Analysis'Iranians care far less about Israel than their regime does'

Why Iranians are not demonstrating en masse for Gaza, despite official rhetoric

Hundreds of thousands have rallied globally but relatively few have taken to the streets in the Islamic Republic, where the Palestinian cause is identified with an unpopular regime

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Iranians burn an Israeli flag during a protest in Tehran in support of Palestinians in Gaza on November 18, 2023 (Photo by AFP)
Iranians burn an Israeli flag during a protest in Tehran in support of Palestinians in Gaza on November 18, 2023 (Photo by AFP)

While massive crowds have thronged Arab, European and North American cities over the past four months chanting pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel slogans, Iranian streets have witnessed very few such scenes. Only a relatively small number of demonstrations have been staged in the Islamic Republic since October 7 in solidarity with Gazans, and in most cases, they were minor state-sponsored rallies.

The unenthusiastic public support is in sharp contrast with the hardline anti-Israel policy of the Islamic Republic, which for years has offered its patronage to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad alongside various paramilitary groups throughout the Middle East to achieve its stated goal of annihilating its nemesis Israel, which its officialdom likes to refer to as “Little Satan.”

Iranians’ reluctance to take to the streets is due to the fact that most Iranians refuse to play their government’s game, experts explain.

“Even when pro-Gaza protests have been organized by the regime, turnout has been relatively low. The Palestinian cause is an obsession of the regime, not of the people,” said Raz Zimmt, Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“Hostility to Israel is perceived as one of the ideological pillars of the Islamic Republic, a regime that for decades has been mired in a legitimation crisis and today enjoys the support of a mere 15-20 percent of the population,” Zimmt added, quoting an estimate that he said is commonly accepted in research circles and is corroborated by recent data.

A survey conducted in late 2022 by GAMAAN, an institute based in the Netherlands, found that among around 200,000 Iranian respondents both inside and outside Iran, 81% of those inside the country were opposed to the Islamic Republic, and 99% of those outside.

This handout picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him sitting on stage during a meeting with Iranian air force commanders in Tehran on February 5, 2024, with a local Kaman-12 drone displayed behind him. (

Consequently, the people of Iran have been “boycotting” the Palestinian cause out of spite for the ayatollahs, and the regime seems to have taken note. Nasser Imani, a conservative commentator and a staunch supporter of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, reportedly acknowledged in an interview in early November that many ordinary Iranians “stand against whatever the Islamic Republic favors, and support whatever the Islamic Republic opposes.”

“Some regime loyalists have argued that the lack of mass rallies is a sign that the Islamic Republic is doing enough to support the Palestinians, therefore citizens have nothing more to demand,” Israeli scholar Zimmt said. “But that is not a convincing explanation.”

Ori Goldberg, an Iran expert at Reichman University, suggested that for once, the leadership and the people may actually be aligned.

“The absence of crowds marching in support of Gaza may serve the regime,” said Goldberg. “Iran does not want to be associated with October 7, and does not want it to be the platform to start a regional war. The supreme leader rebuked Hamas’s leadership for going at it alone, and also for getting Hezbollah in trouble.”

“The relationship between Iran and Hamas is a very turbulent one,” Goldberg added. “Tehran supplies Hamas with money and weapons, but it is far from being in the position to tell it what to do. And Hamas also doesn’t see itself as an Iranian proxy, the way Hezbollah does – it sees itself as part of the Palestinian national resistance.

“The true representative of Iranian interests in Gaza is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” said Goldberg.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, left, meets with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 14, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

Behind its rhetoric of all-out support for Hamas’s belligerence against Israel, Tehran is wary of a possible escalation and expansion of the conflict to the rest of the region, an event that would further exacerbate its dire economic situation and compromise its diplomatic standing.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reiterated during a state visit to Syria on Sunday that Tehran “absolutely never sought to expand” war in the region,” saying he believes that “war is not the solution.”

Further evidence of Tehran’s self-restraint can be found in its apparent passivity in the face of Israeli strikes against its military leaders. It has not retaliated against the killing of at least half a dozen Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members in alleged Israeli attacks in the past months, nor against incessant IDF assaults against its arms convoys in Syria, or the assassination of Hamas top official Saleh al-Arouri in a Shia neighborhood in Beirut.

“In general, Iran enjoys poking,” Goldberg explained. “It likes testing the strength of the existing order and of standing borders, but it is very reticent about starting wars. It doesn’t like irreversible acts, and it doesn’t like to go all out on anything. It feels that what Hamas did was detrimental both to its cause and to the general cause of the resistance.”

