News & Politics

Are U.S. Warships Gearing Up for a Confrontation With an Iranian Aid Flotilla to Gaza?

A U.S. Navy fleet is moving through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, probably aiming to head off the Iranian flotilla headed toward Gaza.

Anchors aweigh. The United States Navy is sending an aircraft carrier and nearly a dozen other warships through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea, according to the British Arabic Language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which reported that the ships carry infantry troops, armored vehicles, and ammunition.

The report was taken very seriously in Israel, where two major newspapers gave it headline coverage -- perhaps because the U.S. fleet is joined by at least one Israeli ship, according to eyewitnesses who saw it pass through the Canal.

Iran’s Press TV claims that the Defense Department has confirmed the movement of American ships. However, neither the U.S. nor the Israeli governments have made any statement about the fleet’s destination or purpose. So we’re left to speculate.

Can it be just coincidence that this is happening precisely when “two Iranian vessels are due to set sail for Gaza in the coming week,” according to Al Jazeera, sponsored by the Iranian Red Crescent, carrying food, medicine, and clothing? And when Iran is promising more aid flotillas after this first one?

When the Iranian flotilla was first announced, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said: "I don't think that Iran's intentions vis-a-vis Gaza are benign." Since then, the U.S. has remained silent.

Newsweeks.com’s Mark Hosenball says he has talked with U.S. and European officials and found them “surprisingly relaxed” about the Iranian challenge to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. They told him that “Tehran actually seems to have dialed back some of its rhetoric and threats for the moment,” and pointed out that the Navy is the weakest arm of Iran’s military.

But if U.S. officials are so relaxed, why spend a fortune (and it does cost a fortune) to move a whole war fleet including an aircraft carrier into the Red Sea and perhaps further, to the Persian Gulf -- where Israeli nuclear submarines are also headed?

Egypt, which controls the Canal, has a central role to play in this drama. Egyptian troops guarded the Canal, which was closed to other traffic, while the U.S. fleet passed through, despite criticism from leaders of Egyptian opposition parties.

It remains unclear how the Egyptians would deal with the Iranian aid ships. Those ships plan to pass through the Canal and then stay close enough to shore to be in Egyptian waters until reaching the area off the Gaza coast, which Israel claims as its territorial waters.

Israel radio has reported that Cairo rejected an Israeli request by for Egypt to block the Iranian ships, claiming that under international law the canal must be free to all ships. However, the Egyptians could delay the Iranians on technicalities for a long time.

Iranian officials have denied a report that their naval forces would escort the ships. “But if and when the Iranian ship reaches the Mediterranean,” as Hosenball says, “no one can be sure what will happen.” However we can be sure that an Iranian ship approaching Gaza would be a major crisis for both the Netanyahu government in Israel and the Obama administration. Very likely, the U.S. administration hopes that its war fleet, accompanied by a token Israeli ship for symbolic value, will head off the need to face that crisis.

In fact, though the threat of violent confrontation is very real, the whole unfolding drama is driven largely by concerns about symbolism. One European official told Hosenball that the Egyptians might well choose to stall the Iranians’ passage in order to reassert Cairo’s influence in the wake of efforts by Turkey and Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. Then there’s a point of view in Iran that its own government is sending the ships mainly as a way to reassert its influence in the region over a rising Turkey.

The U.S. show of naval force also seems to be freighted with symbolic value. Ever since Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet around the world, the U.S. has been using such shows of force to intimidate would-be competitors. The signal to Iran’s leaders will be unmistakable. If the inclusion of an Israeli warship is confirmed, it will deepen the symbolic message.

It will also tell the Netanyahu government that, whatever concessions the U.S. may demand toward Palestine, the U.S. - Israel military alliance is firm when it comes to Iran. For Washington, the underlying message may be: Therefore, Netanyahu, there’s no need to even think about unilateral Israeli action against Iran.

These issues of symbolism, which take politics into the realm of culture and psychology, are generally more important to policymakers than they are to journalists and pundits, who usually stick to “hard-headed” analyses of fact and “realpolitik.” If the mass media in the U.S. pick up the story of the fleet moving into the Red Sea at all, it will no doubt be reported as an understandable strategic move against a power that threatens U.S. interests. And in Israel it will be seen as welcome resistance to the one nation that threatens Israel’s very existence.

Yet why should Americans and Israelis believe such frightening narratives, when Iran has made no tangible aggressive moves against anyone? That key question is rarely explored, or even asked.

So it was a welcome surprise to see the Christian Science Monitor publish an article by its reporter in Tel Aviv, Scott Peterson, titled “Does Israel Suffer From Iranophobia?” It was probably just a coincidence that this piece appeared on the very same day that news of the U.S. war fleet broke -- but a most telling coincidence.

Peterson wrote only about the Israeli fear, which is “utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate,” according to Israeli scholar Haggai Ram, author of “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession.” “There is really no critical debate about this” in Israel, Ram added. Anyone who questions the need to fear Iran is “immediately rendered into these bizarre self-defeating, self-hating Jews, and seen as a fifth column.”

This despite the fact that Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Ehud Barak himself said just two months ago that Iran “does not pose an existential threat to Israel.” Barak did add that a nuclear-armed Iran in the future would pose such a threat.

But according to Peterson’s article, Israeli analysts see the Iranophobia rooted in memories of the past, not forecasts of the future. The prevailing Israeli mindset is that “we have no other choice, they want to destroy us,” according to scholar Reuven Pedatzur. “It’s a cultural issue, based on the Holocaust, that everybody wants to destroy the Jewish people.” This is the narrative that Netanyahu has used so incessantly, and apparently effectively, to hold on to political power.

It’s no secret in Israel. “Israeli analysts often describe how the Jewish state ‘needs’ an outside enemy,” Peterson rightly explained, “to justify continued oppression against the Palestinians and one of the largest per capita defense budgets in the Middle East.”

The idea that Israel is driven by a cultural-political narrative, not by realistic security needs, rarely gets even whispered in the U.S. mass media. Occasional articles like Peterson’s, or Henry Siegman’s New York Times op-ed, suggesting that Israeli fear is pathological, are all too rare. But at least they have appeared.

Where, in the U.S. mass media, will we find equivalent analyses suggesting that U.S. fear of a nuclear-armed Iran is “Iranophobic” and pathological, spawned by symbolic cultural narratives and the “need” for an enemy rather than realistic appraisals of reality? We’ve got too few voices even in the alternative media analyzing America’s pathology about Iran. I’ve seen none at all in the mainstream press.

When the world’s greatest military power (by far) sends an aircraft carrier and nearly a dozen other warships to head off two freighters bringing food, medicine, and clothing to desperate besieged civilians, something is seriously out of whack.

The anti-Iranian policies will continue until enough Americans recognize that it’s pathological. If our mass media help us see that pathology in Israel, perhaps we can begin to see it in ourselves too. Then we can also see how the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel is fed significantly by a shared narrative of danger, fear, and victimization.

And we can see how the U.S. Navy flotilla moving to the Red Sea is fundamentally a symbolic drama acting out that shared narrative. The danger is that symbolic dramas all too often end in the shedding of very real blood.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog: http://chernus.wordpress.com.