Iran is on the edge between air strikes, repression and fear of war

In the early hours of Friday, Mehrdad, an engineer in Isfahan, Iran, awoke to the sound of explosions rattling windows and shaking the ground. In Tehran, passengers about to board flights were suddenly told that the airspace was closed.

Israel, they soon discovered, had attacked Iran.

As explosions and gunfire rang out in the distance, Mehrdad, 43, realized that the Israelis' target was a military base on the outskirts of the city. He and his pregnant wife were still afraid of war breaking out, he said in a telephone interview.

“I think Israel wanted to test the waters and evaluate with last night's attacks,” said Mehrdad, who, like others interviewed for this article, asked that his last name be withheld for fear of retaliation. “I fear the worst is coming, but I also hope things end here.”

So, apparently, does the Iranian government, which after having promised for a week an energetic response to any Israeli attack on Iranian territory, seems to have given up on the risk of coming to the brink of war with Israel. Faced with deep economic problems and a restive population, the government appears to have adopted a two-track policy, analysts say, declaring victory over Israel and cracking down at home.

“External and internal challenges are two sides of the same coin for the establishment,” Abbas Abdi, a prominent Tehran analyst and writer, said in a telephone interview. “Both towards Israel and internal dissent, they are taking an aggressive approach because they think that both issues have reached a boiling point where if they do nothing the situation will only get worse.”

The attacks between Iran and Israel over the past three weeks have represented a surprising and worrying departure from the shadow war they have waged for decades, raising fears of a regional war. Iran responded to Israel's deadly attack on its embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, launching a barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles directly at Israel for the first time. Most of them were intercepted.

World leaders have implored Israel to respond with restraint, which it did on Friday, attacking an Iranian air base with drones. The attack damaged the radar of an S-300 system responsible for air defense at the Natanz nuclear facility in central Iran. Israel also fired air-to-ground missiles at Iran, but deliberately inflicted little damage. Subsequently, Iranian media and state officials downplayed the attack.

Nasser Imani, a Tehran analyst with close ties to the government, said Iran had dealt effectively with Israel and could now afford to ease tensions.

“Iranian officials don't want war with Israel,” he said in a telephone interview. “Iran will end up here and will no longer engage directly because they believe they have established sufficient deterrence for now.”

The growing tensions with Israel come as Iran lurches from one crisis to another. Iran's currency, the rial, has plummeted this month since the standoff began. It recently reached more than 660,000 riyals to the dollar on the unofficial market, the most accurate measure of the economy.

Inflation, although down from the 40% rate of previous years, is still at an annual rate of 32%. And Iranians have long complained of corruption and economic mismanagement by the ruling clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which holds significant stakes in the economy.

More generally, the government's legitimacy is constantly questioned by an angry and resentful population that has taken to the streets in recent years. The Iranian government has long struggled to maintain the revolutionary and Islamic ideals of the 1979 revolution that brought it to power as new generations of Iranians demand freedom and social and political prosperity.

The largest recent uprising, a 2022 uprising led by women, began as a protest against a law requiring women and girls to cover their hair and bodies with loose clothing. It soon turned into protesters calling for an end to clerical rule. A voter boycott marred parliamentary elections in March, leading to historically low turnout and high numbers of blank ballots.

Determined to avoid a repeat, the government has launched an offensive at home, the Iranians say. It has sent its security forces to crack down on women who do not observe the hijab law, officials said.

Hours after launching the attack on Israel in retaliation for the Damascus attack, the Iranian government deployed battalions of security forces to flood the streets of Tehran and several other cities. He violently cracked down on women who challenged the hijab rule, closed dozens of businesses that welcomed women without hijabs and threatened to punish anyone who dared to criticize or question his attacks on Israel.

Iranians described an atmosphere of intense security and surveillance as they went about their routine this week. Fahimeh, 32, said in a telephone interview that she was going to the gym in Tehran last Monday when she came across a heavily guarded checkpoint that stopped cars at random to inspect drivers and female passengers. A separate group, she said, was stopping women walking by, many of whom were not covering their hair. Frightened, she took a scarf out of her bag and covered herself.

Many women say the combination of the hijab crackdown and tensions with Israel is increasing their anxieties.

“Life is already very hard, I have no idea why the regime is doing this,” Pouneh, a 50-year-old English teacher in Tehran, said by phone. “Why all this crackdown on hijab when they went to war against Israel? Everyone is tense and agitated.”

In several incidents captured on videos that quickly spread on social media and were posted on BBC Persian, morality police berate, beat and forcefully drag women into police vans. One video showed an agitated woman collapsing on the sidewalk and struggling to breathe after an argument with police as a crowd of passersby gathered around her.

The scenes sparked a wave of anger and condemnation, especially since morality policing was reportedly abolished during the 2022 protests, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in police custody. She was detained for violating the hijab rule.

Government supporters also harshly criticized the decision to reinstate the hijab rule, announced on April 13 by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They said the campaigns had proven counterproductive in the past and would only sow division and hatred during a time of crisis. moment of strong tensions with a foreign adversary.

“At this delicate moment, the country needs unity and calm to oppose the Zionist regime,” said Mohammad Yousefinejad, a conservative lawyer and government supporter. he said in a social media post. The activation of the morality police was the result of “stupidity and lack of understanding of priorities” on the part of the Home Office, he added.

In the current climate, however, the government has proven particularly intolerant of criticism regarding tensions with Israel. Last week Abdi, the analyst, wrote an article in the Etemad newspaper saying there was no need for Iran to respond to Israel and warning that the war would have social and economic costs. The judiciary promptly announced that it had opened criminal proceedings against him and the newspaper.

Two well-known journalists, Hossein Dehbashi and Yashar Soltani, were summoned to court on charges of “disturbing the psychological safety of society” in connection with posts on social media expressing concern about a widening of the war, local media reported.

“The notification has been received,” Mr. Dehbashi said in a post on X last week. “I won't be writing for a while.”

Analysts say the government will most likely pursue a policy of hostility towards Israel and uncompromising enforcement of hijab rules for some time.

“They are trying to send two very strong messages at once,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “On the one hand, Iran feels confident enough to strike Israel and at the same time insecure enough to try to impose red lines on social and cultural issues within it so that no one underestimates them.”

Leily Nikounazar contributed a report from Belgium.

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