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Iran and the Gaza war

Sadegh Zibakalam
26 January 2009

The reaction to the three-week war in Gaza among Iran's rulers and state-run media was predictable. They reported graphically the extent of Palestinian suffering as a result of heavy Israeli bombardment; and they did everything they could to capitalise on this suffering as a way of demonstrating -  to Arabs and indeed the world at large as well as Iranians - how right their regional political assessments had been all along. But the fury they unleashed at the leading Arab regimes, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was unprecedented. In fact, the regime's attacks on those Arab regimes were on occasion far more severe than those on Israel itself.Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University. This article, with slight editorial variations, was published in bitterlemons.org              
Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

A polemical wave

This official response was reflected on the streets and in public gatherings. Pro-government students and basiji militants staged several raucous protests in front of the Saudi embassy, demanding that diplomatic relations with Riyadh be severed; they also assembled outside the building that houses the Egyptian interests section in Tehran. Two of the radical Tehran imams with close ties to the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even accused Cairo and Riyadh during their Friday sermons of collusion with the Israelis (while expressing the hope that such suspicions were incorrect).

One of these imams, Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, stated that the Egyptian regime had permitted Israeli jet-fighters to use Egyptian airspace to bomb Gaza. He also charged the Egyptian intelligence agencies with giving the Israelis secret information about the whereabouts of Hamas fighters, their ammunition-depots and some rocket-launching sites.

Iranian media outlets also voiced anger at the Arab regimes' response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. Some pro-government student groups, in a gesture of protest against Saudi Arabia, refused to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina they had won; they declared that they would travel instead to the Iraqi holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Iranian leaders' bitterly critical language directed against Arab leaders contrasted with the respect and praise they showered on Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez and the leader of another of Latin America's radical regimes, Bolivia (Evo Morales), who severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv during the war; this served to demonstrate Ahmadinejad's wise and prudent strategy of expanding ties with ideological soulmates in the region.

A political opening

The Islamic government also used the war in Gaza as an opportunity to settle accounts with some of its domestic opponents. For example, the government agency responsible for monitoring press conduct immediately closed down a pro-reformist newspaper that printed a statement from the student movement Daftar-e Tahkim Vahdat blaming Hamas for firing missiles into Israel as well as Israel for its own assault on Gaza. This was even though the paper's editorial board apologised and stated that it did not share the student organisation's view. 

The political intent of the agency's action was obvious in the way that the same statement was printed by pro-government newspapers without any punishment - for their motive was interpreted as exposing to the public "the pro-Zionist nature of the reformist student movement". The government's line was that all the freedom-loving people in the world, even non-Muslims, were condemning the Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people in Gaza; whereas "the so-called reformist students in Iran were ashamedly condoning the Zionist aggression."

The Israeli attack on Gaza was therefore bad news for human rights in Iran.  Iranian leaders and state media repeatedly alleged that all those who had regularly criticised human-rights violations in Iran were today closing their eyes to the Zionists' crimes in Gaza.

The charge of hypocrisy was extended to these figures' alleged western friends; a leading hardline newspaper argued that the war demonstrated yet again the cynicism of the west's claims regarding human rights. Another leading militant clergyman close to Ahmadinejad - speaking on behalf of hundreds of students who had organised a mass sit-in at Tehran's Mehrabad airport demanding to go to Gaza to fight alongside Hamas - stated that George W Bush's understanding of justice and democracy encompassed only white westerners; Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians were in his eyes insufficiently human to qualify for those values.

A different view

But this deluge of rhetoric notwithstanding, the Islamic regime didn't have it all its own way on Gaza. In the midst of the war, another leading newspaper published an article by a well-known Iranian academic that posed two serious questions.

First, why was it that in many Muslim countries tens and even hundreds of thousands of protestors had come out in support of the Palestinians, whereas the number in Iran (including in the capital) was just a few hundred or at most a couple of thousand?

Second, had Iran's diplomacy toward the Arab states and its neighbours been all that wise? The war on Gaza, the writer suggested, can be seen as proving yet again the failure of Iran's foreign policy toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a key player in the middle east, whether Iran likes it or not; the war on Gaza vividly demonstrates that by severing relations with Cairo, Iranian leaders had hobbled their capacity to play an indispensable role in the Arab-Israel dispute.

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