Why Iran's Revolutionary Guard wants to escort new Gaza flotilla

Iran is worried that Turkey is stealing the limelight on an issue Tehran has championed since 1979: the Palestinian cause. So its Revolutionary Guard has offered to escort an Iranian Gaza flotilla.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A Turkish flag flies on a mast as Palestinians enjoy the beach in Gaza City, Sunday. Iran is worried that Turkey is stealing the limelight on the Palestinian cause. So its Revolutionary Guard has offered to escort an Iranian Gaza flotilla.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today decried the “brutal and barbaric ... Zionist regime,” as if trying to catch up with Turkey's fierce criticism of Israel's raid on the "Freedom Flotilla" last week. In Istanbul for a regional security summit, he heralded the international outcry against Israel as a "reawakening of nations" in a fight of good versus evil.

“On one side, you can see the pure feelings of the love to the almighty God, love to humanity, love to peace and security and freedom – and the feeling to help each other, to have compassion towards each other,” said Mr. Ahmadinejad. “On the other side, we could see evil forces, violence, hatred, war, captivity, and the devil’s outcry from the throats of the uncultured Zionists. Lies. Deceptions. Deceitful tactics and impurity. And in fact, this side was raising the flag of Satan.”

Analysts say that Iran’s reaction – including Ahmadinejad’s repeated reminders that the Islamic Republic has championed the Palestinian cause since the 1979 Islamic revolution – is designed to recapture from Turkey part of its self-declared role as the regional bastion of militant resistance that fights for the oppressed.

“The Iranians are trying to say, ‘We can still talk the talk,’ ” says Meir Javedanfar, an Iran specialist in Israel. “This is Iran trying to say that it’s still in charge of the Palestinian issue, to milk the international backlash against Israel after the flotilla incident.”

Gazans naming their kids after Turkish PM

This weekend, the Iranian Red Crescent society announced that it would launch two ships of humanitarian aid to Gaza by the end of the week. The Revolutionary Guard, an elite ideological military force that has tightened its grip on everything from Iran's oil to last year's post-election protests – has declared its readiness, if ordered, to provide a naval escort.

The first anniversary looming of Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection on June 12 last year – an event that sparked weeks of violent protests – is one of several factors coalescing into Iran's even stronger criticism of Israel. In addition, after three decades of investing in militant groups and “exporting” the revolution, Iran is trying to preserve aspects of its reputation.

“This is the atmosphere right now: You’ve got all sorts of Turkish flags being raised in Gaza, people naming their children Erdogan [after the Turkish prime minister],” says Javedanfar, who says Iran sees Turkey as stealing the limelight. “There’s no Iranian flag in sight, and I haven’t heard of one Palestinian naming their child Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

“Under the circumstances, the Iranians will want to do something, otherwise they will lose the market – and the multibillion dollar investment – to the Turks,” he adds.

Ahmadinejad on whether Iran will escort aid ships

Iranian politicians have been quick to speak out against the Israeli raid, and propose joint aid convoys for Gaza. The narrow strip of land is jammed with 1.5 million people and has been subject to an Israeli blockade for three years, in an effort to stop materials used by Hamas and other militants to make bombs and rockets, and to increase deprivation to try to turn the population against Hamas.

Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative to the Revolutionary Guard Navy said Iran was duty-bound to provide military escort.

“The duty of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the face of such an unchivalrous act [the flotilla raid] is to defend the innocent and defenseless people of Gaza,” said cleric Ali Shirazi, according to Iranian media translated by IranTracker.Org. “The Revolutionary Guards Navy has the power and preparedness to use all its potentials to escort freedom and peace caravans transporting humanitarian aid from the entire world to … Gaza.”

In Istanbul, Ahmadinejad praised and thanked the “great nation of Turkey” for siding so vociferously with the Palestinians. But he cast the battle in the broadest terms, in which Israel, supported by a “corrupt” United States, ran roughshod “beyond all humanitarian boundaries.” He vowed that Israel's resistance would prove futile in the face of persistent international pressure.

“Undoubtedly, this is not the end of the road. This is the beginning,” said Ahmadinejad. “And if they think, by using the machine guns, missiles, and support of some corrupt nations, they have been able to prevent the advance of one caravan, no doubt in the near future hundreds and thousands of caravans from different parts of the world will sail through the waters in order to be the harbingers of peace, love, humanity for the people of Gaza.”

But Ahmadinejad would not comment on whether an Iranian-escorted aid flotilla, which would require Egyptian approval to pass through the Suez Canal, was under way.

In response to a direct question from the Monitor about the willingness to provide military escort, the president said: “With regard to sending of aid to Gaza, we would certainly take into consideration all aspects of the questions, and then we will take the right decision.”

Any Iran aid delivery would be compared to Turkish effort

If Iran were to send such a flotilla, it would likely steal the limelight back from the Turks only in the event of a similar confrontation.

And if Iranian goods are only able to enter by the land border into Gaza, recently reopened by Egypt?

“That is going to make the Iranians look quite quaint, in fact shy and retiring,” compared to the Turks, says Javedanfar. “For some militants, it will look like Iran is losing its edge.”

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