The Iranian reaction

It does not require a great deal of imagination to guess the Iranian Islamic regime’s reaction to the war on Gaza. The Iranian state-run media as well as the more independent newspapers reported graphically the extent of Palestinian suffering as a result of heavy Israeli bombardment.

But for the Islamic regime in particular the war on Gaza was, as it were, a huge publicity gift. The regime tried extensively to capitalize on Palestinian mayhem and suffering to demonstrate to Iranians, Arabs and indeed the world-at-large how right it has been all along in its political assessments and outlooks. It unleashed unprecedented fury at the Arab regimes, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In fact, sometimes the regime’s attacks on those Arab regimes were far more negative than those it addressed to Israel itself.

Pro-government students and Baseejis on several occasions staged violent protests in front of the Saudi embassy and the building that houses the Egyptian interests section in Tehran and demanded that diplomatic relations with Riyadh be severed. Two of the radical Tehran Friday prayer imams with close ties to the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad went as far as to accuse Cairo and Riyadh of collusion with the Israelis, though they expressed the hope that these reports were incorrect. One of the imams, Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, stated during a Friday prayer that the Egyptian regime had in fact permitted Israeli jet fighters to use Egyptian air space to bomb Gaza. He also accused the Egyptian intelligence agencies of giving the Israelis secret information about the whereabouts of Hamas fighters, their ammunition depots and some rocket-launching sites. Iranian media anger at the Arab regimes’ response to the Israeli attack on Gaza was so deep that some pro-gover! nment student groups that had won a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina refused to go as a gesture of protest against Saudi Arabia and declared that they would travel instead to Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.

In contrast to the bitter and highly critical language that Iranian leaders directed against Arab leaders, they were full of respect and praise for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and other South American leaders that either expelled the Israeli ambassador or severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, thereby demonstrating Ahmadinezhad’s wise and prudent strategy of expanding ties with the radical and leftist regimes in South America.

The Islamic government also used the war on Gaza to settle accounts with some of its opponents. In one incident, the pro-Reformist student movement Daftare Tahkim Wahdat not only blamed Israel for its attack but blamed Hamas for firing missiles into Israel as well. When one of the pro-Reformist newspapers printed the statement, the government agency responsible for monitoring press conduct immediately closed down the paper even though the paper’s editorial board apologized and stated that it did not share the view put forward by the student organization. The same statement was also printed by pro-government newspapers, yet the authorities didn’t take action against them because their motive, according to the government, had been to expose to the public "the pro-Zionist nature of the reformist student movement". While all the freedom-loving people in the world, even those who are not Muslim, were condemning the Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people in Gaza, "the so-called Reformist students in Iran were ashamedly condoning the Zionist aggression."

Human rights were another victim of the Israeli attack on Gaza. One after another, Iranian leaders and state media noted that all those who have always criticized the violation of human rights in Iran had today closed their eyes to the Zionists’ crimes in Gaza. The war on Gaza, wrote a leading hardline newspaper, demonstrated yet again and many times over the hypocrisy of the West’s claims regarding human rights. Another leading militant clergyman close to Ahmadinezhad, speaking for hundreds of students who had organized a mass sit-in at Tehran Mehrabad Airport demanding to go to Gaza to fight alongside Hamas, stated that US President George W. Bush’s claim to justice and democracy was only limited to white westerners; in the eyes of the US president, Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians were not sufficiently human to qualify for those values.

But the Islamic regime didn’t have it all its own way as far as the war on Gaza was concerned. In the midst of all this publicity, a well-known Iranian academic wrote an article in another leading newspaper posing serious questions on the issue. He asked why, when in many Muslim countries tens and even hundreds of thousands of protestors had come out in support of the Palestinians, the number of demonstrators in Iran, including in the capital, was just a few hundred or at most a couple of thousand? The article went on to question the wisdom of Iran’s diplomacy toward the Arab states and its neighbors in particular. It stated that the war on Gaza proved yet again the failure of Iran’s foreign policy toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Whether we liked it or not, the writer wrote, Egypt was a key player in the Middle East. The war on Gaza vividly demonstrated to Iranian leaders that by severing relations with Cairo, Iran had crippled its capacity to play a fundamental role in the Arab-Israel dispute.