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Some Iranians Resent Gaza Appeals In Light Of Domestic Hardships

Iranian students invoke the Islamic Republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at an anti-Israel rally in Tehran on January 4.
Iranian students invoke the Islamic Republic's late founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at an anti-Israel rally in Tehran on January 4.
Iran is the only country that really cares about the Palestinian people. Or so Iran's political leaders have sought to convince people -- at home and abroad -- since the beginning of Israel's current Gaza offensive.

The public displays appear to be aimed at exhorting hard-liners and government supporters while also boosting Iran's credentials as the champion of the Palestinian cause in the region.

Officials have been vocal in their condemnation of "Zionist crimes" while charging that the "silence" of Arab leaders encourages Israeli aggression. Some officials have suggested that if the Holocaust is a reality, then it is taking place in Gaza.

There have been impassioned demonstrations by Basiji students in front of Western and Arab embassies, while websites and semi-official news agencies report that some 7,000 students have volunteered to carry out suicide operations in Israel.

An international "Gaza Cartoon Contest" has been launched, and there are reports that state employees have been asked to send a portion of their salary to people in Gaza.

In one children's program, an adult tells a group of young Iranians wearing the Palestinian kaffiyeh that Israel is "making martyrs" of Palestinian children, adding that "we all loathe this enemy."

"You are all wearing the kaffiyeh, it means you're all showing that you're friends of Palestinian children," the woman says. "You are all upset about what has happened. Because of what the enemy has done. It has martyred the innocent children of Gaza."

Getting The Messages Out

The frequent appeals to ordinary Iranians to direct their attention to the Gaza conflict has frustrated some Iranians.

One man who telephoned RFE/RL's Radio Farda from Isfahan said that authorities "are really killing us" with their efforts to drive home the Gaza crisis and express solidarity with Hamas. "All the programs on Iran's television channels, from channel one to channel seven, it's all about the people of Gaza and support for Hamas," the man said. "Why is it like this in Iran? Why are we caring so much about Gaza? Why we don't care about ourselves?"

A Tehran-based journalist, who spoke anonymously due to what he described as the "sensitivity" of the issue, told RFE/RL that people in Iran are far from indifferent to the deaths of civilians in conflicts. Many people think the international response in the Gaza crisis has been insufficient, he noted.

But, he said, some also believe the government is exploiting the crisis to divert domestic attention from Iran's worsening economic situation, including spiraling inflation and growing unemployment.

Another recent caller to Radio Farda claimed "the mullahs" use Palestine and other Middle East flashpoints for their own political ends.

"They've created a stick out of Palestine to give a response to all of the people's questions and demands -- whoever says something will be [silenced]," the caller said. "Otherwise we're a country like other countries, we should mind our own business and solve our own problems. Has there ever been a president who has asked, 'How's our country doing regarding issues like health, electricity, unemployment, poverty?'.... All they speak about is Palestine and Lebanon."

'Forget About Palestine. Do Something For Us!'

Iran has long backed Hamas, although there are discrepancies as to whether such backing ends with moral support, as Tehran insists, or extends to money and smuggled arms, as the U.S. and Israel have alleged.

Officially denied access to Iranian audiences and refused the right to gather news without official harassment, Radio Farda encourages its listeners to submit comments and views via telephone or short text messages (SMS).

Since the current Gaza conflict began, such messages make clear that not everyone thinks the Iranian government has its priorities right. "Iran is a Gaza that is filled with poverty," said one message. "Forget About Palestine. Do something for us!" read another.

"I'm calling from Iran, from the Fars Province," began a telephone contributor to Radio Farda, "I want to know what good is Palestine to Iran that [the government] is sending so much aid there. They're spending Iran's wealth. As an Iranian teenager I'm really objecting to this.”

A 54-year-old woman in Tehran lamented that while officials are portraying the Gaza crisis as the most important issue, "making a living" is the number one issue on the minds of most Iranians.

A 23-year-old university student in Shiraz claimed that "for people my age, Gaza, Palestine, means nothing. We want jobs and more personal freedom."

Concerns have also emerged that the government has used the situation in Gaza as an excuse to silence critics and marginalize moderates.

As 2008 ended, censors shut down the daily "Kargozaran" for publishing a statement by Iran's largest pro-reform student group that, according to Iranian officials, "sanitized the Zionist regime's crimes" in Gaza.

On January 2, some 150 hard-line students staged a protest in front of the home and office of the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, accusing her of an Israeli bias regarding the Gaza conflict. Ebadi has dismissed such criticism as unfounded.

Abdollah Momeni, a former student leader and prominent human rights defender in Tehran, has called such harassment clear examples of how the Gaza conflict is serving as a pretext to crack down on civil society in Iran.

Momeni noted that while none of the students who attacked foreign embassies in Tehran or damaged Ebadi's residence have been called to account by authorities, those students who participate in protest against human rights abuses are routinely charged with security violations and sentenced to prison and lashes.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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