It's been almost two weeks since 15 Britons -- eight sailors and seven marines -- were taken hostage by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the powerful Iranian elite who command a military apparatus, complete with their own navy and air force, separate from and parallel to the regular Iranian military. There's little doubt that the Brits were in Iraqi territory when they were seized; a device transmitting their position went dead in Iraqi waters as they were seized (possibly thrown overboard to prevent the Iranians from getting hold of the data it contained); the Iranians themselves were forced to "correct" their coordinates when it was pointed out that their own announcement placed the seizure outside their territory.
What are the Revolutionary Guards up to? The lefty British rag the Independent would have you believe it's all our fault. Follow the bouncing anti-American logic: Not only did U.S. forces capture five Iranian spies in Iraq, there were two senior Iranian officials that were almost caught. Therefore, kidnapping British military personnel was the only reasonable reaction.
I give the Revolutionary Guards more credit than that. There's more going on here than a tit-for-tat, you-take-our-guys, we-take-your-guys gambit. In fact, provoking a crisis with Britain fits nicely into the Guards' long-term goal of advancing the nuclear weapons program that they oversee.
"We're getting pinged all over the world by Iranians wanting to talk to us," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in February, adding that the State Department wouldn't be game for negotiations until Iran promised to suspend uranium enrichment. The kidnapping of the Brits came one day before the UN Security Council was scheduled to pass what turned out to be a fairly toothless sanctions resolution. The Revolutionary Guards may have staged the seizure to prevent rival factions in Iran from undergoing any negotiations that might delay the Guards' progress toward building their bomb. As long as the hostage situation continues, a breakthrough on the nuclear issue is inconceivable.
If the European Union were serious about wielding its "soft power," there would be cards to play against Iran. Europe could impose a ban on investment in Iran's energy sector (this has been U.S. policy since 1979). The German government could eliminate the export credit guarantees that subsidize two-thirds of German companies' business with Iranian industry. But Europe is not serious, and the Revolutionary Guards know it. Seizing British personnel from Iraqi waters is not a new trick; Iran pulled the same stunt on in 2004 (that time it was six marines and two sailors), at almost the same spot. There were no consequences then, and the Iranians have little reason to believe there will be now.
There is a military option, of course. The U.S. Air Force could drop a few bunker-busters on the buried centrifuge chambers near Natanz where the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly tripled uranium enrichment over the past three months; if that report is true, Iran is on track to have a nuclear bomb in 2009. (While we're listing targets, there's also the heavy-water reactor under construction near Arak, which when operational can be used to produce plutonium suitable for a weapon.) An aerial assault on Iran carries heavy risks, and there's a strong case for delaying any bombing run for as long as possible while pressuring Iran in other ways. But it's worrisome that Western leaders haven't even publicly raised the possibility of air strikes. As the time when attacking Iran becomes the least-bad option rapidly approaches, our leaders need to get over their reluctance to rattle the saber.
UPDATE: As we all know by now, Iran has announced that the Brits will be released as a "gift" to the UK. There's more going on here than Iran making nice for public consumption, of course. All we can do is speculate (as I did a bit on AmSpecBlog this morning) about what exactly Iran is getting in return for the release; the British Foreign Office won't say. It's hard to judge the extent of the Iranian victory without knowing more.