Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last Wednesday called on all Muslim nations to work together to defend Palestinian rights following Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
This is the standard line for the Islamic Republic, which has promoted itself since its inception as the fulcrum of an ‘Axis of Resistance’ against Israeli occupation and a voice for Palestinian freedom, which it claims is part of its defence of the oppressed worldwide, a central tenet of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The regime’s credibility regarding these claims is rarely questioned, taking for granted that its support for Palestinian freedom is genuine rather than a means to cynically exploit the cause for its own objectives. Supporters point to events like the annual ‘Quds Day’ event and to the regime’s provisions of arms and fund to Palestinian groups like to argue for their sincerity on this matter, but the Iranian regime’s primary interests are its own.The benefits that Iran attains from its posturing, in terms of using the Palestinian cause to attain regional and global populistic support for its maneuvering, means that it gains far more from the relationship than the Palestinian people ever has. “Iran has several aims when it stirs up empty commotions about the Palestinian cause,” said Ruth Riegler, an activist associated with Palestine and Syria, adding, “Tehran’s trying to deceive the Muslim world by adopting this insincere stance.”
During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Tehran sought to improve its image and win support in the Arab and wider Muslim world through establishing the Quds Force, supposedly to fight for Palestinian liberation. However, in reality, the primary objective of this elite force, currently led by Qassem Suleimani, is to direct the regime’s extraterritorial operations across the region. In the decades since its establishment, but particularly since the Arab spring and the Syrian revolution in particular, the Quds Force has instigated terror, division and instability across mostly Arab nations, yet it has notably never confronted Israel.
The Quds Force is the primary director of the Iranian regime’s and its allies’ and proxies’ current military operations in Syria and Iraq. The group’s leader Suleimani, whose forces and militias have helped Bashar al Assad’s regime to kill an estimated half million Syrians to date and displace millions more, has called the Iranian intervention in Iraq and Syria a “source of stability and security” for Iranians. Whilst he has vowed to “avenge” the deaths of Iran’s forces and militiamen killed in Syria, Suleimani has also suggested that the regime’s central ideology of “exporting the revolution” has been the key to Iranian intervention in Syria, Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Yemen, saying, “What Khamenei has done has not been done by any other Shiite leader in the history of Shiism in previous centuries.”Despite its major expansionism in other Arab nations, however, the regime has sent no military forces to Palestine or engaged its supposed primary adversaries in Israel in any conflict. This omission by the regime has been noted by Palestinian and other Arab observers in the region, as well as supporters of Palestinian freedom further afield.
Representatives of Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority, long subjected to racist anti-Arab abuse by the regime, say that the rest of the region is finally discovering what they already know from bitter experience – rather than being a savior of the oppressed, the regime is not just a major source of counter-revolutionary oppression in the region, but its exploitation of the Palestinian cause serves to justify its oppression.”The Iranian regime has the audacity to claim that it defends Palestinians against injustice and oppression while it commits more heinous crimes at home,” Ahwazi political activist Mostafa Hetteh. “In Ahwaz, the regime kills people, indiscriminately arrests them, illegally confiscates their lands and relentlessly attempts to eradicate their identity.”It’s clear that Iran is cynically using the Palestinian cause as a public relations tool to gain credibility and support among Muslims regionally and globally, despite its own power being based on the racist and sectarian abuse of Arabs and other minorities in Iran.
Raed Abu Shammala, a Palestinian activist now in the UK, pointed out that prior to the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in 1979 that overthrew the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, then living in exile, had issued ‘fatwas’ calling for “Islamic armies” to march on Jerusalem and “wage Jihad” against Israel. After coming to power, however, Khomeini instead sought to sow sectarian dissent among Iraqi Shias, which in turn spurred Saddam to begin a sectarian clampdown on what was considered to a Shia ‘fifth column’ and trigger a chain of events that would see Saddam invade Iran and begin 8 years of brutal war. While Saddam’s sectarianism against Shia was very real, it didn’t really surface concretely until after Khomeini began to sow dissent among them – he didn’t care about the consequences on Iraqi Shia, but rather saw them as potential fodder for Iranian expansionism.
