Commentary Magazine


Stopping Syria

Today, Syria told the 35-nation Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency that its inspectors may not visit three facilities of interest to the nuclear watchdog. IAEA officials are slated to visit the country on the 22nd through the 24th of this month.

On Monday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced that Damascus had consented to inspections of the site Israeli planes destroyed last September. After the air raid, the Syrians carted away the debris and scrapped the soil, a sure sign that the target–probably a reactor of North Korean design–was part of a covert nuclear weapons program. In view of the refusal to allow inspections of the three other sites, it’s clear that the Israeli raid did not end Syria’s ambitions to weaponize the atom.

Because Syria is far from developing the bomb, we will hear the usual calls for patient diplomacy. And if this matter were just about Syria, the international community could afford to adopt a leisurely approach and talk for years. Yet the Syrian nuclear program, unfortunately for the Syrians, has broader implications. We need, in short, to make an example of Damascus.

Why is Tehran so intransigent at this moment? There are many underlying reasons of course, but perhaps the most important factor explaining the mullahs’ current attitudes is this: they feel they can get away with it.

And why do they think that? The Bush administration has exacted no price from North Korea for withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, reprocessing uranium, detonating an atomic device, and proliferating nuclear technology to Syria and probably Iran. On the contrary, we appear determined to give Kim Jong Il what he wants. The Iranian leadership has watched America utterly fail to defend its most vital interest against one of the weakest nations today. Tehran, therefore, has surely decided that it will suffer no consequences for defying the United States and the United Nations by enriching uranium and developing a nuclear arsenal.

President Bush has made a complete hash of North Korea, and, as much as I would like to be optimistic, it is clear he will not make things right by the time he leaves office. So if we want to stop Iran, we have to stop Syria. The world will be unrecognizable if Iran develops the bomb. The place to stop Tehran is in Damascus, and the time to do that is now.