Iranians Have Become Desensitized to the Question of Palestine

For the younger generation, the struggle over the occupied land is merely a rhetorical toy for the leadership to beef up its clout in the Muslim world

Iranians Have Become Desensitized to the Question of Palestine
A couple walk past shroud-wrapped packages that are part of an anti-war art installation symbolizing the bodies of Palestinian children at Palestine Square in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Hamas launched the first strikes into the Israeli towns and cities of Sderot, Herzliyya, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon on Oct. 7, state-sanctioned celebrations swept Iranian cities; cookies and beverages were served in roundabouts; barbecues were set up in parks; fireworks around the Palestinian Embassy in Tehran extended late into the night and the iconic Azadi Tower was illuminated with the colors of the Palestinian flag featuring Quranic verses about revenge on the criminals.

Intelligence officials and experts are divided on whether Hamas has embarked on this costly adventure with the greenlight of the Islamic Republic or has acted of its own volition. What is incontrovertible is the footprint of the Iranian government in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The leadership in Tehran judges itself to be the spiritual cheerleader of the Palestinian cause, even if that role has been unsolicited, and it is the primary financier of the militancy of Islamic Jihad and Hamas. For the past 44 years, its anti-Israeli vendetta has formed a pillar of its foreign policy and has ruined its relations with other countries, including neighbors, because of their Israel ties or merely because of its perception of them being in Tel Aviv’s orbit of influence.

Iran is not alone in the community of Muslim states in its opposition to Israel for its occupation of Palestine. But the extreme lengths to which it has gone to tout itself as the principal standard-bearer of the cause of Palestinian emancipation means it has singled itself out not just as an ally but an outlier in how it has been reading and reacting to the evolution of the conflict. Although there may be clusters of Arab and Muslim public that relate to the Islamic Republic for its stance, the Iranian public has come to view the state’s role as self-serving, exploiting a war over territory and identity overseas for the sake of its own global leverage.

The outcome of the Iranian theocracy shoehorning itself into the conflict and making the reversal of the occupation a burning issue to which it dedicates unlimited assets and political capital is the disillusionment of the average Iranian who no longer believes the Palestinian cause is an ethical concern.

If there was a genuine national consensus at the dawn of the 1979 revolution that resistance to Israel’s policies was a moral and human responsibility, that commitment has been shredded thanks to the excesses of the Islamic Republic. For the younger generation, the struggle over the occupied land is merely a rhetorical toy for the leadership to beef up its clout in the Muslim world.

When the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was sculpting the narrative of the revolution, he successfully rallied his adherents around the idea of antipathy to apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is why he withheld diplomatic recognition from both countries after 1979. But what was marketed as a humanitarian principle at the outset morphed into fanaticism and was weaponized for strategic gains, and lost luster.

Many Iranian taxpayers reckon the militant cliques in Gaza, as well as other Tehran proxies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, are bottomless pits that consume their wealth immodestly. To them, the Palestinian ideal is a rival that has supplanted them as a priority when their government decides where to channel its wherewithal. It’s not merely the disbursement of cash to transnational combatants that makes the constituents resentful. They’re frustrated at the government’s attention being almost entirely co-opted by a conflict they don’t necessarily relate to, and one that has also incurred them consequential costs.

Starting with the Green Movement of 2009, Iranians have been expressing their dismay at the ruling elite’s preoccupation with the question of Palestine more vocally. “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon: I’ll give my life for Iran” was one of the first slogans that emerged to challenge the regime’s dogma. And more recently, when protesters vocalize their economic grievances, one of the recurring refrains they chant is: “Abandon Palestine; think of a solution for us.”

According to the State Department, Tehran hands out up to $100 million to Hamas every year. The figure isn’t massive, but for a cash-strapped economy with shrinking access to dollar reserves and divested of most sources of external investment, this is not negligible, equaling almost 55% of the government budget allocated to the province of Guilan annually. The funding set aside for Hezbollah is much more significant, totaling $700 million a year. The former U.S. envoy for Iran Brian Hook had said in 2019 that Iranian financing for its militias in Iraq and Syria totaled $16 billion from 2012 to 2020.

