Holding back on Syria just helps Iran close in on nukes

For more than a year, the international community has dithered and delayed action to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and there is no end in sight. UN-envoy Kofi Annan just announced plans to hold talks with Iran, which has been one of Assad’s most ardent supporters and arms suppliers.

Annan’s trip is a fool’s errand because Iran has no interest in seeing the international community take action against Assad. In fact, Iran has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the world’s inaction in Syria.

The Iranian regime has seen a world community unwilling and unable to stop a ruthless dictator from killing his own people. And Iran’s leaders have likely concluded that the international community will never take meaningful action to stop its nuclear weapons program.

The reasons for the world’s inaction in Syria are myriad.

Major powers such as Russia and China would apparently rather see Assad murder his own people than see Syria become a precedent for possible action against their autocratic regimes. The Arab League is divided among sectarian blocs and seems weary of Western military intervention after Libya.

Syria is a major player in the region, and there is fear of who (or what) would fill the void left by Assad. The West is also concerned about arming and aiding Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Syria. Finally, the thought of Assad using chemical weapons (or those weapons falling into the wrong hands) has also delayed action.

But there are equally strong arguments for taking bolder action in Syria. Among them, the need to protect the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom and democracy. The fact that our past tolerance for Middle Eastern autocrats created resentment that fueled the rise of anti-Western terrorism and extremism in the region. And concern that if Assad falls without our help, we may not have influence with the new Syrian government as it democratizes.

The situation in Syria is complex. But it should be easy for the world community to take decisive action to stop a despot from killing his own people. It has not been. The Annan peace plan is going nowhere, and its best-case scenario is probably one where Assad remains in power. Russia and China continue to block any meaningful action at the UN. And the Arab League has been unable to find consensus on how to stop the slaughter.

This inaction is disastrous for the people of Syria. But it’s also disastrous for the world, because it will embolden Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

The inaction in Syria demonstrates how difficult it is to find consensus on dealing with autocratic regimes in the Middle East– and it will be even harder to find consensus on Iran.

If the U.S. can’t get international support to stop the bloodshed in Syria, it’s almost a guarantee we won’t be able to get international support for meaningful sanctions on Iran.

Russia and China have publicly opposed stringent sanctions, and China just announced that it will continue buying Iranian oil. Even our allies such as India and South Korea appear hesitant to stop doing business with Iran. Granted, sanctions were never likely to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Iran’s Foreign Minister, for example, recently declared "sanctions may have caused us small problems, but we will continue our [nuclear] path." But in the wake of China’s announcement, it’s becoming clear that effective multilateral sanctions will never materialize.

Critics of my argument will say that the U.S.-European sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table. They would be wrong. While Iran may be at the negotiating table, it has no interest in stopping its nuclear weapons program. The regime in Tehran has repeatedly said as much. As it has done in the past, Iran will offer false or meaningless concessions in a bid to delay international action as it continues to develop its nuclear program.

Even The New York Times editorial board has recognized the limits of a diplomatic approach. In a recent column, the Grey Lady conceded that they didn’t “know if there is any mix of sanctions and diplomacy that can persuade the mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.”

The mullahs will simply use negotiations and the promises of concessions as an excuse for their allies to oppose further action against Iran.

Furthermore, the lack of consensus on Syria and recent statements by foreign leaders demonstrate there will never be international consensus for a military strike if diplomacy fails. Russia’s Foreign Minister recently warned the West against an attack on Iran’s nuclear program and said it would violate international law. Countries such as China have also publicly opposed military action against Iran’s nuclear program.

The world’s inaction in Syria is also benefiting Tehran because it has demoralized democracy activists inside Iran. Regime change in Tehran is probably our best chance of avoiding a nuclear Iran. That’s why the world’s appalling response to the 2009 Green Revolution was one of the biggest foreign policy errors in recent memory. Had the Green Revolution succeeded, there’s a good chance the Iranian weapons program would now be defunct. Instead, the mullahs continue to press ahead with the program.

And thanks to the world’s dithering on Syria, we’re unlikely to see any new democratic movement arise in the country. The Iranian regime has spent the past three years jailing and murdering prominent dissidents. And now, after seeing the world fail to react to the 10,000 dead in Syria, the Iranian people know that the international community will not come to their aid if they rise up again.

All of this means that Iran will continue pressing ahead with its nuclear program. And it means that a military attack, which the international community fears so much, might unfortunately become the only realistic option for stopping the program. The international community continues to oppose any action on Iran without UN support. But because of its failure to achieve consensus on issues such as Syria, action outside of the UN appears more likely.

David Meyers is a New York-based political commentator, lecturer, and consultant. From 2006 to 2009, David worked in the West Wing of the White House, and was later a speechwriter in the United States Senate. For more, visit his website: DavidRossMeyers.com.