Leverage or Aggression?

On Friday, March 23, around 10:30 am Baghdad Time, while conducting a routine merchant ship inspection in the Persian Gulf, 15 British sailors and Royal Marines — among them one woman — were abducted at gunpoint by Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen, and taken to Tehran, where they are currently being held hostage.

This unfortunate act is simply the latest escalation in Iran’s undeclared war on allied forces currently fighting to stabilize Iraq. Previous (and ongoing) actions against the Multinational Forces in Iraq have included the training, funding, and arming of insurgent fighters — and direct participation in the fighting — by the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

This development, reminiscent of a similar capture of British sailors by Iran in 2004 (though those hostages were quickly released), should not surprise any who have been paying attention to the rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic in recent months. Only a week ago, according to an Iranian military official, “a plan to capture American or British coalition troops was formulated by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Security Council in response to the arrest of Iranian officers by U.S. forces in Iraq.”

Only days before that, the Revolutionary Guard’s weekly newspaper had threatened the abduction of Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, saying, “We’ve got the ability to capture a nice bunch of blue-eyed, blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks. Iran has enough people who can reach the heart of Europe and kidnap Americans and Israelis.”

Iran’s rationale for this act — and for threatening further hostage-takings — appears to be twofold. First, they are extremely unhappy about the capture of over Iranian intelligence and paramilitary operatives in Iraq, and are desirous of a bargaining chip with which to negotiate their return. As contributor “Streiff” has pointed out, wounded pride may also have been a factor in the decision to exact retribution-in-kind against the West. The Revolutionary Guard, he says, has “suffered a series of painful and public reverses which have to have damaged its credibility with the various centers of power in Tehran as well as holding it up to some degree of ridicule to its proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

“The have lost a general to the West through defection,” he continues, “and have lost track of several other senior Quds Brigade operatives in Iraq. …One has to suspect that they will demand the release of the nearly 400 Iranian agents now in custody as a price for the 15 British men and women now in captivity.”

The second possible factor in the decision to commit this act is Iran’s increasingly precarious international position vis-à-vis their illicit nuclear program. According to the London Times, a “source close to the [Revolutionary] Guard” acknowledged that such tactics as the abduction of allied servicemen “had been approved by Ayatollah Khameni, Iran’s supreme leader, who warned last week that Tehran would take illegal actions if necessary to maintain its right to develop a nuclear program.” This seizure of the 15 British sailors could very well be an attempt by the Islamic Republic to secure greater leverage in the nuclear situation — particularly in light of the fact that the resolution containing the latest round of sanctions against Iran, voted on (and unanimously passed) the day after the sailors’ capture, was co-authored by Britain.

Regardless of the rationale behind the move, this latest situation has again confronted the West with a decision about how best to deal with an enormously powerful rogue state . The inflammatory rhetoric coming from Tehran has not improved matters. The Iranian government claimed over the weekend to have a full confession from the hostages stating that they had illegally entered Iranian territorial waters and, according to the Sunday Times, a “website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” reported that the sailors (to whom it referred as “insurgents”) will “be charged with espionage — an offense punishable in Iran by death.”

There is little reason to doubt that the Iranian government will prevent any real harm from coming to these captives. Likewise, there is little reason to believe that they will not be released, like those captured in 2004, before much more time has passed. The country’s hard-line stance had already softened by Monday, when it said that the captives were being questioned “to determine if their alleged entry into Iranian waters was intentional or unintentional” before deciding how to proceed with them — a development which Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi called “the first sign it could be seeking a way out of the standoff.”

However, even if Iran relents in the near future and releases these Prisoners of War, a message must still be sent that such acts cannot be taken lightly — lest the Iranian government, and its Revolutionary Guardsmen, be even more emboldened by the lack of a stern, forceful response to such provocations. Their actions in Iraq — illegal acts of war which went virtually unpunished for nearly four years — have finally, with the modification of ROE which accompanied the President’s new war strategy, begun to result in negative consequences in the form of growing numbers of captured operatives.

Iran’s illegal interference in the turbulent domestic affairs of its neighbor, and its actions against the coalition working to achieve order there, is bad enough. However, the fact that the rogue state apparently believes that the capture of its own soldiers and operatives in the act of those illegal foreign operations warrants, as retribution, the illegal apprehension of foreign sailors in international waters — or thinks that such an act will influence the international community to give it what it wants — confirms that Iran believes it can act with impunity in its region. If there is any limit on Iranian action, it is not apparent to the mullahs.

This abduction of British sailors was a case of the government of Iran doing exactly what it said it would — a fact which should give America pause, and should cause us to reconsider our current unwillingness to act against the Islamic Republic in the face of future, more serious acts against us and our interests. After all, this is a nation whose President has repeatedly spoken of the impending “death of America,” and has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” — and it is a nation which is currently pursuing nuclear weapons.

Had we been taking Iran’s words and threats seriously in the recent past, then this abduction of British sailors might have been avoided altogether.. At the very least, let us take this incident as an object lesson that words and threats are not simply annoyances to be ignored, but that such statements — especially from the mouths of our self-proclaimed enemies — actually mean something, and that continuing to turn a blind eye to the increasing belligerence of an adversary will not result in defusing tensions, but in emboldening it to commit greater and greater acts of violence against us.