These generous payouts, however, haven’t dramatically enhanced the public perceptions of Iran in the Arab world. Quite the contrary, as reported by the Arab Barometer, its favorability has fallen from a third to a quarter across different MENA countries since 2013. In Palestine, only 34% of people support increased relations with Iran. In Yemen, where the Islamic Republic has been an unofficial belligerent in the grinding war between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, a mere 18% of the public is in favor of closer relations with Iran.

Indeed, the Arab world is not a monolith, and there have been instances when Tehran’s displays of bravado appealed to some communities in the region, especially the Shiite minorities in Lebanon and Syria. There is occasional commentary from Arab journalists and public figures who commend the Islamic Republic leaders for their unapologetic denunciation of Israel and the West. But that’s not a sentiment shared widely in the region or a gravitational pull binding Palestinians to the prospect of all-out ties with Iran. The Arab, Turkish & Iranian Public Opinion 2011-2019 survey by Zogby Research Services found only 42% of Palestinians had favorable views of Iran, and when asked about the continued implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that eliminated the sanctions against Iran in return for the curtailment of its nuclear activities, a mere 19% said they supported the deal.

Like pretty much every other development these days, the war between Hamas and Israel has bifurcated Iranians over ideological and political lines, throwing their chronic divisions into sharp relief. The more conservative, religious-minded stalwarts of the ayatollah who don’t camouflage their pro-government sympathies are unreserved about cheering for Hamas as it pounds targets inside of Israel, and their line of thought continues to be inspired by the official discourse that Israel isn’t entitled to exist.

When Hamas launched its strike on Oct 7, authorities didn’t try to strike a diplomatic tone and sent congratulatory messages to their Hamas allies. In a statement, the Iranian mission at the United Nations subtly deflected responsibility for the attacks as speculations swirled around about the country’s involvement. The foreign ministry in Tehran didn’t like the wording of the text and insisted it was a “flawed and imprecise narrative and interpretation of certain media,” which was supposed to mean the Islamic Republic hadn’t officially disavowed any role in brainstorming and orchestrating the blitzkrieg.

On the X social media platform formerly known as Twitter, photos circulated of a mural in an undisclosed Iranian city, reading in Persian, “we’ll respond to the riots in Tel Aviv,” accompanied by captions like “we had warned that we’ll retaliate on the Israeli soil; they didn’t believe.” The inscription was apparently made during the nationwide uprising last year. It denoted the conspiratorial understanding shared by the government partisans that the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising, which they denigrate as the “riots,” were funded and encouraged by the United States and Israel, so it behooved the Islamic Republic to hit back by destabilizing Israel in its territory.

A hotheaded, 35-year-old TV anchor, who has just been granted the coveted position of lecturer at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, has been on a spree of publishing X posts disparaging Israel. One of his posts read, “Oh, God! Please ensure we’ll die on the path of fighting the Zionists.” Several users responded to him, mostly sarcastically, by saying he should pack his belongings and fly to Gaza to fight in the war instead of fantasizing about an honorable death.

Hateful speech has been spiraling on Persian social media over the ongoing explosion of violence in the Middle East. Although it can sound counterintuitive, Iranians are sparring over which side to take in a war between two remote, distinct geopolitical entities. As they are cleaved into hypothetical splinter groups, each camp dehumanizes its opponents through sardonic, degrading language. A pro-government influencer posted on X, “Siding with Israel does no longer mean ignorance, it’s a matter of being a bastard.”

The municipality of Tehran, under Alireza Zakani, one of the nation’s most hardline politicians who was catapulted to the position of mayor in acknowledgement of his loyalty to President Ebrahim Raisi, has raised eyebrows by erecting huge billboards across the town using the word “bastard” to label Israel. Even conservative commentators found fault with the language in the publicity for being vulgar and clearly inappropriate for content production, to which people of different stripes, including children, would be exposed. The awkward municipality-sponsored propaganda has turned into a bone of contention pitting capital dwellers against one another.

