Though the crisis triggered by Iran’s illegal capture of 15 British naval personnel nears an end, it is difficult not to see how the European Union’s irresolute and contradictory approach to the abductions only made matters worse. Faced with a country whose leader is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, the EU’s leaders simply dithered, fearing that the fire next door in Iraq could somehow spread. The crisis proved again that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot be trusted. Following the ambush of the British sailors and marines, the Iranian authorities dissembled as to their exact location at the time of their abduction. The United Kingdom subsequently proved this to have been in Iraqi territorial waters, where the British were operating under the authority of United Nations resolutions and with the express consent of the Iraqi government. What Ahmadinejad appears to have wanted are bargaining chips to secure the release of six Iranians who were aiding the Iraqi insurgency before being captured by American forces. The EU’s reluctance to match Washington’s robust language on Iran has emboldened the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad can sense an international community divided, and like his fellow pariah leader, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, he is exploiting that division at every opportunity. The uniquely dangerous combination of a nuclear Iran, which has the potential to inspire Shiites in the Gulf states to rise up against their Sunni masters, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s millenarian mysticism, also poses an existential threat to Israel, which Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe off the map. It also threatens to touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. And, if Iran succeeds in acquiring long-range ballistic missiles, the security threat will become global. Indeed, the established concept of nuclear deterrence through “mutual assured destruction (MAD), which kept the peace between the Soviet Union and NATO, may not apply with a ruler like Ahmadinejad, who believes in the sacred merits of martyrdom. MAD simply won’t work for a man who is guided by quasi-messianic certitude. Those who believe that Ahmadinejad is a bluffer and a buffoon who would pull back from the brink may be fundamentally misreading his psychology. It is past time for Europe’s leaders to grasp the reality of the situation. The possibility of degrading Iran’s nuclear weapons program through military action cannot be totally discounted, although it should of course be the last option and would be immensely risky even if militarily possible. Yet there is much more that EU leaders can do to undermine the regime economically. The EU’s trade significance for Iran is huge, with the union’s countries accounting for 40 percent of Iran’s imports and a quarter of its exports. Economic links are historically strong and growing. Some two-thirds of Iranian industry, most of it state controlled, relies on German engineering exports, 65 percent of which in 2005 came with export credit insurance guarantees from the German government. Likewise, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is providing $1 billion to finance the construction of the Nabucco oil pipeline from Iran to Austria. If completed, the Nabucco pipeline will make Iran an indispensable EU energy partner. As an organ of the EU, the EIB should be pursuing an ethical investment policy. This is difficult to reconcile with lending to a country like Iran, which publicly executes individuals for sexual “deviance, imprisons women who protest peacefully, and silences journalists who are critical of the regime. The EU needs to tell Iran that unless it moderates its nuclear ambitions, it will receive no export guarantees. Such a policy would stop trade between Iran and the EU in its tracks, and Ahmadinejad knows it. There are already signs of disquiet among more moderate Iranian policymakers, as Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement has begun to fuel higher inflation. A cut in export guarantees would put the Iranian economy – and Ahmadinejad – in real jeopardy. Individual companies, mindful of US sanctions on those who do business with the regime, can also help. For example, British Petroleum (BP), to its credit, has disinvested from Iran on ethical grounds, an example that other European firms should follow. The Iranian government’s contempt for the international community reflects its contempt for human rights and civilized norms. Yet the Iranians’ hunger for change is clear. Despite repression, Iran’s civil society is well developed and sophisticated. The Ahmadinejad government’s popularity has plummeted, as evidenced by recent local election results. Europe’s political leaders need to recognize that now is the time to facilitate change in Iran by suspending export credit guarantees, stopping EIB financing, and speaking with a united voice. Wishing the problem away will only make it worse. ………. Charles Tannock is Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).