Iran Israel Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource October 13, 2023

What do Iranians think of Israel? Their views might surprise you

By Arash Azizi

A public fireworks celebration at Tehran’s Palestine Square, home of the Palestinian embassy, was organized to celebrate the horrific attacks of October 7 by militant groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of whom receive significant military and financial help from the Islamic Republic of Iran. A few dozen gathered, waving massive Palestinian flags and holding up portraits of assassinated Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who directed the regime’s help to Hamas and other proxies in the region before he was killed by a US drone strike in January 2020. Loudspeakers blasted propaganda songs in Persian and Arabic. One went, “Israel is my enemy; its wiping off the map will bring me a bright future.”

On that very day, Iranian officials took turns declaring open support for the attacks on Israel. Tehran’s Valiasr Square, used for years for in-your-face propaganda posters by the regime, soon featured a fading flag of Israel, supposedly representing the coming destruction of the Jewish State. But before long, on October 10, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denied having had a direct operational role.

Ordinary Iranians are raised with this anti-Israel and antisemitic content, which fills television and radio broadcasts and even school textbooks. Yet, anyone familiar with Iranian society knows that anti-Israel attitudes have mostly failed to go beyond the most vociferous supporters of the regime despite years of attempted indoctrination.

On October 8, the day after the attacks, as Tehran’s Persepolis FC faced Gol Gohar in the city’s iconic Azadi soccer stadium, some pro-government figures tried to raise the Palestinian flag from the stands. The backlash they faced was immediate. Thousands of fans started shouting a slogan formulated in the rowdy and rude tone of soccer fans everywhere: “Shove the Palestinian flag up your a–.”

Many notable Iranians joined in condemning Hamas’s attacks. Taking to X, formerly known as Twitter, human rights activist Atena Daemi wrote: “We see videos of attacks on Israel and massacre and hostage-taking of civilians by the grouplet Hamas, and this has added to our pains.”

Daemi was quick to add that the crimes of Hamas should not be attributed to the Palestinian people as a whole.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a political scientist at Tehran University and one of the country’s best-known public intellectuals, criticized Tehran’s backing of the attacks. Writing on X, Zibakalam said: “Officials of Iran, including MPs, are offering open and clear support for the attacks of Hamas. I wish the authorities who are showing such official support for the attacks could explain to the Iranian people: How will these attacks help the national interests of the Iranian people?”

Having been an Islamist political prisoner under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Zibakalam is among the founding generation of the Islamic Republic. However, he has gone on to severely criticize its foreign policy, particularly Tehran’s anti-Israel and antisemitic policies that he sees as harmful to national interests. He has gone out of his way to make this point. In 2016, when invited to a debate at a university in Mashhad, he held on to the sidebars of a stairwell to avoid walking over the flags of Israel and the United States, which had been painted on the ground to be walked over as an insult. When pro-regime media attacked him, Zibakalam doubled down and quipped: “To trample upon and to burn the flag of any country is wrong.”

He again showed his moral consistency in his response to the attacks. Taking to X, Zibakalam wrote: “Cutting water, electricity, medicine, food, fuel, and primary aid to 2,200,000 residents of Gaza is as inhumane, immoral, and condemnable as Hamas’s massacring of Israeli youth who were taking part in a concert.”

Daemi and Zibakalam, like soccer fans, live in Iran and show tremendous courage by taking such positions. Positions deemed friendly to Israel can lead to severe retaliation by the regime.

This is not to suggest that there is homogenous support for Israel among Iranians. Mohammad Khatami, a former reformist president of the Islamic Republic, praised the Hamas attacks as “a great achievement for the people of Palestine.”

The diaspora response

Not only is there minimal sympathy for Hamas among the Iranian diaspora, but many openly back Israel. Whatever their differences, opposition figures such as former Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, women’s rights activist and journalist Masih Alinejad, and former spokesman for the families of PS752 Hamed Esmaeilion, have all unequivocally condemned the attacks by Hamas, with Esmaeilion also criticizing Israel’s killing of civilians.