But what is playing out in the public sphere and online space is a glaring outpouring of indignation against the government’s framing of the ongoing war. The consternation complements a decades-long pattern of middle-class cynicism toward the Islamic Republic’s patronizing role in the crisis. It’s no surprise then, that displays of solidarity and gestures of support for Israel, while it’s being grilled even by some partners for the severity of its operations of reprisal, characterize the reactions of many Iranians to the unfolding drama. They don’t necessarily intend to console Israel or underwrite its account of the events. Their rejoinders are atypical forms of resistance against the theocracy that rules them.

In a country where critical speech is criminalized and the government barely tolerates anyone who militates against its rock-solid convictions, voices arguing that the dominant discourse on Israel and Palestine is unpopular are growing in vehemence, often at the risk of their personal safety. Sadegh Zibakalam, a former Tehran University professor, is a noted academic who has long insisted that there’s an alternative conceptualization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Islamic Republic hides from its people. In 2021, he said in a viral Instagram interview, “I’ve said a number of times that there should be a survey asking our own people if they agree with the policy of annihilating Israel. I believe 80% of the Iranian people are opposed to this policy and don’t have any issues with Israel.”

He has echoed the same thoughts in another online forum after the Oct. 7 attack. His estimation is certainly a raw guess, but can be a token of the broader, yet stifled trend of a substantial number of citizens feeling dismayed at a mode of governance that seeks empowerment through the perpetuation of hostilities against another state.

On Oct. 8, one night after Hamas instigated the first attacks on Israeli soil, a group of pro-government fans brought large Palestine flags to the Azadi stadium in Tehran, where the soccer clubs Persepolis FC and Gol Gohar Sirjan FC were scheduled to play. As they unfurled the flags, assuming that a wave of solidarity would be generated, a large crowd of the spectators burst into a spontaneous chant with vulgar undertones, boiling down to the message that their gesture wasn’t welcome and they had to wrap up the flag.

An incident in 2020 that garnered international attention was probably one of the seminal examples of young Iranians declining to toe the government line on the question of Palestine and Israel. As university campuses joined the protests over the IRGC downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, a sizable group of marchers outside the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran refused to trample on a giant flag of Israel painted on the ground. The flag was plastered on the pavement by the authorities so that pedestrians walk over it and disrespect the Israeli identity in the process.

Although the protests were untethered from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at that point, the episode served as a case in point that flouting the sacrosanct government narrative on relations with Israel has often come to be viewed by many Iranians as a means of voicing their broader discontent against the clerical establishment and its actions.

Social media continues to be a potent gauge of the people’s most rebellious feelings about the current conundrum. As Elon Musk’s X has unofficially dismantled the concept of content moderation on the platform, obscene hashtags are trending, encapsulating the acrimony of dissenting Iranians who mockingly encourage government supporters to travel to Gaza to defend their ideological rampart. They accuse the prominent regime gurus of spinelessness, saying they have hidden themselves behind a smokescreen of bombast and flowery language sensationalizing the situation while leaving it to the ordinary Iranians to face the consequences of their adventurism. The X timeline of a state TV reporter who has been dispatched to southern Lebanon to report from the vicinity of the war hotspot in Gaza – this is obviously the closest an Iranian citizen can get – has been deluged with sarcastic messages from users who have been wishing him swift “martyrdom.”

The general public in Iran is seemingly paying the price for the Islamic Republic’s embroilment in Palestinian affairs, either through enduring the punitive sanctions engendered by its support of Hamas and Hezbollah or being dispossessed of assets that originally belong to them but end up being expended on extraterritorial ambitions. With public places in cities being saturated with militant publicity for the Palestinian cause throughout the year, a constellation of events held at hundreds of universities and cultural institutions around the same theme, and state broadcasters bombarding the local viewers with hateful anti-Israel and antisemitic messaging routinely, many have made the realization that for the ruling elite in Tehran, Palestine is not just a foreign policy priority.

