By committing an act of war, Iran has simultaneously made itself look peaceful and made the West look impotent.
That paradox is the apparent outcome of the crisis that began when Iran kidnapped 15 British sailors and marines on March 23. Today, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the 15 had been “pardoned” — their supposed offense having been to trespass on Iranian coastal waters — and would be sent home. We don’t know exactly what, if anything, Britain did to bring about the release. But, at least for now, the resolution looks like a victory for the Islamic Republic.
According to eyewitness accounts and GPS data, the Britons were never in Iranian waters. Their treatment after being kidnapped was a violation of the Geneva Conventions: They were videotaped making confessions (almost certainly under duress) and otherwise humiliated. If Britain still acted like the great power it once was, it would have made clear on Day One that this was an act of war and would be viewed as such. That would not have required an immediate military response, or barred the possibility of negotiations with Iran. But it would have required telling Iran’s rulers that, unless they released the hostages immediately, they would pay an unbearable cost. The threat need not have been spelled out specifically, but could have included, among other things, an economic embargo, a naval blockade, or eventual military strikes. That message should have been delivered in public and in private. (If Britain did threaten Iran privately, it should tell the world so now.) With respect to Theodore Roosevelt, this occasion called for walking loudly and carrying a big stick.
Instead, at least in public, Britain has mumbled. Its reward is TV images of smiling captives shaking Ahmadinejad’s hand and thanking him for his “forgiveness.” Highlighting his government’s famous esteem for women, Ahmadinejad deplored the fact that one of the sailors was thousands of miles from her children. He also asked Great Britain not to try the 15 for trespassing after they returned home. Magnanimous, he.
The way the crisis played out will have serious consequences in the Middle East. Iran proved that it is the region’s dominant power. Could any other country have attempted this and gotten away with it? Syria? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Surely not. Britain, meanwhile, reinforced Iran’s view of the West as a decadent society that does not respond effectively to provocations and need not be feared. Perceptions matter: Recall the conclusions Osama bin Laden drew after the American retreat from Somalia. What we can expect now is greater aggression, from both Iran in particular and Islamists in general.
That’s what we can expect, anyway, if Britain does nothing to salvage the situation. It should begin by making sure the captives repudiate their confessions and denounce their captors once they’re back home. We don’t need to hear how nice the food is in Tehran. Next, Britain should have the 15 demand compensation for their illegal capture and treatment. It must send an absolutely unambiguous message that its sailors and marines were never in Iranian waters, and that it has made no concessions concerning the location of the border. (Sending some patrol missions back to the area, backed up by overwhelming firepower, would punctuate the point nicely.) The U.S., for its part, must hold the five Iranian agents it captured in Iraq for a long time, lest it appear that there has been a swap.
If there is a glimmer of hope in this shameful denouement, it is the possibility that the sheer brazenness of the kidnappings will shatter some of the widespread naïveté — particularly in the British and American diplomatic corps — about the nature of the Iranian regime. It has never been reasonable to think that this regime, whose guiding purpose is to export its particular brand of Islamism, could be made to act in accordance with the West’s interests. Its latest exercise in hostage-taking-as-foreign-policy underscores the unreasonableness of that view.
It’s right to be glad that the young Britons are headed home. But into that humanitarian feeling irrupts the darker realization that their good fortune comes at an unacceptable price. Unless Britain and her allies act quickly and cleverly to show that they are, appearances notwithstanding, powers to be reckoned with, a great many lives will be at risk for a long time to come.