Historians will look back at the present moment with astonishment that Iran so skillfully outwitted the West. They will note the breathtaking naiveté of American and European officials who let a brutal theocracy undermine Western interests throughout the Middle East. At one of Iran’s most vulnerable moments, America threw the mullahs a life-line; an ill-conceived nuclear deal coupled with a complete inability to stop Syria, Iran’s closest ally, from continuing to slaughter en masse. Western diplomats speak optimistically of a deal with Syria in Geneva, while the region’s thugs use force of arms to impose their will.
Today, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Zarif, took a diplomatic victory lap as he arrived in Moscow to meet Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Russia’s Foreign Ministry released this statement: “We intend to continue the expansion of mutually advantageous relations with Iran and interaction in the interest of regional stability and international security…We expect to strengthen positive trends in every sphere of Russia-Iran cooperation.”
Zarif’s mission to Moscow quells any lingering hopes that Russia can be seduced away from Syria or Iran. Putin has made a simple calculation: Assad will protect his interests better than anyone. Russia, in turn, has made it clear that it will prop up Syria’s tyrant and their Iranian backers at almost any cost. Zarif arrived in Moscow to expand cooperation with Russia and pay homage to his sugar daddy for making all of this possible.
Iran, Syria and Russia appear to be the strong horses of the Middle East. Assad slaughters with impunity because he knows that no one will actually stop him. Russia knows it can get away with backing Syria and Iran, because who is ready to pay the price to stop it? American interests, meanwhile, are thwarted at every opportunity by Russia.
Morality and fair play are not in Putin’s lexicon. Only power and money. The KGB veteran has never changed its stripes. Ask Sergei Magnitsky, a young tax lawyer, who died in Russian prison after uncovering massive corruption at the heart of Putin’s regime.
What is the West’s response to Russia’s expanding influence? To dither and appease. In 2012, I sat in an Istanbul hotel ominously named “Titanic,” as a senior European official told a delegation of Syrian opposition figures that Russia was distancing itself from Assad. The Russian government, he said, spoke increasingly of supporting “Syria” and mentioned Assad by name less and less. This, he said, was a very positive development.
The Syrians looked at us dumbfounded. Russia, they said, is backing Assad without hesitation. Our families are being slaughtered, they pleaded, because of Russian arms and money. They were right. The hyper-nuanced linguistic interpretations of European diplo-speak were absurd. Putin’s support of Assad was clear as day.
What is the West’s response to Russia's expanding influence? To dither and appease.
Zarif’s visit to Russia comes days after a trip to Lebanon where he honored master Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Does a “moderate” pay homage to one of the most ruthless terrorists in modern history, a man who killed hundreds of American and Jews around the world? Is there anything Zarif could do to forfeit his credentials as a “moderate”? Apparently not.
The Iranian government has mastered the art of deception. At a lunch I attended with Zarif during his New York charm offensive, the foreign minister sounded like a mix between Gandhi and Mother Teresa. In Zarif’s telling, there is quite simply no government on earth more dedicated to peace, freedom and equality than Iran.
Iran’s actual record tells a very different story. It is a brutal theocracy that imprisons bloggers, tortures dissidents and murders opposition. Zarif’s mask slipped momentarily when I asked him if he thought it was ironic that he enjoyed posting on Facebook when his government bans it in Iran. “Ha! Ha!” he laughed. “That’s life.”
If Iran was serious about peace, it would begin by ceasing its support for a mass murdering tyrant like Assad. At the recent Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy, I asked former president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz Al Khatib, why Assad was still in power. “Because the Iranians want him to stay,” he answered immediately.
It is no surprise that Iran’s mullahs are gloating that they outwitted the West with the recent nuclear deal. They did. Our sincere and overwhelming desire for peace clouded a sober reading of Iran’s intentions. Iran’s political prisoners must have wept quietly in Evin prison’s dark torture chambers as they heard that the free world was rewarding their vicious rulers.
If Iran was committed to human rights, as Zarif claimed to much fanfare during his New York charm offensive, it would begin by releasing the hundreds of jailed student leaders, dissidents and bloggers like Majid Tavakoli and Shiva Ahari.
In this Middle Eastern proxy war, it often seems that only one side is actually fighting. Russia is pouring massive sums of money and arms into Syria to prop up Assad. Iran has made it abundantly clear that it too supports the Syrian government. Yet for a decade prior, useful idiots in the West spoke of prying Assad out of Iran’s orbit.
It is not too late to change course. America can begin by speaking clearly about the duplicity of Iran’s theocrats, the danger of Russia’s autocrats and the brutality of Syria’s dictator. A renewed push to support human rights and dissidents would do much to alter the balance of power in the Middle East. All dictatorships fear freedom, accountability and transparency. It is their Achilles heel.
Russia, Syria and Iran are profoundly dangerous regimes, but it is equally true that they are inherently weak. No government which jails its critics can claim to be powerful. Peace and freedom can triumph in the end, if only we would stand up for our principles.
David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and a contributor to The Daily Beast. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and Reuters and appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg TV and Al Jazeera. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.