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Iran’s Civil Society and the Israel-Palestinian War

August 7, 2014
Muhammad Sahimi
6 min read
Iran’s Civil Society and the Israel-Palestinian War
Iran’s Civil Society and the Israel-Palestinian War

Iran’s Civil Society and the Israel-Palestinian War


At the height of Israel-Hezbollah war in summer of 2006, I was in Tehran. Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and his fighters were being lionized by the official Iranian press, with Nasrallah being referred to as Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. I told a friend that Iran’s ruling clerics know that Iranians are tired of sheikhs (a term used in Iran to refer to low-rank clerics), but normally respects the sayyeds—people with direct lineage to Prophet Muhammad—explaining why Nasrallah was being referred to as such. What I sensed at that time was a sense of pride among the conservative part of the middle class and the poor strata of Iranian society for the way Hezbollah was resisting Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. As an old friend put it, “They [the Hezbollah fighters] are our own forces.” Even some among the affluent grudgingly admired Hezbollah’s tenacious fight with Israel, even though they questioned the wisdom of Iran allying itself with an organization that the United States considered a terrorist group.

But the disputed presidential elections of 2009 recast the attitude of many Iranians toward Hezbollah and Hamas. By and large Iranians already believed that the Islamic Republic had paid for reconstruction of south Lebanon, the heartland of Lebanese Shia, which had been destroyed by Israel’s bombing. Iran’s economy was also in a terrible state. So after the hardliners used violence to put down the Green Movement in the aftermath of the elections, deep anger toward the ruling elite was manifested in a variety of ways, including the slogan “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I’ll die for Iran [only],” chanted in some demonstrations. The slogan deeply angered the hardliners, who exploited it to crack down even harder on the Green Movement.

Today the question emerges as to what Iranians and Iranian civil society are thinking and saying about the bloody war in Gaza. Once again Iran’s state-controlled media is praising the “courage and bravery of the resistance,” meaning the Palestinian people, even though Hamas supported the Syrian rebels who oppose the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s strategic ally in the region. Both Iran and Hezbollah are now supporting Hamas.

But the horrible scenes of the war in Gaza, pictures of the dead and bloody children in the arms of their sobbing parents, destroyed homes, and reports of shortage of water, electricity, food, medicine and bombed out hospitals, schools, and mosques, even those run by the United Nations, which are constantly broadcast nationally, have deeply affected large portions of Iranian society. The condemnation of Israel within Iran is universal, although it has taken various forms, depending on who or which organization does the condemning.

Aside from the hardliners, the reaction of Iran’s civil society within Iran can be divided into two groups. Initially, the secular left condemned Israel for the war, but also strongly criticized Hamas. A number of Iranian secular intellectuals and leftists issued a statement condemning Hamas and Israel, but soon after cracks began to appear in their ranks. Nasser Zarafshan, a well-known attorney and Marxist, who spent years in jail for representing political prisoners, and Mohammad Ali Amooei, a member of the banned Tudeh [Communist] Party, both withdrew their signature from the statement.

In a letter, Zarafshan criticized the statement for its harsh criticism of Hamas, arguing that regardless of how one views Hamas and its ideology, the fact is that the group today represents the Palestinian resistance struggle and thus deserves support. On the other hand, Fariborz Raeis Dana, a leading leftist economist, defended the statement, declaring it as “balanced.” Then the same intellectuals issued a second statement, signed by most of the signatories of the first, this time criticizing Israel without any criticism of Hamas. But Mohsen Hakimi, who had drafted the first statement, continued to defend his original version, accusing some of the leftists of “siding with the reactionaries” of Hamas.

The second group includes many reformists and supporters of the Green Movement. They have also issued sharp statements condemning Israel for its war in Gaza, without criticizing Hamas. The statements ranged from those issued by political prisoners, to those by the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mujahedin, the two leading reformist groups that have been outlawed by the hardliners for their support of the Green Movement, actors, directors and film makers, and some secular nationalists. In addition, the Coordination Council of the Green Path of Hope, the temporary leadership council of the Green Movement while the Movement’s leadership—former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and former Speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi—remains under house arrest, issued a strong statement, calling Israel’s war in Gaza “racist and a crime against humanity.” 

Due to ongoing state intimidation it is difficult to gauge the true sentiments of the public at large in Iran. But eyewitnesses told me that the number of ordinary people taking part in the Quds Day marches on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan (which this year fell on July 25)—a day of protest against Israel's occupation of Islam’s holy shrines in East Jerusalem—was much larger than in recent years. Friends, colleagues, former students, and relatives of mine in Iran said much the same.

Due to the sheer diversity of opinion, reactions to the war among Iranians living in the diaspora have, however, been far from unified. A large number of exiled reformists, former political prisoners and supporters of the Green Movement and some secular leftists have issued many statements supporting the Palestinians and condemning Israel. Some among them referred to Israel as the “new fascism,” while others referred to massacre of Palestinians in Gaza as the “new Holocaust.”

The exiled secular nationalists and leftists have condemned both Israel and Hamas to various degrees, ranging from virulent attacks on the latter, such as the two statements issued by the group that refers to itself as the National Front outside Iran [the National Front was the old party of former Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was overthrown by the CIA coup of 1953], to mild criticism of Hamas, such as the statement issued by the Union of the Iranian Republicans, a secular, left-leaning group in exile.

But those who seek to topple the regime in Tehran by any means, including crippling economic sanctions, and even direct military intervention under the guise of “humanitarian intervention”—mostly supporters of the exiled Mujahedin-e Khalgh Organization, royalists, and other opponents of the Islamic Regime in Tehran who reject Islam and demonize Muslims—have supported Israel very adamantly, as they believe that the Islamic Republic is partly responsible for what is happening.

Thus, as usual, Iranians have taken strong positions regarding a major foreign policy issue. Their views represent a broad spectrum, from the extreme right to the left. The spectrum is, in fact, a reflection of Iranian society, a mostly young, educated, well-informed, and dynamic population. The views represent neither support for Palestinians for Islam’s sake—as the regime in Tehran claims—or a rejection of Palestinians and Islam and approval for what Israel has been doing—as has been claimed by the extremist right in exile.