The Iranian regime has launched an online campaign to recruit volunteers – including children – to fight alongside Hamas in the war against Israel. But the government’s propaganda efforts are not making much headway among anti-regime Iranians.
Shortly after Hamas conducted its bloody “Al-Aqsa Flood” terrorist operation in Israel on October 7, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched an online recruitment campaign with the same name, hoping to convince young Iranian men and boys to join the Palestinian armed group in its war efforts.
The campaign, taken up by Iranian state TV and radio, and several websites affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, has already garnered more than 3 million ready-to-be-deployed volunteers, Iranian television reported.
The “Al-Aqsa Flood” campaign features a young boy in his pre-pubescent teens wearing military fatigues in front of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. The child also has the symbolic pro-Palestine keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his neck, and wears a pin with General Qassem Soleimani’s portrait on his jacket. Soleimani, who long headed the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Al-Quds unit, was killed by American forces in Baghdad in 2020.
The campaign, with its alarming symbolism, is an eerie reminder of Iran’s tragic losses during its war with Iraq in the 1980s. More than half-a-million Iranians died in that conflict, including thousands of young boys who were sent to the front with a key around their necks and the promise it would open the gates to paradise.
Jonathan Piron, a historian specialised in Iran at the Etopia research centre in Brussels, said that although the regime is trying to play on symbolism in the campaign, it might not be as effective as it hopes.
“The Iranian regime often advocates the Palestinian cause with a sort of hype to try to rally the population, but [the Iranian people] aren’t fooled by how the regime tries to use the cause to serve its own interests,” he explained.
“Parts of the population interpret this discourse as propaganda, even if they’re not indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians,” he said.
Anti-regime protesters hijack slogans
The Iranian regime’s anti-Israel rhetoric has even found its way into the Friday prayers. The prayers are attended by the government’s hardliners, and are often followed by chants of “Death to Israel” in addition to the customary “Death to America” and “Death to Britain”.
“These slogans are chanted automatically and are now a part of the Iranian regime’s discourse. But a lot of Iranians see them as meaningless and turn them around during anti-regime protests, calling instead for the death of, not Israel nor the United States, but of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei,” Piron said.
Propaganda campaigns where people can sign up to become “martyrs” by fighting Israel is nothing new in Iran. They tend to resurface during Israeli military offensives on Gaza. Iran has close ties with Hamas and provides both overt vocal support for the group as well as more covert financial and logistical support through the Revolutionary Guards. In an interview with Al-Jazeera in 2022, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau, said the group had received $70 million for its defence plan from Iran. The 2020 US State Department Country Report on Terrorism for Iran said Tehran “provides up to $100 million annually in combined support to Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command”.
Refusal to trample the Israeli flag
Last week, a giant billboard appeared in Tehran, calling on people to unite “against the oppression”, referring of course to Israel and its Western allies.
Le nouveau panneau sur ValiAsr à Téhéran, explicite sur l’appel à mobilisation des populations du Moyen-Orient “contre l’oppression” (termes du texte affiché) https://t.co/gcHgb4Ok4M
— Jonathan Piron (@jonathanpiron1) October 24, 2023
But at the same time, a photograph of a young Iranian woman jumping over the Israeli flag to avoid stepping on it also started to make the rounds on social media.
Piron described the woman’s refusal to trample on the flag as a “a strong symbol, especially as it comes at a time when Israeli and American flags are being painted on the ground in front of some Iranian public buildings, forcing pedestrians to walk on them”.
The old propaganda tactics is losing traction these days due to “a growing mistrust among the population”, explained Piron.
Over the past few years, Piron notes, anti-regime demonstrators have also begun to criticise the government’s international expenditures, demanding that the money spent on operations in Syria and Lebanon and sponsoring Hamas should instead be spent on the Iranian people struggling to make ends meet amid an economic crisis.
A dangerous game to play
Since the death of Mahsa Amini in September last year, tensions between pro- and anti-regime Iranians have increased, and have in some cases spilled over into public displays of anger against the government’s support of Hamas. On October 8, during a football match between Persepolis and Gol Gohar in Tehran, hundreds of football fans openly protested when operatives of the Revolutionary Guards started to wave Palestinian flags on the pitch.
« Met le drapeau palestinien dans ton c.. » scandent des supporters du club de foot Persepolis en voyant des pro- regime agiter ce drapeau dans le stade. Une réaction qui exprime le raz le bol d’une partie de la population face au soutien total du régime islamique au Hamas. pic.twitter.com/F74X8WP7J8
— lettres de Teheran (@LettresTeheran) October 8, 2023
Piron said that the regime’s increasingly desperate attempts to try to encourage a war with Israel is a huge gamble. “Tehran is mobilising strong support for Palestine, but it risks being trapped unless it goes the whole way,” he said.
In other words, the Iranian regime is playing a dangerous game right now, especially as Israel’s ally, the United States, on October 22 announced it was stepping up its military presence in the Middle East, warning both Iran and militant groups against trying to widen the conflict in the region.
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