On Thursday, students from the Basij (people’s militia) handed a bouquet of flowers to the Venezuelan embassy in Tehran. This was in gratitude for the recent expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Caracas.
Iran’s leadership is furious about what is happening in Gaza. Iran’s population is also angry, but for a different reason.
In Iranian culture, supporting the underdog is a national characteristic. Iranians see themselves as a minority, so they try to relate. As a child, I specifically remember learning about Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who died in British prisons because he went on a hunger strike in protest. In Iran, the majority of people sided with the IRA. Not because they hate Britain, but because the Irish were the underdogs. The same feelings were demonstrated during the British invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Every single one of us in our classroom backed the Argentinians. Never mind the fact that the war was caused by Galtieri, the then-Argentine president who was a fascist with an alcohol problem. We simply did not know. There was the strong (Britain) and the weak (Argentina). The choice was easy and obvious.
So when it comes to Gazans, the Iranian people feel bad for Gazans because they see them as underdogs. One has to remember that Iranians lived through eight years of war started by Saddam Hussein, which led to the devastation of their country. Nobody came to help them and they see the same in Gaza. Does this mean that they want to eliminate Israel? The answer in the majority of cases is negative. This is against the wishes of hardliners in the Iranian government who would love to brainwash the people of Iran, especially the young through the use of TV programs, gory pictures of casualties in Gaza, and in some cases outright lies about what is happening there. But so far, apart from hardcore fundamentalists, they are not succeeding. The only thing which the majority of the people of Iran want eliminated is poverty and unemployment in their own country. Not some country 1,000 kilometers away called Israel.
The Iranian government has its own reasons for being angry. First and foremost the Israeli assault is a sign of Israel’s increasing military and diplomatic confidence. Iran’s hope was that after the 2006 war against Hezbollah, which many Iranian politicians saw as an outright victory, Israel would not undertake any more military operations against Iran’s allies, in fear of a massive Hezbollah retaliation.
However, this has not happened. The Israeli air force still flies into Lebanese airspace. And the 2006 war did not stop Jerusalem from bombing the nuclear site in Syria in 2007, as confirmed by foreign press. This is in addition to the assassination of high-profile Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in broad daylight in Damascus, which Iranians saw as an Israeli act. And now Israel has launched a massive military assault against Iran’s allies in Gaza. So where is the limit? When and where will Israel stop? If successful in Gaza, will the next stop be Iran’s nuclear facilities?
This is one of the reasons why the rocket attacks against Israel took place from Lebanon. Tehran, through Hezbollah’s Palestinian allies, wanted to tell the Israelis not to become too sure of themselves. That there is a limit to Iran’s patience. Despite Israel’s assault in Gaza and damages caused against Hamas’ military infrastructure, Iran wanted to say that Hezbollah still retains the option to act and it will be a costly one for Israel.
Another important factor for the Iranian government is the duration of the current conflict. One of the major worries for Tehran is that George Bush, who has two weeks to go before his presidential term ends, will allow Israel to launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The current conflict in Gaza serves Iranian interests because it is keeping Israel busy. Unless there is a major threat facing the leadership of Hamas, it is likely that Iran will want the conflict to continue until Barack Obama enters office on January 20.
Iran’s other hope is that the longer the conflict goes on, the more public support Israel will lose in the EU. There is a danger that this hope would materialize, due to increasing reports that Israel is not cooperating with the United Nations and the International Red Cross. The hardships which the civilian population of Gaza suffers also cause massive damage to Israel’s image and standing in Europe and Asia. Judging by reports and reactions in the international media, including American outlets such as the New York Times, Israel is not doing a good job to address such concerns.
There is also the question of the Israeli government not wanting to talk to Hamas because it does not want to legitimize the organization. This in the long term could backfire, especially if the conflict drags on because its participation could become essential in holding the organization accountable for its future actions. Last but not least, if Israel does not talk to Hamas, its allies such as the United States may. And this would be a major diplomatic victory for the Iranian government and Hamas.
One of the main goals of Israel’s invasion of Gaza is to weaken the hand of Iran. Crushing Hamas’ military infrastructure would bring security in the short to medium term. A long-term solution involves strengthening Palestinian moderates, especially the PLO.
What scares the government of Iran is peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and Israel should try its best to make this dream for the people of the world, and nightmare for the government of Iran, come true.