SEA BATTLE FEAR AS IRAN SENDS FLOTILLA TO GAZA
IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza, as two aid ships and a military escort prepare to set sail.
In a provocative move the Iranian Red Crescent was this weekend due to send two vessels packed with food and medical aid and 70 relief workers.
A third ship, carrying an operating theatre, could follow.
President Ahmadinejad raised the spectre of a sea battle as he warned the ships would be carrying an escort of “volunteer marines” ready to “teach Israelis a lesson”.
Ali Shirazi, the Revolutionary Guard’s spokesman for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said it was “Iran’s duty to defend the innocent people of Gaza”. Foreign Secretary William Hague described the intervention as “unhelpful”.
The blockade has been in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006 despite international concern about a humanitarian crisis.
That concern turned to condemnation on May 31 when, in a raid on a Turkish aid flotilla, nine people were killed by Israeli commandos.
Despite promises of an inquiry the affair has all but destroyed relations between Israel and its main ally in the Muslim world.
Abdolrauf Adibzadeh, the Red Crescent’s director of international affairs, said the ships were being sent in co-ordination with the Turkish government.
Meeting Turkish leaders in Istanbul last week the Iranian president said the vessels would not shrink from a head-on clash with Israeli military.
The threat came ahead of a UN Security Council vote to strengthen sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment programme.
Turkey was one of the two nations to vote against the sanctions. The European Union will next week discuss tightening its own sanction regime amid fears Tehran is close to creating weapons-grade uranium. There are also concerns about human rights abuses in Iran, with opposition to the regime ruthlessly suppressed.
On yesterday’s anniversary of President Ahmadinejad’s re-election, opposition leaders advised demonstrators to stay away from Tehran as the Revolutionary Guards warned it would come down on any attempt to create a “security crisis”.
There was a heavy security presence on Tehran’s squares as the elite Guard prepared to clamp down. Senior commander Reza Farzaneh said: “Any revival of street protests is unlikely. But if the sedition movement creates a security crisis, we will confront them with full force.”
Last year’s post-election street protests, the worst unrest since the Islamic republic was founded in 1979, were put down violently by the Guards.
Mass detentions and trials followed. Two people were hanged while many others remain in jail.