Mahmoud’s ‘gift’

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Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: Having kidnapped 15 British sailors and marines in Iraqi waters and paraded them before the world making “confessions,” Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now says he is pardoning them as a “gift” to the British people. As we go to press, Iran’s news agency reports the Brits will go home today. The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

April 5, 2007; Page A12

Having kidnapped 15 British sailors and marines in Iraqi waters and paraded them before the world making “confessions,” Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now says he is pardoning them as a “gift” to the British people. As we go to press, Iran’s news agency reports the Brits will go home today.

While we can be grateful for the captives’ release, no one should conclude from this episode that the Iranian government is taking a new peaceful turn, or that its President has become Mahmoud the Munificent. If anything, the events of the past two weeks show the opposite — notably the influence inside the regime of the Revolutionary Guards, who provoked the incident by seizing the sailors in Iraqi waters only hours after a unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council to stiffen sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. Their objective was clearly to create some negotiating leverage and humiliate Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is leaving office later this year. Hostage-taking has been a tool of Iranian foreign policy going back to 1979, and this was merely another turn of that wheel.

Mr. Blair’s decision to use diplomacy to gain the sailors’ release paid off, but as the second week of the hostage crisis neared its end, it was also becoming clear that British patience was beginning to wear thin. The implicit warning in the Prime Minister’s comment Tuesday that the next 48 hours would be “fairly critical” would not have gone unnoticed in Tehran. That the mullahs are now releasing the hostages is not an act of charity but a recognition that the hostage-taking would cost Iran more diplomatically — and perhaps militarily — than it would gain.

One benefit of this episode is that it provoked the press to start reporting on the Revolutionary Guards and elite al Quds force. These highly trained and well-financed fighters are the regime’s instruments of violence from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — where they arm Hezbollah and Hamas — to Iraq, where Iranian-supplied weapons are killing American and British soldiers.

For that reason, it’s important to separate Iran’s hostage-taking from the entirely lawful arrest by the U.S. of five Iranians in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January. Some hyperbolic British reporting has linked the two, but the Iranians were part of a Revolutionary Guard network that was supplying money and weapons to killers in Iraq. It would be a bad sign, and only encourage more hostage-taking, if the five Iranians were now released quickly in what Iran might claim is a quid pro quo.

Britain made it clear from the outset of the crisis that its foreign policy would not be held hostage to the mullahs. In this, it found scant support from its European allies. They preferred the usual appeasement track, calling for “dialogue” and refusing Britain’s request to threaten Iran with the end of government export guarantees if it did not release the sailors. The European Union bravely issued a declaration “deploring” the arrests while the U.N. weighed in with a statement of “grave concern.”

The British military has performed magnificently in Iraq, where 136 servicemen and women have been killed. Even so, with the release of the sailors, we would like to learn the full story of why the hostages seemingly cooperated so readily with their captors. Videotaped confessions, in which the accused apologize for misdeeds they didn’t commit, are staples of Iran’s authoritarian regime, and the British apologies to their captors may well have been coerced. Yet it’s hard to know what to make of yesterday’s pictures of the sailors — in suits, not uniforms — smiling and shaking hands with a beaming Mr. Ahmadinejad. These weren’t civilians but sailors presumably trained to resist propaganda displays.

While the release of the Brits is cause for celebration, we hope the world won’t forget those who aren’t getting out — the myriad political prisoners, often democrats, in Iran’s dungeons. These are the truly courageous people the West has paid too little attention to as it focuses on diplomacy and business with Iran. Given his regime’s persecution of Iran’s tiny Christian community, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s invocation of Easter as a reason for freeing the sailors is particularly offensive.

Many will be tempted to interpret the release of the hostages as evidence of Iran’s essential reasonableness, conveniently forgetting who started the crisis in the first place. The lesson of these two weeks is not to slip back into negotiations with Iran in the hope of exploiting some division that may or may not exist between “moderates” and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s allies.

The lesson is for the world to increase the diplomatic and sanctions pressure in response to Iran’s threatening behavior and continued nuclear program. That is what will produce more fissures in the regime — as more and more Iranians understand the price of isolation and conclude that the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards are leading them down a dangerous, losing road.

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