New York Times: Late last month, Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that anyone killed defending Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would be rewarded in heaven as a martyr. Young men began lining up — 70,000 in all — to go off and die.
The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: January 12, 2009
CAIRO — Late last month, Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that anyone killed defending Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would be rewarded in heaven as a martyr. Young men began lining up — 70,000 in all — to go off and die.
A week later, however, Ayatollah Khamenei announced without explanation that no one was going anywhere to fight. “I thank the pious and devoted youth who have asked to go to Gaza,” he said in a televised address. “But it must be noted that our hands are tied in this arena.”
While the fighting continues in Gaza and negotiations for a cease-fire take place in Egypt, officials in Iran are treading carefully because they, too, have a great deal at stake. Iran is trying to position itself as the regional superpower, while also trying to generate maximum leverage before expected talks with the incoming Obama administration.
To achieve those goals, though, Iran needs Hamas to declare at least a moral victory in its war with Israel. Then, Israel and Washington’s Arab allies would be weakened, and without Iran’s having to get involved in battle.
Iran’s leaders are leery of siding publicly with Hamas because of the potential consequences of an Israeli victory. A Hamas defeat by Israel would deprive Iran not only of a valuable proxy force on the border with Israel but of a trump card to play with Washington, and it would further alienate it from the leadership of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“Iran wants to sit at the negotiating table with Obama with all the cards of the region in hand: Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, the relationship with Syria,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an Iranian expert based in Cairo. “They are also being smart. They’re trying not to antagonize the U.S. very much, but with the Arabs they are going at it very hard, very roughly.”
For months, even before Israel invaded Gaza to stop rocket fire, Iranian officials and their proxies had been viciously attacking Egyptian and Saudi leaders for not doing enough to end the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza. But Iran does not function as a purely ideological state, and it does not operate from one center of power. When events started growing too hot, Ayatollah Khamenei stepped in and cooled talk of thousands of martyrs streaming to Gaza.
Commentators in Iran said that Ayatollah Khamenei decided it was time to act as a pragmatic brake on the ideologically radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president and his allies had stoked rage across Iran over what they said was the failure of Arab leaders to do more to end the Israeli fighting. But there was a big difference between rhetorical support, even encouragement, and direct involvement.
“Hamas is a very practical and useful tool for Iran, not an ideological one at all,” said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and political commentator in Tehran. “It is a very good tool for Iran, especially in its dealings with the U.S. What is happening right now in Gaza has made it easier for Iran to promote anti-U.S. feelings among Muslims.”
Iran’s policy toward Hamas and the Gaza fighting is also related to the country’s own difficult domestic situation. Iran’s economy is struggling, weighed down by rampant inflation and undermined by the precipitous drop in oil prices. The Gaza fighting served as a useful distraction from local problems, but it also threatened to backfire on the state if the public perceived that the country’s now scarce resources were being used to help anyone other than Iranians themselves.
“Iran is going through a very sensitive internal situation,” said Farzaneh Roostai, the foreign editor of the daily newspaper Etemad. “We are faced with major economic and political problems, such as falling oil prices, which are affecting the budget. The state media tried to divert people’s attention from these problems by bombarding them with propaganda. But it hasn’t worked.”
Iran’s relationship with Hamas is one of shared interests. By pedigree, the sides are unlikely allies, with Iran a Shiite theocracy and Hamas a fundamentalist Sunni organization. Hamas, for example, praises Saddam Hussein, while Iran views him as a psychotic killer.
But Hamas, a pariah to Egypt and Jordan, has received money and training from Iran, while the group has provided Iran with a powerful surrogate to undermine American and Israeli interests in the region. While Iran is the primary patron of Hamas, the two do not enjoy the same seamless relationship that Iran has with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political organization that Tehran helped to form.
Giving voice to these conflicting currents, Muhammad Mir Ali Mohammadi, Iran’s spokesman at the Iranian consulate to the United Nations, said in an e-mail message that Iran’s support is for the Palestinians in general, not specifically for Hamas.
“I should repeat the Iranian position that our support is moral and humanitarian for the whole cause of Palestine and the Palestinian people,” he wrote. “It means if Israel’s attack was toward the West Bank, we would be also against that. I understand efforts to separate Hamas from other parts and Iran from Arabs.”
Even before the war in Gaza began, Iran started an aggressive public campaign attacking Egypt and Saudi Arabia for failing to bring an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The attacks were aimed at King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
“King Abdullah, the puppet king of Saudi Arabia, is not expected to ignore the demands of his American and Zionist masters and frown at what is going on in Gaza,” read a column in Iran’s most conservative newspaper, Kayhan, which is aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei. The paper also said, “one cannot expect Hosni Mubarak, who has on several occasions demonstrated his subservience to the Zionists, to open the Rafah crossing for the disaster-struck people of Gaza.”
On the ground, demonstrators gathered outside embassies in Tehran for 10 days, demanding an end to the killing of Palestinians. Events grew hotter still when protesters forced their way into the residential compound of the British Embassy in northern Tehran. That episode seems to be what convinced Iranian authorities that the president and his supporters needed to be reined in, political experts said.
As the war continues to grind on, Iran and its Arab opponents continue to eye each other warily, with each side concerned the other will get the upper hand in negotiations over a cease-fire. For now, Iran is encouraging Hamas to hang on and refuse to give up.
“With no doubt Hamas must continue resistance and it will definitely win,” Kazem Moussavi Bojnerdi wrote in Monday’s issue of Etemad Melli, a reformist Iranian newspaper. “The death toll that the Israelis are imposing on Hamas should not make them back down, and I am certain that they will not surrender. If they show any weakness, they will have to pay horrifying costs in the future.”
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran.