Lebanon: the view from Iran

Kamin Mohammadi
8 August 2006

On the wide tree-lined avenues of Tehran, newspaper kiosks are doing brisk trade. Along with those stopping to buy cigarettes, internet cards and chewing-gum, people are snapping up newspapers and even more are gathering round just to read the headlines. Ever since Israel dropped its first bomb on Lebanon, the Iranian media has gone all out to show the horror that "the Zionist regime" has inflicted on the innocent people of Lebanon. Most newspapers have adopted a virulently anti-Israeli and anti-western tone with other Arab nations scoring a close second in contempt for their lack of action.

Spend a day in front of Iranian television and you will feel sure that this is Iran's own war, so blanket is the coverage and so absolute its one-sidedness – Israel only referred to as the "Zionist regime", the deaths of women and children taking priority over other news, the rocket attacks by Hizbollah declared as victories.

The United States has identified Iran as the main military and financial backer of Hizbollah. The links are in fact more complex, but anyone walking down these same wide avenues in Tehran in the last couple of weeks will have seen that Tehran's support for Hizbollah is explicit on the level of visual imagery as well as political and media rhetoric.

Kamin Mohammadi is a writer who works between Britain and Iran. Her website is here

The names of the people quoted in this article have been changed to protect their identity

Rhetoric and reality

Everywhere along the highways of Tehran have appeared posters of Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah wearing the black turban of the mullah with a Kalashnikov held up triumphantly in his right hand. The small print on the posters reveals them to be published by the office responsible for the beautification of Tehran, though it is not clear whether any of the regular Tehranis bustling by the images would agree that Nasrallah's omnipresence adds anything very positive to their city's appearance.

In reality, despite the outward show of support by the government, there is little that the Islamic regime can do to help the people of Lebanon. All medicine and humanitarian aid that Tehran has tried to send to Lebanon has been frustrated by border and air-space restrictions – treated, according to Iranian reporters, as enemy loads. Iran was even forced to empty three cargo planes of medicine it had intended to send to Lebanon via Syria, and instead forward them as board luggage with passengers flying to Dubai.

200 volunteers who declared their intention to go to Lebanon to join Hizbollah to fight "the Zionist regime" were similarly frustrated at the Turkish border where they were refused entry. The unarmed volunteers had first gathered at Behesht Zahra, Tehran's cemetery, to pay their respects to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war before boarding the bus that was to take them to the border. These hardliners, many of them students, clutched pictures of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Imam Khomeini, as well as copies of the Qur'an, which they kissed as they climbed on board. "I am ready to be martyred", said Hassan, a 25-year-old computer student, "along with my Palestinian and Lebanese brothers. I just hope Hizollah gives us a bit of training first."

The government has sought in recent years to channel national hatred of Israel by encouraging thousands of young people to sign up at "martyrdom stations", pledging their allegiance to the Palestinian cause and declaring their readiness to become suicide-bombers. Yet the government has distanced itself from this most recent operation, saying it was not official policy to send troops to Lebanon. Since the students weren't armed and it was obvious they would never reach their destination, their action can be interpreted as little more than posturing - reflecting the way that registration at "martyrdom stations" is also a kind of advert for the Iranian regime's hardline credentials.

Indeed, the people of Iran are far less sure than their government proclaims itself to be of the relevance of this war to their lives. "I feel sorry for the people of Lebanon", says Ronak Vahed, a 23-year-old shop assistant. "But I hope we don't get involved. It's not our war." This is a view expressed by Iranians across the board. Iran's domestic social problems are severe – unemployment, the precarious state of the economy, drug addiction and poverty are just a few - and many Iranians wish their government would shift its focus, not to mention its oil funds, to some of the issues that directly preoccupy them and affect their daily lives.

There are those who think the Islamic regime is using this war to try to position itself as a leadership for all Muslims, not just Shi'a but also Sunni. "Ayatollah Khamenei the other day referred to himself as valie amre moslemine Jahan (the holy commander of all the Muslims of the world)", says Bijan Tabrizi, a 32-year-old office worker. "This means he is positioning himself as the leader of all Muslims, Sunnis included. I hadn't heard him saying this for a while and I think while other Arab countries are doing nothing to help their Muslim brothers, Iran is trying to step into the breach."

In the glossy shopping malls of north Tehran, ladies resplendent in designer silk headscarves and outsize designer sunglasses worry over the future. "I have a son who is approaching his teenage years", explains Fariba Etemadian, 35, "and I don't know what the future holds for him here. There is no security and the government cares more about children dying in some other country than about our own children. What did those countries do to help Iran when we were at war with Iraq for eight years? No one helped us…".

A world away from well-heeled north Tehran, in the western province of Iranian Kurdistan, Amin Khorasani, 47, doesn't believe that violence is the right way. "Look, this is a historical problem between the Jews and Arabs which reaches back thousands of years. It is not going to be solved this way. And Iran as the defender of all Muslims, this is just a pose. The clash between Iran and the United States – which I think this war is – is only a clash of ideologies: the US with its supposedly democratic ideals, Iran with its Islamic ideals. I don't agree with this war or our involvement. This is just politics, with both sides using their different ideologies to push their own political agenda."

"Dialogue is the only way forward", Amin concluded. "Enough people have been killed."

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