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Relief pervades Tehran after limited Israeli strike

After Iran fired a barrage of drones and missiles towards Israel a week ago, 70-year-old Hengameh removed the mirrors from her walls and urged family members to stay away from windows for fear of retaliatory strikes.

The Tehran resident, who lived through her country’s 1980s war with Iraq, said: “I am haunted by thoughts of getting stuck in a tall apartment building without water, electricity or food, if Israel attacks.” But following Israel’s limited retaliation on Friday, Hengameh has relaxed. “What a relief that it all ended that way. It all probably was meant to scare people,” she said.

Hengameh was not the only Iranian exuding relief after Israel’s muted response on Friday to Tehran’s assault on the Jewish state. The explosions near the central city of Isfahan came after an Iranian barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles last weekend, which in turn followed a strike on the Islamic republic’s consulate in Syria, blamed on Israel, early this month that killed seven Revolutionary Guards officers.

The exchange has brought a decades-long covert war into the open, and set the crowded streets, cafés, grocery stores and subways of the Iranian capital abuzz with anxious conversation about whether a full-scale conflict could follow.

Mohammad, 30, a videographer and fervent supporter of the Islamic republic, said of Israel’s Friday attack: “The strike carries the hallmark of similar sabotage attacks we have seen in the past. I believe [Israel] were only aiming at some kind of psy-war. This cannot even be considered a response.”

In an exultant tone, he added: “This was nothing. Look at all those jokes people are making [online].” Social media platforms were fizzing with humour and memes. “Do you know why Israel attacked so late at night? Because its quadcopters had trouble locating the address in Isfahan,” one Instagram post said.

Online and even on state television news, Iranians circulated a post on social media site X by Israel’s far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who on Friday commented on his country’s latest strike on its arch-enemy with the single word: “Weak”.

People shopping for food in Tehran last week © Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Taghi Azad Armaki, an Iranian sociologist, said the conflict was exposing a generation gap. The shadow of Iraq’s devastating invasion of Iran in 1980, and eight years of war that followed, has hung over Iran’s leadership since, as well as over Iranians old enough to recall that time.

“The older generation knows war through its destructive force,” Azad Armaki said. “To the new generation with a different sociocultural background, war is nothing but a fantasy they’ve experienced through computer games.” He argued that the developing conflict was essentially “a political confrontation. A kind of war that is being fought through the media, rather than in real life”.

After decades of proxy conflict between Iranian-backed militant groups in the region and US and Israeli forces, the latest exchanges raised fears of a regional war against the backdrop of the six-month conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Carefully orchestrated strikes have punctuated intense diplomatic activity trying to prevent the conflict from escalating out of control.

Following the latest strike by Israel near Isfahan, Iranians were growing in confidence. Hours afterwards, footage circulated online of crowds on the banks of the Zayandeh River, a popular picnic spot in Isfahan, singing a patriotic song. State television interviewed local residents in Isfahan who jokingly called the strike “fireworks”.

The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s has cast a shadow over Iranians who lived through that conflict © AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s government said little on the subject of the strikes, a relative silence seen by some onlookers as a desire to defuse tensions. Two senior army commanders played down Israel’s latest attack as a minor incident, saying the country’s air defences were in a state of readiness and had quickly reacted to destroy the “suspicious” airborne objects.

President Ebrahim Raisi did not bring up the latest Israeli strike in a televised speech on Friday, but he lauded Iran’s attack on Israel last week for rallying people of various political tendencies around the flag.

Naeem, 28, a tour guide, said Iran’s barrage had been a wise move. “Without the attack, the possibility of a war erupting would have been greater. Israel violated our sovereignty and it deserved the blowback.”

Yet at the same time he evoked deeper discontent, contrasting the force of Iran’s assault on Israel with what he characterised as domestic disarray.

Since then US president Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers and imposed crippling sanctions, the country has endured deep economic stress. Untamed inflation and a weakening national currency are at the forefront of many Iranians’ concerns, and have contributed to waves of dissent.

Naeem said: “Thankfully in the military field, we are powerful enough to shatter the enemy’s invincibility. But why couldn’t we achieve the same in, say, the car industry or medicine? This system has failed to tackle all problems from economic hardship, to massive corruption, to [an] unstoppable brain drain, while highly unqualified individuals are occupying big offices.”

Government propaganda billboards and banners in Tehran have over the past week displayed themes ranging from Iran’s missile prowess to excerpts from US media such as “ABC News: Five ballistic missiles hit the Nevatim air base” and “NYT: Iran’s strikes on Israel open a dangerous new chapter for old rivals”.

A banner on a building in Tehran depicting missiles and drones flying past a torn Israeli flag © Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Yet authorities also betrayed some insecurity. On the day of Iran’s missile barrage towards Israel, police forces enforcing mandatory headscarf wearing for women made a sudden reappearance in Tehran after an absence of more than a year. Some saw the enforcement of hijab rules as simply a means of justifying the visible presence of forces patrolling the streets.

“This was merely a pretext to deploy additional security and police forces in the streets ahead of the attack to ensure domestic stability,” an analyst said.

Nina, a 38-year-old musician, said of the Iranian government: “All these guys know is how to pull the country into conflicts. This was a bad mistake . . . The economy is in bad shape. We are under sanctions. The environment is sick. Pollution is killing us. And they are treating women on the streets like that. Getting into a war is the last thing we need right now.”

Ahead of the latest Israeli strike on Iran, some threats emanating from Tehran hinted at the possibility of producing nuclear weapons. Iran has faced western sanctions over its nuclear programme and in recent years it has enriched uranium close to weapons-grade, though it maintains the programme is purely civilian.

On Wednesday a senior figure in the Revolutionary Guards warned Israel that Iran was likely to review its nuclear stance if its atomic facilities were threatened.

Mohammad, the videographer, was sceptical that nuclear weapons would help the Islamic republic, however. “You may be able to use it as leverage to deflect threats if you are cornered,” he said. “But it does not keep war at bay. In the kind of deterrence Iran is building right now, there is no need for a nuclear bomb.”

Azad Armaki, the sociologist, said those hailing Iran’s strike on Israel, and those chanting against the country entering a war, shared a similar concern.

“Their message is the same: Iran must be protected,” he said. “This military confrontation has revived a collective devotion to the nation’s history, homeland and identity . . . It is no longer about the greater Islamic nation or civilisation, but it is about a love for Iran.”

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