Israel's Own Goal

The flotilla incident takes international focus off the real threat to Mideast peace—Iran.

It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett these days. Their eagerness to dismiss Iran’s Green Movement as irrelevant and to criticize the Obama administration for insufficient kowtowing to Iran is grating even to someone like myself who has long advocated engagement with the Islamic Republic.

But the Leveretts have the right analysis about the diplomatic fallout of Israel’s attack on would-be blockade busters in the Mediterranean: Israel has scored an own-goal, shifting the narrative from Iran and its nuclear and human rights transgressions to Israel’s lack of regard for pro-Palestinian lives.

The death of at least nine activists on the Mavi Marmara in international waters en route to Gaza overshadowed the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran has continued to enrich uranium and now has a stockpile sufficient—with further refining—to make two atom bombs.

The IAEA report repeated a perennial complaint about insufficient Iranian cooperation in clarifying activities with potential military applications. The report noted the disappearance of an electrochemical cell from a Tehran research laboratory that had been used to study the production of uranium metal. Iran, the IAEA reported, is also continuing construction of an enrichment plant near Qom that it sought to hide until Western intelligence unmasked the site last fall. And Iran is enriching a small amount of uranium to 20 percent, perilously close to weapons grade.

The IAEA report was to have teed up action in the U.N. Security Council on a fourth set of sanctions against Iran. Arduous U.S. diplomacy had won Russian and Chinese support for the measure, which would place new restrictions on Iranian arms imports, encourage inspection of Iranian cargo and make it more difficult for Iran to open new bank branches abroad. Once passed, the resolution was also to lay the ground for more stringent sanctions by the United States, European countries and Japan.

Iran’s announcement May 17 that it had reached a deal with Turkey and Brazil to send out some of its partially enriched uranium to Turkey was interpreted in Washington as a sign that multilateral pressures appeared to be working. Now, in the aftermath of the deaths in the Mediterranean, the Obama administration will have a much harder time convincing the Security Council to pass a new round of sanctions with anything close to unanimity.

Turkey, a non-veto wielding member of the Council, is also the country most outraged by the flotilla fiasco since the targeted ships flew Turkish flags and most of the dead were Turkish nationals from a local nongovernmental group. Ankara is sure to argue in the Security Council that there are other threats to international peace and security beyond Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Turkish media on Tuesday conflated the nuclear and Palestinian issues, accusing Israel of attacking the humanitarian convoy out of anger over Turkey’s efforts to resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran without resorting to more sanctions.

The violent interception of the flotilla of ships seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza also blew off the front pages reports of Iranian efforts to preempt new demonstrations on the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential elections.

The New York Times’ Nazila Fathi, quoting Iranian Web sites, writes that authorities have arrested high-profile detainees let out on leave for the Persian New Year. Iran has also ordered at least two million members of the paramilitary Basij into Tehran.

The Basijis are to arrive in time to lock down the capital before the twenty-first anniversary of the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In the past, Iranian reformers have used regime holidays to stage massive protests. However, the regime succeeded in preventing demonstrations February 11—the anniversary of culmination of the Islamic Revolution—by deploying security forces throughout Tehran.

Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is scheduled to address Friday prayers in Tehran on June 4 for the first time since millions of Iranians demonstrated against the purported reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year. One doesn’t have to be an Iran expert to predict that Khamenei will spend considerable time attacking Israel and its patron, the United States.

Already, Iranian officials such as Ahmadinejad are accusing Israel of “inhuman” behavior. Supporters of Israel have to wonder once again why their leaders have inadvertently given new ammunition to Israel’s most implacable foes.

 

Barbara Slavin is the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martins, 2007), former assistant managing editor of the Washington Times and former diplomatic reporter for USA Today.