I’m an Iranian and I know my countrymen don’t hate Israel

It’s important to separate the regime from ordinary citizens, who have endured 40 years of tyranny and propaganda, writes Hamid Bahrami


Iraqi Shiite Muslim women hold posters bearing portraits of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) and Iran's founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (R) during a parade marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day organised by the Popular Mobilisation units in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on July 10, 2015. AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMEED ALI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

February 18, 2021 14:46

Fifteen years ago, my friends and I refused to walk over the Israeli flag that was painted on the ground in the Fatima Masumeh shrine, about 90 miles south of Tehran. We were questioned by some guards and then thrown out.

I avoided arrest on that occasion. But my luck did not last long. As a journalist, I was arrested repeatedly for filming protests, expressing dissident views and writing anti-regime articles.

In 2014 — a year before I escaped from Iran and claimed asylum in Glasgow — I was held in solitary confinement for four weeks. It was a place of torture. Every day, I heard people being lashed and screaming from other parts of the prison.

The cell walls were covered in messages written by other prisoners. Behind each word, I could see the 
lives, wishes, hopes and voices that had been buried. 

One had written: “I have been here for 45 days, accused of acting against national security because I organised people to help child labourers.” 

Another had said: “The last night of my life. I will be hanged tomorrow morning. They do not allow me to see my mother.”

The interrogators did not let me sleep for a week. By questioning my friends, they had discovered that I had a phobia of snakes. So they put a small snake in the corner of my cell, meaning that I passed each day in terror.
How could ordinary Iranians fail to hate the regime, when it behaves like this? No polls have been carried out, of course, but in my experience, about 95 per cent of the population stand against the Ayatollahs. By the same token, 95 per cent of Iranians have no problem with Israel.

In the first decade after the Islamic revolution of 1979, people truly believed the regime’s anti-America and anti-Israel slogans. That is no longer the case.

Today, refusing to walk over the Israeli flag has become an accepted way for us to show our opposition to the theocracy’s anti-Western stance. It is risky, but many people do it, including groups of university students during protests in front of security forces.

When I was in high school, it was mandatory to participate in the anti-Israel brainwashing programmes that riddle Iran’s education system. But it didn’t work very well, as the Ayatollahs had long ago squandered their own credibility by making their citizens live in misery, fear and poverty.

There can be no mistaking the distaste for Tehran’s military activities across the Middle East. Almost everyone believes that the regime is wasting the country’s scant resources by funding distant conflict.

In December, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar told Iran’s Arabic-language television network that Major-General Qasem Soleimani — the top Iranian soldier who was killed by the Americans last year — had given him £15.8 million in cash in 2006. 

On social media, furious Iranians wondered what social good could have been achieved with the money. 
People saw it as a prime example of how hostility to Israel damages Iran’s national interests.

Quds Day, an annual event of anti-Israel hate held on the last Friday of Ramadan, has long lost the support of ordinary Iranians. The regime desperately mobilises the five per cent of citizens that support it, and due to the lack of the free press, nobody outside Iran knows how unpopular it is.

Many Iranians even welcome the frequent Israeli airstrikes against Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) forces in Syria. Whenever there are raids, thousands of pro-Israel comments appear online in Farsi. And after Israel assassinated the top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last year, brave Iranians unfurled an Israeli flag on a prominent bridge in Tehran, alongside a banner reading “Thank you Mossad”.

Why does the regime insist on making enemies of the US and Israel, when its own people have no time for this?
The fundamental pillars upon which the theocracy rests are terrorism overseas and domestic repression. That is how it keeps itself afloat and these both require an enemy.

Israel fills this role perfectly. Iran is the leader of the Shi’ite world, which has a strong thread of antisemitism in its history. Presenting Israel as the bogeyman exploits underlying prejudices and helps with recruitment into the militias.

It also gives the regime an excuse to oppress its own citizens, keeping people like me under constant surveillance to supposedly ensure that we are not working with the enemy.

In the mind of the regime, losing its enemy would mean losing all its ideological and political leverage over its supporters and proxies both inside and outside Iran.

I believe that there is much common ground between the Iranian people and Israelis and Jews across the world. 

First, we agree on the need for a non-nuclear Iran. 

Tehran’s atomic ambitions have wasted billions of pounds of the country’s resources, as well as subjecting it to harsh economic sanctions. 

Ordinary Iranians know that religious fascism rules the country like a prison camp. The regime is notorious for its high number of executions and imprisonment of political activists and journalists. 

We don’t dare to imagine what would happen if it went nuclear.

Second, most Iranians would support the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity. 

There are no independent surveys, of course, but I remember when Donald Trump made that move in 2019, it was welcomed with an outpouring of enthusiasm by Iranians. 

This was reflected by everyone I spoke to. All my friends and contacts felt that they had suffered at the hands of the IRGC, and they saw them as terrorists.

This is a position shared by Iranian dissidents living in Britain, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, a great many politicians and all the Jews I have met.

For 40 years, the theocracy has bombarded its citizens with anti-Israel demonisation, synchronised with pro-Hamas and Hezbollah propaganda. But although the people of Iran live under repression and extreme censorship, they do their best to echo peace and friendship toward Israel. 

The world should differentiate between the Islamic regime’s hostility to Israel and what the Iranian people really think. One day, I believe that a free and democratic Iran will find Jerusalem its closest ally in the Middle East. 

Hamid Bahrami is a former political prisoner from Iran

February 18, 2021 14:46

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive