Needed: A Big Stick

Sunday, November 26, 2006

ONE WAY TO understand the deteriorating situation in the Middle East is to contrast last week's assassination of Lebanese Christian leader Pierre Gemayel with the response to it. The assassination was a shockingly audacious attack on Lebanon's democratic forces and their U.S. and European allies. But those Western governments remain in a profound muddle about how to address Iran and Syria, which have been fomenting the destabilization of Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

The killers of Mr. Gemayel have not been identified and may never be. But the attack fits snugly into a pattern of provocations across the region by Iran and Syria, which appear to believe that American reversals in Iraq have given them the opportunity to create what Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad calls "a new Middle East" -- one in which their influence and radical ideology will predominate. They would make their client Hezbollah the power broker in Lebanon, restoring Syrian suzerainty. They would use Hamas to block any progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and perpetuate a continuing, if low-grade, war on Israel. And they would continue to bleed the United States by supplying insurgents in Iraq with arms and sanctuary. Iran meanwhile presses ahead with its barely disguised nuclear weapons program: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently promised to increase the number of centrifuges enriching uranium from the current 328 to 60,000.

In response to this bold bid for regional hegemony, the United States has apparently resolved . . . to intensively negotiate with itself and its chief European allies about how it might "engage" Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Assad. Should a U.S. ambassador return to Damascus, once the uproar over Mr. Gemayel dies down? Should the administration drop its demand that Iran obey a U.N. resolution ordering it to suspend enrichment before talks can begin? While the debate goes on, the Western effort to sanction Iran for its nuclear program is stalled and all but forgotten. No punitive action against Syria is even being discussed.

Those most focused on rescuing the Iraq mission -- such as the Baker-Hamilton study group -- are most interested in the engagement option. We, too, have supported including Iran and Syria in a regional diplomatic initiative to promote an Iraqi political accord. But it's vital to keep in mind that such an effort has a low probability of ending the bloodshed in the near future, even if all parties cooperate.

What's more, no attempt to reason with Mr. Assad and the Iranian mullahs will succeed unless they perceive that the United States and its allies wield sticks as well as carrots. As long as the Bush administration is unable to win U.N. Security Council approval for sanctions against Iran -- or impose them through an ad hoc coalition -- Tehran will have no incentive to make concessions. Mr. Assad will demand that the West concede him Lebanon and call off the murder investigations that would likely implicate him -- unless he worries that his failure to cooperate will result in fresh international sanctions against Syria.

Iran and Syria are ruthlessly waging war against Western interests in the Middle East. Offering to talk is only a small part of what it will take to stop them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company