David Frum March 31st, 2007 at 12:00 am
The Iranian seizure of 15 British naval personnel is an outrage–and an opportunity. Iran invaded Iraqi territorial waters, attacked British naval personnel enforcing resolutions of the UN Security Council and committed an act of piracy and kidnapping.
Iran then displayed its captives on national television and compelled them to read coerced political statements. It forced the captured female sailor to wear the Islamic hijab, a violation of her Geneva Convention right to practice her own religion.
These violent and lawless actions have shocked British and European public opinion. But they should not have surprised anyone.
Iran has routinely used kidnapping as a tool of state. It kidnapped eight British sailors in 2004, and 52 American diplomats in 1979-81. Iran’s Hezbollah surrogates kidnapped Americans, Britons and others in Lebanon in the 1980s. They kidnapped Israeli soldiers in 2000 and again this past summer, triggering a war.
Iran has committed graver crimes too. Iranian agents have committed murder on the soil of the United States, France and Germany–and carried out mass-casualty terror attacks in Saudi Arabia and Argentina.
Today, Iran is racing to build a nuclear bomb, violating its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And too many in Europe shrug their shoulders.
This latest crisis, however, opens a chance to mobilize European opinion to action.
One of their own has been attacked and threatened with the prolonged abuse of its military personnel. The story will appear on television night after night after night. The longer it continues, the more British people and other Europeans will wonder: Is there anything we can do? And the good news is: Yes, there is.
The bullying, blustering bravado of the Iranians should not conceal the truth that Iran is massively vulnerable to international pressure. For example:
– Iran’s decrepit refineries cannot produce enough gasoline for Iranian drivers. So, although Iran is a major oil exporter, it must import 40 percent of its gasoline. An international embargo on gasoline sales to Iran would inflict severe distress. Earlier this month, Iran raised the (deeply subsidized) price of gasoline from 34 cents a gallon to 50 cents. Some in the regime are considering imposing rationing–a move that would badly damage what remains of the mullahs’ popularity.
– Iran’s rusting industries, many of them state owned, depend heavily on parts and equipment imported from Germany. Two-thirds of these sales benefit from export credit guarantees from the German government. As of 2005, Germany had extended some US$6.2-billion worth of credit to Iran. That number has been cut in recent months. But if Germany were to follow Japan’s lead and cut its credits to zero, Iranian companies would have to pay more for parts–and some would be forced out of business altogether. The Central Bank of Iran estimates unemployment at more than 12 percent. Many private economists think the real figure closer to 20 percent–and higher still for young Iranians.
– The United States has maintained sanctions against Iranian oil and natural gas since 1979. The European Union, however, has continued to invest in Iran. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that foreign companies, mostly European, have invested US$30-billion in Iran since 1996. Without this investment, Iran’s oil and gas output would have faltered long ago. It’s time now for Europeans to join the American ban on investment in Iran’s energy sector. Such a ban would deal a painful blow to Iran’s economy, which has little to sell beside oil and gas. Iran suffers an inflation rate over 20 percent, suggesting that the Iranian government is already overspending its oil and gas revenues. Squeeze those revenues, and you squeeze the regime.
– Not all firms investing in Iran are European. Malaysia’s Petronas and Russia’s Gazprom both play major roles. Till now, firms doing business in Iran have been allowed to do business not only in the EU but also in the United States. It’s time now to impose a secondary boycott, and to force firms like Petronas to decide: Either you do business with Iran or you do business with the rest of the planet. You choose.
Since 9/11, Europeans have pleaded with the U.S. to rely on sanctions and diplomacy rather than force. Fine. Let’s see some sanctions then–real sanctions, not the wrist-slaps imposed till now.
Iran has been waging war on the world; it’s time the world organized in countervailing self-defense. And if anything is needed to stiffen our collective will, let’s broadcast one more time that image of Faye Turney, cloaked against her will in that black headscarf of subordination and humiliation.