End of a Standoff

Friday, April 6, 2007

THERE WAS relief in Britain yesterday as 15 sailors and marines abducted by Iran and held for 12 days arrived home. Their abrupt release on Wednesday defused a slowly mounting international crisis -- but not before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had taken the opportunity to parade the service members once more before television cameras, accept their humiliating thanks and unjustified apologies, and reap the resulting propaganda benefits at home and abroad.

Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps were the clearest winners in the affair. They carried out an illegal attack against a major Western power and got away with it. They recouped some prestige following recent reverses in Iraq and in Iran's domestic politics, and they may have extracted some concessions from their enemies: An Iraqi diplomat arrested in Baghdad two months ago was released Tuesday, while U.S. officials announced that they might allow an Iranian envoy to meet five Iranians detained by American forces in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, the release of the captives prompted a predictable debate in the West. Those who insist that "dialogue" and "engagement" should be the only means of dealing with the Islamic regime cited the sailors' release as proof that quiet diplomacy can work. Mr. Ahmadinejad's showy performance was preceded by a quiet phone call between a senior British official and Iran's national security chief, Ali Larijani. Mr. Larijani is the contact for European diplomats seeking a way out of the standoff over Iran's nuclear program; there are hopes he can deliver a constructive response by Iran on that far more momentous issue.

We share those hopes. Yet the rosy analyses play down the salient fact of the sailors' case: Iran showed it remains prepared to take aggressive and illegal action to defend its nuclear program and other Revolutionary Guard interests. Two days before the sailors were captured, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described international pressure against Iran as "illegal" and added, "if they take illegal actions we, too, can take illegal actions and will do so." He wasn't bluffing, and there's no reason to believe the aggression won't continue.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company