Prime Minister Tony Blair’s response has been appropriately firm to the egregious incident in which 15 British sailors and marines were taken hostage Friday by Iranian naval forces after searching a civilian merchant ship in Iraqi waters on Friday. The British leader said Tehran should understand what a “fundamental” issue this is for his government, adding that the Iranian government “should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong.” Mr. Blair, along with other British officials, has steadfastly maintained that the British forces were in Iraqi waters, rejecting Tehran’s pretext for its aggression. The British hostages are now being interrogated, and may be charged with espionage — an allegation as serious as it is unfounded.
Iran’s actions on Friday came only a day before the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved tougher sanctions against the rogue regime in Tehran. Although Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said on Saturday that he was unaware of any connection, the timing seems more than coincidental. Mr. Burns did note that “the Iranians are obviously feeling isolated in the world” and were feeling an “upgrade in the international pressure.” British politicians now need to maintain their convictions and not allow their policy to be manipulated by Iranian hostility.
In the past, those who have argued for the efficacy of diplomatic engagement with Tehran to stop its nuclear program have claimed that the Iranian government is more responsive to the international community than is, for instance, the Kim Jong Il regime in North Korea. This will be a good test case for that claim. The captured British marines and sailors were operating under the auspices of a U.N. mandate, and also with the permission of the Iraqi government. The United Nations should be as outraged as the British. While London stands firm in its message, the Security Council should condemn Iran over this aggression and call for a prompt release of the British personnel.
A younger Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a student at the time, was active in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran according to a number of embassy workers taken hostage. That crisis lasted 444 days. For eight British sailors and marines captured by Iranian forces in June 2004, the ordeal mercifully lasted three days, although the captive Britons were blindfolded and filmed, and later reported being subjected to mock executions. What Mr. Ahmadinejad, now a middle-aged hostage-taker, has planned for the 15 British hostages is still unclear, but the message from the international community cannot be. Until the British hostages have been freed, Iran should face unrelenting pressure.