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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.

January 01, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Students storm the British Embassy residence compound in Tehran, ripping down the Union Jack and hoisting the Palestinian flag, while Iranian President 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 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 the June presidential election.

But the high-profile maneuvers are a double-edged sword, because 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 military 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, in an interview Tuesday with CBS, described Hamas as Iran's "terrorist base" next to Israel.

"Iran is one of Hamas' main funders, and it's been a supplier of arms and equipment and training over the years," John R. Bolton, the 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."

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 Muslim militia Hezbollah based in Beirut, has all but ruled out military intervention in behalf of Hamas, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, 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 of 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.

In taking a vehement tack, Iran can also appeal to hard-line Islamists in 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 public opinion efforts involving various Islamic causes. For example, officially sanctioned public outrage over Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad erupted in Iran in early 2006, after fury had swept the Middle East and South Asia, often led by radical Sunni Muslim groups that compete with Iran's strain 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 heated pronouncements counterproductive and risky. Hard-line groups in Tehran on Tuesday ransacked a branch of Benetton, the Italian-based retailer that is among the few international chains operating in Iran.

Iranian officials' shrill cries against Egypt, which adjoins 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 Tehran 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 Hamshahri newspaper, which is close to Ahmadinejad rival and Tehran Mayor Mohammed 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."

Whether or not Iran's Gaza strategy wins points on the international front, Israel's offensive has been a domestic windfall for Ahmadinejad and his circle of hard-liners, analyst Javedanfar said. On Tuesday, the president submitted to parliament a controversial bill 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.

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