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Jewish World Review
Nov. 4, 2003
/ 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Is Iran rethinking its position on Israel?
Afshin Molavi & Karim Sadjadpour
TEHERAN Shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution toppled the Shah, Yasir Arafat turned up in Tehran to
celebrate. With Arafat in town, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced the Islamic Revolution
would march until "the liberation of Jerusalem." Crowds responded with waves of applause.
in 1970s Iran, support for the Palestinians had emerged as a litmus test of commitment to the
revolutionary ethos. Unsurprisingly, an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stance quickly became a central
tenet of the Islamic Republic. The government lavished financial support on groups opposing Israel,
and the keys to the de facto Israeli embassy in Tehran were turned over to Arafat's Palestine
Liberation Organization. Across Iran, billboards urging JUSTICE FOR PALESTINE dotted the
country, and every major city soon had a "Palestine Square" and a "Palestine Street." State television
described suicide bombings as "martyrdom operations." The Iranian government even proclaimed a
"Jerusalem day," on which government workers were "encouraged" to take part in protests against
the "bloodthirsty Zionist state."
Twenty-four years later, however, Iranian demonstrators are in a vastly different mood. In mid-June,
Iranian youths staged a series of large rallies at Tehran University. Amid calls for greater democracy
and freedom, one of the more popular slogans was: "Forget about Palestine! Think of us!" These two
lines, delivered in rhyming, lilting Persian, encapsulate the sentiments of many young Iranians. In fact,
though the West still thinks of Iran as a cauldron of anti-Israel passion, a new generation of
pro-democracy Iranians increasingly speaks out against the government's seeming obsession with the
Palestinians. And these youths are finding cohorts in an unlikely quarter: a group of senior
conservative officials who are beginning to question the utility of Iran's close ties to anti-Israel groups.
Iranians under the age of 30 who comprise
more than two-thirds of the population
today express little interest in terrorist groups,
anti-Zionism, and radical politics in general. In
places where young people congregate, Iranians
constantly question their government's support
for terrorist groups. "I see the way people look
at me when I travel," complained one young
Iranian. "Immediately, they think, 'Watch out for
the Iranian, he might be a terrorist.' I blame our
government for cultivating this image by
supporting radical groups." Meanwhile, on
campuses, rumors abound that Palestinian
militants and Hezbollah fighters are imported
from Gaza and southern Lebanon to help quell
recent student unrest tales that make the
groups even more unpopular. Reformist
newspapers and reformist clerics have begun questioning Iran's hard-line stance on Israel. Abdollah
Nouri, a former Interior minister and close confidant of Khomeini, has bluntly criticized the Islamic
Republic's desire to act "more Palestinian than the Palestinians."
This disaffection with the Palestinian cause stems in part from many Iranians' frustration with Iran's
economic and political problems. They see Iran's moribund economy partly as a result of the
country's embrace of international radicalism, which has damaged foreign business ties. Many
students have traded in Che Guevara posters, which used to hang in many dormitories as a sign of
commitment to radicalism, for Microsoft ads. At cafés, conversations increasingly revolve around the
need to find jobs and the push for more social freedoms, and some even use the disparaging term
"Hezbollahi" (a Hezbollah type) to refer to anyone who is radical and violent. Even some older
Iranians have grown weary of the Palestinization of foreign policy. At an earthquake site in northern
Iran last year, a group of elderly victims complained bitterly about the government's slow response.
"If the earthquake occurred in Palestine, they would have sent money and supplies. To us, they only
give empty slogans," one said.
Still, reformers and the frustrated populace are too weak to influence official policy, which continues
to be dominated by conservatives. But, in the past few months, several senior conservatives have
quietly joined the chorus, hinting that Iran's support for terrorist groups opposed to Israel is
negotiable. According to one senior conservative official, "Iran's policy in the Middle East and the
peace process is not beyond the realm of possibilities that can be discussed, given a dialogue with the
United States." Translation from Islamic Republic-speak: We can talk turkey on Israel/Palestine.
