Friday, December 16, 2005

Iran: Behind the Israel-baiting

Persian blogwatcher Nasrin Alavi, author of “We Are Iran,” sent me an interesting appraisal of Tehran’s increasingly confrontational rhetoric. She will probably be publishing it at full length elsewhere, but here’s an advance look at some excerpts:

Mahmoud Ahmadi’nejad, the Iranian president, made a grotesque stab at moderation this week with an appeal that “Israel be moved to Europe” rather than “wiped off the map” He claimed, “My word is the same as that of [the] Iranian nation,” with the BBC’s Frances Harrison in Tehran adding that, “the Iranian press has endorsed the president's views, calling them logical and less passive than the approach of previous Iranian governments.” In fact there is an entirely different Iran simmering behind those headlines.
A free, nationally representative press no longer exists. Over 100 publications, including 41 dailies, have been closed down by the regime in recent years. We see Iranians portrayed as crowds chanting ‘Death to America and Israel!’ in archive footage that was shot during Friday prayers and is routinely shown on news broadcasts. Yet according to surveys by Iran’s own Ministry of Culture and Guidance, fewer than 1.4 per cent of the population actually bothers to attend Friday prayers.
A major national poll in 2002 commissioned by the then-reformist parliament revealed that that 64.5 per cent favoured resumption of talks between Iran and the United States. The researchers involved soon found themselves in prison. Three years later – just last month -- Abdolah Naseri, the former director of the state news agency, IRNA, was put on trial for revealing that the regime’s raison d'etre, enmity to the US, is not shared by the majority of Iranians.
Those who lived through the Iranian Revolution of 1979 are now a minority. Iran has one of the most youthful and educated populations in the Middle East: 70 per cent are under thirty, with national literacy rates of well over 90 per cent. Last year more than 65 per cent of those entering university were women. It is the voices of these educated young people that come emerge from the phenomenon that is the Iranian blogosphere. The internet has opened a new virtual space for free speech in Iran, a country dubbed the "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East", by Reporters sans Frontières. With an estimated 75,000 blogs, Farsi is now the fourth most popular language for keeping online journals.
“Can’t anyone shut this man up?” one Iranian blogger pleaded after Ahmadi’nejad’s latest remarks. Another lamented that, “by denying the holocaust President A.N now stands in history next to Mussolini and Hitler.” Picking up on a label given him by Iran’s leading (and recently exiled) satirist, Ebrahim Nabavi, bloggers commonly refer to their president by his initials A.N, a Persian word meaning excrement.
Another blogger writes, “Perhaps Ahmadi’nejad has never seen aging Jewish men and women, who 60 years after WWII, still with trembling voices and tearful eyes recount how they were separated from their parents and sent to Auschwitz… and he has not seen on their wrinkled arms their hacked out prisoner numbers. Perhaps he doesn’t know he hasn’t read or heard… that he so confidently calls the genocide and injustice to this people a myth. But where are those defenders of Islam... those who see Islam so threatened and endangered to extinction with slightest of social loosening and keep calling on others to revolt in defence of the integrity of their faith. Don’t they have a problem with their Islam’s accord with Nazism?”
Ordinary Iranians appear to be tired of the ‘death chants’ of the regime. They want to project a positive image of their country to counterbalance its reputation in the West as a nation of terrorists. As one blogger puts it “Although we do have our fair share of bigots and racists, I don’t think we as a society are more intolerant than any others in the world. If Iranians were so intolerant . . . then why have so many people throughout our ancient history sought refuge in our land?” According to UNHCR’s global refugee figures (June 2004), Iran ranks second in the world in providing asylum to refugees.
It may be hard to believe but Iran also has the largest Jewish community outside of Israel in the Middle East. The Jerusalem Post last year (5 May 2004) reported that ‘most of the Jews still resident in Iran are quite happy to be there and despite the anti-Israel hatred that often translates itself into anti-Jewish feeling, generally speaking, they are not persecuted.’ More recently The Jerusalem Post (4 Nov 2005) reported Iranian Jewish immigrants to Israel moving back “'home' to Teheran.”
Although the Iranian authorities hate the state of Israel, anti-Semitism remains a social taboo in Iran – even among the most radical members of the regime. Even under the present constitution there must be a Jewish representative in Parliament. Examine Ahmadi’nejad’s hateful rhetoric and his irritation is consistently directed at Israel or Zionists and never at Jews. The Iranian Jewish exile Roya Hakakian has recently published a memoir about her life in Tehran before and after the Revolution. Growing up in Tehran, she never experienced anti-Semitism: ‘The people who persecuted Jews in Iran were the same people who persecuted anyone who didn’t fall in line with the Government . . . Our neighbours never turned on us and we always maintained close ties with our Iranian friends.’
Iranians are proud and conscious of their rich ancient history. Iranian Jews are the oldest inhabitants of the country and have lived in Iran for 2,500 years since the first Diaspora, when large populations were exiled from Judea. According to the Bible, Cyrus conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C., liberated the Jews from captivity, and raised funds for the rebuilding of their destroyed temple in Jerusalem. Even in more recent times there have been figures such as Hossein Sardari, dubbed the ‘Iranian Schindler‘, who was honored last year by the Wiesenthal Centre. As a young Iranian diplomat in Paris, Sardari succeeded in having hundreds of Iranian Jews classified as ‘non-racially‘ connected to the rest of the Jewish people, thereby saving them from the Nazi death camps. In 1942, he turned over 500 blank Iranian passports to Jewish acquaintances in Paris to help save other non-Iranian Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution.
Hossein Derakhshan, the so called ‘godfather’ of the Iranian blogosphere, asks his compatriots to communicate with the outside world by writing in English: "it’s crucial to show what a tiny percentage amongst us thinks like Ahmadi’nejad. And how little these radical thoughts and bigoted views exist amongst Iranians... write in English about how we are at odds with him." In the past Hossein has asked, “Why are we the only country in the region that does not accept the existence of the state of Israel? We must not forget that during the Iran–Iraq war, Yasser Arafat was Saddam’s best friend and along with all other Arab-speaking nations supported Iraq against Iran in the war.”…
Although the Iranian people have deep sympathies with the Palestinians, after 25 years of being told it is their religious duty to one day liberate Jerusalem, perhaps some Iranians are more concerned with their own liberation. In the summer of 1999, among the calls for democracy and freedom of student protestors was a familiar slogan: ‘Forget Palestine . . . let’s deal with our own problems!’ Not much of slogan in English but a perfect rhyming couplet in Persian. … and one that would startle Ahmadi’nejad more than any possible conflict with the West.
In the 2005 presidential elections, all the candidates professed to be staunch reformists. The winner, Tehran mayor Ahmadi’nejad, was promoted as a man of the people. At one stage during his campaign, he even claimed that the "establishment" had cut off the electricity in large areas of Iran so that ordinary people couldn't hear his campaign speeches in which he promised to fight corruption. …Nearly five months after his election victory the president’s campaign pledge of social justice and distribution of oil money to the poor seems increasingly unrealistic. The new parliament has announced plans to reduce subsidies on the sale of imported petrol, bread and cement. After rising chicken prices during the holy month of Ramadan, some observers were already reporting the beginning of the end of Ahmadi’nejad’s “honeymoon period.” The Tehran stock exchange has plunged 25 per cent in the past four months -- the biggest drop in the history of the exchange. … Yet Ahmadi’nejad knows that a radical Iran survives in isolation and any possible conflict with the West will only strengthen his power base; as even those Iranians who oppose him are tempted to move to his camp in the face of foreign aggression.
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