Mourners attend the funeral of three Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members killed in Damascus in a strike blamed on Israel on January 20, in the Iranian capital Tehran on January 22, 2024. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The regime’s obsession faces the public’s disapproval

Commentators are not of one mind with regard to the Islamic Republic’s involvement in planning the October 7 Hamas-led rampage against southern Israel, in which over 1,200 were killed and 253 abducted to Gaza.

The Iranian public, however, has signaled in several instances it wants the Palestinian cause to stay out of its daily life — partly because Persians are not Arabs, and do not feel the Palestinian cause as close to home as citizens of Arab countries.

In one of the most telling examples, at a soccer match in Tehran on October 8, one day after the Hamas onslaught, hundreds of fans raucously protested against Palestinian flags planted around the pitch, chanting, “Shove the Palestinian flag up your a**.”

Nevertheless, a disinclination to embrace the Palestinian cause should not be viewed as a sign that the Iranian people are siding with Israel, experts cautioned.

“The Iranian public is not homogeneous and presents a full range of positions vis-a-vis Israel. Many Iranians oppose the rule of the ayatollahs but also oppose Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. The two are not mutually exclusive,” Zimmt said.

“The reality is that, as in most countries, the average man on the street is fairly uninterested in foreign affairs. Iranians care far less about Israel than their regime does,” he added. “They generally become concerned when they feel that unfolding events may impact them directly, such as possible Israeli airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, or cyberattacks against the national infrastructure.”

There is, however, one aspect of Tehran’s obsession with wiping the Jewish state off the map that fills many Iranians with indignation, and that is the toll it has taken on the state’s coffers. Billions of dollars have been lavished on proxy jihadi groups around the Middle East, while the national economy has cratered under heavy international sanctions.

A popular slogan in anti-regime demonstrations in recent years has been “Not Gaza, not Lebanon. I’ll give my soul only for Iran,” which rhymes in Persian. “It’s not that Iranians don’t like the Palestinians, but they feel it is a red herring that the regime uses to draw the people’s attention away from its failings,” Goldberg explained.

Tehran’s exploits around the Middle East are also met with disapproval by large parts of the leadership.

“It’s mainly one section of the IRGC that is responsible for these adventures,” said Goldberg,  “and the IRGC is only one faction – a wildly unpopular one – fighting other factions for dominance of the Islamic Republic.”

A gaping divide between the regime and the people

For about two decades, a rift has been widening between the Iranian population and the Islamic Republic, the body that emerged following the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the shah and installed an anti-Western regime.

“People feel that the Islamic Republic has failed them on two accounts: It has not managed to improve the economic situation, and it has not expanded political and social freedoms – a demand coming mainly from young, educated citizens,” Zimmt said.

Last week, Morteza Alviri, a member of the Expediency Council, an advisory body to the ayatollah, said in an interview with the reformist paper Etemad that while the Islamic Republic was once promising to become the Japan of the Middle East, it now risks resembling North Korea. Economic prosperity has been elusive, while internal repression has steadily worsened.

As a consequence, the second and third generations after the Islamic Revolution have been increasingly distancing themselves from the Islamic Republic. In the 2021 presidential elections, for instance, turnout was the lowest in Iranian electoral history, at below 50%, and only around 25% in Tehran.

Iranians protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police, in Tehran, October 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Middle East Images, File)

“The regime has been losing its legitimacy” Zimmt said. “There is no doubt that criticism, frustration and despair are increasingly widespread in large swaths of the population. This is a frequently discussed topic in Iranian media, even in more conservative outlets,” he added.

In 2022 and early 2023, the country was roiled by mass protests following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman arrested for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly.

Hundreds of thousands of angry citizens took to the streets for nearly six months, facing a brutal and often deadly response by the regime. Over 500 people were killed and 10,000 were arrested, according to the US-based Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA).

The demonstrations came only three years after the previous wave in 2019-2020 when as many as 1,500 protesters are thought to have been slain by regime forces.

Protests following the death of in Tehran, Iran on September 21, 2022. (AP photo)

The recurrent unrest should not be taken to mean that the situation is about to boil over, experts cautioned.

“The silent majority of Iranians don’t support the regime but also don’t want to topple it. Despite its legitimation crisis, the regime can still confront internal challenges, thanks in most part to its use of force and repression,” Zimmt said.

Goldberg concurred, saying that the majority of Iranians view the Islamic Republic as the “least worst option.”

“This is a country that has gone through four popular revolutions in less than a century, and never experienced democracy,” said Goldberg.

“Iranians look around the Middle East, and they see a devastated region,” he added. “They still remember the Arab Spring and its failures. So while a lot of them don’t like the Islamic Republic, they have not yet been able to come up with a suitable alternative.”

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