Fomenting bitterness against Israel constitutes the crux of the thinking of the officials and the essence of speeches they make at home and in international forums, not only at times of crisis like this but as a matter of regularity. At different United Nations forums, Iranian presidents and ministers are often seen speaking about Israel and Palestine more frequently than about their country. Inevitably, the trail of hard feelings that’s left would be immense.

A TV presenter with Iran International, an exiled broadcaster funded by a Saudi millionaire, posted a video on X from the feed of Israeli armed forces, depicting an aerial bombardment of sites in the Gaza Strip. His caption describing the disturbing footage: “Pulverization continues.” Although many users contended that his post amounted to glorification of violence and challenged his lack of objectivity as someone who self-identifies as a journalist, the polemic hasn’t yet been flagged or removed by X.

It’s easy to speculate why callous statements like this can be made, but it isn’t equally straightforward to understand how such insensitivities take root and grow. What appears to be the most immediate explanation is that the Islamic Republic has hardwired extreme attitudes into the unconscious minds of many Iranians, even the expats who are physically detached from the government’s umbrella of sovereignty. Some of them grow hawkish because their aversion to the establishment is so profound that they are prepared to ignore basic ethics so as to appear recusant and courageously nonconformist. Some of them are simply jaundiced by the Islamic Republic’s inconsistencies as it glosses over the destitution and privations of Iranian children it is responsible for protecting, while shedding false tears for the children of Gaza.

To be sure, for some Iranians who have pro-monarchy leanings, the promise of reviving an old alliance with Israel also awakens their feelings of royal grandeur and pomp. Voicing support for the Jewish state can give a lease of life to that nostalgia, and they revel in everything that bears the hallmarks of those ancient ritualisms.

From Brussels to Rome, rallies featuring expats who have said they don’t waver in their unity with Israel have been frequent. On Oct. 16, a large cohort of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles gathered in front of the Wilshire Federal Building to articulate that they stand by Israel, waving the Israeli flag. By showing or pretending support for Israel, Iranians at home and abroad are not turning their back at Palestinians who have been the victims of a settler colonial project. They are in effect manifesting their defiance of the leaders in Tehran, relaying the message that they are fed up with their government’s interference in the Arab world as it splurges huge sums of money to enrich a militant group that doesn’t enjoy much domestic and international credibility.

Azar Mansouri, a leading pro-reform figure and one of the activists the Raisi administration hasn’t silenced yet, penned an opinion piece for the Etemad Daily on Oct. 9, expanding on her hypothesis that unlike the past, Iranian people don’t support the idea of Palestinian resistance. She attributes the drop in pro-Palestinian tendencies to the double standards of the Islamic Republic, including condoning Russian aggression while purporting to defend the defenseless in Palestine. She also notes that if someone scribbles something in defense of the Palestinian cause on Persian-language social media, they would face an immediate backlash, adding that this is a situation that is emanating from lack of trust in the establishment.

Under normal circumstances, Iranians could be expected to show compassion and understanding for the Palestinians while lamenting the loss of life and terror the Israeli citizens have been suffering lately. But because their feelings about this predicament have been manipulated by the state, like every other aspect of their life that is micromanaged by the senior leadership and the security apparatus, the boomerang effect coming to pass isn’t an anomaly. They’ve largely become desensitized to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

The Islamic Republic has labored to coalesce 85 million constituents around a cause that is widely perceived to be insincere, one that’s meant to project its own superiority and mobilizing power in the Muslim world and beyond, rather than reaffirming its humanitarian principles. At the same time, it has failed the same 85 million denizens on different fronts, the least of which being economy, education, health care and civil liberties. People reject this hypocrisy, often in rebellious ways.

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