Rhetoric and double talk
How will the Islamic Republic react to Gaza? Yassamine Mather explains why the masses are for the moment largely passive and how that could easily change
No doubt the most protracted conflicts in the Middle East centre around Israel and Palestine. Events in Gaza - notably artillery bombardment, air strikes and the siege - have been a focal point for mass protests, and in the last two weeks every significant Middle Eastern urban centre has witnessed huge turnouts for pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
For many in the Middle East, the Palestinian cause is not just a historic political issue, but a symbol of resistance against injustice, colonialism and foreign domination. That is why demonstrations in Cairo, Beirut, Amman and Baghdad are not merely expressions of anger at events in Gaza, but expressions of a shared history, identity and quest for justice - a reminder that the Palestinian struggle has a central place in the collective Arab psyche. Of course for most of the citizens of the region, current events and Israeli plans for ethnic cleansing are reminiscent of the Nakba (the ‘catastrophe’, the mass expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war).
Of course, the scale and nature of demonstrations has been influenced by national and regional politics. In Yemen it is interesting to note that the two sides of the civil war have united in huge protests against Israel and in support of Palestine. In a number of provinces, thousands of protestors gathered to express their opposition against the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza by Israel.
One Yemini, speaking to Arab News, said:
Our solidarity with the people of Gaza has nothing to do with religion, race or ideology. These people are humans in the first place, and being silent on the Israel crimes is inhuman. It is disgraceful to the entire world to let such a genocide unfold.1
While some Arab leaders allowed or even encouraged large protests as a means to bolster their own standing, to deflect from domestic issues or to assert themselves against regional rivals, some states tried to suppress or downplay demonstrations, fearing the repercussions of a too vociferous pro-Palestinian stand and wary of their diplomatic ties or other strategic considerations.
In Egypt we had the bizarre situation where Abdel Fattah el‑Sisi, who is seeking re-election as president, tried to organise a pro-Palestinian demonstration - only to be snubbed, as many Egyptians called it a ‘staged protest’ and refused to attend. In the words of one pro-Palestine supporter, speaking to Al-Jazeera: “It was a comedy show. Most people who were there were hired or paid to come.” Various journalists report that “there were directives by the different ministries to take to the streets in these mobilisations, as well as the state-backed trade union federations, who also mobilised their workers.”
Instead of the ‘official’ protest, thousands went to other, non-governmental demonstrations - and even those who did go to the Sisi demonstration managed to shout their own slogans, which were a return, at times, to the slogans of the Arab spring of 2011.
Of course, Egypt is now looking at a possible influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. An Israeli think tank, the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Meir Ben-Shabbat, published a paper on October 17, which says this: “There is at the moment a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government.”
The detailed proposals explain both the ‘needs’ of the Gaza population and the solution:
There is a need for an immediate, viable plan for the resettlement and economic rehabilitation of the entire Arab population in the Gaza Strip, which sits well with the geopolitical interests of Israel, Egypt, the USA and Saudi Arabia …
The average cost of a three-room apartment of 95 square meters for an average Gaza family of 5.14 people in one of the two mentioned cities stands at $19,000. In calculating the total population that resides in the Gaza Strip, which stood at 2.2 million people, it is possible to assess that the amount that would need to be transferred to Egypt in order to finance [resettlement] would be around $5-$8 billion.
An encouraging injection to the Egyptian economy of this magnitude would provide an enormous and immediate advantage to El-Sisi’s regime. Such money sums, compared to the Israeli economy, are miniscule. The investment of a mere few billions of dollars (even if it is $20 or $30 billion) in order to solve this difficult issue is an innovative, cheap and viable solution.
