As a likely UN vote on Palestine (and a subsequent US veto) becomes more imminent …
On a recent expedition at Mehrnews, the – once – excellent state news and photo website, I was surprised to find page after page of photos of Palestine-related events in Tehran and the provinces. There is usually one at least. But out of the 20 photo galleries on the main photo page, 9 were focused on Palestine. Some of these pictures follow.
Friends and colleagues often ask me: what is the Islamic Republic’s obsession with Palestine?
Really, what gives?
I am not an expert on this by any means, but I always try to make a few educated guesses. Iranians I know, have very differing views on this – as would be expected. A vast majority, just don’t give a damn (the photos above may be very telling). While Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu try to portray an Iran that is Israel-obsessed, the picture on the ground could not be far from this. While Iranians are busy trying to get home in one of the world’s’ worse traffic jams, keep track of rising gas prices and attempt to pass the university entrance exam, they don’t have much time to worry about Palestine, the occupation, or Israel’s lunatic politics (after all, they have enough of their own, thank you very much).
Others, are strongly oblivious to the horrific state of affairs in occupied Palestine and its suffering, reminding me of Arafat’s alliance with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and the Arab/Iranian rivalry. This is especially prominent among young people (my fellow classmates to be precise, I can not and do not speak for Iran’s budding young population) who simply do not understand the IRI’s obsession with Israel’s human rights abuses when it so vehemently ignores its own. The obsession has made these Iranians oblivious and exasperated with anything related to Palestine, and often you’ll have to admit: who can blame them? I was in Iran during the onslaught on Gaza and it was so perversely played out on IRIB that even I – someone who claims to be quite concerned with developments in that region and especially the occupation – was sick of it.
Some, while objecting Israeli aggression, believe that we have too much to worry about to invest in the Israel/Palestine issue and it has cost us dearly on the international front. Yet others see Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah as a pragmatic geopolitical gesture in a region surrounded by dangers, from American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to Israeli threats against Iran. They see this as further proof that the Iranian establishment is indeed a rational one, and at least on the international stage, not “unpredictable lunatics or crazies” as often portrayed by the Israeli government.
Journalists like Ahmad Zeydabadi [who has been brutally silenced and imprisoned since 2009 without a single day of leave] attribute the obsession to the Iranian government’s own egregious human rights abuses. So long as the Islamic Republic can point fingers to Israel, it can leave itself unscathed. So long as images of dead Gazan children and brutalized victims can play out on TV, no one will notice the IRI’s own killing spree. This strategy, ironically, greatly parallels that of Israel’s own. As parodied by this hilarious video, the Israeli position regarding its barbaric treatment of Palestinians is:
“The french? the Vichy regime. The Turks? massacred the Armenians and the Kurds. Norway? killed all the salmon. So what do we tell the world? DON’T PREACH US MORALS!”
But that can’t be the entire picture, can it? Even if support for Hezbollah and other groups was driven by geopolitical interests, what drives the fervent pro-Palestinian imagery that is used in the country’s political and state-sponsored cultural discourse on a daily basis?
Listening to a euphoric Ayatollah Khomeini in the early days oft the revolution (as “euphoric” as that bitter old man could sound), seeing himself rise as the “leader of the Islamic world” (at least according to political rhetoric), it is no surprise that he saw utmost support for Palestine as a must in this quest. You could not be lay claim to the leadership of the “Islamic World” (whatever that phrase is supposed to mean) and gain sympathy among its millions of Arab members without proclaiming Palestine as Number 1 on your agenda (even though the question of Palestine is not specifically a religious one). Long term questions that policymakers should deal with, like what a Palestinian state would mean for Iran’s interest in the region, or how that state could actually be achieved wasn’t part of the equation.
Because for all this verbal support, what has Iran actually ever done to pave the way for a Palestinian state?
Speaking to the Palestinian delegation at the United Nations, “nothing” would be far too generous a response. “On good days [when the Iranian government practiced a more dignified foreign policy, as in the days of Khatami] they would respond to a nod or a greeting. On bad days [as in now] they do not even bother” a member of the delegation tells me. Iran has rarely voted for or loosely supported resolutions put forth by the Palestinian delegation at the General Assembly brushing them aside as “pro-American” – even when those resolutions were regarding education and water. Because, according to the Iranians, the Palestinian Authority is a “tool of the West” after all.
Verbal, economic or even military support for Hamas has not proven particularly effective for Palestinians [if you think otherwise, let me know why] and either way, there’s no way to know the extent of it. Supporting other international solidarity efforts like the BDS movement has never been an option, as Iran and Israel share no – open – economic ties in the first place.
The most pragmatic step Iran has ever taken in achieving a Palestinian state can be attributed to the Khatami presidency when all 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (including Iran) expressed their support for the Arab Peace Initiative that would guarantee Israel normalized relations with its neighbors in return for land occupied post-1967. (Although Ahmadinejad later denied having supported the initiative in talks with the Saudis). It remains to be seen how Iran will vote if a vote on a Palestinian state ever makes its way to the floor of the General Assembly (after all, Iran’s position is that all of historic Palestine is Palestine). A Palestinian state on anything but 100% of historic Palestine is the grand “defeat” that Iranians are trying to avoid … or so they say.
If you pay close attention to the imagery that comes with this support something else becomes evident: the Palestinian quest for independence has been strangely meshed with that of the IRI’s. Look at Iranian textbook that feature young Iranian fighters besides Palestinians, or to the rhetoric of the Iranian Basij forces. At times, you will have difficulty distinguishing the quest for Palestinian statehood with the quest of the Iranian Basij for … what exactly? isn’t the focus ironically.
