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The Mullahs' Next Steps

By Walid Phares

Since Day One of the planned operation to snatch British sailors from Iraqi waters, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) "War Kitchen" in Tehran had already drawn multiple recipes for the following weeks and potentially months to come. Indeed the regime, reacting to rising pressures from sectors of its own population and from the American-British-led coalition, engineered an "escalating" incident. The main scenario, as projected inside the minds of the Iranian "Jihadi-cooks," is based on one request from the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime: waste time, as much time as possible. To the mullahs and their men in power, it is crucial to win the race between rising internal pressure inspired by the political changes in the region and pressure against the Iranian-led "axis" in the region, directed at the U.S. and the U.K. initiatives in Iraq. In short, Tehran's regime wants to crumble its enemies before they crumble it.

"Catching" a British Navy unit off the shores of Iraq -- regardless of the GPS positioning of the unit -- is the opening play. In ten days, Tehran has already scored one success: The UN is discussing what to do about the 15 British sailors instead of how to shut down the 15 nuclear centers in Iran. The debate has been deflected and is now in the hands of the Iranian cooks. The opening play is followed by the dramatization of the "incident." First, the regime begins showing the captives and swings media attention between details ("were they in Iranian waters?") and outcomes ("will they be tried?") of the phony case. Another psychological victory is scored: The international press follows the Iranian maestro's gesticulations. As usual with the Western mainstream media, the story's details become the devil, and their readers are denied the big picture. Here is how the mullahs' "psych-war" develops and could evolve in different directions.

Framing the incident

In the aftermath of the media rush to describe the details of the "crime's" location, it is simply forgotten that Iran's behavior is the big story. Had the vessels entered Kuwaiti waters by error, for instance, the principality navy would have alerted the British unit as to its current location and asked them if they needed help to correct their sailing. At the very least, a regime that brags about the "dialogue of civilizations," such as the Ahmadinejad elite, should have behaved better. Had the Khomeinist Navy been "international" in its behavior, its men should have informed the British sailors that they were in Iranian waters (the legality of the issue to be resolved by governments, not by military capture of the boat) and demanded them to leave the area immediately. That would have been the case, had an Iranian warship been spotted within Saudi or Omani waters.

Ironically, the spokespersons of the Iranian regime are framing the incident as a British act of war. Psychologically, this is very revealing: It shows that the mullahs decided to frame the incident as an "act of war" to begin with, and then open the field for negotiations, giving London only one choice: to apologize and hasten the pull out from the area. It's a classic Machiavellian maneuver: Changing the game from UN sanctions on Iran to UN mediation between Tehran and London to free the sailors.

Prisoners show

Against all stipulations of international law, the Ahmadinejad regime has used these POWs in propaganda operations: Parading the 14 male detainees on national and international TV, then singling out the female prisoner and abusing her individual rights: to separate the British female sailor from her companions for the purpose of propaganda, to force her to wear a black headscarf (a sign of ideological submission) and other outfits not appropriate with her status as a British citizen is against the Geneva Conventions. And above all it is illegal to show the abducted service persons in any way other than to present the evidence that they are alive and well. Any and all other "cinema" manufactured by the Ahmadinejad regime is a violation of international law.

The Jihadi letters

Stage three is the classical fascist extraction of "confessions." While the Iranian regime has been very astute lately in external propaganda, the airing-of-letters drama seems to be a resurgence of the old methods, instead of the sophisticated suggestions the international PR advisors Iran has hired would put forward. Forcing the detained servicewoman to send a letter to her parents asking for the British withdrawal from Iraq is rarely seen these days. Videotaping the other male sailors "apologizing" for the incursion is reminiscent of old Nazi and Communist propaganda. However, what is interesting is that Tehran is giving its own official TV channel, al Aalam, the exclusivity of the initial broadcast. This means the regime is eager to play this propaganda in the Arab world and score mileage with it. More interesting is the fact that al Aalam TV, which is airing material in breach of international law, has offices in London and Washington, D.C.

The old 'students show'

As in the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis, the lead is given by the regime to "students." In the West, the image of students is reminiscent of the 1968 college uprising in France and the U.S., thus touching a domestic cord. If students are upset with the "colonial powers," explained Western academics at the time, then it is the future generations of these countries that we need to take into consideration.

However, liberal democratic elites have had a hard time understanding that fascist-type propagandists use whatever is dear and sensitive to their enemy. The "students" of the Iranian revolution in the 1970s ended up becoming members in the oppressive Pasdaran corps, a Khomeinist version of Hitler's SS. Those students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran were the same ones who crushed the bones of freedom-seeking students in 1990s Iran.

