- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

Taking its behind-the-scenes diplomacy public, Britain has stepped up its pressure on Iran to release 15 sailors and marines taken hostage last week, and it’s time for the rest of the international community to follow suit. British officials have declared unequivocally that the sailors and marines boarded a ship in Iraq’s territorial waters. An overflight confirmed British reports of the location of the merchant vessel, which has been anchored in the same place (where the British personnel were taken hostage at gunpoint) since the incident last Friday. Moreover, coordinates provided by the Iranian government purporting to show that the British personnel had entered Iranian waters turned out to be, in fact, in Iraqi waters. Only later did Iranian officials offer a second, “corrected,” set of coordinates. Iran’s defense of its aggression is unraveling.

Prime Minster Tony Blair told Parliament: “It is now time to ratchet up international and diplomatic pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian government understands their total isolation on this issue.” Indeed, the United Nations Security Council, under whose mandate the marines and sailors were operating, needs to take up the charge. Iranian officials, however, have so far failed to respond to international pressure: a promise to release Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the only female hostage, was spurned even as the chorus of criticisms grew.

Should diplomatic pressure continue to fail to make headway, increasing the economic pressure on Iran may also be an effective way to force its hand. Britain will cut off official bilateral business with the rogue regime, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett announced Wednesday. While British trade with Iran is relatively small, the European Union as a whole has more substantial economic leverage. The EU is Iran’s largest trading partner, receiving more than 26 percent of Iranian exports and accounting for 44 percent of Iranian imports. As Timothy Garton Ash noted yesterday in the British newspaper the Guardian, export credit guarantees — especially from Germany, France and Italy — have bolstered this growing trade. Sixty-five percent of German exports to Iran, a larger percentage than to any other country, are guaranteed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

As current president of the EU, Germany should lead the way in exerting its economic influence to bring about the only acceptable solution to this situation: the immediate release of all hostages.

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