Even Ordinary Iranians Took Up This Banner

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By Azadeh Moaveni
Sunday, January 25, 2009

During a recent trip to Tehran, I noticed that the Benetton shop in my old neighborhood of Darrous was closed, its windows papered over. In the past, fundamentalists offended by the shop's immodest displays had decried its immorality and spread rumors of "Zionist ownership." This time, however, they set the place on fire -- not to protest the mannequins, dressed in the latest fashions, sans veils, but rather to protest the carnage in the Gaza Strip. Though my visit happened to coincide with the Israeli offensive that killed an estimated 1,300 Palestinians over three weeks, I hadn't expected the conflict to reverberate in my old neighborhood.

If anything, I've always found that my former neighbors -- many deeply pious, but not known for any special antipathy toward Israel -- are, like the majority of Iranians, resentful of Iran's support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

During Israel's 2006 bombing of Lebanon, I was living in Iran with my family. I remember people congregating one morning outside the local bakery, which was unexpectedly closed. The small crowd concluded that the government had sent all the country's flour to Lebanon, and everyone dispersed with bitter complaints against leaders who forsook their own struggling people in favor of Islamic militancy. Later, we learned that the bakery was under renovation.

That's why what happened this time was so surprising to me. I don't believe that my old neighbors had had a dramatic change of heart in a little more than two years; it's just that this time, they were being skillfully spun. Their response reflected the government's swift commandeering of the crisis's message, made clear on the second evening of the Israeli offensive by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. He declared on the evening news that anyone killed while defending the Palestinians would be greeted as a martyr in heaven.

Khamenei's decree touched off a fierce propaganda campaign of astonishing effectiveness. Newspapers linked to the supreme leader ran editorials excoriating Arab leaders for not doing more to help the Palestinians.

Emotional news coverage of Palestinian casualties, along with Khamenei's decree, seemed to convince many that Iran should aid the Palestinians' fight. I overheard variations of this sentiment in my eye doctor's crowded waiting room a few days after the conflict began. "It's time to put Israel in its place," a young man from the provinces said. "If the Arabs helped, too, we could finish them off and achieve what's rightfully ours." Another man chimed in, and others agreed. Only a mother drawing cats on a notepad to entertain her little girl raised her eyebrows at the young man's choice of possessives.

The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marshaled its own resources to incite rage over Israel's offensive to distract attention from its own myriad failures. And it worked. In a matter of days, thousands of Iranians signed up in person and online to be sent to Gaza as suicide bombers, though there are no reports of anyone actually having gone. Hard-line student groups circulated lists in universities and put up an Internet site called Esteshhadi (martyrdom-seeker), where outraged Iranians could fill in their basic details and await the call. Suicide-bomber sign-up lists are standard stuff in Iran during Israeli military offensives, and typically neither the state nor the young men who sign up take them very seriously. I remember a relative's neighbor signing up in 2006 because he thought he'd receive a check to help him meet his car payments. He reported others showing up in hopes of a free kabob lunch. Israel knows that it need not fear the infiltration of thousands of such jihadists, and the symbolic exercise mostly provides European diplomats here with a gripe to air with Iranian officials.

But this time, the lists grew more rapidly than usual, swollen by sincere recruits who seemingly felt compelled to fight by the barrage of government propaganda. I've witnessed years of what passes for television in Iran -- biased news, mullah sermonizing and talk shows where ideologues fulminate against various enemies -- but the television coverage of the Gaza fighting was remarkable, even by local standards. On the state news, it was often difficult to distinguish between the correspondent and the victims he was interviewing, so seamless was the switch between their torrents of grief.

The government cast the conflict in essentially Shiite Islamic terms -- an outnumbered, "mazloom" (oppressed) people massacred by a more powerful, evil army. "The Israelis are truly loathsome," a cousin said one evening, transfixed by the deftly edited images on the broadcast, though I could swear that he'd uttered the same words about Hamas in the past.

One evening, I attended a dinner party at the home of a well-connected professor, who drinks tea with some of the country's most senior politicians. "This TV propaganda is unbelievable," he told me. "They're trying to create the atmosphere for the seizure of an embassy or a U.N. building, something catastrophic like that." He was prescient. The next afternoon, Basiji demonstrators -- members of the state's radical volunteer militia -- forced their way into a British Embassy residential compound and occupied the grounds for nearly an hour. Militant young people also staged a sit-in at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, demanding to be sent to Gaza. The crowd, composed of about 100 Basijis, white-turbaned clerics and women in black chadors, hunkered down on red, machine-woven rugs, refusing to budge.

Such protests seemed to persuade the authorities to recalibrate their approach. They wanted people angry enough to forget about the crumbling economy, but not so angry that they were raiding diplomatic compounds and demanding to be flown to their deaths in Gaza. The government dispatched officials to lecture demonstrators at the airport about resistance "in the framework of the system." The exchanges bordered on the comic but were still a striking display of public defiance of the authorities. In one, a young man in a puffy jacket insisted that Khamenei had effectively called for jihad, and that bureaucrats were obstructing his decree.

As the fighting in Gaza continued, Ahmadinejad and his allies were able to use the conflict as a pretext for silencing critics and attacking rivals. The government shut down a moderate newspaper for publishing a statement by a dissident student group that criticized Hamas and called Tehran complicit in its crimes. The student group was later also shut down. Early this month, Khamenei appeared on national television to temper his previous declaration encouraging martyrdom on behalf of the Palestinians. He thanked the young people who had offered to go die in Gaza but said that "our hands are tied in this arena." Khamenei didn't really want anyone's hands to be untied, however; the whole Gaza incident was meant to distract Iranians, not to jeopardize Iran's role in the region.

And the job it has done as a distraction isn't wholly convincing. "We're miserable and destitute ourselves, now we have to help the orphans of Gaza?" Mehdi Hakimi, a 35-year-old former civil servant, said to me. He complained about rising prices, his shrinking income, and the things he was forced to do to support his family -- ferrying passengers on his way home, working weekends most of the year and borrowing money to invest in a shop selling cosmetics and "As Seen On TV" weight-loss devices, items that never fail to sell in Iran. Still, authorities are having trouble cooling the rage they had earlier stoked. While some Iranians such as Hakimi bristle at the government sending aid to Palestinians while the economy at home suffers, many remain concerned. My friends in Tehran are still sending out e-mails that decry what they term Israeli genocide, though some also forward distressed reports of the Basiji militants' most recent thuggery, an attack on a demonstration by the women's group Mothers for Peace. The Basijis apparently felt that the group's name implied a criticism of Hamas and assaulted them shouting, "Death to seekers of peace."

Since at heart most Iranians share Hakimi's sentiments, the days ahead will be tricky ones for Ahmadinejad and his allies. They want Iranians diverted, not brawling in the streets.


Azadeh Moaveni covers Iran for Time magazine. She is the author of "Lipstick Jihad" and the forthcoming "Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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