The Image of Israel in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Anti-Israeli Dogma

The Islamic Republic has an unbroken history of propaganda against Israel. Despite several shifts of focus, it has been a factor in Iran from the revolution in 1979 to the present day, as Joseph Croitoru elaborates

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
State doctrine of anti-Israeli propaganda: radical political rhetoric against Israel has gained a new dynamic since Ahmadinejad took office

​​ With Tehran's repeated threats against Israel in mind, it is hardly surprising that it is mainly Israeli scholars who have trained a lens on Iran's image of their country.

Their interest focuses on analysing the Islamic regime's deliberately cultivated image of the country as an enemy, through which the regime consciously distances itself from its predecessor.

In his book Iran, Political Islam and Israel. Challenge and Response, the Tel Aviv Iranologist David Menashri reminds us that under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran maintained a broad network of relations to the Israeli state, including in the military and security sectors.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

It was not only their common orientation to the West that brought the two states closer, but also the fact that they were both exceptions in a region mainly populated by Sunni Arabs. The motto was clearly: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The strength of anti-Israeli feeling festering in the Islamic opposition suppressed by the shah was revealed in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Israel was immediately declared one of Islam's main foes along with the shah's long-term ally, the United States.

From then on, the Israeli-Arab conflict was seen in Tehran as a primarily religiously motivated dispute, in which Iran began to intervene with its support for the Lebanese Shi'a Hezbollah and later for the militant Palestinian organisations Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

The non-recognition of Israel's right to existence propagated by Ayatollah Khomeini, the defamation and indirect combat, Menashri writes, are maxims of Iranian foreign policy to this day. In the eyes of the Mullah regime, Jews may not rule over Muslims, especially not on Islam's traditional territory – they must submit to Islamic rule.

"Traitors to the Islamic cause"

For Tehran, those who recognise Israel – including a number of Arab heads of state – are "traitors to the Islamic cause". The regime employs particularly radical rhetoric to characterise Israel. In 1999, for instance, the government newspaper Jomhuri Eslami (Islamic Republic) referred to the Israeli state as a germ that had infected the entire region and had to be eradicated.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo: AP)
Israel is enemy no. 1: in May 1998 Khamenei stated on state television that the Islamic Republic of Iran would not recognise the state of Israel for a single hour

​​ It comes as no great surprise to Menashri that this comment was written under the reign of Iran's first reform-oriented president, Mohammed Khatami.

In the 1990s in particular, once Iraq had suffered military defeat and Libya was politically marginalised, Tehran saw an opportunity to revitalise the anti-Israeli front that was crumbling in the Middle East at the time – under the banner of the Iranian Islamic revolution, with the effect of raising the regime's profile as a regional power.

Khatami's compliance

Even under President Khatami, Iran's spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continued to set the tone, using religious vocabulary to mark out Palestine as the frontline of an ongoing Holy War against the infidels.

In May 1998, Khamenei declared on state television that the Islamic Republic of Iran would not recognise the state of Israel for a single hour, and would continue to combat its "cancerous expansion". For the most part, Khatami supported the foreign policy course pursued by his government, although he did occasionally attempt to assuage some of the tensions.

In late 1997, for instance, he declared that the state of Israel had a hegemonic, racist and aggressive character, expressed in systematic and large-scale violations of international law, state terrorism and the ever expanding development of weapons of mass destruction, putting the entire region at risk.

On another occasion, however, he announced that Iran would not torpedo a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, although he considered such an agreement unviable due to Israel's behaviour.

More Palestinian than the Palestinians

In the meantime, critical voices were questioning Iran's anti-Israeli dogma. One should not attempt to be "more Palestinian than the Palestinians", the Tehran political scientist Ahmad Naqibzadeh commented in 1994. He also allowed himself the question of whether Iran was even capable of putting the threatened obliteration of Israel into practice.

​​ Others pointed out – although without referring directly to Israel – that religious dogmas ought to be adapted to current developments, and even that Khomeini's opinion was only one link in a long chain of possible interpretations of the Islamic faith.

