Tehran’s hostages

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Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: Advocates of engagement with Tehran often claim that the Islamic Republic long ago shed its revolutionary pretensions in favor of becoming a “status quo” power. They might want to share that soothing wisdom with the families of the 15 British sailors and marines kidnapped Friday in Iraqi territorial waters by the naval forces of the elite, and aptly named, Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

March 26, 2007; Page A14

Advocates of engagement with Tehran often claim that the Islamic Republic long ago shed its revolutionary pretensions in favor of becoming a “status quo” power. They might want to share that soothing wisdom with the families of the 15 British sailors and marines kidnapped Friday in Iraqi territorial waters by the naval forces of the elite, and aptly named, Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

In an earlier day, what Iran has done would have been universally regarded as an act of war. It was a premeditated act, carried out only hours before Britain voted to stiffen sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program in a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution. Iran captured a smaller detachment of British forces in the same waters in 2004, claiming they had strayed across the Iranian border. It beggars belief — as well as an eyewitness account of the incident reported by Reuters — that the British would make that mistake twice, assuming they made it the first time.

In 2004, the Iranians were quick to release the captured soldiers after extracting “apologies” and marching them, blindfolded, before the TV cameras. There is reason to believe that this time the Ayatollahs might be planning a longer stay for their guests.

Earlier this month, the Sunday Times of London reported that the Revolutionary Guards newspaper Subhi Sadek suggested seizing “a nice bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks.” One possible motive: The apparent defection by Revolutionary Guards commander Ali Reza Asgari, who disappeared in Istanbul last month and is said to know a great deal about Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians may now be using their hostages as payback for General Asgari’s defection — or as ransom for his return.

Given the Iranian regime’s past success with hostage-taking — whether with U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979 or Westerners in Beirut in the 1980s — they may also figure that Prime Minister Tony Blair is willing to pay a steep price to secure release of the sailors before he leaves office later this year. Or perhaps the Iranians want to bargain with Mr. Blair’s successor, presumably Chancellor Gordon Brown, whom they might suspect would take a softer line at the U.N. They may also be trying to create a rift between the U.S. and U.K. by offering to trade the British troops for Iranians the U.S. has recently detained inside Iraq.

It’s also possible, as Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies points out, that the Iranian leadership may be seeking to draw Britain (and the U.S.) into limited military skirmishes that they think could shore up domestic support against widening popular discontent.

Another possibility: sufficiently bloodying Coalition forces in Iraq to hasten their withdrawal. The mullahs might even hope any fighting would embolden Democrats to do Tehran’s bidding by passing legislation that forbids the Administration from attacking Iran without prior Congressional permission. Such a plank was contained in the supplemental war spending bill that passed the House last week until cooler heads removed it.

As with the 1979 hostage crisis, how Britain and the rest of the civilized world respond in the early days of the crisis will determine how long it lasts. Britain has already demanded the safe and immediate return of its personnel; they will have to make clear that its foreign policy will not be held hostage to the mullahs.

That does not require a resort to military options while diplomacy still has a chance to gain the sailors’s release. Saturday’s unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council was also welcome, even if the new sanctions continue to be far too weak. Serious sanctions would target the country’s supply of refined gasoline, much of which is imported.

It is worth recalling, however, that Iran was at its most diplomatically pliant after the United States sank much of Tehran’s navy after Iran tried to disrupt oil traffic in the Persian Gulf in the late 1980s. Regimes that resort to force the way Iran does tend to be respecters of it. It is also far from certain that Western military strikes against Revolutionary Guards would move the Iranian people to rally to their side: Iranians know only too well what their self-anointed leaders are capable of.

Most important, the world should keep in mind that Iran has undertaken this latest military aggression while it is still a conventional military power. That means that Britain and the U.S. can still respond today with the confidence that they maintain military superiority. That confidence will vanish the minute Iran achieves its goal of becoming a nuclear power. Who knows what the revolutionaries in Tehran will then be capable of.

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