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Why Iran is the Key to Peace in the Middle East
An Iranian woman expresses her solidarity with Israel, Heumarkt, Cologne, Germany, 15 October 2023

Why Iran is the Key to Peace in the Middle East

Many Iranians perceive Israel as a potential ally in their struggle against Islamic oppression.

· 10 min read

Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran and Israel had developed strategic and economic ties, driven in part by Israel’s “periphery doctrine”—a policy of seeking alliances with non-Arab states. The relationship between the two countries was mutually beneficial; Iran was a major importer of Israeli arms, and, in return, provided Israel with oil. For the three decades preceding the revolution, these amicable relations persisted. Israel even had a diplomatic mission in Tehran. 

The Iranian Revolution changed all that. Under the new theocratic regime, Iran labeled the United States the “Great Satan” and saw Israel as the “Little Satan.” The mullahs aligned themselves firmly with the Palestinian cause and against Israel. This shift was marked by calls for solidarity with the Palestinian people, the establishment of Quds (Jerusalem) Day, and the creation of the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose ultimate goal is one day to capture Jerusalem. 

The Islamic Republic’s apparent commitment to the Palestinian cause was, in reality, a strategic move designed to bolster its revolutionary credentials among Arabs and across the Sunni world and further its efforts to its Islamic Revolution beyond Iran’s borders—a task rendered more difficult by the fact that Iranians are non-Arab and are Shia, rather than Sunni, Muslims.

Iran’s ambitions in this regard were hampered by Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 (and later by Jordan’s in 1994.) Tensions between Iran and Israel increased after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, with the aim of attacking Palestinian Liberation Organization targets, following the PLO’s attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London. The attack significantly impacted the Shiite community in southern Lebanon—a community with close ideological connections to the Islamic Republic in Iran. In response, the Islamic Republic dispatched IRGC advisers and helped establish Hezbollah as a proxy force in the region. Under the guidance of the Islamic Republic, Hezbollah engaged in guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces. This solidified Lebanon’s role as a critical frontline for Israel and a strategic outpost for the Islamic Republic.

The Republic proudly provides financial, military, and logistical support to other proxies, too, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis—support that bolsters their operations against Israel. Despite belonging to different Islamic sects, the Islamic Republic of Iran is united with these groups in their opposition to Israel’s existence and their aim of establishing Islamic governance throughout the region. Their shared antisemitism is a foundational, unifying aspect of their ideology.

The Islamic Republic leverages these proxy groups as part of a larger strategy to assert its influence in the Middle East. By supporting anti-Israel groups, the regime positions itself as a significant player in the conflict, increasing its regional influence and appeal among Muslim communities. This support is integral to its wider strategy of fostering regional instability that will make surrounding states more dependent on its favors and raise its local profile.

Within Iran itself, the regime utilizes the state education system to foster anti-Israel sentiments among young people. A comprehensive 2021 study by the Anti-Defamation League has revealed that Iranian textbooks are rife with antisemitic conspiracy theories. Growing up in Iran, I was personally exposed to this indoctrination first-hand. There were frequent ritual burnings of the Israeli flag in the schoolyard, and we were encouraged to chant “Death to Israel.” Israel was consistently portrayed as a rogue regime destined for destruction. As a result of this propaganda, as a child even hearing the name of the country or seeing its flag made me feel as if I were in the presence of a great evil. 

But things are changing. Despite the regime’s best efforts to demonise the Jewish state, a growing number of Iranians—especially young Iranians—are becoming increasingly skeptical of the official narratives. Some students have openly refused to participate in chanting anti-Israel slogans and there have been public demonstrations challenging the state-endorsed view, suggesting that there is significant opposition to the government’s stance within the Iranian population.

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Many Iranians perceive Israel as a potential ally in their struggle against Islamic oppression. The Iranian regime’s vehemently anti-Israel position has, ironically, made some dissident Iranians view Israel more sympathetically. To such Iranians, solidarity with Israel is important since they see themselves are united in facing a common enemy: militant Islamic fundamentalism.

Many diaspora Iranians have participated in pro-Israel rallies since 7 October, as we can see in the examples here, here, here, here, and here. Protestors at a march in Berlin, for example, carried the pre-Revolutionary Iranian flag, with its lion rampant, the preferred symbol of the dissidents.

Within Iran itself, schoolchildren have refused to chant “Death to Israel,” responding instead with “Death to Palestine.” (While I don’t endorse this response, it certainly shows the depth of feeling among many Iranians on this issue). Iranians have left graffiti with messages like “Long Live Israel” on public walls; have gone to great lengths to avoid stepping on Israeli flags placed on the ground, in order to avoid disrespecting the Jewish state; and have even set anti-Israel government billboards on fire.

Iranians have chanted “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran” at funerals and have booed public figures for expressing anti-Israel sentiments. On 9 October, Iranian football supporters even told a regime official to “shove the Palestinian flag up your arse.”

This is not the first time that Iranians have expressed support for Israel. When the alleged head of Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in 2020, possibly by the Israeli secret service, a sign reading “Thank you, Mossad” was affixed to a billboard in Tehran. A photo of the message subsequently went viral among Iranian dissidents. In the wake of 7 October, the dissidents have once again been active on social media, posting under the hashtag #IraniansStandWithIsrael and denouncing Hamas as the terrorist proxies of the Iranian regime.

