"Carterizing" Tony Blair - Iran's Hostage Ploy

The timing of the capture of the 15 British soldiers by Iran for allegedly crossing illegally into its territory has left many analysts and politicians in the West baffled. Why would the Iranian regime now be interested in renewed hostility between Iran and the West? And why the British?

Certainly, this kind of behavior is not new for the Iranians. It is not even the first time that Iran has captured British military personnel under this very pretext. In a similar incident in 2004, Iran detained eight British servicemen for three days, and released them after parading them in front of TV cameras.

However, that was in 2004, when Iran was more secure, enjoying improved relations with the EU and with the international community in general.

The new incident is taking place at a time when the Iranian regime is becoming increasingly isolated. With the international community lining up against Iran in the UN, one would have thought that Tehran would take a more conciliatory approach in order to reduce the pressure being applied against it.

But no -- by capturing the soldiers and angering London and 25 member states of the EU, Tehran seems to be doing the exact opposite.

Why? A closer look at the political strategy the regime has taken for the last 28 years and how it has used hostage-taking provides answers.

Since its creation in 1979, the leaders of the Islamic republic have become masters of manipulating Western public opinion to their advantage. Realizing the sensitivity with which Western governments have when it comes to the kidnapping of their soldiers and citizens; the Islamic regime, almost immediately after it came to power, started to manipulate such these sensitivities in order to score political points against governments.

The earliest and most prominent example took place on November 4th 1979, when the regime wanted to punish Jimmy Carter for supporting the Shah. To achieve that goal, the US embassy in Tehran was raided and 52 hostages were kept for 444 days. Clearly, the major motivation behind the capture and holding the hostages that length of time was in order to ensure that the American people become frustrated and angry with Jimmy Carter's inability to release the hostages, and ultimately turn against him. The plan worked brilliantly. Few will deny that the hostage crisis was one of the primary reasons why Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 elections to Ronald Reagan.

By capturing the British servicemen, Iran is using the same tactic, this time against Tony Blair - whom Tehran views as one of its main political adversaries in the West. The Islamic regime realizes that Tony Blair's popularity is already at low ebb, and largely due to his support of the war in Iraq.

By capturing the servicemen, Tehran is hoping that the British people, particularly the majority who are already against the war in Iraq will openly blame Blair for the crisis, by saying that it is his fault for endangering the lives of troops by sending them into a conflict zone.

Such internal dissatisfaction, Tehran hopes, would subsequently deal a deadly blow to any plans Blair or his successor may have to support an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

What should truly worry Washington is that if this plan is successful, US soldiers are likely to be next in line for capture by Iran - and a manipulation of American public opinion just before the 2008 elections which would damage a Republican candidate supporting Bush's stance would be perfect timing.

This is a plan that is already becoming more popular inside Iranian military circles, especially those belonging to the ultra-conservative Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). After the capture of four of the group's operatives by US forces in northern Iraq, many IRGC members are eagerly waiting to settle scores with the US.

It is all too possible that the capture of the British soldiers can be seen as a trial run.

Meir Javedanfar is a Middle East analyst at the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company (meepas). Together with Yossi Melman, he is also the coauthor of the upcoming book The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.