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Source: RFE/RL

Oct 26, 2023

Not Our Fight: Iranians Show Little Support For Palestinian Cause Amid Israel-Hamas Conflict

By Frud Bezhan

Iran’s clerical establishment has championed the Palestinian cause for decades and refused to recognize Israel.

But there is little public support for the Palestinian struggle for statehood in Iran -- a mainly Shi’a Muslim, Persian-speaking country in the predominately Sunni Arab Middle East.

Instead, many Iranians have criticized the authorities for backing Palestinian armed groups fighting Israel, with some even expressing support for Tehran’s archenemy.

The ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has provoked pro-Palestinian street protests across the Middle East. But in Iran, public displays of solidarity have been largely limited to state-sponsored rallies.

“At the popular level, there is little connection between Iranians and the Palestinian cause,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London. “This is not because people don’t feel for Palestinians, but because ordinary people are more broadly opposed to the government's regional policy.”

Under the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Tehran had friendly ties with Israel. But since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has been sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Over the past four decades, Iran has formed the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and provided financial and military backing to armed groups, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Lebanese militant group Hizballah.

'Nothing But Misery'

In the wake of Hamas’s multipronged attack in Israel on October 7, which left more than 1,400 people dead, Iranian officials were in a celebratory mood.

In Tehran, the authorities erected billboards that heralded the beginning of "the great liberation" of the Palestinian territories and the demise of Israel.

Iranian officials denied the country had any role in the assault.On October 13, state-organized protests were held across Iran in support of the Palestinian people and against the ongoing Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, where over 6,000 people have been killed, according to local authorities.

That has been in stark contrast to the reaction of the public in Iran, where many oppose Tehran’s funding of regional proxies fighting Israel.

Many complain that the authorities should be using those funds to address the deepening economic crisis in Iran, which has witnessed soaring inflation, rising unemployment, and growing poverty in recent years.

Iran’s support of militant groups -- some of which have been designated as terrorist groups by the West -- has also made Tehran an international pariah and the target of crippling U.S. sanctions.

“Iranians largely detest the regime's foreign policy for the simple reason that it has brought them nothing but misery, international isolation, and economic difficulty,” said Arash Azizi, author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The U.S., And Iran's Global Ambitions.

Iranian journalist and political analyst Arash Azizi

“They are also aware that the regime is not supporting the 'Palestinian cause' per se but Islamist terror groups, which makes this even less popular among most Iranians,” added Azizi, who is a senior lecturer at Clemson University in the United States.

During antiestablishment protests in recent years, demonstrators have chanted, “Leave Palestine. Think about us instead,” and, “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, may my life be sacrificed for Iran.”

“For decades now and especially during protests, when chants are heard on the streets of Iran, Iranians have shown their frustrations with the government's dispersal of funds to foreign causes rather than domestic ones,” said Vakil of Chatham House.

Solidarity With Israel

Some Iranians on social media have expressed support for Israel, which is home to tens of thousands of Jews of Iranian descent. Iran also has the largest population of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel.

“Many Iranians show solidarity with Israel because they want to show that they don't share the regime's anti-Israel and anti-Semitic line,” said Azizi. “They also see the anti-Israel direction of the regime as being dangerously isolating to the country.”

On October 20, thousands of soccer fans booed during a minute of silence for the people of Gaza before a game at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, the largest sports stadium in the country.

During an October 8 soccer game at Azadi Stadium, the fans of Persepolis FC protested the presence of Palestinian flags at the venue and chanted, “Stick your Palestinian flag up your a**!”

Meanwhile, prominent Iranian activists and intellectuals have spoken out against the high toll of Tehran’s confrontation with Israel.

Sadegh Zibakalam -- a Tehran-based university professor -- said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Iranian officials and lawmakers have demonstrated “clear and public support for Hamas’s attacks” in Israel.

“How do these attacks serve the interests of the Iranian people?” he asked.

Atena Daemi, a human rights activist and former political prisoner, said on October 8 that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the armed forces, was “responsible for all of the unrest in the region by arming and strengthening militias and terrorist groups.”

The Quds Force, the elite overseas arm of the IRGC, is responsible for Iran's military and clandestine operations abroad and oversees the country’s network of pro-Iranian militant groups in the region.

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