Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has quite unexpectedly started criticizing Gamal Abdelnasser, the leader of Arab nationalism who passed away in 1970. The new Twitter controversy sprung up in the context of Abdelnasser’s alleged statement that he would throw all the Jews into the sea, while in reality he never said this. The statement was in fact made by Ahmad al-Shukeiri, the first chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
This does not mean that Nasserism was innocent of anti-Semitism. During its heydays, a large number of anti-Semitic European literature was translated into Arabic. Gamal Abdelnasser’s brother Al-Leithi was one of those who translated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic in 1968.
Similarly, Abdel Halim Hafez sang a song written by Abdul Rahman Al-Abnoudi titled Christ in which the final line read “the same Jews” had “crucified” Christ. However, after Al-Azhar had pointed out and cautioned that Christ, according to Islam, was not crucified, they replaced the word “crucified” with “betrayed.”
All this is history now. It is expected that Khamenei, who translated some of the books of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyed Qutb into Persian, would not be a fan of Abdelnasser who executed Qutb.
What is surprising about Khamenei’s tweet is how he appears to have retracted from his promise of “wiping Israel off the map,” by underlining that Iran is “playing rationally” and demanding “democratic methods to solve the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis,” even insisting that “democracy today is the modern approach accepted by the whole world”Hazem Saghiyeh
Nevertheless, it is still not understandable why Khamenei opened up this matter now. The movement, which the supreme leader belongs to, is one of most active in terms of denying the occurrence of the Holocaust. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of the most prominent Holocaust deniers. Khamenei himself has endorsed such views in a video clip posted on his website on the Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, 2016. In Tehran, conferences for people who deny the Holocaust were organized. This is in addition to caricatures and exhibitions.
Ayatollah Khomeini promoted the "International Jewish Conspiracy" in the 1960s and called the Shah a closet Jew. His book The Islamic Government is replete with this “wisdom” and superstitious rulings concluding that the “Israelis are not humans.”
What is surprising about Khamenei’s tweet is how he appears to have retracted from his promise of “wiping Israel off the map,” by underlining that Iran is “playing rationally” and demanding “democratic methods to solve the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis,” even insisting that “democracy today is the modern approach accepted by the whole world.”
This rhetoric is not that of Khomeini or Khamenei, and adopting it is not due to ideological reasons but most likely due to politics. The Israelis have besieged Iran’s presence in Syria and have placed Tehran before options of which the best is humiliating. The economic situation is very bad, and with the return of American sanctions it will get worse. The relationships between the wings of power inside Iran are not so good. The cost of external expansion has significantly increased over the past two years.
We know that the Islamists of Iran, like Arab Islamists, engage in a kind of cheap pragmatism that makes them change with changing circumstances. We also know that Iran, when Khomeini was still alive, combined between the peak of enthusiasm to “export the revolution” with the extreme willingness to cooperate with ‘Great Satan’ as revealed in the notorious Iran–Contra affair.
Is it possible to assemble such scattered pieces for a useful purpose? Is it possible that Iran is feeling the pulse of Israelis and advocating a bridge between the two countries? Could the Russians have hinted to the Iranians to behave as such, so that Tehran can break free from its Syrian dilemma without Moscow having to openly declare its open tilt towards Israel in a confrontation between two of its allies? Is it possible that the Iranian leadership has found a reference to imitate in the recent US-North Korean deal?
If the answers are ‘yes’, then we can say that Khamenei’s recent “intellectual” position is not based on ideals at all. In fact, the aim of negatively and falsely talking about Abdelnasser may be to confirm the distance between the Islamists of Iran and the Arab nationalists whom calls to eliminate Israel have been historically linked to.
If this scenario is true, there is still a startling oddity. Iranian Islamists have incited and inflamed Arab and Palestinian nationalists when they were calming down. This scenario thus implies that those who have adopted this inflammation approach will from now on cool down the situation and perhaps completely extinguish it.
We may be on the eve of exciting transformations in an exciting region.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Hazem Saghieh is a Lebanese political analyst and the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat.