By now, the nearly two-week-long hostage crisis prompted by Iran's brazen seizure of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf in late March is beginning to fade from public memory. But the incident has provided the West with an important glimpse into Iranian strategy - and an unprecedented opportunity for a reinvigorated transatlantic consensus about confronting the Islamic Republic.
From the start, Iran's ayatollahs used the well-orchestrated seizure as a flagrant piece of political theater. The goal? To signal their regime's resolve in the deepening crisis over its nuclear program. The message - coming just days after the U.N. Security Council's passage of a second round of sanctions on Iran for its unauthorized nuclear work - was unmistakable: The Iranian regime is ready and willing to fight for its atomic effort.
For European nations, this should come as a wake-up call of sorts. For a decade and a half, Europe had taken the lead in attempting to negotiate some sort of a modus vivendi with the radical regime in Tehran. Back in 1992, at the European Council summit in Edinburgh, the European Union launched what became known as "critical dialogue" - a diplomatic and economic charm offensive designed to influence Iran's stance on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and human rights.
That effort was short-lived and spectacularly unsuccessful; by the time it was tabled in 1997, "critical dialogue" had provided the Iranian regime with much-needed political and commercial contacts but failed to alter Iranian behavior in any meaningful way. More recently, from 2003 to 2005, the EU "troika" (France, Germany and Britain) attempted to revive critical dialogue as a way of dealing with Iran's expanding atomic effort, with very similar results.
The March 23 hostage-taking was a confirmation of the bankruptcy of this diplomacy. As Europe is beginning to learn, weapons of mass destruction are not a bargaining chip for Iran's ayatollahs. Rather, they are a staple of regime stability and a vehicle for regional dominance.
European policy must now adapt to this reality, and Washington can assist this transformation. American officials have struggled unsuccessfully for years to contain Iran's runaway nuclear ambitions and regional troublemaking. Throughout, U.S. efforts have been hampered by a lack of real economic leverage over the Islamic Republic. But Europe has the power to change all that.
Cumulatively, the countries of the European Union represent Iran's largest trading partner. Just three European nations - Germany, France and Italy - together account for close to 30 percent of the commercial goods imported by Iran annually. And Iran's main European customers (France, Italy and the Netherlands) jointly consume more than $10 billion worth of Iranian exports, mainly oil and petrochemical products, every year.
All of which means that with Europe's participation, serious economic measures such as asset freezes, reductions in foreign direct investment and bilateral trade embargoes could have a major effect on the Iranian economy. Just as important, such steps would send a clear signal to Iranian leadership that there are concrete consequences for its rogue behavior.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic should seize the moment to synchronize their economic and political strategies toward Tehran. If they do not, they run the risk that Iran's radical regime will learn exactly the wrong lesson about Western resolve from the recent crisis.