Sadeq Zibakalam, a Tehran University professor with close ties to conservative officials,
underscored this view earlier this year, when he told the U.S.-funded Radio Farda Persian service
that Iran understands Washington's concerns about Tehran's support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and
Islamic Jihad. President Mohammed Khatami, a reformer who has long argued that Iran should not
interfere in any agreements made between Israel and the Palestinians, is unlikely to quibble with the
Why have some conservatives begun to shift? Pragmatism plays a role. Conservatives are
realizing that Iran's sinking economy, which will need to find hundreds of thousands of jobs for
its young people, desperately needs foreign investment. As a result, despite claims of Islamic and
revolutionary solidarity, Tehran quietly favors pragmatism above ideology in its foreign policies. Iran
has ignored the plight of Kashmiri Muslims in favor of growing rapprochement with India and says
nary a word about oppressed Muslims in Chechnya, so as not to offend its ally Russia. Meanwhile,
Iranian opposition to Saudi Arabia's repression of its Shia Muslim minority has gone silent since the
two countries have grown closer in the past few years.
In all these instances, revolutionary solidarity has been sacrificed for national interest. Now, Tehran
might be considering essentially the same formula regarding the Palestinian case: abandoning the
Palestinians to cut a deal with the United States. After all, U.S. economic sanctions are due in part to
Iran's support for violent groups opposed to Middle East peace and have prevented billions of
dollars in potential foreign capital from entering Iran. As Dr. Qassem Sa'adi, a prominent nationalist
intellectual, wrote in an open letter in December 2002 to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini,
"The Palestinization of Iranian foreign policy has been disastrous to our national interests."
Even former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the harshest critics of Israel in the Islamic
Republic, has signed on. Around him has coalesced a small but influential group willing to consider
softening Iran's stance on Israel. These conservative pragmatists have been influential in the on-again,
off-again back-channel talks between Iranian and American officials in the past year, which sources
in both Tehran and Washington say are on again.
Of course, despite this growing pragmatism, the Iranians won't be making an appearance in the
Knesset anytime soon. For one thing, many Iranian officials would find it difficult to cut ties with Shia
Hezbollah, largely because of the long-held political, familial, and cultural links between Lebanese
Shia, pro-Hezbollah clerics and their Iranian counterparts. What's more, Iran's pragmatic
conservatives will drive a hard bargain to give up their hard-line position. "From their perspective, it
is in the national interests to maintain the relationship [with terror groups], for it's one of their biggest
bargaining chips" in any talks with the United States, remarked a Tehran-based observer. "They're
not going to give it up for free."
If Iran were to put its anti-Israel stance on the table, what would it expect in return? Most likely, a
comprehensive package that would include a security agreement and assurances that Washington
would move toward removing sanctions. Iran also wants something intangible: recognition as a
regional power. Says Zibakalam: "If the Americans officially recognized a powerful Iran ... the
Iranians would see no reason for Iran-U.S. tensions."
Tehran, however, faces a highly suspicious White House angry about Iran's alleged nuclear
weapons program and in little mood to cut an overt, comprehensive deal with the ruling mullahs.
Nonetheless, Iran's recent announcement that it will accept a more vigorous nuclear inspections
regime may allow back-channel talks between Tehran and Washington to continue.
Still, how Iran views Israel, and how much support it offers to Palestinian groups, will help determine
the future of U.S.-Iran talks. What's important for American policymakers to realize is that Tehran
has tentatively put its position on the table. "Clearly, our stance on the peace process is of interest to
the Americans, and we are prepared to talk about this as well as everything," says a senior Iranian
official. And, unlike in the Arab world, where politicians must tread carefully before they make any
concessions to Israel or the United States for fear of popular reaction, the youthful "Iranian street"
would gladly welcome a less strident stance.
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AFSHIN MOLAVI is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran (Norton) KARIM
SADJADPOUR is an analyst with the International Crisis Group. This article appears courtesy of The New Republic.
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© 2003, The New Republic