Iran is sending three aid ships this week to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza — and in an ominous development, the government is threatening to dispatch military escorts with the vessels. Israel says it will block the Iranian aid ships, purportedly carrying relief supplies and volunteers. Last month, Israel used deadly force to take over a Turkish flagged aid flotilla headed to Gaza. Is this current situation as explosive as it seems, or is Tehran bluffing? (Watch a Russia Today report about Iran's message to Israel.) Here's a quick guide to Iran's plans:
What did Iran say?
A military aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran is prepared to use its elite Revolutionary Guard to escort the three Iranian aid ships to Gaza. He added, "It is Iran's duty to defend the innocent people of Gaza."
How will the Israelis respond to the approaching ships?
Israel says it won't let the Iranian vessels break the embargo. "If we didn't let an Irish ship reach Gaza, we are certainly not going to let Iranian ships pass," an unidentified Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post.
Who would win a naval standoff, Israel or Iran?
Most analysts seem to bet on Israel. Even if Iran's Revolutionary Guards follow through, their navy consists mostly of speedboats and light vessels.
So why is Iran making this threat?
There's no shortage of theories. Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar says Iran is jealous that — following the recent flotilla raid — Turkey is taking over as Gaza's main champion in the region, while London-based Iran expert Mehrdad Khonsari says this is "just publicity" designed to embarrass regional rival Egypt for helping Israel enforce the Gaza blockade.
What if Iran isn't bluffing?
Some analysts don't think it is. Arsen Ostrovsky at Frum Forum says Iran is capable of such a "brazen move," and that if it did send war ships toward Gaza, "Israel would have no option but to respond militarily." He adds: "Let's hope cooler heads prevail at sea."
What's Iran's interest in Gaza?
Iran says it's motivated by humanitarian concerns for Palestinian civilians, while Israel says Iran wants to ship more arms to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
Where does the U.S. stand?
"I don't think that Iran's intentions vis-a-vis Gaza are benign," said U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley on Monday. At the same time, he added, "We certainly are looking ourselves at trying to find ways of increasing the amount of assistance that goes to the people of Gaza."