious political opposition. Regime collapse could produce chaos and bring Islamists to the fore. U.S. bombing strikes on Iran would not depose the regime or end that country's nuclear program. More likely, most of the country would rally around anti-American hard-liners.

But antipathy toward Bush policy is no reason to let Iran and Syria off the hook. Europe, Russia and China together could have an impact on Tehran. Mr. Ahmadinejad may be indifferent to U.S. criticism, but he cannot be insensitive to the opinion of the whole world. He was elected on promises of delivering the economic goods to his people, and for that he needs global technology and cooperation.

As for Mr. Assad, if world leaders don't press him to change behavior, Syria will collapse from its own mistakes - without a U.S. invasion. Mr. Assad can't reform his country unless he can clean house and deliver Mr. Hariri's killers. Perhaps he knew about the plot, perhaps he didn't, but his moment of truth is coming, and coddling his regime won't prevent it.

Countries that fear a cowboy White House must try to enforce international rules without guns. That is the only way to silence proponents of regime change.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is

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