There is no doubt that, in order for this plan to be enacted, many conditions need to exist in parallel. At the moment, these conditions exist, and it is unclear when such an opportunity will arise again, if at all.2
However, in contrast to the large regional and indeed global protests in solidarity with the Palestinians, we have witnessed muted demonstrations in Iran’s Islamic Republic. A government-sponsored protest saw a mere few hundred gathering in a Tehran square immediately after the bombing of the al-Ahli hospital. On the whole there are no spontaneous protests in Iranian cities and we need to examine the reason for this apathy, especially given the strong ties between Iranian and Palestinian revolutionaries prior to the overthrow of the shah:
1. Rhetorical fatigue from constant political posturing: the Islamic Republic has, since its inception in 1979, consistently voiced its support for the Palestinian cause. The regime’s leaders have often used strong anti-Israel rhetoric, claiming they were in the forefront of all regional struggles against western-supported injustices in the region. However, years of such often hyperbolic rhetoric, without corresponding concrete action, have led to considerable scepticism and fatigue among many Iranians. At the height of the Islamic Republic’s ‘anti-Israeli’ posturing in the 1980s, revelations about the Irangate scandal, which showed Iran’s connections to Israeli arms manufacturers, played a significant role in the spread of cynicism. As a result, some sections of the populace now see pro-Palestinian declarations more as political manoeuvring than genuine concern, leading to a diminished public response to events in Gaza.
2. The ‘enemy of my enemy’ misconception: the Iranian government’s dwindling popularity domestically, has led to some sections of Iranian society adopting the idea that the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Many people, disenchanted with the regime, wrongly believe whoever is opposed to the government, including Israel, might be their allies. This logic, although obviously flawed, has led to decreased public resonance with the Palestinian cause among certain sections of Iranian youth.
3. Influence of foreign propaganda, especially via satellite television: the media plays a pivotal role in shaping public opinion, and Iran is no exception. Over the years, Persian-speaking foreign media, particularly certain satellite TV stations with alleged ties to Israeli intelligence, or funded by foreign entities with a vested interest, have effectively broadcast content that seems to trivialise or distort the Palestinian struggle. By presenting a skewed view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these channels have managed to influence a section of Iranian youth, leading them to be either indifferent or misinformed about the issues involved.
4. The myth that all of Hamas and Hezbollah funds come from Iran: it is a well documented fact that Hamas’s income comes mainly from Qatar and super-rich individuals in other Gulf countries. As for Hezbollah, it is now part of the government in Lebanon and over the last few decades it has become a major owner of capital, finance, real estate and manufacturing in Lebanon, which increasingly pays for at least a portion its military expenditure.
In summary, the Iranian public’s subdued response to the attacks on Gaza is not an isolated phenomenon, but is rooted in the country’s socio-political landscape. Decades of state propaganda, combined with the influence of foreign media and growing disillusionment with the regime, have resulted in a complex web of perceptions and beliefs about the Palestinian cause.
Of course, Iranians have no reason to be apathetic and the situation will change dramatically - either if Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, get involved in the current conflict or if the US intervenes directly.
So far it is clear that yet again, despite all its anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian rhetoric, Iran’s Islamic Republic has so far done its best to restrain its main regional ally, Hezbollah. Iran’s security and military forces are fully occupied trying to control protests inside the country and this policy has its own dangers. The Islamic Republic - the country that in the past has made so much noise about Israel - looks completely impotent at a time when Palestinians desperately need all the help they can get. The regime’s own internal and external supporters might be wondering what is going on.
Over the last couple of weeks the Islamic Republic has chosen the relatively easier option of concentrating on low-level operations against US forces in Iraq and Syria. The US has evacuated non-essential personnel from its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Erbil over the “increased security threats” against its personnel and interests.
On October 24, US secretary of state Antony Blinken told the UN security council that Washington does not seek conflict with Iran, but warned that the US “would act swiftly and decisively if Iran or its proxies attack the US”.
Of course, Netanyahu is keen to expand the war and this week he visited northern Israel to tell soldiers on the Lebanese border: “We are now in a double battle” - adding he could not tell them right now if Hezbollah will decide to enter the war fully, but said the fight with Hamas was ‘do or die’ for Israel. A day earlier on October 22, Israel’s economy minister, Nir Barkat, issued an ominous threat to Iran and Lebanon, saying his country would “wipe them off the face of the earth” if Hezbollah opens up a northern front in the Hamas war.
How will US imperialism respond?