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Should Iranians Care About Jerusalem?

Students of Tehran University listen to exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Tehran in February 2009.
Students of Tehran University listen to exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Tehran in February 2009.
This Friday, September 18, is "Day of Jerusalem" in Iran.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in chorus with the leaderships of other Islamic countries and organizations, declared the last Friday of the month of Ramadan the "Day of Jerusalem" to demonstrate support for Palestinians and their drive to impose their sovereignty over that ancient city.

Not that anything important will happen on that day, either in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian lands or in Lebanon or Iran. There will be demonstrations in support of the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel. But since they have become a routine, they don't attract much attention.

"Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon -- My Life is Devoted to Iran"
In Iran, though, this year's "Day of Jerusalem" has already acquired special importance. Reformist groups, still alive and active despite brutal suppression, have announced that on that day they will launch new demonstrations against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom they accuse of rigging the presidential election three months ago.

Official Focus

The slogan "Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon -- My Life Is Devoted to Iran" is currently popular in Iran. Posters are being produced and distributed widely via the Internet. The question that is increasingly raised and discussed is: Why has the Islamic Republic made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of its main foreign policy priorities?

To be sure, most Iranians probably feel sympathy for the Palestinians, who have to live in camps, in occupied territories, without statehood. But why is the Iranian government going far beyond sympathy, providing millions of dollars every year in weapons and cash to terrorist and quasiterrorist Palestinian groups? Why is the Islamic Republic even -- as the Persian proverb goes -- "a pot hotter than its soup," supporting extremist groups like Hamas but not the Palestinian Authority that is recognized by Arab countries and the international community?

There is no doubt that Jerusalem, which is 2,000 years older than Islam, has a special importance, role, and religious value in Islam and the Koran. But many argue that the Islamic Republic is exploiting this religious or "ideological" factor for its political and strategic purposes. Why then, they ask, in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is Tehran supporting not the occupied, Muslim, and neighboring Republic of Azerbaijan, but rather the occupier, Christian Armenia?

Whose Jerusalem?

Apparently, those attracted by the slogan "Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon -- My Life Is Devoted to Iran" are unconcerned over who Jerusalem should "belong" to, how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved, or even which foreign country or organization Tehran should support. Their concern seems to be that Iranians are facing increasing unemployment and inflation.

Iran is under international embargo because of its suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons, but also because of its opposition to an Arab-Israeli peace and support for extremist groups. Consequently, 40 percent of its fuel is imported and the fear is that Ahmadinejad's rejection of talks on Iran's nuclear program means that the embargo may even be tightened.

Under these conditions, people ask, why are we spending millions of dollars for Hamas, Hizbollah, and other extremist foreign organizations? Why aren't we spending those resources for Iran and Iranians themselves? Why are you persisting in a foreign policy that further isolates Iran as a country and makes individual Iranians suffer?

'More Important Problems'

This year, "Jerusalem Day" in Iran is important for a different reason. Aware of the opposition's calls for a demonstration of power on this day, Ahmadinejad and his main supporter, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, hesitated for a long time over whether to continue the traditional celebration. Khamenei's final word in last week's Friday Prayers that the celebrations would be held as usual strengthened the opposition's hopes that they could once again challenge what they call the "absolutist power of the Supreme Leader," as well as their concerns that planned demonstrations may once again be brutally suppressed.

Whatever happens, though, on this Friday's "Day of Jerusalem," two things seem beyond question. First, three months after the presidential election and its obviously rigged results, the protest and reformist movement is under pressure, but still alive and active. Second, the slogan "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon -- My Life Is Devoted to Iran" has put down deep roots in society. When asked about the Palestinian issue in an election campaign meeting last June, even Mir Hossein Musavi, Ahmadinejad's main contender from the reformist movement, said: "We surely support the Palestinians. But we ourselves have other and more important problems we have to solve first."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL in Prague. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL