The president should pay attention: Red lines work if you enforce them. The Post reports: “The United Nations on Monday revoked an invitation to Iran to attend a crucial peace conference on Syria in Switzerland, culminating a day of chaotic international diplomacy that included loud U.S. objection to Iran’s participation and a threat by the Syrian opposition to boycott the talks. . . . The Syrian Opposition Coalition, which voted only the previous day to attend the talks after eight months of bitter debate, had issued a deadline of 2 p.m. Eastern time for the United Nations to rescind the invitation to Iran. Otherwise, the opposition group said, it would not attend the event.” Met with the potential collapse of a “peace conference” in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will have no incentive to leave power, Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to stand up to Iran. Finally.
Now imagine if Kerry and the president had followed through on the threat to take action if Assad used chemical weapons. Imagine if Kerry insisted at the onset of talks or in the interim deal that Iran had to come into compliance with existing U.N. resolutions before receiving relief from sanctions. More dramatically, think about how the Syrian war could have played out had the United States immediately moved for sanctions and called for Assad’s departure, given diplomatic and arms support to the non-jihadi rebels and enlisted Sunni allies to aid in Assad’s downfall. And even earlier, one can envision that robust support for the Green Revolution might have tipped the balance in the rebels’ favor, or at the very least, conveyed a sense of moral seriousness to Tehran. This is the problem with President Obama’s kick-the-can foreign policy. Early on, many options are available; but the longer the United States waits to assert itself, the worse facts on the ground become and the less maneuvering we have. By inaction we have allowed Assad to solidify his position and his senior partners in Iran to gain confidence as they defy the West and make strides toward a nuclear weapon.
The White House is furiously pushing back against sanctions, which are Congress’s attempt to instill some spine in the administration and bolster Obama’s torn credibility. Obama nevertheless resists, unwilling to take the help for fear it might spook the Iranians. In a sense the president may be right — his conduct over four years has been so feckless that any attempt to convey a different message to Iran would only force the regime to up the ante — and then the president to cave to even more ridiculous demands.
Despite our moment of resoluteness concerning Iran’s participation in a peace conference to end hostilities and mass murder in which the regime played a critical supporting role (the decision to include Iran speaks volumes about the United Nations’ moral and strategic cluelessness), the easing of sanctions now sends an even stronger message to Iran and to businesses lining up to enrich themselves and Iran’s economy. The Financial Times calls it a “fresh start for Iran’s economy,” and indeed it is. The incentives that brought Iran to the table are being rolled back, with dramatic effects. With Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s political masterstroke – the lifting of billions in sanctions in exchange for ephemeral sanctions relief — the chance that Iran will, as the administration keeps promising, be more serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons program, is next to nil.
The administration had the right idea about rejecting the preposterous suggestion that Iran participate in the talks. But the United Nations’ actions were not really any more outlandish than the president’s decision to allow Syria’s president to remain in power after use of WMDs, lift sanctions on Iran for virtually nothing in return and stiff the Green revolutionaries. They are all of a piece — a bright signal to the Iran axis that the West has lost its nerve.