What goals do Palestinian activists and freedom fighters and the Iranian basij have in common, you could ask? After all, the activists work for no particular government or political system, but rather, for the aspiration of one. The Iranian government on the other hand, is an existing, established ruling institution with very real demands and visions of what its future should be. What are the common aspirations that they share?
Like any great tale or allegory, the details aren’t the focus (why couldn’t Cinderalla ‘t simply stay after 12 to explain her situation? How could Mufasa be such a benevolent Lion King if he had banished the hyenas to die? What exactly does the Iranian establishment and occupied Palestine have in common? etc). Rather, the existence of this common quest is the focus, not what the actual quest is or could be.
And for good reason: the Palestinian effort, a very real tangible, legitimate one, is exploited for the establishment’s own murky, not-so-legitimate quests. The point was never to help them achieve a state anyways.
According to the grade 5 religious studies textbook, this common quest is “the freedom of the Islamic world from bloodthirsty enemies”. Helping fuel this allusion is the Iran-Iraq war when Iran was physically fighting a foreign adversary supported and sponsored by the West. True that the war has been over for over 20 years now … but the political rhetoric of war of course, is a cornerstone of the Iranian establishment and lives on to this very day.
By using this imagery, Iranian hardliners are able to convey the Israeli brutality towards Palestinians as an act of aggression against all the oppressed people of the world or those seeking justice & independence –> the Islamic world –> the Iranian government –> and thus against Iran herself thus “proving” that foreign adversary are behind any opposition to the establishment. Opposing the ruling class becomes at one with opposing the oppressed, the country as a whole, and support for “the enemy”. This was most evident in the post-June 2009 era when Basij forces at schools would often use the Israel example to prove that foreign forces were behind opposition to the election. It’s as if the brutality of Israel towards Palestinians proves their allegations about the perception of onslaught on Iran.
Providing more fuel to the fire is what Stephen Walt calls “half-truths”. NOT untruths. When lies are based on a segment of reality, but not the entirety of it; when they only tell half the story. This half-truth is Ahmadinejad’s claim to fame and a strong argumentative style utilized by hardliners.
Yes, the occupation is real, Israel’s vehement human rights abuses are real; Israel is an apartheid state or on track to becoming one; the West does, so far as policy making goes, overlook that entirely and does carry out its foreign policy with horrendous double standards; yes, threats against Iran are real … yes, yes and yes …
But how does that tie into criticism of the IRI? Or its own political, religious and social violence?
Back in the day when we had open friendship and discussions with the Basij in our schools, I had many lively discussions with my Basiji friends about Palestine, Israel and Iran.
In there answers to me, I could find a mix of many things. There was always the genuine concern about people living under occupation. But when asked about other atrocities going on in the world and other people under occupation, especially those with which the IRI had quite budding relations, they had few relevant answers to offer.
Because the most ironic reality in all of this is that Palestinian and Iranian lives could not be further and farther removed from one another. While Europeans and Americans can actually visit the region if they so choose and touch the conditions on the ground, no Iranian, from the highest official to the youngest Basij student has been to Palestine or seen the conditions there up close. So when I would press my classmates further about conditions there, about laws, about Israeli and Palestinian society … they really can not offer you much. (No, they’re not into reading Electronic Intafada or Mondoweiss either). Rather, their only attachment to the Palestinian reality is state sponsored outlets which offers very little.
Funnier still is that these Basijis could not believe how I could be critical of the Iranian government … while agreeing with many of their views related to Israel/Palestine or American foreign policy in the region. This is where the half-truth prove quite influential: the hardliners have partly succeeded in projecting a world in which being against the policies of the IRI has become one and the same as accepting and applauding Israeli brutality and the hawkish vision of the world all together. I believe this is the same mindset that allowed some leftist bloggers and intellectuals to viciously attack protesters as “American led Gucci kids” following the June 2009 election in Iran.
My Basiji friends could not believe or fathom how I could believe Palestine to be one of the most important issues of our time, especially as Middle Easterners. How I could know leagues more about the region than they, beyond rhetoric. And even though a viable Palestinian state will not be achieved in our lifetime, I agree with the great Edward Said who said the quest for this state is what will keep generations of people in hope, persistence and agony.
But my question to them always was: how could the Iranian support for Palestine become more pragmatic? That is, in line with Iranian and Palestinian interests? IF such a thing is possible at all? (were it ever to be an actual aim of the Iranian establishment)
That is where the conversation always ended, because they had little to offer and they would so admit. “It will take time” they said. “Israel will not last forever, it will self-destruct, and Palestinians will be free.” This is, I think, the same mindset in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the notorious “vanish from the page of time” statement regarding Israel, which Nazila Fathi of the NYT wrongly and quite unapologetically translated as “wipe off the map.”
While neither statement can be considered wise or courteous, the former is not a proclamation of violence. It is a vision of sugar plum fairies which Ahmadinejad went further to express: “the day [will come] that all refugees return to their homes [and] a democratic government elected by the people comes to power”.
There is no need to vie for the creation of a Palestinian state in only 22% of historic Palestine, because it already exists – it’s just not in the hands of those it should be.
There was this genuine, adamant belief that Israel would “disappear” leaving all of historic Palestine to its pre-1918 inhabitants (though they had never heard of the Theodor Herzl or the Balfour Declaration or where/what exactly “historic Palestine” was). When I pressed them further about how this disappearance would take place, there was no answer. However, not once was there any talk of violence, or use of force. In fact, they were convinced that the “state” would disappear, “as all corrupt regimes eventually do”, and the people living in historic Palestine would “figure it out among themselves.”
Here’s hoping that all peoples of the world, us Iranians included, will figure it out among ourselves.
Sugar plums anyone?