Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Flotilla Fallout: Iranian Rhetorical Attacks against Israel Increase

Iranian officials have used the Israeli navy’s raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla to rally a flurry of rhetorical attacks against Israel. Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ali Khamene’i called Israel a “bloodthirsty, disrespectful and idiotic regime,” while its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed to have knowledge of an impending Israeli operation in Gaza, warning Israel “that if this time you commit a crime against any place, against Gaza, the storm of regional nations’ fury will uproot you.” Former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force chief and current Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi warned that “Israel switched on the countdown to its downfall by its brutal attack on the Freedom Flotilla.” The tone and topic of these statements are not unprecedented for key Iranian figures, who often employ such rhetoric to divert attention from Iran’s domestic shortcomings and to obscure the regime’s intransigence on a variety of issues. It is not surprising that Iranian officials are again utilizing this strategy, considering the extent to which the standing of the Islamic Republic has deteriorated on multiple fronts over the past year.

Iran had a declared stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) totaling just over 1,800 pounds according to the June 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear program. The new June 2010 IAEA report states that Iran now possesses over 5,300 pounds of declared LEU—enough to fuel two nuclear bombs if converted to highly enriched uranium (HEU). Last year the IAEA assessed that Iran had enriched its known LEU stockpile to civilian-purpose levels below 5 percent. The latest report notes that Iran has told the IAEA that it successfully enriched a small batch of uranium to a level of 19.75 percent, which, if true, increases the likelihood that Iran can successfully convert uranium to weapons-grade fuel (enriching uranium to a level of 19.75 percent consumes 85 to 90 percent of the work required to produce weapons-grade fuel).

Moreover, Iran “declined to discuss” issues the IAEA has continuously raised about potential military dimensions to its nuclear program, even as the United States, United Kingdom, and France revealed in September 2009 that Iran had built a covert uranium enrichment facility that appeared to be inappropriate for civilian use but suitable for a weapons program. Iran has carried out these nuclear activities as a member of the United Nations (UN) and signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), ignoring repeated United Nations Security Council calls to adhere to IAEA oversight standards required by the NPT. The fact that Iran has made progress towards developing a nuclear weapons capability thus represents a significant blow to international institutions like the NPT and Security Council.

Iran’s already abysmal human rights record has also further degenerated as regime authorities killed dozens of their fellow citizens during the post-election unrest, detained hundreds of non-violent journalists, artists, and human rights activists, executed more citizens in 2009 than any other country except for China, increased media censorship, and moved to crush any legitimate opposition to the regime. A recently released annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) assessed that since last June, “human rights and religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution.” Its Qods Force operatives continue to “provide material support to terrorist or militant groups such as: Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Taliban, and Iraqi Shia groups.” Iran will likely maintain its distinction as the foremost state sponsor of terror when the State Department releases its annual report on the issue this year.

Khamene’i will address the Friday prayers audience in Tehran tomorrow for the first time since last June, when he declared Ahmadinejad’s re-election legitimate. His sermon will likely devote a significant amount of time to denouncing Israel and its role in the flotilla incident, and conspicuously avoid answering for Iran’s own record over the last year.

Maseh Zarif is a research manager for the Critical Threats Project at AEI.

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