June 4, 2010

The Real Winner of the Flotilla Raid

Israel’s attack on the aid flotilla headed toward Gaza has sparked international outrage. But it also reminds us that since 2001, Iran has improved its geostrategic position more than almost any other country in the world, and it has done so based almost entirely on the blunders of others.
Just as scholars have for years declared Iran to be the ultimate winner of the US war in Iraq, the winner of this week’s events off the coast of Gaza is clearly Iran.
In a meeting Tuesday between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the topic of discussion was supposed to be imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran. But instead, the flotilla incident dominated.
Better than anything Iran could have hoped for, the flotilla incident threatens to complicate the sanctions push in the UN. Washington Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay predicts that where Turkey would have likely abstained on an Iran sanctions vote, it may now vote nay. “Turkey is now freer to vote with its heart on Iran sanctions,” he said, “which means that Turkish-US relations are heading towards a major crisis if we don’t end up defusing the storm gathering over Iran sanctions.”
All of this comes as great news to Iran. The Israeli raid and the resulting international backlash have distracted from the Iranian nuclear issue. On Monday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a harsh report on the lack of cooperation with the agency and Iranian efforts to acquire equipment that would give it the capacity to enrich uranium at higher levels. The report received little media coverage having been overshadowed by the flotilla incident.
Other recent developments can only be cause for celebration in Tehran. Washington’s mild condemnation of Israel puts the Obama administration in an awkward position in which it can’t possibly please everyone. Turkey’s recent statements that it would provide naval escort to humanitarian ships sending aid to Gaza will also only prolong this whole circus, with a chance of more violence or confrontation.  All of this amounts to a miracle for the mullahcracy in Tehran, only days before the anniversary of the election.
And so the task of the Obama administration becomes increasingly difficult. At some point soon, it will have to take an unequivocal position on the flotilla raid. Will Washington placate a vital strategic ally like Turkey, or will it continue its unconditional support for all Israeli action? Appeasing one will come at the expense of damaged relations with the other, and no matter the outcome, it doesn’t make for a very good Iran policy.
As with virtually every major regional event since 2001, the Iranians will need only to sit back without firing a single shot to come out on top.

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