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The Persian version of the YouTube channel that I host has dedicated many recent shows to Israel’s right to defend itself, a topic that has received a very positive reception from Iranian viewers. As I recently discussed with Harris Sultan, Iranians view this very much as a shared struggle:

The Iranian people and the Israeli people have the same enemy, both ideologically and politically because their enemy is Islamic fascism and it’s coming from the same source… which is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hamas is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hezbollah is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Islamic Jihad group is funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran. You keep fighting the tail, but the head is right in Iran and the people who want to topple it want the same thing that the Israeli people want… If they fight this enemy together, they will be a lot stronger. And the rest of the world also needs to recognise that if they want any form of stability and peace in the Middle East … they can’t do that while you still have the Islamic Republic [of Iran] …. You don’t need to bring democracy to the Middle East; you don’t need to bring secularism to the Middle East; you don’t need to bring liberalism to the Middle East…. It’s already there existing among Iranian people and Israeli people. All you have to do is support it. 

The overwhelmingly positive comments on this video, from both Israelis and Iranians, are unusual in the current political climate and, again, suggest the strength of pro-Israel feeling among Iranians. From 26:21, you can also see video evidence of support for Israel from within Iran. 

The most recent trigger of the widespread and growing desire for regime change in Iran was the 2022 Mahsa Revolution. The protests at the tragic death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on 16 September, following her detention for violating the country’s Islamic dress code, quickly evolved into large-scale demands for the overthrow of the Islamic regime. The protests represented a significant push for secular democracy and liberal values in Iran. The demonstrators’ demands went beyond the immediate repeal of the hijab law to encompass freedom of expression, the equality of the sexes, and an end to theocratic governance.

This indicates a societal shift, especially among the younger generation, many of whom are willing to risk being tortured or killed in their attempts to topple the regime. The values championed by these protesters resonate closely with the democratic and liberal principles prevalent among Israelis and rare elsewhere in the Middle East, principles that contrast starkly with the illiberal ideology and genocidal ambitions of the ruling mullahs.

Islamists embrace an ideology that exalts martyrdom, a perspective fundamentally at odds with many pre-Islamic Iranian cultural traditions. This contrast is particularly starkly evident when we compare Islamic festivals, such as Ashura, with festivals dating from Iran’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrian era, such as Nowruz (Persian New Year, celebrated on the first day of the northern hemisphere’s spring). Ashura is a festival of mourning, while Nowruz is a colourful and vibrant celebration of renewed life.

The Islamists in Iran often describe Israelis as “life lovers”—a term they regard as an insult. This is unsurprising, given the regime’s glorification of death and martyrdom. We can see this typified in a recent interview on Iranian National Television, in which a young girl of perhaps five or six years old, expresses the wish that she, her father, and unborn brother should all die as martyrs—and is praised for this attitude by the show’s host. 

These are sentiments shared by the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini who stated in a fatwa issued during the then ongoing war with Iraq, “It is obligatory for us to kill both Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims will become martyrs and go to heaven, the non-believers are infidels and will go to hell.” 

I myself, growing up, was steeped in this ideology. I was so terrified by the prospect of eternal damnation that I attempted to kill myself by jumping out of a schoolroom window. I wanted to die before I turned 15—the cut-off age at which, according to Islamic teaching, boys are still considered innocent of sin.

As its slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” encapsulates, the protest movement in Iran is the expression of people’s desire for life and liberty, in direct opposition to this death cult promoted by their Islamist leaders.

If the dissidents were able to overthrow the Iranian government, this would significantly realign world politics. The battle against jihadism, after all, is not just a military conflict: it’s an ideological struggle. To preserve liberal values, it’s crucial to support those who champion them. We need to form strategic alliances with everyone fighting against the forces of extremism and authoritarianism. True peace and stability in the Middle East will remain unattainable as long as the Islamic Republic of Iran remains in power. The extremist groups it sponsors have a mandate to scupper any possible peace process with Israel. If we want lasting human rights in the region, we need to strike at Iran itself, rather than solely focusing on its terrorist proxies.

When conflicts are framed in religious terms, they quickly become zero-sum games: each side believes their actions have a divine sanction and this makes compromise seem like a betrayal of their faith and sense of identity. Promoting liberal values is the way forward in this. Unlike religious doctrines that convince only their believers, values like freedom, equal opportunities, and human rights have potentially universal appeal.

The widespread support for Israel among Iranians demonstrates that they share this conviction. Publicising their solidarity with the Jewish state could help more people understand that a significant portion of the Iranian population opposes the current Islamic regime. It is vitally important that we advocate for international recognition of the Iranian resistance movement and support the Iranian people in their fight for freedom. We need to provide Iranians with unrestricted internet access—as we have done in Ukraine—to help them organize and evade government censorship. We need to help them become economically independent of the government—especially under the current international sanctions—by providing them with online employment with western companies.

We should also support the Iranian opposition in the diaspora, especially its popular figurehead Reza Pahlavi, the widely beloved crown prince in exile, by providing them with financial, managerial, and strategic assistance in their efforts to challenge the regime. At the same time, we need to discourage any form of international support for or negotiation with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as this would be a hindrance to the efforts of the Iranian people who are seeking to end the stranglehold of the officials of that republic. 

The Islamic Republic is the strongest supporter of terrorism and theocracy in the Middle East, but the people of Iran are the strongest supporters of liberal values. The greatest problem we face in the region is to be found in Iran. But the solution to that problem is to be found there too. 

You can’t defeat Hamas with tanks and missiles alone. You can only defeat them with a worldview that celebrates life. There is an entire country near Israel, full of people chanting in support of life. By strengthening their hand, we can eradicate this toxic ideology. The only viable path to lasting peace for Israel and Palestine is through an unwavering support for the Iranian people in their courageous struggle.  

Armin Navabi

Armin Navabi is an ex-Muslim atheist, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Atheist Republic, co-host of the podcast Secular Jihadists and the author of Why There Is No God (2014).

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