Sunday, 6 June 2010

Iran – the dog that didn't bark (much)

When Sherlock Holmes draws Inspector Gregory's attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, the Scotland Yard inspector objects: "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That," observes Holmes, "was the curious incident."

It would not be accurate to say that Iran's President Ahmadinejad did not bark when news of the Gaza flotilla hit the headlines last Monday, but with the rest of the world yapping at Israel's heels, his bark seemed curiously muted. The conflict on board the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, and the subsequent death of nine of the activists on board, led to demonstrations around the world, and particularly, perhaps, in Istanbul.

How strange that reports indicated that in Tehran and other big cities in Iran the streets remained "eerily quiet".

Ahmadinejad's reaction was not only comparatively low-key, it also seemed more than a trifle off-key. He focused his remarks on the rather unlikely prediction that Israel was planning "a massive attack" on Gaza, about which he said he had "precise information", and reserved much of his condemnation for those countries which "backed the Zionist régime."

As for the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he held off making any comment at all until today (Sunday), and then announced, in a rather milk-and-water statement, that Iran "would be willing" to send its Revolutionary Guard members to accompany further aid ships to Gaza. Backing him up, Khamenei's Revolutionary Guard spokesman Ali Shirazai went no further than stating: "The naval wing of the Revolutionary Guard is ready to assist the peace flotilla to Gaza with all its effort and capabilities." "Would be willing", "ready to assist". Not much blood and guts in that.

It is well known that Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, sees himself and the Islamic Republic of Iran as the defender of Muslim rights around the world. During every major confrontation in the West Bank or Gaza, he has been the first to arrange demonstrations. TV screens are usually filled with howling mobs waving banners proclaiming death to Israel. Not this time. A week has passed since the flotilla affair, and there has been no major demonstration in Iran.

However last Friday hundreds of thousands of Iranians did gather at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Their purpose - to observe the annual commemoration of Khomeini's death 21 years ago. It was in 1979 that the Khomeini-led Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed Shah, and brought hard-line Islamists to power. The annual ceremony serves as a political rally in support of Iran's hard-liners.

But this régime-sponsored gathering came just days ahead of the opposition's mass rally planned on the anniversary of last June's disputed presidential election. The rally is to be the first opposition gathering in months, and authorities have warned they will confront any unauthorized demonstrations.

The Iranian opposition claims that the 12 June 2009 election was the subject of massive fraud, and that Ahmadinejad in fact lost the popular vote. For months it mounted huge rallies against the election results, but was met by a heavy government crackdown, which the opposition says has so far killed 80 people during street protests. More than 100 opposition figures and activists were put on a mass trial, and 80 of them were sentenced to death or given prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.

So Khamenei is fearful. His régime is isolated within Iran and has lost so much credibility that he is worried that even demonstrations against Israel's actions in countering the Gaza freedom flotilla could turn into anti-government rallies.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may have a wider concern. It seems increasingly likely that the five permanent members of the Security Council have agreed to impose new sanctions on Iran for its failure to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even Iran's former supporters, Russia and China, appear to have agreed to follow President Obama's lead on this. If these sanctions are indeed imposed, Iran will find itself genuinely isolated for the first time.

The loss of prestige involved will be accentuated by the fallout from the Gaza flotilla incident. The benefits of that episode in terms of kudos, credit and stature in the Muslim world are accruing not to Iran, but to Turkey, which has shot to the top of the league as defender of Muslim rights. Iran has been spending millions in an effort to buy the support and loyalty of Hamas, but loyalty is a volatile currency in the world of Islamist extremism.

When one thinks about it, Turkey may be on to a winning streak. Unlike Iran, Turkey has a powerful economy, based on more than oil. Positioned on the border of Europe, it has close and fruitful relations with the EU and the USA. Indeed, from the US point of view, provided Turkey does not tip over entirely into the arms of Islamist extremists, it is extremely useful to have a close working relationship with a nation that is held in high esteem in the Muslim world. For in the Middle East Turkey, unlike Iran, enjoys good relations with Sunni-ruled countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, as well as among Iran's friends Iraq and Syria. It almost seems as though Turkey could achieve what Iran has tried and failed to do for the last 32 years – become the acknowledged leader of the Islamic world.

What this would do for Turkey's application to join the European Union, outstanding since 1987, is a matter for speculation.

As for Israel, Turkey, of course, has a track record of friendly relations. For many years Turkey and Israel forged a close military, trade and cultural relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel back in 1949 (even before the Shah's Iran in 1950), and Israel became a major exporter of arms to the country. Israeli holidaymakers and businessmen flocked to the country, and a major deal saw Turkey exporting vast container-loads of water to Israel as a preliminary to the plan to build a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply Israel with water, electricity, gas and oil.

Then the atmosphere soured. From the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey's old secularist, pro-Western stance began to change, and support for Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran began to dominate Turkey's approach to foreign affairs.

Which explains Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in November 2008, and the extraordinary scene at the Davos conference in January 2009, when he stormed out of a panel discussion after castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres for Israel's actions.

But even now, despite all Erdogan's wild and whirling words, Turkey’s military ties with Israel have not been adversely affected. According to Turkey's main English-language newspaper, ongoing programmes with Israeli defence companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars remain in place. It was only last Tuesday that National Defence Minister Vecdi Gönül made it clear that Turkey would not cut its defence cooperation with Israel.

One such programme is the delivery of Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance drone systems made by Israel Aerospace Industries. Six Heron unmanned aerial vehicles were delivered to the Turkish military in April. Four other Herons are scheduled for delivery in the next few weeks.

In another programme with Israel, the Turkish land vehicles manufacturer BMC signed a multi-million dollar contract last year with the Turkish procurement agency to provide 468 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected, or MRAP, vehicles. The MRAP, based on the Navigator, was developed and is manufactured by Israel's Hatehof company.

In addition, Israel's IAI is providing bespoke radars for Turkish fighter jets, and Israel's Elbit is selling avionic systems as part of Turkey's modernisation of their aging T-38 trainer aircraft. Moreover, Turkey's military electronics company, Aselsan, and Israeli Military Industries late last year signed an agreement jointly to modernize M60 tanks in world armies using this kind of tank.

While commemorating their lost leader, the Ayatollah Khomenei, on Friday, Khameini and Ahmadinejad might have been reflecting on this great truth: Presidents, heads of state, and even régimes, come and go. Supply and demand goes on for ever.

1 comment:

  1. The dog did not bark yet but it is a very smart dog that knows that the west is not strong any more and that new regimes are now in a position to take world power over. Do not underestimate the smart new regimes!