What’s the matter with Iran?
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Hebrew media review

What’s the matter with Iran?

Distance and lack of firsthand familiarity don't stop local pundits from Israelsplaining the protests in the Islamic Republic

Iranian pro-regime protesters hold anti-Israeli placards at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, December 30, 2017 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian pro-regime protesters hold anti-Israeli placards at a rally in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, December 30, 2017 (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Like a spurned lover, despite the fact that Iran has made it clear how little it wants to do with Israel, Israel takes a keen interest in everything that happens within Iran. So with rare protests breaking out and spreading in the Islamic Republic, Israeli pundits can’t help but stare with wonder, giving the story ample room to dominate the news agenda as the world says bye-bye to 2017.

Israeli pundits are still Israeli, though, which means that there’s almost no such thing as admitting unfamiliarity with a subject. So despite the fact that Israelis’ views of Iran are mere refractions of what they think they know about the internal dynamics of a country most have never visited, readers are treated to a healthy dose of Israelsplaining on the myriad causes for the protests and where the country may go from here.

Both Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz lead their front pages with the same picture of an Iranian protester raising her hand while shielding her mouth from tear gas, and both papers feature columns explaining that protests over domestic issues are actually not as rare as one might think, though this one seems to be different.

“Iran is a much more open country than Israelis think, and people are used to protests,” Nadav Eyal writes in Yedioth. “They know that protests brought down the Shah and his terrible secret police. They are continuing the revolutionary tradition. Only this time, unlike in 2009, they are going outside the slogans within the norms of the Iranian state. They are calling, ‘Death to Khamenei,’ ‘Death to Hezbollah,’ ‘We don’t want an Islamic republic.’ This is a wake-up call to the whole Iranian political system, which sprawls from Rouhani to Ahmadinejad.”

In Haaretz, though, Zvi Bar’el writes that Rouhani is not in the same boat as the ayatollahs and either side could find a way to profit from the demonstrations.

“Rouhani can use them as leverage for the need to improving human rights and advancing cultural reforms, ‘to preserve the stability of the government.’ At the same time the conservative leadership in the government can use the protests as an excuse to neutralize Rouhani’s authority. Despite the battle between the two sides of the regime, paradoxically, the protests tie together the ruling elites on both sides into a combined effort to try and reach understandings that will calm the fury,” he writes.

Israel Hayom is the only paper to bury coverage of the protests, but its de rigueur analytical column, titled “Nine years later, this time it’s serious” also focuses on why these protests are not like previous protests and seems to think they will continue to gather steam (partially thanks to great leader Donald Trump, who is backing them, unlike feckless predecessor Barack Obama).

“This time the snowball is picking up quickly — and the regime doesn’t know how to deal with it,” Menashe Amir writes, as if he’s never heard of the concept of a truncheon to the skull. “At the same time, social media is filling an important role in connecting people, and messages are spreading quickly.”

What the paper does lead with is a depressing preview of 2018, during which the chances of war will grow (don’t they every year?), according to Military Intelligence, as quoted by the tabloid.

The story starts off by noting that neither Israel nor its enemies actually want to go to war, but then, in the most expected twist ever, says the army thinks it’s still a very real possibility.

“The chances for things to deteriorate from a singular incident will grow significantly in the next year. It could come after a Gazan tunnel is discovered, or after an attack in Syria attributed to Israel,” the paper reports, repeating basically every cover-your-ass security assessment ever given in Israel as if it’s big news. “If until now the other side has been warned off of responding, the chances of it doing so have grown — and could turn into a several-day exchange of fire, if not more.”

The paper connects the story to weekend tensions with Gaza after shells were shot at southern Israel Friday, resulting in dramatic pictures of people at a ceremony for a soldier whose remains were captured running for cover.

Israeli take cover during a rocket attack siren warning at Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Israel and Gaza border, Israel, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. Israelis had gathered there to mark a birthday of Oron Shaul, who was killed during the last war in Gaza; Hamas holds his remains. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

In Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that, actually, it’s possible Hamas does want war, and if it does decide to go for another round in the ring it won’t be because of tunnels or rockets.

“In Israel’s view, the main risk of escalation is not the rocket fire, but Gaza’s worsening humanitarian situation and the impasse in the reconciliation talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority,” he writes. “The PA hasn’t yet transferred any funds to Gaza, nor has it taken over the management of government offices in Gaza as agreed upon in the deal. Gaza’s water quality is deteriorating, its sewage still flows into the sea and the stench from drainage basins in northern Gaza is getting worse. Now that winter is here, the ongoing electricity shortage will make Gazans’ lives even more miserable, and the water and sewage problems may lead to outbreaks of infectious disease.”

Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, it may be public pressure that pushes the IDF into war, as evidenced by a column by Yedioth military reporter Yossi Yehoshua calling Israel’s response to the rocket fire “flaccid.”

“After a symbolic strike against the regime in Gaza, Israel takes its foot off the gas, but continues to say that Hamas is deterred,” he writes. “In reality, though, Hamas lost its own deterrent against the Salafi groups competing with it, and yet Israeli officials claim we are still deterring Hamas, a claim that does not sit with the reality over the last month.”

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