Here we are again. Almost 30 years after its first hostage-taking, Tehran continues to do what it does best.
As a newborn regime, the Islamic Republic infamously violated America’s embassy walls and held American citizens hostage for 444 days. That was followed by decades of kidnappings and terror from Iran’s Hezbollah henchmen.
Of course, Iran is not alone. China held 24 American servicemen for almost two weeks in 2001, after a Chinese warplane intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane flying in international airspace above the South China Sea. Cambodia seized the Mayaguez in international waters. North Korea held the crew of the USS Pueblo for almost a year.
As with Tehran’s latest act, all of these regimes wanted to extract some admission of guilt, some finding of illegal behavior. It is odd how the appearance of justice is so important to regimes that are so exquisitely unjust. But this is how governments that derive their legitimacy from force act. And far too often, they have gotten away with their gamesmanship.
Predictably, many observers are getting lost in the hedgerows, wandering as they are in tangential debates about dueling GPS devices and the war in Iraq. All of this is really irrelevant to the broader issue here: British sailors, operating under their flag and with an international mandate, were seized. They were not escorted out of Iranian waters by Iranian ships, in the manner a normal navy would behave. They were not detained, interrogated, and released—rational and reasonable behavior under international norms. They were seized and held captive by a regime that seeks to elevate and sustain itself by humiliating other regimes, threatens its neighbors with annihilation, and trades in terror.
Whether the British sailors and Marines are released tomorrow or today, Tehran’s behavior must be shown to be unacceptable to the civilized world. There must be a price for piracy.
But first, perhaps it’s time for Europe to pay a price for its union. After all, if the European Union is really what it claims to be, one would expect its members to rally to the UK’s defense and to challenge this act of aggression. Beyond rhetoric, this has not happened. In fact, as one newspaper reported this week, the EU explicitly “ruled out any tightening of lucrative export credit rules” against Iran. This provides yet another indication that the EU’s faux foreign minister and vision of a “common foreign and security policy” are laughably premature.
Still, Prime Minister Blair has every right to challenge his fellow EU leaders—or even to shame them—into showing the EU’s worth and relevance. They should start by freezing all trade with Tehran. As Timothy Garton Ash recently observed:
"The EU is by far Iran’s biggest trading partner. More than 40 percent of its imports come from, and more than a quarter of its exports go to, the EU. Remarkably, this trade has grown strongly in the last years of looming crisis...As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fails to deliver on his populist economic promises, this European trade becomes ever more vital for the Iranian regime—and ever more dependent on European government guarantees to counterbalance the growing political risk."
In short, an EU financial freeze would definitely get the mullahs’ attention.
But as with so many other recent tests, the EU’s governing elites are not willing to put their treasure on the line, let alone their armies. There was a time, not long ago, when the Europeans flexed their economic muscle to force rogues and outliers to change behavior, or have their regime changed.
Consider the case of South Africa. In 1985, what was then the Common Market joined Washington in imposing sanctions against the ugly apartheid regime. Under the initial battery of sanctions, Western Europe embargoed oil, military hardware and expertise, and nuclear technology. Later, import bans on South African gold, iron and steel were added. Not only did the embargo stigmatize South Africa, it also hit the government and its patrons where it counted—in the wallet. Prior to the embargo, iron, steel and gold exports to Europe accounted for $700 million in South African income. Apartheid is now a part of history.
Likewise, Western Europe played a central role in transforming Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism. By giving Eastern European governments a range of economic, political, human rights, and military standards to achieve, the EU (and its forerunner, the European Community) helped resuscitate what Communism had left for dead. And by giving Eastern Europe aid and trade opportunities, the wealthy West gave the once-orphaned East hope.
In 2004, the EU added 10 new countries, most from Europe’s eastern half. Just 15 years earlier, eight of those countries were under Communist domination. Three of them, the Baltics, were still leashed to the Soviet Union in the 1990s. This impressive feat of European enlargement has been successful precisely because the EU set standards for acceptable behavior, aid and assistance.
Simply put, Europe has the capability to effect real change. It also has the right and the responsibility to set standards of acceptable behavior. But it lacks the will, at least vis-à-vis the thugs that rule Iran.
With or without the EU’s support, one hopes that somewhere on the Persian Gulf or in London or Washington, British and American strategists are developing plans for a punitive strike on the naval base that spawned the boats that seized the Brits. After the hostages are released, there has to be some price for piracy; and if the EU is not ready to extract it with Euros and dollars, then perhaps a US-UK flotilla should do so with precision-guided munitions.
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