These are the regime's "students." They never graduate, they are in the service of the mullahs and they only appear when the military trucks pick them up from the militia's barracks. After falling in a two-decades long sleep, here are the "students" again rushing to "protest" at the British embassy? The view is tragicomic: Chanting against Zionism, imperialism and infidels, the stone throwers burn large signs with red crosses on them and a word in Farsi meaning England. More surreal are the so-called police cordons that are there to "enforce security." The students are Pasdaran in disguise and the security forces are under Pasdaran control. The rest is a Khomeinist street play.

Other 'shows' soon?

Will the regime restrict itself to this menu or will it produce others "shows"? According to connoisseurs in Khomeinist political culture, hostage crises are designed to last as long as needed to reach the goals. The 15 sailors episode was structured by the Tehran kitchen to obtain a variety of political aims: propaganda victory, exchange of prisoners for Iranian detainees in U.K. and U.S. custody, a "solution" to the defectors' crisis, waiting out the departure of the Blair Government and dealing with the incoming cabinet, etc.

The mullahs' strategists have a wide array of needs to satisfy. It will be up to them to decide when the crisis will end. But beware of more "shows" as well. For example, the students' action in front of the embassy may lead to another "crisis," such as students in another capital, say Beirut, being instructed to "protest." Actions inside Iraq or even in the West are to be expected, if the Ahmadinejad regime decides to do so. It is at their full discretion, or so they think.

Good cop/bad cop drama

What is also to be expected is the circulation in the media of stories about an "internal struggle" between the good guys and the bad guys in Tehran. Media reports are already talking about two poles inside the military security apparatus, giving some hope to the Western voices calling for calm and diplomacy.

On April 1, the Sunday Times reported that "Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi is said to have told the country's Supreme National Security Council on Friday that the situation was 'getting out of control' and urged its members to consider the immediate release of the prisoners to defuse tension in the Gulf." Expectedly, the article's headline was "Power struggle in Iran over hostages." The Times adds, "However, Safavi's intervention was reportedly denounced by another senior general at a meeting of high-ranking commanders yesterday. Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards' political bureau, was said to have accused him of weakness and 'liberal tendencies'."

How interesting to see that this "internal information" was obtained only now by Western (and some Arab) media from "well informed sources." Until this incident, few in the Western press have uttered the names of these Iranian generals. But now, they have become the Good Cop and the Bad Cop of Tehran. And on top of it, it works, because the logical western reaction would be then to wait for the "good guy" to prevail. That is precisely what the astute propaganda machine out of Tehran wants: Time.

Then comes the 'mediations'

As in similar situations, candidates for "mediation" will emerge quickly from the realm of world politics. Since the British Government can't negotiate "properly," would argue the self-suggested mediators, we will. High profile former hostages such as Terry Waite are expected to offer their services, but as long as "Iran, the hostage taker, is understood and respected." But beyond the classical candidates for this job, including former President Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson, expect possible other sub-scenarios, all encouraged by Tehran. Banking on domestic political unrest in the U.K., the mullah strategists wouldn't mind seeing British politicians, hopefully the antiwar types who are sympathetic to political jihadism, begin shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and London. Imagine what an MP like George Galloway could achieve out of this: a media fiasco for the British government - and by extension the U.S. -- and by ripple effect against the rising democracy movement inside Iran. It would be a bonanza of sheer anti-Western propaganda by English speaking politicians on both international and Arab networks.

But the Tehran propagandists could also request a "British Muslim" mediation to deal with the issue, putting even more pressure on the U.K. Or another possibility is to ask the League of Muslim states to begin a go-between initiative. Who knows, the circus could involve Lebanese politicians too? How about Hezbollah entering the fray and offering to "help," further confusing the situation? Even better, Iran would accept an offer by the Christian Lebanese General, Michel Aoun, now an ally of Hezbollah, to visit the detainees and play the mailman. Anything is possible, everything is open, as long as Tehran obtains the precious commodity: Time.

Other incidents?

The Shatt al Arab incident may not be the last one. Now that Ahmadinejad's "War-kitchen" has discovered the recipe, it may also serve more dishes of the sort, in other spots, by other actors and under different timetables. Remember how Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbollah, Iran's strategic ally in Lebanon, dragged Israel into a month-long war as a result of another similar snatch of soldiers in July 2006.

In this open field, results determine future actions. If the Iranian regime were to conclude that British, U.S. and international reactions hadn't really generated their hoped-for response, they will most likely unleash a second strike and possibly a third strike after that. That is the law of conflicts. And the Khomeinists, having discovered the weak link, will widen their war of images and words, till they crumble the resolve of their foes -- unless their foes prove them wrong.

Professor Walid Phares is the author of the recently released book, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracies. He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy.

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