Khamenei resorts to anti-Israel rhetoric to shore up regime’s standing at home

Despite the Supreme Ayatollah’s aggressive posture, there are signs his country is on the retreat in its major zones of influence.

Friday 22/05/2020
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech via a live televised on the occasion of Al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day), May 22 in Tehran. (DPA)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech via a live televised on the occasion of Al-Quds Day (Jerusalem Day), May 22 in Tehran. (DPA)

TEHRAN--Increasingly isolated at home and abroad, Iran’s leaders are trying to rally behind the Palestinian cause to shore up credibility.

The familiar strategy, analysts said, is to galvanise the public behind a popular political cause in order to overcome the distrust of public opinion and avert unrest at a time of national crisis.

Distrusted by Iranians over several recent incidents, including  hiding the truth over the Revolutionary Guards’ shooting of an Ukrainian airplane last January as well as attempts at under-reporting the country’s coronavirus casualties, the regime also has to cope with severe economic woes and high unemployment.

On Friday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave an annual address on Quds Day vowing to “liberate” Palestine from Israel, which he referred to as a “deadly, cancerous growth” that will “undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.”

Khamenei also compared Israel to the coronavirus pandemic in remarks he insisted were not anti-Semitic.

Iran has suffered one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world, recording over 130,000 cases and 7,300 deaths. Officials say poor government management and cover-up attempts have exacerbated the crisis and endangered frontline healthcare workers.

During his televised address, Khamenei said that it is an “Islamic duty” to fight against Israel and seemed to confirm that the Islamic Republic had funneled weapons to the radical Islamist Hamas movement.

“One day we realised that the only problem of the Palestinian fighter… was the lack of weapons,” Khamenei said. “We planned” to resolve this issue, and “the result is that the balance of power in Palestine has changed: today Gaza can stand up to the Zionist enemy’s military aggression and win.”

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers his speech on Al-Quds Day, May 22 in Tehran. (DPA)
Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers his speech on Al-Quds Day, May 22 in Tehran. (DPA)

Hamas has ruled the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip since 2007, when it took over from the rival Palestinian Authority after a bloody civil war. Its Islamist  administration has repeatedly been accused of corruption and mismanagement, as well as cracking down on internal dissent.

EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell spoke out against Khamenei’s recent comments on Israel, saying they jeopardise international “peace and security.”

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the call by the Iranian Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) to fight #Israel,” wrote Borrell on Twitter. “This is a threat to international peace and security. The security of Israel is of paramount importance and the EU will stand at its side.”

Loss of EU support would deal another critical blow to Iran, whose economy has been battered by round after round of US sanctions and which desperately needs European allies to salvage its weakened trade links and secure support ahead of a crucial UN vote in October.

A UN arms embargo on the Islamic Republic is set to expire in October, but the US has vowed to do everything it can to see the sanction extended, including by taking it to a vote in the UN Security Council.

Khamenei’s Quds Day comments and an anti-Israeli cartoon released by his office also came under fire for stoking anti-Jewish bigotry.

The cartoon depicted jovial Iranian-backed forces, Arabs and Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem next to the phrase: “the final solution,” an allusion to Nazi Germany’s efforts to exterminate the Jewish people in World War II.

Khamenei later said that his country seeks only the eradication of the Israeli state, not Jews.

The Islamic Republic has been frequently accused of playing on anti-Semitic tropes and offensively underplaying  the Holocaust.

Norwegian columnist Mina Bai wrote on Twitter that “Khamenei is showing his true face more under immense US/maximum pressure&Israel/bombing Iranian posts in Syria with the Nazi ‘final solution’ statement…Many of us warned about his Nazi like ideas.”

Despite Khamenei’s aggressive posture, there are signs his country is on the retreat in its major zones of influence.

In Iraq, Iran has ceased attacks on US interests and greenlighted the appointment of a former intelligence chief who has taken steps to bring the country’s Iran-backed militias under control.

With dwindling financial reserves, Iran is also reportedly scaling back its presence in war-torn Syria.

“We have seen some tactical displacement of Iranian troops,” said US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “We see both Russia and Syria recognizing the incentives for Iranian troops and forces under Iranian command and control to leave Syria. And that has been a condition of America and the international community providing reconstruction assistance.”

Asked about US sanctions on Iran, Hook said that America is continuing to find ways to “squeeze the regime financially” to hold it accountable for human rights abuses.

“We’ve sanctioned judges, we’ve sanctioned judiciary [sector], we’ve sanctioned the interior [ministry],” said Hook. “These are both financial sanctions, but they’re also visa sanctions. Given America’s reach in the global economy, these have consequences.”