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April 03 2024

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Norooz is Not About Gaza

Andrew Ghalili

SENIOR POLICY ANALYST

In his Norooz message, President Joe Biden congratulated Iranians, including Iranian- Americans, on our new year. He pledged to continue to support Iranians in their struggle against tyranny—days after giving the tyrants $10 billion. Most curiously, he also assured his audience that he was working to end the war in Gaza. As an Iranian dissident noted, out of all the world leaders who published Norooz messages, Biden and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are the only ones to include this entirely irrelevant issue. The immediate question to ask is why Biden would do such a thing. 

One explanation is appeasement. It is reasonable to think that, as he is talking to the Iranian people from one side of his mouth and condemning their oppressors, he is assuring the regime that their demands are also being met. Certainly, as far as material help goes, the Islamic Republic keeps getting awarded sanctions relief and cash by the Biden administration, while the Iranian people are left with mostly empty promises and empty rhetoric.

The Islamic Republic’s oil sales have reached pre-sanction highs, and the administration has released tens of billions of dollars in Iranian frozen assets for the regime to kill Iranians, Jews, and Arabs, as well as Ukrainians, with.

The Biden administration’s policy seems clear. It seeks to mitigate the regime’s aggression abroad as much as possible while slowing down its nuclear program before the November elections. Assuring Khamenei and his regime that the end of the war is in sight is consistent with that policy. The president is comfortable with magnifying the Iran problem as long as the bills come due once he has secured a second term—or setting his successor up to deal with the problem.

Ignorance is another explanation. When it comes to the Middle East, many U.S. officials are stuck in the past. In 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry commented on the possibility of peace between Israel and Arab states preceding peace between Israel and Palestinians. He responded, “No, no, no, no.” Israel then made peace with four Arab states—one for each no. On Iranians, they remain equally uninformed by incorrectly assuming that the Palestinian cause is one to which Iranians pay much mind.

A look at the past few years of Iranian street protests, as well as the diaspora, will convince any observer that Iranians both inside and outside of the country are largely pro-Israel. After Israeli operations against regime officials and targets, they joke that, while they welcome it, Khamenei’s residence is a better target. More so, after the October 7 attacks, Iranians recorded messages of solidarity with Israelis and distributed them on social media and through the satellite channel, Manoto TV. Since the attacks, pro-Israel rallies in North America and Europe usually feature Iranians carrying their national flag to make a point of their solidarity with the Jewish state. Most notably, last year, Reza Pahlavi, the exiled prince and the most prominent opposition leader, traveled to Israel and met with members of the government. It did not diminish his credibility inside Iran, despite the regime’s best efforts, but boosted his status as someone capable of garnering international support for Iranians’ movement to change the regime.

Iranians have not simply become pro-Israel. They are also turning anti-Palestinian. Regularly, Iranians distribute videos of themselves refusing to step on the Israeli flag. In every Iranian city, per regime mandate, there is a Palestine Street. During the 2022 protests, protesters were quick to take them down and step on them. One of their chants has been, “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life is a sacrifice [only] for Iran.” After the war started, authorities brought a Palestinian flag to a soccer stadium to demonstrate solidarity. Instead, tens of thousands of men chanted, “Shove the Palestinian flag up your [you know where].” The pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Iran are scarce, though not for a lack of trying. In one demonstration in Tehran, a city of 10 million people, only a few thousand showed up. The Islamic Republic instead put fake corpses on display in a large square in solidarity. 

Analysts and policymakers would be wise to ask themselves why this phenomenon is growing. For many Iranians, the calculation is simple. In addition to the ancient ties between Iranians and Jews, the most prominent supporters of the Palestinian cause have long been supporters of the Islamic Republic. Indeed the very first foreign visitor to travel to Iran to celebrate and recognize the new Islamic Republic only days after the revolution was the PLO’s Yasser Arafat. This was after many of the 1979 revolutionaries had trained with Palestinian terrorist groups to learn guerilla warfare to bring about the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, many prominent Israeli officials voice consistent support for the Iranian people and their revolution. 

Ignorance of these developments on the part of the administration is a plausible explanation and is reflected in its Iran policy.

Even in its empty words of support for the protesters, the president’s statement emphasized it almost solely as a women’s movement. True enough, women’s liberation is a key demand of Iranian revolutionaries, but it is not the extent of it. If women are given full rights as men, no Iranian will go home. Iran’s revolution belongs to all Iranians, and its objective is an Iran free of the Islamic Republic in its entirety.

The president’s Norooz message has offended Iranians inside and in the diaspora for its inclusion of Palestinians. Some appear to be upset with the ignorance, while others see malice and appeasement at work. I tend to agree with both of them.