Pontificators of foreign policy often end up taking the party line when opining on what to do with particularly vexing questions. That appears to be the case today with Iran and Syria, where the majority of pontificators have fallen into the 'let's not bomb yet' camp on Iran, and the 'we must do something' camp in Syria. However, if one simply looks at history and the present, it makes more sense to do exactly the opposite in both cases.
Iran has had a civil nuclear program since the 1960s. The IAEA first concluded that Iran had failed to meet its obligations under its NPT safeguards in 2003, and the country has been proceeding apace with its nuclear weapons development -- with the knowledge of the West -- since that time, while routinely shaking its fist at the West and Israel. The West has continued to impose gradually more stringent sanctions against Iran since the second Bush Administration. Since sanctions began, there has been absolutely no indication that Iran will respond meaningfully to overtures for dialogue. Indeed, the Iranians have deftly used the prospect of dialogue as a means of prolonging their intransigence and ability to develop their nuclear weapons program. And Iran has given every indication that it intends to acquire nuclear weapons.
Given that Israel and the U.S. have both repeatedly stated that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, at what point do they both admit that dialogue will not succeed, the cards are currently in the Iranians' favor, 2012 will probably be the year when Iran passes the point of no return, and the time has come to either put up or shut up? As Israeli Defense Minister Barak said in Davos last week, the point of no return is very close at hand.
The result of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons will not only be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but an unprecedented military buildup that will raise general tension levels and be very costly -- at a time when most Middle Eastern governments neither have the funds nor the inclination to dramatically increase their military budgets. Such an outcome would come at the worst possible time, given the ongoing political convulsions in the region. Iran knows this, and is banking on it.
In Damascus, the Assad regime has made clear its intention to continue to fight its opponents, and Russia has reconfirmed its support for Mr. Assad. The stalemate is likely to continue for some time -- in the absence of overt external intervention -- which appears unlikely. Neither NATO nor the U.S. have given any indication they intend to impose a no-fly zone or otherwise formally interfere in the uprising, and neither seems inclined to spend billions more to promote an uncertain outcome.
Given everything that has occurred in the past year in the Middle East, we believe the best course of action would be not to intervene, even though it would prolong the fighting and the suffering of ordinary civilians -- which is unfortunate. Our reasoning is simple: In Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists have assumed power since the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, and in Libya, Islamists are poised to do the same. There can be little doubt the same outcome would result following the overthrow of Mr. Assad. Syria's neighbors do not welcome such an outcome -- Israel has said it prefers the devil it knows and Europe does not want an Islamist government on its doorstep.
For these reasons, as distasteful as it is to some, the best thing the West can do is hope that Mr. Assad prevails. He is indeed a proxy for Iranian influence in the region, but what may replace him may prove to be worse. What the region needs now, above all, is stability and predictability. If Mr. Assad falls, there can be little doubt that, in time, other governments in the region will do the same, and in all likelihood, the eventual electoral results (assuming elections occur) would be the same. The people of Egypt, Tunisia, and soon Libya have all expressed a preference for Islamic fundamentalism at the ballot box. Can there be any doubt other citizens in the region will prefer the same?
Regarding the linkage between waiting before considering whether to take some action in Syria and proceeding with bombing Iran, two other 'footnotes' should be taken into consideration. While it can certainly be argued that Iran would rely on its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah to attack Israel on their behalf in the event of a bombing campaign against Iran, the truth is that Israel lives with the threat of such attacks on a daily basis. If Hamas and Hezbollah attacked Israel, it would give Israel an opportunity to counter-attack their growing missile arsenals, and reduce that threat in the future. Secondly, Mr. Assad's 'preoccupations' at home make it less likely that Syria would play a significant role in any retaliation for an Israeli missile strike on Iran, which is an argument in favor of Israel striking while Syria sorts itself out.
Given that it appears that neither Mr. Assad nor Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad actually want to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Obama Administration should be thoughtful enough to adopt a two-tiered approach to both countries. In the case of Syria, having the patience to await the outcome in the coming months -- before deciding whether to adopt another approach -- and demonstrating its resolve to use a 'big stick' in the case of Iran. In truth, the US has been fighting a covert war with Iran over its nuclear ambitions for years. This 'cold' war has been working too slowly and ineffectually; perhaps it is time to think about 'hot' alternatives. Engaging in a military dialogue with Iran may prove more effective in arriving at a solution than covert action and attempts at diplomacy have proven. Iran seems determined to pursue its nuclear ambitions -- whether or not it is attacked. The sooner the West admits this, the better off it will be.
Ultimately, the West is undoubtedly itself in a more favorable position with the devils it knows at this uncertain time. Democracy can be a wonderful thing, but it can and does also sometimes deliver exactly the opposite of what the West may desire. Doing nothing in Syria and proceeding with a bombing campaign in Iran may therefore be the smartest courses of action in the near term. We don't live in a perfect world, and we are faced with imperfect circumstances and choices. The only sensible approach is to view the world without rose-colored glasses and recognize the situations in Iran and Syria for what they are. Doing otherwise will likely result in a permanently altered landscape in the Middle East that will haunt us for decades to come.
*Bob Savage is CEO of Track.com. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012).