Iranians see both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict

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The first time I witnessed a spontaneous pro-Palestine gathering was 20 years ago when I was doing a master’s degree in London. Back then I was astonished to see European students expressing such passionate support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel. In my home country of Iran — a theocracy which has prioritised the liberation of Palestine and annihilation of Israel — annual pro-Palestine rallies such as Quds Day at the end of the holy month of Ramadan are organised by the state and packed with loyalists.

Many Iranians believe Palestinians have been dealt a historic injustice. However, even they are likely to disapprove of the financial and military support the Islamic regime — a sworn enemy of Israel — provides for anti-Israel militants in the region, including Hamas.

These mixed feelings have become more complicated since the October 7 attacks, in which Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis. Even though Israel’s retaliatory air strikes and ground offensive have caused over 11,000 deaths in Gaza, it is almost unimaginable that there would be a rally in Iran on the same scale as those taking place in London, Washington, Berlin or even in Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Turkey. This month, Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst, shamed hardliners who he said had only gathered a pro-Palestine crowd the size of a small village in Tehran. “This is not [simply] a failure. It is a thorough decadence,” he wrote on Telegram.

Many Iranians have condemned killings of civilians on both sides in the Israel-Hamas war, rather than supporting only Palestinians. A taxi driver asked me last week why Hamas had attacked Israel in the first place and why Israeli leaders were so “brutally” killing civilians in Gaza. “I don’t care about each side’s religion. I care about humanity,” he said.

There is a conservative segment of society that supports Iran’s hostile stance towards Israel, and its regional policies. But in an increasingly secular Iranian society it is hard to argue, as the regime and those who support it would like to, that one should support Palestinians solely because they are Muslims. Instead, the growing consensus is that all people have a right to a peaceful life. Anti-regime Iranians are also inclined to oppose the Islamic Republic’s policies since last year’s women’s rights protests that resulted in over 300 deaths, according to Amnesty International. Images of dead Palestinians, especially children, have revived anger at what many see as Iran’s unnecessary involvement in regional politics. The authorities, meanwhile, have threatened to prosecute pro-Israeli commenters on social media.

While the Islamic Republic regularly threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and supports militias that have attacked the Jewish state, there has been little history of antisemitism in Iran. People have respected religious diversity for thousands of years: the emperor of Ancient Persia, Cyrus the Great, liberated Jews from Babylonian captivity, while Iran was one of the few countries that accepted Jewish refugees from Europe during the second world war. Iran is still home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, outside Israel. My late father — a devout Shia Muslim — always said his favourite fabric merchant was an Iranian Jew whom he described as the fairest in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.

Iranian politicians and regime supporters argue that they make a distinction between Jews and Zionists, stating that the former should be respected as men of faith while denouncing the latter as occupiers who pose a danger to the region. Reformers, however, consider such policies unrealistic at a time when Arab countries have either normalised relations with Israel or hope to do so. Hardliners see a conspiracy in the anti-regime slogan of “Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon; My Life for Iran” (a plea to cease interventions in regional politics) which has been chanted at protests over the past decade.

Regardless of public opinion, Iran’s leadership will continue to uphold the Palestinian cause while supporting the “axis of resistance” via militant groups. In the meantime, Iranian people may not be out on the streets — but the number who believe the volatile Middle East could do without more bloodshed, Islamophobia or antisemitism is growing faster than ever.

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