Gaza exploited by theocracy

Yassamine Mather exposes the Ayatollahs' empty posturing

As the war in Gaza progressed, Israeli and US officials made a number of false claims regarding Iran’s relations with Hamas. Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu said that Iran was Hamas’s “patron”, and that both seek Israel’s destruction: Hamas had “created an Iranian base right next to Israel”.

In early January Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, in an interview reported by AFP, used similar words: “Gaza must not become a satellite of Iran.” Then on January 10 foreign minister Tzipi Livni said that Iran is “heavily involved in the evolution of Hamas”. At first, “the missiles were homemade - made in the Gaza Strip. But not any more. Now they are professional, coming from Iran.”

There can be no doubts that over the last few weeks Tehran has used the most colourful rhetoric amongst Islamic states to ‘prove’ its support for Gaza’s Palestinian population. However, as many have pointed out, Iran’s actions have, as always, failed miserably in matching its slogans. According to one commentator writing in last week’s Economist, “Iranian support for Hamas was more theatrical than practical.”

In fact Iran’s relations with Sunni Hamas have been nowhere near as close as with Hezbollah, a Shia organisation in Lebanon. Iran played an important role in the establishment of Hezbollah in the 1980s, but by contrast the origins of Hamas can be traced to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s - with Israeli support, as it attempted to establish a counterbalance to the secular, leftwing groups that enjoyed mass support in Palestine.

Iran has never seen Hamas as a long-term ally and both Netanyahu and Peres are disingenuous in their claims - the financial support for Hamas from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar (Sunni Arab countries) far outweighs Iran’s contribution. Although Iran has supplied Hezbollah with a number of medium-range missiles, the few sent to Hamas were short-range. Despite what Livni says, Hamas still relies mainly on homemade Qassam rockets.

Iran’s anti-Israel propaganda both prior to the onslaught on Gaza and over the last few weeks has been deafening. However, its practice has left it open to criticism and ridicule: both Farsi and Arabic bloggers have compared Iran’s ayatollahs to the Islamic equivalent of the Grand Duke of York (except Iran’s rulers have marched down the hill on their own - the people of Gaza slaughtered by Israeli forces had not exactly been following Tehran’s lead). In its propaganda Iran had said it would send in Hezbollah to aid the Palestinians and threatened rocket attacks on Tel Aviv if Gaza was attacked. In the event, it gave strict orders to Hezbollah to keep away from the fighting and arrested pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Tehran in case the situation got out of hand.

As late as December 2008 ayatollah Rafsanjani told worshippers at Tehran’s Friday prayers: “If tanks enter Gaza, something amazing will happen. Palestinians will use new weapons and hunt [Israelis] from a long distance.” However, three days later, major general Mohammad Jafari, head of Iran’s armed forces, stated that “Gaza does not need the logistic and military support of other countries to defend itself.”

In early January Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that anyone killed defending Palestinians would be a martyr, prompting a mass registration of ‘martyrdom volunteers’. Islamic student groups claimed that 70,000 had signed up to go to Gaza. However, when some of the volunteers staged a sit-in at Tehran’s international airport, demanding to be allowed to travel to Palestine, they were told to go home.

Pro-Palestinians demonstrators, including Mothers for Peace, and students involved in protests outside western embassies were arrested. Then Khamenei went on state television to tell the nation that Iranian hands were tied. In other words, despite all the rhetoric Iran’s Islamic regime was going to do absolutely nothing while over 1,400 Palestinians were being massacred.

A leaked document, ‘Instructions to military leaders of Pasdaran [Islamic guards]’, shows the cynical attitude of the regime’s leaders in its use of the Gaza conflict for ideological purposes. The 10-point order includes the following suggestions:

Throughout the last few weeks, in complete denial of reality, the regime’s media have ‘celebrated’ the military victory of Palestinians in Gaza, but even seasoned observers of Ahmadinejad lunacy must have marvelled at the statement from IRNA (the official Iranian news agency) that he intends to attend a “Gaza victory feast organised by Islamic students”. Similarly Press TV, the regime’s English-language television station supported by George Galloway, declared that Gaza’s victory had “brought joy”.

Obviously there is much to celebrate in 1,400 Palestinian deaths and the maiming of thousands, not to mention the fact that tens of thousands are now homeless and the infrastructure of Gaza has been destroyed.

Of course, unlike the suffering inhabitants of Gaza, Iran’s rulers have reason to celebrate. They have to some extent succeeded in diverting attention from the serious economic situation, the mass unemployment, the unpaid wages. Iran’s huge budget deficit, caused by a sharp drop in the price of oil, is now estimated at $6.7 billion. The regime has also used the events in Gaza to bury news of its own repressive policies. Although reformist lawyer Shirin Ebadi was amongst the first Iranian public figures to condemn Israeli aggression, her offices were ransacked and Islamic militia accused her of not supporting the Palestinian cause strongly enough.

On January 14 a peaceful gathering condemning the war in the Gaza Strip and organised by the reformist group, Mothers for Peace, was attacked by vigilante militia, who shouted: “Death to peace-seekers and compromisers”. Regular police witnessed the incident outside the Palestinian embassy, but did not intervene. A number of women were injured and one activist told reporters: “This shows the government’s blatant hypocrisy in using events in Gaza” for its own political purposes, as it “violates human rights”.

As the Israeli government committed one war crime after another, the Iranian regime used the events in Gaza to try and wipe out reminders of one of its own horrific offences of devastating proportion: the systematic execution of tens of thousands of leftwing political prisoners in the 1980s. Pro-government forces attempted to demolish Khavaran cemetery, where families of the victims of the political cleansing of the 1988 believe their loved ones are buried. It is a non-Islamic cemetery in south-east of Tehran and the scene of many protests in recent years. Clearly the regime and its supporters hope that the destruction of the graves will help it deny history. However, the attempt backfired. Families of those executed have organised protests and petitions demanding that the destruction of the cemetery be halted, and this has served to highlight this vilest of crimes.

Despite the efforts of the Islamic leaders, the solidarity of most Iranians with the Palestinians has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with the history of colonialism and imperialism in the region. For the Iranian left and the working class it is part and parcel of international solidarity and a shared history of confronting external aggression in the Middle East, as well as defeating internal reactionary rulers.

Yet the theatrical posturings of the regime, combined with constant revelations about its secret dealings with Israel (for example, the arms trade, as exposed by Irangate, and more recently oil sales), has led many people, including sections of Iranian youth, to conclude that everything it says is lies - which has resulted in a degree of apathy towards the plight of Gaza. The Islamic regime’s religious propaganda, far from gathering support for the Palestinians, has created cynicism towards regional issues on the part of these youngsters. This can only help the imperialists and their allies.