Iranians know who their enemy is, and it’s not Israel

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Iran, Israel, Israel-Palestine

Despite the regime's attempt to whip up the Iranian people’s support for the Palestinians and hostility to Israel, they remain largely unmoved.

An Iranian man holds a Palestinian flag at an anti-Israel protest.
An Iranian man holds a Palestinian flag at an anti-Israel protest, 31 May 2019. Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

A visitor to post-revolutionary Tehran would not have been surprised to find the capital festooned with the symbols of anti-imperialism and resistance movements, most obviously against the United States and Israel (diatribes against Britain fluctuated according to the mood). The annual gathering of the Palestinian resistance was a fixture in the revolutionary calendar with one of the capital’s hotels ‘occupied’ and transformed – albeit temporarily – into ‘little Palestine’, the butt of many jokes by the city’s laconic taxi drivers. The call would go out for volunteers to join the resistance and, regular as clockwork, it would be ignored. Indeed, the general insouciance of the Iranian public to the Palestinian cause, and by extension Israel, stood in marked contrast to the performative dedication of the state, for which the eradication of Israel remained a pillar of revolutionary ideology.

The sympathy with which Iranians have tended to look on Israel and Judaism is rooted in deep historical and cultural engagement. It is symbolised by, though far from limited to, a deep mutual fascination with the figure of Cyrus the Great, but the relationship is as much if not more defined by Jewish affection for Iran as it was by Iranian affection for them. The Jews were but one minority in Iran, but they were an ancient and significant minority with a profound knowledge and engagement with Persian culture. In the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, Jews, along with Christians and Zoroastrians, were accorded official status and a deputy in the new parliament. Till 1979, upwards of 100,000 Jews lived, and increasingly flourished, in Iran, the largest concentration at that time, outside Israel, in the Middle East.

The Shah had enjoyed cordial if discreet relations with Israel, even hosting an informal ambassador, while even many on the left in Iran had admired Israel’s communal ethos. But after 1967 popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause grew and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ensured that the relationship came to an abrupt end. What had been ambivalent and ambiguous now – rhetorically at least – became radical and clear. Israel was a blot on the Muslim landscape, was illegitimate and had to be removed. The Jewish minority was still recognised  – a deputy still represented them in parliament – but the change in atmosphere resulted in a dramatic reduction in the Jewish population in Iran with upwards of 75,000 departing for Israel, Europe and the United States.

Not that this ideological shift had the immediate practical impact the rhetoric suggested. Old habits die hard, on both sides it would seem, and during the war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not averse to using Israeli middlemen to secure much needed arms. The ensuing scandal – the Iran-Contra affair – did not arise from leaks in Iran, and it is quite likely that, had they not emerged, the authorities in Iran would have kept this quiet. Indeed, whatever the official ideology and outward sympathy for the Palestinian cause, practical ambiguity remained the order of the day. One of the drivers for this was the fractious relationship with the PLO, which had supported the Revolution – Yasser Arafat was the first foreign leader to visit Tehran in 1979 – but then switched sides to Saddam Hussein, when the latter invaded Iran a year later. This encouraged Iran in due course, to find other proxies to support its opposition to Israel, principally Hezbollah in Lebanon, then Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

For much of the 1990s Iran took the contradictory approach of regarding Israel as both an ideological foe and a geopolitical challenge. One had an uncompromising attitude – Israel had no right to exist – the other a seemingly pragmatic one: Israel is a reality we have to live with and contain. The high tide of the latter position occurred under President Khatami when officials toyed with the idea of supporting the peace process (‘we can’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians’) and even started referring to Israel by its name. There was a moment, even if brief, after 9/11 when some sort of détente seemed possible, if not recognition then a modus vivendi of sorts, stressing the social and cultural ties.

Such tentative steps came to a crashing halt with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary purism, Holocaust denial and conviction that Israel would soon be ‘wiped from the pages of history’, all ensured that any remaining ambiguity about Iran’s position had been banished. Much ink has been spilt in the West about just what Ahmadinejad meant in his various statements but a quick look at the wider context would have laid to rest any notions of Ahmadinejad’s ‘passive’ voice or ‘scholarly’ approach to Holocaust studies. All this took on a more ominous tone in light of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Supporters openly talked of the ‘fantasy’ of the Holocaust, which had been invented to justify the establishment of Israel, while Revolutionary Guards paraded missiles brandished with flags saying Israel must be destroyed. Practice had now emphatically caught up with the rhetoric, subtlety and ambiguity had been thrown to the wind, and Ahmadinejad basked in his accumulated controversy. His successor, Hassan Rouhani, sought to moderate this position, but the Revolutionary Guards now drove the policy, which was active and deliberate in its opposition to the state of Israel, an antagonism which was reciprocated in full. Iran was soon engaged in a proxy war with Israel in Syria, while the Israeli’s actively sought to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme, always retaining a measure of constructive ambiguity of its own as it penetrated Iran’s security establishment and targeted scientists.

As the regime became more fanatical in its antipathy towards Israel, Iranians themselves became uneasy, reflecting wider disaffection with the Islamic Republic itself. The new mood was first voiced during the Green Movement in 2009. Protestors began to chant, ‘Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran’. The authorities were horrified at this apparent change in sentiment and even more moderate Iranian politicians pretended it had been misheard. It hadn’t, and the slogan was a pointed criticism of continued support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

As Iran’s political and economic situation has declined so, too, the popular criticism of revolutionary indulgence, be it in Syria, Palestine, or indeed Ukraine, has intensified. Attendance at the annual Jerusalem Day demonstrations in support of the Palestinians – always a ritual rather than a passion – has declined dramatically in recent years. The more radical the regime has become, the more Iranian society has pushed back. In stark contrast to Western capitals there have been no popular protests in support of the Palestinians in Iran’s cities. A small government sponsored demonstration was ridiculed by onlookers.

One of the great ironies of our present predicament is that, as the regime pursues the logic of its revolutionary ideology, it does so without the support of wider Iranian society. Iranians are focused on problems closer to home. They know who their enemy is, and it’s not Israel.


Ali Ansari