By Robert G. Joseph
May 1, 2007
The Wall Street Journal
In the wake of Iran’s release of 15 British sailors and marines taken hostage in March, there is renewed debate about the appropriate lessons to be drawn concerning the taking of hostages and how best to dissuade and deter similar acts in the future.
We would do well to remember that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly was a leader of the militant “students” who in 1979 took U.S. embassy personnel hostage for 444 days. He well understands American (and now British) sensitivities to the fate of their fellow countrymen. While all the motivations still may not be understood, it is evident that this act was designed to humiliate the West and to deter the U.S. from intervening to reverse the Khomenei revolution.
More than 25 years later, Mr. Ahmadinejad was again at the center of an act of hostage taking. As before, the cynical manipulation of the captives in the media was undoubtedly intended to humiliate the West. By taking British captives, Iran also hoped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its closest ally. Mr. Ahmadinejad again played a leading role and, from his perspective, won. His lesson learned: Hostage taking worked again and, most likely, will continue to work.
And what have we learned? One day Iran will have the means to hold entire cities hostage. Under Mr. Ahmadinejad’s direction, and in close partnership with his Revolutionary Guards, Iran continues to defy the U.N. Security Council by enriching uranium and expanding what is already the largest offensive missile force in the region. Moreover, it is reported to be working closely with North Korea, the world’s number one missile proliferator, to develop even more capable ballistic missiles.
By 2015, it’s estimated that Iran will be able to target European capitals with its missiles. While that capability might come later, it might also come sooner — recall that North Korea surprised the world with the launch of the Taepodong-1 in 1998, years ahead of intelligence estimates. Regardless of the specific timing, analysts agree that in the foreseeable future Iran will be armed with medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. We could wake up one morning to find that Iran is holding Berlin, Paris or London hostage to whatever its demands are then.
We must take action now to prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad or some other extremist leader that opportunity. One of the highest priorities is the deployment of effective missile defenses, including in Europe. A defense against Iranian missiles will have the added benefit of signaling to Tehran that its investments in advanced weapons systems and WMD will not pay off.
Unfortunately, there are efforts to derail U.S. missile-defense talks with Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow understands that 10 interceptors in Europe represent no threat to its many hundreds of missiles. Yet President Putin has threatened to pull out of a key European arms-control agreement while other Russian officials are attempting to bully Warsaw and Prague into submission; thus far, both have rebuffed Russian pressure. More obliquely, some seek to scuttle the talks by calling for a European Union common policy on missile defense, knowing that this would lead to paralysis.
Instead, U.S. and EU allies alike should recognize that serious trans-Atlantic security issues are the domain of NATO, and that preparing for emerging threats is preferable to responding after they have arrived. Deploying a missile-defense capability in Europe, while not a matter for a formal collective decision, is consistent with NATO initiatives and will make the Alliance stronger. Our security is indivisible; we must deny Iran its goal of gaining coercive power by taking hostages by the millions.
The Bush administration is pressing forward with a sense of urgency. Given the emerging threat to all Americans and our allies, this effort should be supported by both parties in Congress. The Polish and Czech governments have agreed to begin talks on hosting missile-defense assets on their territories. The outcome, if successful, will vastly reduce Mr. Ahmadinejad’s ability to hold us and our allies hostage in the future.
Mr. Joseph is senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy and U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Nonproliferation.