In a show on October 10, popular comedian Max Amini departed from his usual repertoire of jokes by offering a monologue on peace and co-existence. He harshly condemned Hamas’s attacks and linked them to the Islamic Republic’s support. Some Iranian protesters also joined their Israeli counterparts in anti-Hamas demonstrations in Paris, London, and Toronto.  

While many left-wing groups in the region and beyond are severely anti-Israel, the Iranian left is mostly an exception. In response to recent events, Hamid Taqvaee, leader of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran—the most organized Marxist group in the diaspora—criticized the Israeli government but harshly attacked Hamas. Like almost all its fellow left-wing Iranian groups, his party is for a two-state solution.

Similar to elsewhere in the world, the Iranian intellectual and media class includes many harsh anti-Israel voices. But even the internal politics of academia shows how markedly different Iranians are from many of their counterparts. Iranian student associations inside the country have often published statements condemning Hamas, putting themselves at heavy risk. This shows itself in the Western academe, too. While the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America has adopted a policy of boycotting Israel, the Association of Iranian Studies, which includes thousands of Iran-focused scholars around the world, usually takes much more balanced positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and condemns Hamas’s targeting of civilians.

In its last conference in Salamanca in August 2022, a top book award went to Liora Hendelman, an Israeli historian and the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Why is there solidarity?

On the societal level, there are dozens of Iranian and Israeli fraternization examples. Iranian and Israeli filmmakers conduct joint projects while Iranian athletes have repeatedly stood up to the regime’s ban on competing with their Israeli counterparts, often paying a heavy price. This past August, weightlifter Mostafa Rajayi was banned for life because he had shaken hands and taken a picture with an Israeli athlete he competed against in Poland.

 In June, Mehdi Mousavi, a prominent Iranian progressive poet living in exile, went on a tour in Israel, which was warmly hosted by the Israeli literary community. As the ongoing anti-regime protests shook the clerical establishment last year, many Israelis have come to show support by staging demonstrations and organizing an art show in Jerusalem.

What explains this warm relationship? Firstly, Iranians oppose the Islamic Republic’s destructive policy against Israel, just like they oppose its other interventionist goals. They are asking a basic question: why waste Iranian resources on terror groups in the region, which has also resulted in more international isolation for Iran with severe consequences for Iranian livelihoods? In many protests during the past decades, Iranian workers, pensioners, and students have been chanting, “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I give my life for Iran” and “Leave Syria, do something for us.”

Second, unlike the Arab world, Iran has no history of widespread antagonism to Israel. Before 1979, Tehran and Tel Aviv held close relations (while the Shah also cultivated ties with Arabs and vociferously condemned the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel). Tens of thousands of Israelis are of Iranian descent, with some Iranian-Israelis being prominent figures in the Iranian diaspora, such as Tehran-born singer Rita, who is widely loved for her covers of popular Persian ballads, and Liraz Charhi, known widely for her racy music videos and her star role in the Israeli television series, Tehran (she also happens to be Rita’s niece).

At least one Iranian-Israeli is reportedly among those Hamas took hostage: Rumi, a twenty-three-year-old girl named after the famed Persian poet of the thirteenth century. Her grandmother spoke to Iran International about her plight, pleading for her in fluent Persian, spoken by many in Israel.

In the coming weeks, the threat of a direct confrontation between Israel and the Islamic Republic will no doubt cast a shadow over the region. Those who want to work hard to avoid it should remind the world of the enduring ties between the two nations. Most Iranians do not share the murderous anti-Israel obsessions of Supreme Leader Khamenei and his acolytes.

Dr. Arash Azizi is a senior lecturer in history and political science at Clemson University. His new book, What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom, will be published in January 2024. Follow him on X: @arash_tehran.

Further reading

Image: A giant anti-Israel billboard designed and implemented by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), symbolizing Iran's support for the Palestinian Al-Aqsa storm missile attack on Israel, is hanged on a state building in downtown Tehran, October 12, 2023. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)