There is an interesting story unfolding in Iran this week about a fatwa issued by Khamenei declaring those killed fighting Israel over Gaza to be martyrs. The AP reported that, following the fatwa, student groups went to work distributing sign-up sheets, and later announced that 70,000 had registered to be volunteer suicide bombers in Israel.
On Thursday, AP’s Ali Akbar Dareini reported that Khamenei had retracted his statement, barring volunteers from traveling to Israel to fight. Dareini spun this news as a rare public rift between a militant Ahmadinejad and the more cautious Khamenei:
‘s ban sought to tone down calls by allies of hardline to toughen Iran’s stand against Israel.
But it also exposed hidden rifts between the supreme leader and the president five months before elections in which Ahmadinejad, whose popularity has been waning, is seeking a second term.
Today, we have a third AP story on Iranian officials “strongly disputing” that Khamenei’s words implied a ban:
The Iranian officials said Khamenei’s words should not have been interpreted as a ban on such volunteers, but meant that any Iranians would have great practical difficulty in reaching Gaza because of Israel’s offensive.
So what’s going on here? And why such vigorous parsing of the rahbar? A couple points:
1. There is a tradition in Iran dating back to 1979 of this type of mass-mobilizing of volunteers for deeply-held causes; this reached it’s zenith during the Iran-Iraq war where Iran used religious appeals to mobilize tens of thousands of ordinary citizens for its human wave assaults on Iraq. More recently, however, these mass-mobilization campaigns have become stylized media events, with western media playing their part and filling in the blanks with the enemy du jour. Here’s an almost identical story from 2006, where a different group claimed to have tens of thousands of suicide bombers at the ready to strike at America if it attacked Iran.
2. If there were some sort of scheme to transport lightly-trained Iranian fighters to Israel it would be a stupendous failure. The Iranian government knows this. Human wave assaults were only marginally effective in the Iran-Iraq war — a conflict where the two sides shared a long border and were relatively equally matched. My reading of the third AP story, then, is that Khamenei wants to affirm popular anger at Israel, but also tell his would-be bombers that they’ll need to find their own ride to Tel Aviv.
3. Let’s also put this in a regional context. In Afghanistan, you have an almost identical story:
More than a thousand Afghans signed up on Thursday to say they wanted to go and fight Israel in the Gaza Strip, many of them blaming the United States which has some 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, for supporting the Jewish state.
In Egypt, Michael Slackman reports how state-sponsored sheikhs are using anti-Semitic hate speech in an attempt to divert public anger away from the regime. Marc Lynch also catalogs the numerous other protests and resulting crackdowns going on in the “moderate” Arab states. Taken together, what we have are Middle East governments, both pro- and anti-US/ Israel, desperate to appear like they are doing something about Gaza. In Iran, this is taking a familiar form: the stylized, and by now routinized, public display of militant volunteerism.