From the beginning of the new millennium there was no room for views of this kind in the Iranian public sphere. The regime used the campaign to suppress the reform movement and the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada as a welcome opportunity to intensify its anti-Israeli policy.

Khamenei's even more drastically formulated slogans of the liquidation of the "Zionist regime" in Palestine now became worryingly concrete through none other than the still influential ex-president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. At the beginning of 2001 he made a public statement to the effect that the deployment of a single nuclear bomb against Israel would cause far more destruction there than a similar Israeli attack on Muslims ever could.

11 September 2001 and its consequences led to a radicalisation in Tehran, not only of the anti-American stance but also of Iran's anti-Israeli positions. The regime accused Israel of being behind the US campaign against Iran, now labelled as part of the "axis of evil".

Shift in doctrine under Ahmadinejad

President Ahmadinejad started out doing nothing more than repeating Khamenei's and Rafsanjani's threats to wipe out Israel, linking them with an intensified anti-American rhetoric. A world without the United States and Zionism, he said for example in October 2005, was very much conceivable.

​​ Yet there was a new aspect to Ahmedinejad's anti-Israeli propaganda: the broadly conducted Holocaust denial. This soon advanced to state doctrine, via Tehran's infamous international "Holocaust conference" in December 2006 and state funding for similarly tendentious publications.

Although this doctrine had its critics in Iran, it did not seem to dent Ahmadinejad's reputation and popularity. Menashri does not exclude the possibility that the president of the Islamic Republic believes in the necessity of destroying Israel, as at least a section of the Iranian leadership clearly does – partly because Ahmadinejad is said to have messianic tendencies.

Yet the author sites the explanation for the current regime's extreme anti-Israeli stance primarily in the fact that it is of benefit for both domestic and foreign policy. The president's threatening gestures not only make all Iran's other radicals look veritably pragmatic in comparison, they also offer the Iranian regime a certain scope to present a more "moderate" face in the event of negotiations with the West, he writes.

Providing consensus among quarrelling clerics

Menashri's colleague Meir Litvak from the Center for Iranian Studies at the University of Tel Aviv has a similar explanation for Iran's consistently radical standpoint on Israel.

In his view, it serves the purpose of compensating for the numerous domestic policy compromises the Tehran regime has had to make since the beginning of the Islamic revolution, providing at least one basic consensus among the otherwise constantly quarrelling clerics.

The Islamic regime's Holocaust denial machinery, which the author presents in detail, extends across all the country's media. At times they even present themselves as the protectors of western Holocaust deniers, including the Australian Fredrick Toben and France's Roger Garaudy, for whom the regime organised petition campaigns and provided financial support as a "victim of persecution".

Implications of Israel's weakness

However, it seems that this policy has now passed its peak in Iran. As the Israeli scholar Ze'ev Maghen explains, the official image of Israel has been undergoing a transition for some time.

Anti-Semitic images of the allegedly all-powerful "world Jewry" and the "Jewish Zionist conspiracy", he writes, are becoming less and less important in Iran's state propaganda.

Instead, the regime has begun to present Israel as an allegedly weak state in the process of decline. Ahmadinejad uses metaphors such as a "rotting tree" set to topple over in the next storm, and promises to cleanse Islamic ground of this "stain".

The image of the weakening Israeli state is reinforced by references to the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2006.

Triumphant depiction of Iran as a nuclear power

These examples are held up as proof that the Israelis have long been inferior in military disputes to those Islamist forces actively supported by Iran. The implications of Israel's weakness are accompanied by a triumphant depiction of Iran as a nuclear power on an unstoppable rise.

Unlike Menashri and Litvak, Maghen takes Tehran's threats of annihilation very seriously, reproaching anyone not prepared to do likewise. A member of the Jerusalem Shalem Center, the think-tank of Israel's new right, he is also close to the Likud party.

The party's head, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, summoned up Iran as a terrorist nuclear state that would soon be a threat to the West as long ago as 1995 – at a time when the Iranian nuclear programme was still in its infancy.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Joseph Croitoru is an expert on political Islam. His most recent publication, "Hamas. Der islamische Kampf um Palästina", was published by C. H. Beck.

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