Iran has thrown down the gauntlet by hijacking 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf. Operating under a U.N. Security Council resolution, they were carrying out the inspection of an Iraqi ship suspected of smuggling oil. According to the British authorities, the 15 were in Iraqi waters, but in any case Iranian naval craft had evidently been prepared to strike whenever and wherever there was an opportunity. The rightful description of what occurred is piracy.
Once before, three years ago, Iran seized eight British sailors, paraded them blindfolded on television, and abused them by staging mock executions. The 15 are likely to face a similar ordeal, with confessions of espionage forced out of them and a trial in a kangaroo court run by mullahs. What the Iranians want is a test of strength that will establish victory and glory for them, and impotence and humiliation for the British, seen as representative of the West.
The Iranian regime is as unscrupulous as any in the world today. It is busy undermining the reconstitution of Iraq, arming and financing gunmen of its choice to kill and maim whoever happens to be in the way. International officials and experts suspect that the urgency and duplicity surrounding its nuclear program mean that its end product will be a nuclear weapon — in which case Iran can expect to be not merely a regional power, but an Islamic rival of and alternative to the West.
Given these stakes, the regime does not take kindly to setbacks. Earlier this year, U.S. forces entered a building in Arbil, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan, and arrested six officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, five of whom are still detained. In another incident, an Iranian intelligence officer with the rank of major-general has disappeared and is thought to have defected to the United States. And the United Nations is taking modest but unmistakable steps to squeeze Iran’s already shaky economy. The regime may well have hijacked the 15 British marines and sailors in the belief that they would serve as bargaining chips in issues such as these.
Israel was placed in this dilemma last summer, when Iranian agents — the Hezbollah of Lebanon — crossed the border, killed some soldiers, and took two others hostage. Israel treated this aggression as a declaration of war, and its repeat in the Gulf waters has to be met with the same firmness. The making of any sort of deal whereby personnel legally arrested are exchanged for personnel illegally snatched — never mind anything that might compromise sanctions — would mean unconditional victory for Iran, and the admission of impotence and humiliation for Britain, and therefore the West.
Until now, the cost to Iran for its policy of vowing death to the West has been negligible. Encouraged by so slack a response, the regime flagrantly disregards the requirements of morality and international law. A time may be drawing closer when it will experience the test of strength that it so heedlessly wishes on others.