Yesterday, Ali Shirazi of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said its naval forces “are fully prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys to Gaza with all their powers and capabilities.” Never mind the cynical use of the words “freedom” and “peace” from a repressive regime that steals votes and cracks heads. Breaking a blockade by force is a declaration of war and could, in this case, easily and instantly spark a region-wide conflagration.
More likely than not, Iran is just posturing. Ever since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has been waging a relentless campaign to win over Arab public opinion with apocalyptic anti-Zionism and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. And last week it was upstaged by Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when howling denunciations of Israel almost everywhere in the world followed the now-infamous battle aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel. Even the president of the United States says Israel’s blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable, though at least he says it calmly. Not Iran, Syria, Hamas, or Hezbollah, but Turkey has been the toast of the Middle East’s radicals for a week now.
The Turks have been slowly turning away from their alliance with the West since 2003. Erdogan, more recently, has not only been reorienting his country toward the Sunni Muslim world of which it’s a part; he’s also adopting the causes of the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran’s Shia theocracy and the atheist non-Muslim Alawite clan, which rules Syria. He’s been trying for years now to join Tehran and Jerusalem in setting the regional agenda, and he finally and unambiguously succeeded last Monday.
Iran is supposed to lead the “resistance,” however, and I suspect its leaders are trying to seize the region’s attention again. They feel insecure behind all that bombast. As Persians and, especially, Shias, they’re looked upon with suspicion and loathing, despite their hardest of hard lines against Israel. The Turks aren’t Arabs either, and some resentment remains from the imperial Ottoman days; but they’re Sunnis, at least, like most in the Middle East.
So while Erdogan’s Turkey may look in some ways like a de facto Iranian ally from the American and Israeli perspectives, from the point of view of Tehran it’s a convenient, useful, triangulating competitor. Syria’s Bashar Assad is content to be Iran’s junior partner, but Istanbul was once the capital of a powerful Sunni empire that, not long ago, held sway over much of the Mediterranean. As a member of NATO (for now, anyway), it can’t be entirely trusted and won’t likely ever take orders from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Khamenei.
Iran needs its mojo back — now — and huffing and puffing and bluffing about the blockade is one way to get it. Still, it would only surprise me a little if Tehran thinks it has a green light from most of the world to proceed. Israel is more isolated than it has been in decades, and this wouldn’t be the first time one of its enemies miscalculated and did something stupid. Now would be a good time for the Obama administration to say, firmly and in no uncertain terms, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”