Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Can Iran Be Stopped?

by Elliott Abrams
June 21, 2013


Over the last two years many of those–including me–who urged American intervention in Syria have been called various names: neocons, dangerous idealists, adventurers, fools who were forgetting the lessons of Iraq, and so on. But recently alarm has been spreading about developments in Syria, and the Obama administration’s handling of the situation is eliciting more and more criticism from sources usually considered “prudent” or pro-Obama or non-interventionist (and David Ignatius is a good example).

Among those voices we must count The Economist, the British news magazine. In a powerful new editorial entitled “Can Iran Be Stopped,” The Economist argues as follows:

The growing risk of a nuclear Iran is one reason why the West should intervene decisively in Syria not just by arming the rebels, but also by establishing a no-fly zone. That would deprive Mr Assad of his most effective weapon—bombs dropped from planes—and allow the rebels to establish military bases inside Syria. This newspaper has argued many times for doing so on humanitarian grounds; but Iran’s growing clout is another reason to intervene, for it is not in the West’s interest that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon.

The West still has the economic and military clout to influence events in the region, and an interest in doing so. When Persian power is on the rise, it is not the time to back away from the Middle East.

Defenders of the Obama administration might argue that it is hardly backing away, what with Secretary of State Kerry working so hard on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But that is a side show; the central fact about the region today is Iran’s use of raw power in Syria, with Russian support. Resisting that military power, which includes an Iranian and Hezbollah expeditionary force in Syria, we see American speeches and more recently an apparent decision (announced by a third-level NSC official, not by the President or Vice President, or by the National Security Adviser or the Deputy National Security Adviser) to arm the rebels. But arm them with what? When? The White House officials refused to say. The President’s comments to Charlie Rose on June 17 showed no great urgency about Syria and were mostly a discussion of why the subject is complicated–and why critics should shut up. The President said this:

What I’m saying is, that if you haven’t been in the Situation Room, poring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking what are all our options and examining what are all the consequences, and understanding that for example, if you set up a no-fly zone, that you may not be actually solving the problem on the zone. Or if you set up a humanitarian corridor, are you in fact committed not only to stopping aircraft from going [into] that corridor, but also missiles? And if so, does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus and are you prepared then to bomb Damascus? And what happens if there’s civilian casualties. And have we mapped all of the chemical-weapons facilities inside of Syria to make sure that we don’t drop a bomb on a chemical-weapons facility that ends up then dispersing chemical weapons and killing civilians, which is exactly what we’re trying to prevent. Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East.

This is nonsense. The idea that one has to be in the Situation Room to understand Syria gives rise to a query: when did Senator Obama ever suggest that because he had no such access he could not offer opinions about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq? And as to “rushing into one more war in the Middle East,” the war in Syria is now in its third year. Two years is adequate time for any administration to develop a policy.

Is it “kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation?” Then try this: read what is being written about it by Fred Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, a former U.S. Army officer and for years a key Obama administration strategist on Syria (with the rank of ambassador). “Syria: Sevens Qs and As on Military Intervention” is one place to start, and Hof has written regularly about Syria since leaving the government. It’s insulting for the President to say that a man like Hof, or the rest of us who follow Syria closely–including senators, congressmen, former officials, and for that matter journalists–are too ignorant to offer opinions. If that is the best defense he can offer of administration policy, it is no wonder more and more people are becoming skeptics or critics. The Economist gave a reasoned argument about Syria policy. The President cannot get by with a petulant response that suggests all wisdom lies in the Situation Room.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by EthanP

    Eliot; There are no good guys here. But as you point out, there is a lesser of two evils. If Assad wins, Iran and Hezbollah win. The fact that Syria will be broken for at least a decade, the influence Iran gains will be a disaster for western interests. A dominant Iran will see Saudi and Turkish pursuit of nuclear weapons. I discount Egypt as they are an economic basket case.

    As for being criticized for being a ‘Neocon’. IMHO most of the critics use the term because they’re too PC to say Jew. I’m proud to consider myself a ‘Neocon.

  • Posted by Garrard Glenn

    Perhaps it would be useful to recall that the Iranians ceased their drive towards nuclear bomb capability in 2003 when George Bush invaded Iraq. And was it not in that very year they offered Bush a comprehensive deal to cease their hostilities towards Israel, as well as
    cease their nuclear activities? So it has been reported.

    Why did they make nice so suddenly? On account of their fear they might be next. Bush didn’t hesitate to take on Afghanistan and Iraq.
    Why not a trifecta? They thought this was a real possibility.

    So. If we get serious about Syria, including elimination of Syria’s military air capabilities, both transport and bombing, perhaps the Iranians would take note of this. Plus, arming some of the sunnier Sunnis with ant-tank missiles. Finally, would it be impossible to
    arm non-Syrian special ops guys with manpads, with special codes whereby they could be rendered inoperable if captured by Jihadists? Is that impossible? Maybe not.

    We didn’t start this war. We have invaded no one. And, the entire Sunni world would applaud our increased efforts in Syria, without
    risking but a few American lives. Nary a boot would touch the ground (maybe a few specially-designed Nikes for the special ops guys.)

    The Iranians blinked once when we got serious. Have they forgotten how to blink?

  • Posted by J Eisenberg

    The psychology of the Ayatollahs
    – The Iranian ayatollahs are not jihadists, because Jihadism is not a pillar of twelverist Shi’ism, especially with the absence of their (fictitious) Mahdi. The Ayatollahs, in the stead, deploy their protégés such as Hezbollah to carry out their operations.
    – The ayatollahs, despite their seeming intransigence, balk or retreat at the confrontation with a higher military power and under overwhelming militaro-economic circumstances. A valuable lesson can be learned from the 8 year-old Iraq Iran War, despite the changes in the current chessgame with Iran. When Saddam did not unleash the wrath of his military power, the Iranians kept attacking and infringing upon Iraq’s sovereignty. When Saddam barraged Tehran with missiles, Khomaini “swallowed from the poison chalice.” and retreated.
    – The ongoing civil war in Syria is somewhat draining the resources of the tripartite alliance of Tehran-Damascus-Southern Lebanon. They are not concentrating their resources to fight the US or Israel, despite Tehran’s anti-Israeli rhetoric and the threat of painful reprisals. There remains the element of fear on their part and the desire not to confront the US-Israel militarily, or in any other manner.

    I wonder why the West has not yet considered destabilizing Iran from the inside. Iran is a fertile ground for disintegration, and this will permanently weaken the tripartite alliance. The Arabs, the Kurds, the Azeris, and Baluchs have been suppressed for decades and nurse intense animosity toward the (Persian) theocratic establishment, let alone Persians. Additionally, the Arab-Sunni axis can offer a valuable counterbalancing force to weaken the tripartite alliance. The balance tips toward the anti-Iran side, but these valuable resources are not utilized to their fullest.

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