Iran’s Anti-Semitism Is More Than Just Hate, It’s A Strategy To Make Friends In The Middle East


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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Iran has found it particularly difficult to find friends in the Middle East as of late. With an inflammatory sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East growing ever wider, predominantly Shia Iran has become a pariah among Sunni terrorist groups. That said, if there is one thing that Sunni and Shia extremists hate more than each other, its Israel and the Jewish people. By leveraging that hatred, Iran hopes to make some new partners in the Middle East.

The Islamic Republic has drastically increased its anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent months. Having recently concluded its infamous Holocaust denial cartoon contest in May, Iran has decided to hold another competition at the end of June, with this event’s theme being the “Zionist Caliphate.” Organizers say the contest will focus on “Zionism, terrorism and racism” as well as “[ISIS] terrorism and genocide in the name of religion and to the benefit of the Zionists.”

Outlandish as the theme may sound, it makes some sense from the Islamic Republic’s perspective. Shia Iran is a mortal enemy of the Sunni Islamic State, the conflict between the two has been a major catalyst for the growing sectarian divide. Alleging that ISIS is a front for the “Zionists” could help draw support for the organization away from the Sunni population.

“Iran’s anti-Semitic assault is one of the few rhetorical weapons the clerics can deploy that has broad popular appeal among Sunni Muslims,” wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

The strategy is not a new one. Anti-Semitic rhetoric is as old as the Islamic Republic itself, according to Gerecht and Takeyh. Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayathollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had a hate for Israel that “exceeded even his disdain for America.” He believed fervently that Jews were not to be trusted, and that Israel as a country is illegitimate, being nothing more than a replacement for the West’s former imperialism.

Though Iran may be a major propagator of anti-Semitic rhetoric, it is hardly the only one in the region.

“Iran is playing in a crowded field [with anti-Semitism],” Gerecht told The Daily Caller News Foundation in a phone interview.

Egypt, despite President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s relationship with Israel, has and continues to be a major disseminator of anti-Semitic propaganda. According to Gerecht, such propaganda doesn’t come from groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, it is subsidized by the Egyptian government via subsidization of various Egyptian institutions.

Gerecht described Egypt’s anti-Semitic propaganda as some of the “slickest” in existence, with high production value that dwarfs anything produced by Iran. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian media produced a video series on the infamous “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a Russian anti-Semitic forgery written in the early 20th century. Adolf Hitler was a known fan of the work, and made it a standard in the Third Reich.

For the sake of finding a rapprochement with their Sunni neighbors, Iran has long been happy to fund and cooperate with anti-Israel terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Uniting behind a shared disdain for the Jewish people and Israel has been the key to maintaining such relationships. Gerecht refers to Iran’s strategy as an “ecumenical approach,” one that has become much more difficult to employ since the rise of ISIS and the resulting sectarian divide.

Iran is stuck in a difficult quandary between maintaining its partnerships against Israel and leveraging the sectarian divide in order to gain increased regional dominance. The ISIS threat, in conjunction to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, has given Iran profound influence in neighboring, and predominantly Shia, Iraq. The ongoing Syrian conflict has also allowed Iran to strengthen its relationship with dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Whatever gains Iran may have made in recent years with certain partners, they have been at least somewhat mitigated by losses with others.

“Sunnis in Syria [are] permanently aligned against Iranians,” said Gerecht. There is little hope that any Sunni terror group operating in Syria, such as the upstart Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa or Ahrar al-Sham would work with Iran against Israel due to Iran’s fueling of the sectarian conflict.

Despite Iran’s losses, former adversary al-Qaida could be a potential partner. The al-Qaida that current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri inherited from Osama bin-Laden is a shadow of its former self. Most affiliates join to utilize the brand-name as opposed to swearing fealty and taking direct orders. Al-Zawahiri and Iran do share a common hatred for Israel, and both take issue with ISIS as a force in the Middle East.

Gerecht believes a potential al-Zawahiri-Iranian partnership is a “conceivable,” though a risky, proposition for al-Qaida. Al-Qaida’s Affiliate groups, especially those operating in Syria, would see such a partnership as a betrayal of the Sunni sect by the world’s premier terrorist brand. The risk is not as great for Iran, which has a clear history of engaging in such partnerships. Iran has tacitly supported al-Qaida since at least as 2009, allowing the terrorist group to run a key financial pipeline through the country into southeast Asia and Syria.

The Iranian-al-Qaida relationship, like many issues regarding Iran, is not quite as simple as it may seem. In fact, the relationship mirrors the current Iranian internal struggle between courting Sunni allies and leveraging the sectarian divide.

“The supposed relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran is full of distrust and is bound with limitations and operational boundaries that both sides adhere to,” wrote al-Hayat Wshington Bureau chief Joyce Karam in a 2014 piece for al-Arabiya English.

Karam went on to warn Iran of forging a pact with al-Qaida, noting “history is not kind to those who have played with al-Qaeda fire and there is no reason to believe why Iran would be any different.”

Yet Iran has seen little push back on its al-Qaida relationship since 2014, having secured a key nuclear agreement the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 partners in July 2015. Sanctions relief, in conjunction with as much as $100 billion in unfrozen assets, gives Iran the potential to continue funding proxies abroad, as well as the potential to invest in new allies in the Sunni terrorist community.

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