What Iran stands to gain from conflict over Gaza

Students storm the British Embassy residence compound in Tehran, Iran, ripping down the Union Jack and hoisting the Palestinian flag, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposes to try Israeli leaders in absentia.

An Iranian religious organization signs up volunteers for suicide operations in the Gaza Strip, and an Iranian general suggests an Islamic military response to the five-day Israeli offensive against Hamas.

With bellicose rhetoric, the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken the lead in opposing the ongoing Israeli military operation in Gaza. The vociferous public displays, analysts say, are aimed primarily at hard-core government supporters in Iran whom officials hope to energize before presidential elections in June.

But the high-profile maneuvers are a double-edged sword, because they also reinforce perceptions in Israel, the United States and large parts of the Arab world of links between Iran and Hamas, which took control of Gaza in mid-2007.

Israeli leaders and their U.S. allies have framed the fight against Hamas as one against an Iranian proxy firing Iranian-supplied rockets deeper inside the Jewish state. In a CBS interview Tuesday, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Hamas Iran’s “terrorist base” next to Israel.

But Iran’s main ally in the region — the Shiite militia Hezbollah — has all but ruled out military intervention on behalf of Hamas, while Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has carefully condoned “defending” Gazans without calling for killing Israelis.

Even the hair-raising idea of a military response was delivered not by a ranking officer in charge of Iran’s land, sea or air forces, but by the general technically in charge of annual ceremonies commemorating those who fought and died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

“They are mobilizing their power base to set the tone for the main issues of the presidential campaign,” said researcher Shahram Kholdi, at the University of Manchester, England.

“One of the main issues is relations with the United States” and by extension Israel, he said. “They are trying to warn the reformers and whoever might challenge Ahmadinejad, ‘We are still able to sabotage whatever you might be doing, which includes foreign policy.’ ”

In taking this tack, Iran also can appeal to hard-line Islamists in rival Arab nations.

“Iran is trying to be the leader of the Islamic world,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Jerusalem-based Iran expert. “Khamenei believes that the majority of the Islamic world is angry, and he is right in his opinion.”

Meanwhile, Iran has intensified repression against its own moderate and reformist opponents. Authorities Wednesday shut down the daily newspaper Kargozaran, which is often critical of Ahmadinejad and close to rival Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani…..

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