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Hardliners and the centrality of anti-Zionism

Self-identifi political “hardliners” attributed particular importance to Iran's policy

of anti-Zionism which they perceived as a cornerstone of Iranian national identity:
As an Iranian, I can't support the Zionist regime even if they have a justification,

for Iranians, it is an unacceptable state. (Arash, male, hardliner)

Iranians don't like Israelis. It's a fact. And nothing will change this in this lifetime at least, or ever I think. It's a historical fact. (Mitra, female, hardliner)

What can he [the Iranian president] do? He's in a tricky situation [ … ] He can only not mention Israel but he can't like acknowledge it, can he? As Iranians, we stand up to Israel, we don't recognise it. We can't. (Golnaz, female, hardliner)

There was a clear perception among hardliners that, as Iranians, they were unable to accept or legitimise the State of Israel despite any potential “justification” that the state might have. Arash referred to Israel as an “unacceptable state” while Mitra asserted that “Iranians don't like Israelis”. Participants emphasised the immutability of these “tenets” of Iranian national identity through use of the modal verb “can't” and through the depiction of Israeli-Iranian animosity as a “historical fact”. Like several hardliners, Mitra perceived animosity towards Israelis as being long-standing and immutable and seemed to resign herself to the “reality” that this would not change. There was no awareness among hardliners of more positive social representations of Israel, which had existed prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when there were in fact full diplomatic relations between the Imperial State of Iran and the State of Israel (Shahvar, 2009). Clearly, anti-Zionist social representations were highly salient in individuals' meaning-making, which led to the essentialisation of Israelis as loathsome and unworthy of acceptance and to the perception that all Iranians unanimously subscribed to the regime's antiZionist stance. Respondents appeared to imagine themselves as a “community” united in their national hatred of Israel (Anderson, 1991).

Golnaz sympathetically acknowledged the “tricky situation” of the Iranian president, who by virtue of his “Iranian-ness” was allegedly unable to acknowledge, mention or recognise Israel. She regarded the rejection of Israel as central to the presidential role. There was perceived overlap between the inability of the Iranian president to recognise Israel (“he can't acknowledge it”) and that of the Iranian people (“we can't), which served to crystallise the social representation that anti-Zionism constituted a central aspect of Iranian national identity – that is, something that all Iranians ought to accept (Jaspal, 2011c). Interestingly, although not all of the hardline participants personally approved of President Ahmadinejad's political and economic policies, there was unanimous sympathy towards him in the context of his anti-Zionist stance. This suggested that anti-Zionism could perform a unifying function among Iranians, potentially attenuating other political and ideological differences (cf. Baum and Nakazawa, 2007).

Individuals were invited to reflect upon the antecedents of “compulsory” antiZionism in Iranian society. The hardliners perceived the State of Israel as posing a threat to the Iranian nation and, particularly, to Iranian sovereignty which served as a justification for “hating” the Jewish State:
Abbas (male, hardliner): The Jews have always been plotting against us [Muslims] and the Zionists want to attack Iran so what do you expect? That I'll love Israel? I hate it [ … ] They shouldn't exist.

Interviewer: Why shouldn't Israel exist, in your view?

Abbas: These sanctions that we have in Iran. People have nothing to eat, no money for rent, nothing to buy in the shop [ … ] The Zionist regime makes these sanctions. Zionists.

The Zionists won't hesitate for a second to wipe out the Iranian people [ … ] It's

in their blood. (Farideh, female, hardliner)

Abbas anchored Zionism to antisemitic social representations of Jewish world domination and, in particular, regarding the Jews' historical desire to destroy Islam (Shahvar, 2009), in order to delegitimise Zionism, the political ideology underlying the State of Israel. Like Abbas, several hardliners regarded historical representations of Jews as evidencing and explaining the alleged misdoings of Zionists. Abbas attributed the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community to “the Zionist regime”, which was presented as “evidence” of the “Zionist threat” (Stephan and Stephan, 2000). More specifically, it was argued that Zionists were responsible for the grim social and economic conditions in Iran due to internationally-imposed sanctions. Abbas did not acknowledge the international community's dismay at Iran's nuclear programme but rather accused Zionism of irrationally opposing Iran's “right to nuclear technology” and of pressurising the world into supporting economic sanctions against Iran. The economic sanctions were generally perceived as posing a threat to the national ingroup's self-efficacy, competence and control, which contributed to the threat imagery of Zionism. It is noteworthy that the sanctions were understandably on the minds of most participants as they reflected upon Zionism and Israel, since most of them reported personal experiences of financial hardship related to the sanctions. As Iran's Significant Other, Israel was scapegoated as the principal driving force behind the crippling economic sanctions (Gregory, 2001). A point frequently made by hardliners in the study was that, just like the Jews who had allegedly attempted to destroy Islam, the Zionists (that is, Israelis) were now engaged in a covert plan to launch an attack against Iran. This was powerfully demonstrated in Farideh's account which suggested that Zionists would be quite willing to annihilate the Iranian people in order to achieve their goals. Given that Zionists were regularly dehumanised and viewed as inhumane and brutal oppressors, the threat representation was rendered all the more credible in the minds of individuals. Although Farideh employed the category “Zionist”, her essentialisation of Zionism indicated that the category was being treated like a racial/biological one in much the same way that the category “Jew” has been in antisemitic discourse: “It's in their blood” (see Chapter 2). It was evident
from participants' accounts that Israel was perceived as posing both realistic and symbolic threats to the Iranian ingroup, given that participants regarded Zionists as seeking to impose their will on the world and believed that they would go to any lengths (including annihilation) in order to do so. The threat representation jeopardised the perception of group continuity, because individuals felt that there was a risk that the ingroup could come to severe harm at the hands of Zionists (Jaspal and Yampolsky, 2011). In short, anti-Zionist/antisemitic statements of this kind frequently culminated in the assertion that the State of Israel could not and should not be trusted and that a rational response was for Iranians to hate the State of Israel and to reject its legitimacy and existence.

