On June 4, Iranian Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamenei will lead the Friday prayer’s sermon at Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum to mark the 21st anniversary of Khomeini’s passing.
And, as he looks around him, under his breath, he’ll most probably be thanking the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Gaza flotilla fiasco. With Khamenei’s own popularity at an all-time low, it couldn’t have come at a better time for him.
The recent developments are likely to boost Iran’s status in the Middle East, especially when it comes to its emerging alliance with Turkey. They will also be a much welcomed distraction from the troubles at home.
Meanwhile, the reports from the ships and the deaths of passengers on the Mavi Marmara will also reinforce the anti-Israeli teachings of Khamenei’s predecessor and mentor, Ruhollah Khomeini, especially amongst hard-line Muslims. It’s true that Israeli soldiers were set upon by metal bars and sticks as soon as they landed on the ships. Such tools could cause grievous bodily harm or even kill.
However, the international community and the Islamic world will have little time for such reasoning. As far as they are concerned, the numbers speak for themselves—ten people were killed by the special forces of a sovereign country on a ship that was reportedly carrying humanitarian aid.
What’s likely to make Tehran particularly happy is the fact that Israel walked into a trap, with its eyes wide open. The Gaza flotilla was the manifestation of the superiority of soft power, against hard power. Hamas lost the 2009 war in Gaza, but with the exposure given to the siege and the approaching flotilla even before it had moved against Israel, it had managed to win the battle for the hearts and minds of millions of non-Arab people around the world.
This is something that Tehran could never do on its own.
There was no way that Israel could have come away from this encounter as the winner—even if the altercations had not occurred (in reality, no country could). To impose a partial siege against one and a half million people is controversial enough. To publicly intercept and pull away a civilian boat that is reportedly carrying aid and hundreds of civilians is difficult for anyone to justify, not just Israel.
What also seems to be helping Israel’s enemies is that when it comes to the Palestinian issue, its operating on an outmoded strategy.
‘He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue and that’s the Chicago way,’ said Jimmy Malone to Elliot Ness in the movie The Untouchables.
This is how Israel survived in a neighbourhood where it has been surrounded by powerful enemies, many of whom have been hell bent on its destruction. And this system worked against the Syrians, Egyptians and the Jordanians. Indeed, it brought peace with the Jordanians and the Egyptians after they realized that they couldn’t defeat Israel. And as for Syrians and even Saddam’s Iraq, they stopped attacking Israel from their soil because they weren’t prepared to pay the price.
However, when it comes to the Palestinian question, the ‘Chicago way’ has been a failure. Why? Because as history has proven so far, when it comes to applying force to achieve the desired political outcome of peace and stability with the Palestinians, less is definitely more.
And as long as Israel continues to insist the opposite, then Iran’s foothold in the region will be strengthened, especially in places such as Gaza and Lebanon. Because in today’s battlefields, internationally accepted policies and public opinion are more important than F-16s and through Hamas and its Turkish allies, Iran has managed to work out a way to get Israel to inadvertently strengthen its position and boost the number of its supporters on the Arab street.
Although the recent affair is unlikely to stop sanctions being placed against Iran, nevertheless, it will reduce the United States’ room for manoeuvre in the region, as Arab countries are likely to pressure the US to reign in on Israel’s activities.
‘Whenever you catch the fish, it will always be fresh’ is a famous Persian proverb. A Turkish-Israeli summit, convened by the Israeli government, and an independent inquiry would be unwelcome news in Iran, while lifting the Gaza siege would do a better job of removing the smile from Khamenei’s lips than Israel’s air force or commandos ever could. Such decisions are in Netanyahu’s hands. He should start fishing if he wants better political results for his country.
Meir Javedanfar writes a regular column for The Diplomat. He is a Middle East analyst and the co-author of ‘The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran’.