After weeks of planning and a fair amount of talking up the story, Iran has finally made it clear that it is not after all sending a ship carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Sending a vessel under an Iranian flag might have been just the kind of propaganda coup Tehran would like – but it could also have ended in a direct confrontation with Israel.
On May 31, nine Turkish activists were killed when Israeli special forces boarded an aid vessel trying to break through the maritime blockade of Gaza. The fate of the Turkish vessel and the publicity surrounding it were sparked a debate in Iranian political circles about whether to press ahead with plans to send a vessel.
Under the auspices of Iran’s Red Crescent Society, preparations began to load a ship with humanitarian aid cargo at the southern port of Bandar Abbas.
However, signs soon emerged Iran was hesitating on a speedy dispatch of the vessel when Red Crescent officials said the Egyptian authorities had refused to issue a permit allowing it to traverse the Suez Canal north to the Mediterranean. However, a spokesman for the Suez Canal authority said Egypt would never block any Gaza-bound aid ship from using the canal.
Then, on June 28, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Bighash, a member of the parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, said Tehran was in talks with Moscow on the possibility of sending a ship via a more roundabout route. This would take it from an Iranian port on the Caspian Sea through the Volga-Don Canal in Russia to the Black Sea, and from there to the Mediterranean.
The final decision to call off the trip was announced by the head of Iran’s Committee for the Support of the Intifada, Hossein Sheikholeslam, who made it clear that Israeli threats of a military response were too much.
“Israel sent a letter to the United Nations stating that the presence of Iranian vessels in the Gaza area would be viewed as an act of war and would be dealt with as such,” he said.
Iranian officials will have taken note as Turkey won credibility in the Muslim world for its effort to break the Gaza blockade. They did not want to be out-staged, especially since they felt Tehran deserved some recognition for all the years of political and financial investment in the Palestinian cause.
At the same time, Iran was not best placed to exploit the situation. The widespread violations of civil rights in Iran after the 2009 presidential election and the deadlock on the nuclear dispute had both damaged its credibility among those who might otherwise have welcomed its intervention.
Greta Berlin, a co-founder of the Free Gaza Movement which organised the convoy in which the Turkish vessel was boarded and seized, refused to accept aid from Iran.
Her group “does not accept donations from extremist governments and groups”, she said.
For Iranian politicians, however, the real issues concerned policy, principle and pragmatism. Should they dispatch a vessel and challenge Israel head on, regardless of the consequences? Or should they stand down because the risks were too high?
Both these positions were hotly defended by parts of the political establishment – as was a third argument, representing a combination of the first two.
Hard-liners in the government and in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC, wanted to run the risk of conflict with Israel.
Some mid-ranking IRGC commanders from the 1980s war with Iraq, as well as more junior commanders, believed it was a good opportunity to take on the Israelis. They argued that Iran would score a lot of points in the Muslim world and would subsequently win over other regional governments by confronting them with a fait accompli.
They also reasoned that a military confrontation of limited scope would benefit the regime domestically, by letting off some of the steam built up by the post-election unrest in Iran.
The hawks included Ali Shirazi, who represents Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the IRGC naval forces, and whose brother heads the military affairs section of the Supreme Leader’s office.
Shirazi said that if Ayatollah Khamenei granted permission, IRGC naval vessels would escort aid convoys to Gaza.
The Supreme Leader failed to authorise this plan, and Shirazi’s proposal was officially dismissed shortly afterwards by Hossein Salami, deputy commander-in-chief of the IRGC.
In recent months, some advocates of confrontation had even suggested launching a preemptive attack, or else prodding allied insurgent groups in the Middle East to provoke Israel into a response. At an unofficial meeting of middle-ranking IRGC commanders in late June, Brigadier-General Saeed Ghasemi talked about the need for a preemptive strike on Israel.
Ghasemi has direct experience of military engagement in the region as a former member of the Mohammad Rasulallah Corps, an IRGC unit sent to Syria after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. More recently, he backed a sit-in staged at Mehrabad International Airport in December 2008 by members of the Basiji movement demanding to be sent to fight in Gaza.
The advocates of confrontation with Israel found themselves opposed by cooler heads among former diplomats, officials and even retired military commanders, who took the view that challenging Israel under the present circumstances would not be in Iran’s interests, and would only land it in a predicament with no clear way out.
The alternative that some in this camp proposed was to engage in international diplomacy to weaken Israel’s position.
“Iran can try to gather international condemnation of Israel in political and diplomatic circles,” said Hossein Alayi, a former commander of the IRGC joint chiefs of staff.
Other opponents of a military confrontation were less confident about the efficacy of diplomacy.
An editorial on the Iranian Diplomacy website, run by Sadegh Kharazi, who served as a senior foreign ministry official under President Mohammad Khatami, in an editorial, described as pointless a proposal made by Iran at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah on June 6. “These meetings are good for propaganda, but nothing practical will come out of them,” it said.
Afshar Soleimani, a former Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, questioned why Tehran was so keen on engaging the United Nations with regard to the Palestinians when it refused to obey UN resolutions relating to its own programme.
In the end, the approach the Iranian government adopted was to combine the rhetoric of the hard-liners with the discretion advocated by the pragmatists. In other words, it decided to do what Iranians call “indicating left and turning right”.
Proponents of this dual approach believed the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship could be exploited for domestic propaganda purposes while avoiding actual conflict. This would allow Iran to maintain intact its longer-term interests in the Middle East.
According to this view, the propaganda war should be stepped up, but not principally to provoke Israel. Instead, by hinting at the real possibility of confrontation with Israel, Tehran would both appease the hardliners and simultaneously redirect some of the anger still rankling among opposition supporters.
The swift, tough action demanded by the hard-liners would be kicked into the long grass through procrastinated negotiations, and ultimately by blaming other governments and organisations for failing to act on Iranian proposals and preventing aid from reaching Gaza.
Esfandyar Rahim-Mashai, a close adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was among those who backed this nuanced approach. It was also favoured by the managing body at the foreign ministry, which is under the sway of the conservative Motalefeh Party.
Immediately after news broke that the Iranian aid ship had been cancelled, Mohammad Reza Sheibani, the deputy foreign minister in charge of Middle Eastern affairs, and until recently ambassador in Beirut, made the position as clear as it is likely to get by saying the issue was still on the Ahmadinejad administration’s agenda.
In other words, the plan can remain on the government’s agenda indefinitely, but only as a plan.
Mehdi Jedinia is an Iranian journalist in Washington. He was formerly the editor-in-chief for the English daily Tehran Times.