Iran adopts bellicose posture on Gaza conflict
Public displays and rhetoric have two purposes: to assert leadership in the Islamic world and to bolster Tehran's hard-liners at home. But they also may link Iran unfavorably with Hamas' militancy.
By Borzou Daragahi
12:15 PM PST, December 31, 2008
Reporting from Beirut -- Students storm the British Embassy residence compound in Tehran, ripping down the Union Jack and hoisting the Palestinian flag, while IranianPresident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposes to try Israeli leaders in absentia.
An Iranian religious organization signs up volunteers for suicide operations in the Gaza Strip and an Iranian general suggests an Islamic military response to the five-day Israeli offensive against Hamas.
With bellicose rhetoric, the Islamic Republic has taken the lead in opposing the ongoing Israeli military operation in Gaza. The vociferous public displays, analysts say, are aimed primarily at hard-core government supporters in Iran whom officials are seeking to energize before June presidential elections.
But the high-profile maneuvers are a double-edged sword, since they also reinforce perceptions in Israel, the U.S. and large parts of the Arab world about links between Iran and Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that took control of Gaza in mid-2007.
Israeli leaders and their U.S. allies have framed the fight against Hamas as one against an Iranian proxy firing Iranian-supplied rockets landing ever deeper inside the Jewish state. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday described Hamas as Iran's "terrorist base" next to Israel in an interview with CBS.
"Iran is one of Hamas' main funders and it's been a supplier of arms and training over the years," John Bolton, the neoconservative former Bush administration envoy to the United Nations, told Fox News on Monday. "This is a demonstration of the reach, the scope, the power that Iran has in the Arab world."
Thus far, Iran's responses to the Gaza offensive have been theatrical rather than threatening, analysts say, meant mainly to bolster Tehran hard-liners' domestic strength rather than precede any kind of military confrontation with Israel. Already, Iran's main ally in the Levant, the Shiite militia Hezbollah based in Beirut, has all but ruled out military intervention on behalf of Hamas, while Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has carefully condoned "defending" Gazans without calling for killing Israelis.
Even the hair-raising idea of a military response was delivered not by a ranking officer in charge of Iran's land, sea or air forces, but by the general technically in charge of annual ceremonies commemorating those who fought and died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
"They are mobilizing their power base to set the tone for the main issues of the presidential campaign," said Shahram Kholdi, a researcher at the University of Manchester, in Britain.
"One of the main issues is relations with the United States," and by extension Israel, he said. "They are trying to warn the reformers and whoever might challenge Ahmadinejad, 'We are still able to sabotage whatever you might be doing, which includes foreign policy.'"
In taking a vehement tack, Iran can also appeal to hard-line Islamists in rival Arab nations.
"Iran is trying to be the leader of the Islamic world," said Meir Javedanfar, a Jerusalem-based Iran expert. "Khamenei believes that the majority of the Islamic world is angry, and he is right in his opinion. He sees the Muslim governments' silence as being against the wishes of locals. By saying what he believes Muslims feel worldwide, he is trying to be their representative."
Though Iran sees itself as a leader of the Islamic world, it has lagged in past public opinion efforts involving various pan-Islamic causes. For example, officially sanctioned public outrage over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad erupted in Iran in early 2006 only after it had swept across the Middle East and South Asia, often led by Sunni extremist movements that compete with Iran's brand of Shiite Islamic fundamentalism.
This time Iran is taking no chances.
"The Iranian government wants to show that, 'OK, we are doing something and showing empathy,'" said Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, a Tehran sociologist often critical of the government.
But some called Iran's hot-tempered antics counterproductive and risky. Hard-line groups in Tehran on Tuesday ransacked a branch of Benetton, the Italy-based retailer that is among the few international chains operating in Iran.
Iranian officials' shrill cries against Egypt, which neighbors Gaza but refuses to open its border, appear to have hardened the Cairo government's resolve against Hamas, hurting the Palestinian cause while further alienating it from an important Arab nation.
The Iranian strategy "is not good for Iran's diplomatic relations and it can sometimes spin out of control and something unforeseen may happen," said Ali Kadkhodazadeh, editor of the Middle East desk at the daily Hamashahri newspaper, which is close to Ahmadinejad rival and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
"For years we have tried to normalize our relations with Cairo," he said. "Now after demonstrations in front of the Egyptian interests section, everything is reversed to point zero."
During the Gaza offensive, Iran has intensified repression against its own moderate and reformist opponents. Authorities on Wednesday shut down the daily newspaper Kargozaran, which is often critical of Ahmadinejad and close to rival Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. The stated reason was the newspaper's decision to publish a letter by a student group critical of Iran's handling of the Gaza conflict. Two days earlier, authorities raided the office of Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi and seized her files.
Whether or not Iran's Gaza strategy wins points on the international front, Israel's Gaza offensive has been a domestic windfall for Ahmadinejad and his circle of hard-liners, analyst Javedanfar said. On Tuesday, the president submitted a controversial bill to parliament to eliminate decades-old subsidies on fuel and electricity.
"This will make him even more unpopular," Javedanfar said. "But the Gaza affair is a gift to him, which he will use to distract the Iranian people from the economic [pain] about to hit them."
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.