Khomeini regularly issued fiery speeches throughout this conflict asserting that “The road to Jerusalem runs through Karbala”, but not only did Khomeini leave Iraqi Shias in an ever more precarious state than before the war until, most ironically, the US invaded and occupied the country, but Iran has taken a rather convoluted route on this alleged road to Jerusalem. In recent years, Iranian forces and militias have gone from Homs to Zabadani and through Aleppo in Syria, to Sanaa and Bab al-Mandab in Yemen, with the IRGC, the Quds Force and Iran’s sundry militias fighting everywhere – except for Jerusalem.
On their exceptionally roundabout route to “liberate Palestine”, Iran’s forces have helped to reduce Arab towns, cities and villages across the region to rubble and ashes, dispossessing tens of millions of Arab peoples to join their Palestinian brethren as rootless refugees. As well as adopting the War on Terror rhetoric of their supposed adversaries in Washington, which has provided air cover and weapons for Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, the regime has also used a sectarian narrative of “waging Jihad” to defend the Sacred Mosque” and the “holy shrines” in Syria – despite its forces often fighting nowhere near either, and being more interested in opposing Syrian opposition forces than in fighting ISIS or other extremists.
Trump’s recent jingoism on Jerusalem has been eagerly seized upon by Tehran as a useful opportunity to unleash another volley of hollowly slogans about Palestinian liberation. Once again it seeks to exploit the cause to divert attention from its own devastating regional wars, oppression and sponsorship of sectarian militias, which are not only responsible for attacks indistinguishable in their brutality from those by Daesh, but which majorly boost the sectarian logic of Daesh. The choice for Sunnis in Iraq, long dispossessed by the pro-Iran Islamic Dawa regime in Iraq, as well as the Syrian Sunnis whose country has been destroyed thanks to Iranian intervention, is often one between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic.
Both are convenient enemies, with one justifying the other. It’s for this reason that Iran has directed most of its forces towards destroying the moderate Syrian rebels, which hugely contributed to the rise of the Islamic State as the rebels were caught in a pincer movement between Iranian forces and Daesh. While Iran has suffered no real material damage from this, with the main victims of IS being Arab Muslims and Kurds across the region, after devoting most of its resources to murdering Sunni Arabs in Syria, its cultivated reputation as a ‘champion of the oppressed’ has taken something of a hit.
To restore the damage done to its regional image and recover its alleged role as leader of the Islamic world, Iran is thus likely to focus on leveraging widespread Muslim outrage over Trump’s unlawful recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the decision to move the US embassy there. The regime will use Trump’s endorsement of Israeli chauvinism to divert attention away from its own chauvinistic expansionism across the region and wash its hands of the blood spilled by its forces in Syria and Iraq. Converse to Trump’s jingoistic rhetoric regarding overturning the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, his actions vis-à-vis Jerusalem might have the contradictory effect of boosting Iran’s nuclear aspirations, with the attention of the US and Israel turned to dealing with the ramifications allowing Iran to re-focus its attentions on developing its nuclear capability.
Though things are different – the scale of the devastation in Syria that Iran has unleashed is not something that can simply be forgotten by superficial appeals to Anti-Zionism. Arabs are unlikely to forget Iran’s monstrous crimes across the region any more than they will those of Israel. Whether Syrians, or Syrian Palestinians for that matter who have been murdered, starved and brutalized by Iranian-led forces, or Ahwazi Arabs oppressed by Iran, or Iraqi Sunnis who live at the whims of Iranian-armed and aligned Shia extremist militias, there is just as much a need to oppose the Iranian regime as there is to oppose the Israeli occupation. Israel and Iran are much more alike than either would care to admit – they share the same logics and the same victims.
By: Rahim Hamid ,an Ahwazi Arab freelance journalist and human rights advocate who mainly writes about the plight of his people in Iran