In addition to the realistic threat perceived to be associated with the State of Israel, participants seemed to regard the Jewish State as posing a symbolic threat by curtailing the “legitimate” rights of the Iranian nation:

What I really hate about Israelis is that they are hypocrites. They have double standards. They have an atomic bomb themselves but they criticise Iran for this [nuclear programme] [ … ] That's not a proper state in my mind. (Nasreen, female, hardliner)

Basically, they want to say “no” to our nuclear programme because they wish to control Iran, show us they control us and show the world that they control us. The sanctions are their way of controlling us. It makes me sick [ … ] If we don't fight this one to the end, it will be a humiliation for us, as Iranians. (Arash, male, hardliner)

They say “no” to our nuclear rights and we say “no” to their state. An illegitimate state has no place to rule on these matters, not the Zionist regime. (Faraz, male, hardliner)

Iran's disputed nuclear programme was the example cited in order to demonstrate the alleged “double standards” of Israel and its symbolic threat to Iran. In Nasreen's account, which was by no means atypical of the sample of participants, the characteristic “hypocrite” was attributed to Israelis in general and they were said to have “double standards”. The notion that Israel should oppose Iran's nuclear programme, which most participants regarded as being peaceful in intention and nature, was perceived as absurd and hypocritical, due to the widespread belief among participants that “they [Israel] have an atomic bomb themselves”. Moreover, for the same reason, several individuals constructed Israel as posing a realistic threat to the region (and especially to Iran). In short, the Iranian respondents believed that Israel was capable of launching a nuclear strike, just as many Israelis believe that Iran is capable of attacking Israel (see Chapter 9).

Arash regarded Israel's obstruction of Iran's nuclear programme and its call for economic sanctions against Iran as a means of acquiring, and publicly demonstrating, political “control” of Iran, which was clearly threatening for his
sense of (national) self-efficacy as an Iranian: “It makes me sick”. There was a perception among many participants that if Iran were to capitulate to Israel's demands for an end to nuclear enrichment there would be an overwhelming sense of defeat, which could further jeopardise feelings of self-efficacy. Faraz appeared to cope with the threat to self-efficacy by delegitimising the State of Israel and observing that, while Israel opposed Iran's right to nuclear technology, Iran opposed Israel's existence. The power and determination to deny Israel's existence appeared to provide some individuals with a boost to self-efficacy, which was otherwise jeopardised by economic sanctions and Israel's overt opposition to Iran's nuclear programme. This may be regarded as a strategy for coping with identity threat (Breakwell, 1986). In short, Israel was perceived as having no right to “criticise” Iran for its nuclear activities and was even viewed as lacking the basic qualities of a “proper state”.

Participants proceeded to invoke the qualities of a “proper” or prototypical state and exemplified such a state by referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran, while they delegitimised the State of Israel:

Iran is a country that has harmed no other country, ever. No invasion of other countries. No bombings. No attacks. Nothing. It is a proper state, as one should be, a proper, an ideal UN member [ … ] What does Israel do? Break every UN rule, harm other countries, kill women and children in particular and the world doesn't notice. Why is this? (Fardin, male, hardliner)

A country is not supposed to invade and take over other countries. Iran stays in its own borders. But the Jews just want to take over the whole region, like extend their reach and threaten the region's countries. That includes Iran. Iran is the biggest rival of Israel so I feel proud of Iran. (Faraz, male, hardliner)

Faraz drew upon the social representation of Israel as an invader and occupier of Muslim countries, which is widespread in cultural consciousness in the Middle East (Wistrich, 2010). He referred implicitly to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and to its subsequent occupation of the country until 2000 in order to exemplify and justify the attribution of the delegitimising characteristics “invader” and “occupier” to the State of Israel. Indeed, participants widely argued that Iran constituted a “proper” state because they believed it had remained within its own borders and never encroached upon foreign territory. By invoking the negative categories “invader” and “occupier”, many hardline participants argued that the principal aim of Israel was to threaten and usurp regional countries and ultimately “to take over the whole region”, including Iran. This reflected a realistic threat in that Israel was perceived as physically usurping land and the resources of regional countries, on the one hand, and a symbolic threat because individuals regarded Israel as seeking to disseminate its ideology, norms and values in the countries they conquered, on the other hand. This hybridised threat was detrimental to the self-efficacy and continuity principles of identity. Fardin contrasted Iran and Israel, attributing positive and peaceful characteristics to Iran and malevolent and belligerent traits to Israel. More specifically, he constructed Iran as an “ideal” UN member state which did not encroach upon foreign territory or cause harm to other nations, while accusing Israel of committing acts which called into question its eligibility for UN state membership (see also Jaspal and Coyle, 2014). Thus, by delegitimising the State of Israel in this way, individuals appeared to derive feelings of intergroup distinctiveness and a positive Iranian national identity which had been imbued with positive characteristics. This amounted to a form of downward comparison with Israel, which performed the function of bolstering ingroup Iranian identity vis-à-vis the Israeli outgroup with favourable outcomes for self-esteem (Wills, 1981). As Israel's “biggest rival”, Iran was constructed as a defender of peace and freedom in a region which was said to be dominated by “Zionist malevolence”. This form of ingroup self-presentation was clearly beneficial for the self-esteem and self-efficacy principles in relation to the national ingroup.

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