A Mideast Counteroffensive

Saturday, December 16, 2006

IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presided over a convention of Holocaust deniers in Tehran this week, rousing them with yet another speech predicting the extinction of Israel. In Lebanon, the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora hung by a thread, literally besieged in the center of Beirut by the extremist Hezbollah movement -- whose attempted coup has been egged on by Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. In Gaza, attempts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reopen the peace process with Israel continued to be blocked by the most militant leaders of Hamas -- who happen to be harbored in Damascus -- and by a Hamas prime minister who just returned from Tehran.

Meanwhile, here in Washington, the Bush administration was bombarded by demands that it open unconditional negotiations with Mr. Assad and Mr. Ahmadinejad. Democratic senators are tripping over each other to have an audience with Syria's chief gangster. A parallel clamor continued for a "grand bargain" with Iran's mullahs. The disconnect between the debate over the Middle East in Washington and actual events in the region could hardly be greater.

As can be plainly seen in their public statements, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Assad are riding high: They believe they have the United States and its allies on the run across the Middle East. Perceiving no threat to their regimes, they see no reason for compromise. As Mr. Assad has made clear in every recent conversation he has had with Western visitors, Syria is determined to restore its domination of Lebanon. It's also intent on stopping a United Nations investigation into 15 political murders, including that of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, that most likely were ordered in Damascus. Mr. Ahmadinejad believes he can force the West to accept Iran's continuing experiments in uranium enrichment.

The radicals are dangerously close to succeeding. Mr. Siniora's government has been compelled to consider an Arab League "compromise" with Hezbollah that could give it something close to the veto it seeks over government decisions. Iran continues to fine-tune its centrifuge cascades, ignoring with impunity the U.N. resolution ordering it to stop.

That doesn't mean it is sensible for the Bush administration to dogmatically oppose any contact with those regimes. The administration would be foolish not to support the creation of a contact group of Iraq's neighbors and other outside parties that includes Syria and Iran. But bilateral "engagement" is hardly the most important answer to the reckless regional offensive by the Iranian-Syrian alliance.

On the contrary: What is urgently needed is decisive steps by the United States and its allies to counter the extremists and to force them to pay a price for their aggression. Passage of a U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran -- still pending three months after it was brought up -- cannot be put off any longer; the administration should call a vote and force supposed "partners" such as Russia to choose. The Security Council should also be prodded to investigate whether Damascus has respected its resolutions calling for Hezbollah's disarmament and an end to Syrian weapons trafficking. If Mr. Assad succeeds in blocking Lebanese government approval of a tribunal to try those guilty of the Lebanese political murders, the Security Council should establish the court on its own authority. "Realism" in the Middle East means understanding that Syria and Iran won't stop waging war against the United States and its allies unless they are given reasons to fear they might lose.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company