April 5, 2007 | Real Clear Politics

Ahmadinejad’s “Plan B” – The Circus Continues

With the decision to release the 15 British sailors, the Ahmedinejad three-ring circus and the mullah's propaganda machine have produced a better end to the hostage crisis: Release them quickly and invest heavily in their merciful “liberation.” Hence the new debate worldwide is about the mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad “freeing” the British personnel, and not anymore about their abduction — and certainly not about the UN sanctions on the nuclear standoff, the Iranian operatives arrested in Iraq, or the domestic opposition to Ahmedinejad. The propaganda war continues, still powerful, and still in the hands of Tehran, or rather in the sophisticated PR machine at the service of the regime.

The abrupt change in direction by the mullahs from enduring crisis to sudden solution is the product of their PR machine realizing how furthering the hostage crisis would have been catastrophic. Ahmedinejad needed more time, but his advisors realized that the operation was close to being utterly exposed in the court of world opinion. But why did the “advisors” (mostly Western-hired) ask the mullahs to release the British at once? And how were they able to exploit that change of course? Here are the reasons:

1.) The basis behind this punctual operation was systematically eroded in one week: Analysis exposing the role of the Iranian intelligence in Iraq, the defection of Iranian military officials, and the rise of protests inside the country helped expose what the regime was trying to dodge with this orchestrated hostage crisis. The surfacing of this charade both in Western and Arab media stripped the Iranian PR machine of its subterfuge. More around the world were growing increasingly incredulous of the mullahs' professed concern about the breach of Iranian sovereign waters. Hence the “Psy-ops” architects quickly ordered a change in direction.

2) In addition, the Iranian management of the hostage operation was starting to unravel in the eyes of their professional publicists. Showing the detainees on TV, parading them, forcing the female soldier to wear a scarf, and then forcing the captured sailors to write letters and deliver televised speeches were the worse possible actions the captors could have done. The direction taken by the managers of the hostage crisis was becoming untenable to the regime. They were losing international sympathies for the Iranian story of sovereignty. Instead, the international community was growing frustrated with Ahmedinijad's coordinated propaganda operation.

3) Once the real objectives of the operation began to circulate widely, the margin for Iranian maneuvering shrunk dramatically. When the reality of what the mullahs wanted to do with the hostages over time was understood, the regime's ability to surprise the public with circus-like actions collapsed. Since most of the potential future acts were exposed in advance, Khomeinists lost the ability to be creative: options such as having more pro-regime students staging demonstrations, releasing more videos, and inviting Western “mediators” to Tehran to blast London and Washington became obsolete. While it is true that Tehran won the first round of the match by shifting international focus to the hostage crisis instead of its nuclear program, because of his speedy recourse to circus stunts, Ahmedinijad was about to lose the entire propaganda war with his enemies. Thus, the PR advisors behind Tehran's propaganda stunt sounded the alarm: Stop the operation and revert to Plan B.

4) And what urged the change of direction as well was that the Iranians were made to understand that any action taken against the British sailors, especially since the latter were operating under UN mandate, would be considered a breach of international law. Any mistreatment, blatant abuse of rights, or even kangaroo court procedures would be considered as cause for action against the regime. Iran's PR advisors know that such a development would be very dangerous for business.

5) And in the larger picture, as I argued in my previous assessment of this crisis, playing brinkmanship with the U.K., U.S., and regional forces opposed to the Tehran elite, was highly risky. The price for detaining 15 sailors, with all the additional circus tricks Tehran had been preparing, wasn't worth any international extension of support to the four major ethnicities inside Iran and to various democratic movements opposed to the regime. The situation had to be modified to fit the changing circumstances and chart a new direction.

So what is the new direction?

First, Ahmedinijad had to detach the regime from the sailors, but in the most sumptuous way: Hold a major press conference, during which the regime extends awards to the captors while embracing the captives. The sailors apologize again, greet the regime, smile to the cameras and are shipped back to their country. That is what the international media wanted and that is what it would get.

Second, the “liberation” of hostages would allow Ahmedinijad to use the closing statements prepared for the long captivity immediately. Instead of a gift to the British people for Christmas, it was revamped as an “Easter Gift.” Theologically, Ahmedinejad was clumsy here: Christians don't usually give “gifts” for Easter, and Christians believe Christ “ascended” into heaven not “passed,” as Ahmedinjad termed it. But that is a just little religious detail. Probably Ahmedinejad's advisors weren't ready to release the hostages on a theologically complicated Easter but on an easily understood concept like Christmas.

Iran's risky adventure was smartly designed but poorly executed. There seems to be a gap between the architects of the plan (both inside and outside Iran) and the poor way Ahmedinejad executed it. For at first, Iran was successful in steering the debate away from the UN sanctions. But then, by executing a grotesque masquerade, Tehran was on the verge of disaster. This is when the advisors quickly suggested a remedy: Move to Plan B as quickly as possible. The abrupt twist had the added bonus of shielding Iran from any repercussions from the international community. If the mullahs were a bit smarter and bit less ideological, they may have been able to execute the plan as designed and gain valuable time to distract the world from its real goals: regional hegemony, nuclear capability, etc. But as we saw, while the advisors can work miracles, the stultified thinking of the mullahs can mess up even the best-laid plans.

Now that Tehran has ended the first act of its international circus, it's time for the Act II.

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.