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Union Jackpot

Iran's hostage gambit exposed our weakness

Say what you will about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but he has always had a keen sense of fashion. Which helps explain the trendy attire chosen for the clean-shaven British sailors and marines whom, fresh from a makeover, he paraded before television cameras in Tehran on Wednesday. The entire farce--carried live from the presidential palace--was an ideal finale to a theatrical drama that had seemed staged from the outset. And, even worse, everything seems to have followed the script faithfully.

The British hostages may have already come home, but this standoff has had anything but an "all's well that ends well" conclusion. And all you need to do is watch Ahmadinejad's performance to see why. Casting an absurdly righteous aura of benevolence, the grinning Iranian leader greeted and pardoned the British servicemen one by one as each took his or her turn in front of the cameras. Even one of their fists wouldn't have wiped that smirk off his face.

Anyone keeping score should chalk this one up as a point for the ayatollahs. If the faltering American war in Iraq was the first mark on the Iranian score card against the West and Israel's disastrous Lebanon war was the deuce, then Ahmadinejad has pulled a hat trick. At this rate, he's heading for a blowout.

Let's go to the tape. Two weeks ago, Iranian naval units belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guards violated Iraqi territorial sovereignty--not to mention a handful of international laws--and seized 15 British sailors and marines (among them one women). Some outlets have preferred the more neutral terminology of "captured" or "detained," but "kidnap" is the only verb that fits--especially considering that the Brits were conducting a U.N.-sanctioned mission to secure Iraq's borders.

The Iranians choose their battles well, and it was therefore only natural that British, not American, servicemen were targeted. Seeing two U.S. carrier groups within striking distance and a trigger-happy White House, Tehran instead sought the weakest link. (In fact, it's hardly unreasonable to assume this was planned long in advance as a way to test the limits of Tehran's power.)

The gamble played out magnificently. Despite blatant territorial aggression, Iran has suffered absolutely no repercussions (with the exception of yet another succinct and characteristically restrained U.N. Security Council reprimand expressing "grave concern"). What's more, nobody has really challenged the Iranian assertion that diplomacy prevailed--never mind that, strictly speaking, a military intrusion into foreign waters aimed at kidnapping foreign citizens operating under an internationally sanctioned mandate is a casus belli.

Writing in The Washington Post yesterday, Robin Wright noted that, although experts agree that Tehran has claimed a "short-term victory," it is still likely to "pay a long-term price." But, since new estimates foresee an Iranian nuke by 2009, this is particularly unlikely.

In the good old days, more than a century ago, when Queen and country still mattered and the almighty Union Jack waved proudly over every corner of the globe, the Royal Navy would be quick to react, dispatching the HMS Devastation into the Mediterranean to protect British interests with the help of 12-inch guns. Of course, times have changed, and Tehran has noticed.

As any nervous Israeli diplomat will tell you these days, a unified Western coalition is the only way to confront Iran and disarm it. But the hostage crisis puts the kibosh on the e pluribus unum fantasy. Until now, we had an ideal symbiosis: The Europeans spoke softly, the Americans carried the big stick. That worked as long as members of the unified Western coalition were equally committed to apply force in the face of an enemy threat. But Great Britain's guarantees over the last two weeks that it was "not seeking a military confrontation" (from Downing Street and the foreign minister) allowed the Iranians to call its bluff without even breaking a sweat--which bodes well for their nuclear program. The Brits (like their European allies), Iran now understands, have neither the inclination nor the ability to take up arms--not even to protect their own troops, let alone to face down someone's uranium-enrichment program. The next time European nuclear negotiators arrive in Tehran, the Iranians won't have forgotten this.

The international community keeps telling Iran that there is a price to be paid. But, so far, it has yet to collect. Three U.N resolutions since July have yet to halt the enrichment process. Tehran's flagrant interventions in Iraq continue uninterrupted. And its support for Hezbollah remains as strong as ever. Iran has yet to endure any consequential punitive measures in response to what has become a systematic and obdurate belligerence. And this latest development proves no different. It's no wonder Ahmadinejad can't stop grinning.

By Yoav Fromer