Iran’s Confrontation With Britain

Choice words are exchanged after the capturing of 15 British sailors.

What happened

In a dramatic escalation of its defiance of the West, Iran last week seized 15 British sailors and marines who were on a routine patrol in the Persian Gulf. The British were on two small boats, in what they say are Iraqi waters, when they were surrounded by heavily armed Iranian boats. Iran claimed the 14 men and one woman were caught in Iranian waters and would be interrogated as suspected spies. Britain reacted mildly at first, summoning the Iranian ambassador for an explanation. But after the Iranians broadcast a video of the British captives showing the female sailor saying they'd strayed into Iranian waters, Britain froze all 'œofficial bilateral business' with Iran. 'œIt is now time to ratchet up international and diplomatic pressure,' said Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The hostage taking came just before the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed more sanctions on Iran for failing to stop its nuclear programs. In December, the council had given Iran 60 days to stop enrichment of uranium; when that deadline passed, it tightened restrictions on trade. Iran now says it will no longer inform the International Atomic Energy Agency if it builds any new nuclear facilities.

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What the editorials said

Make no mistake: This is 'œan act of war,' said Investor's Business Daily. Iran's contempt for Britain only demonstrates the folly of appeasing this rogue nation on the nuclear issue. The E.U. has been playing nice with Iran for years, looking the other way while the Iranians pursue nuclear weapons. Since Blair can't count on other E.U. nations to help him, now he'll have to get tough. 'œHe can't wait much longer to go Thatcher on Tehran.'

Iran's motives here are murky, said the Chicago Tribune. It may be hoping to trade the kidnapped British sailors and marines for the five Iranians captured by U.S. forces in Iraq. 'œOr could this simply be a ham-handed warning to America and its allies that Western forces are operating in Iran's neighborhood,' where Iran can make trouble at will. It might also be Iran's way of thumbing its nose at the U.N. over the nuclear issue, said the Financial Times. 'œIf so, it is a stupid response.' The unanimous vote at the Security Council means that China and Russia are no longer protecting Iran from the world's demands that it stop enriching uranium. Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are becoming 'œincreasingly open in their hostility' to Iran. Iran may be overplaying its hand.

What the columnists said

There's no point in looking for some root cause of the mullahs' behavior, said Michael Ledeen in National Review Online. 'œThey took the hostages because that is what they do.' The real question is, 'œWhy Brits rather than Americans?' As it happens, they tried to take Americans, way back in September. A U.S. Cavalry group patrolling the Iran-Iraq border was betrayed by its Iraqi allies and surrounded by Iranian troops. Unlike the British sailors, though, the Americans shot their way out.

Lord Horatio Nelson must be 'œspinning in his grave,' said Jack Kelly in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Britain's greatest naval commander would never have turned from a fight. The British could have blown the Iranians out of the water with the HMS Cornwall, the warship escorting the 15 sailors. But the Defense Ministry ordered the Cornwall not to fire. Adm. Alan West explained that British rules of engagement dictate restraint, because 'œwe don't want wars starting.' Can he be serious? When another nation kidnaps your sailors, you can't respond with 'œsternly worded letters of protest.'

There's not much else the Brits can do, said Arthur Herman in the New York Post. They simply don't have the military muscle to make a credible threat to Iran—and they're busily cutting the forces they do have. By next year, 'œthe once-vaunted Royal Navy will be about the size of the Belgian Navy.' If Iran backs down, it will be because the United States has two full carrier groups stationed in the Persian Gulf.

What next?

The Wall Street Journal

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