Crackdowns, Attacks and Threat of War Put Iranians on Edge

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

Israel, they soon learned, had attacked Iran.

As booms and gunfire went off in the distance, Mehrdad, 43, came to realize that the Israelis’ target was a military base on the outskirts of the city. He and his pregnant wife remained fearful that war would break out, he said in an interview by phone.

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

So, apparently, does the Iranian government, which after a week of promising a forceful response to any Israeli attack on Iranian territory, appeared to be standing down from nearly going to the brink of war with Israel. Facing deep economic troubles and a restive population, the government seems to have adopted a two-track policy, analysts say, declaring victory over Israel and cracking down at home.

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

The tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and Israel over the past three weeks were a startling and worrisome departure from the shadow warfare they have waged for decades, raising fears of a regional war. Iran responded to a deadly Israeli attack on its embassy compound in Damascus, Syria, by launching a barrage of more than 300 drones and missiles directly at Israel for the first time. A majority of them were intercepted.

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

Nasser Imani, an analyst in Tehran with close ties to the government, said Iran had dealt effectively with Israel and could now afford to de-escalate.

“Iranian officials do not want war with Israel,” he said in a telephone interview. “Iran will end it here and not directly engage any more because they feel they have established enough deterrence for now.”

The heightened tensions with Israel come as Iran teeters from crisis to crisis. The Iranian currency, the rial, has plunged this month, since the standoff began. It recently reached more than 660,000 rials to the dollar on the unofficial market, the most accurate measure of the economy.

Inflation, while down from the 40 percent rates of previous years, is still running at an annual rate of 32 percent. And Iranians have long complained about corruption and economic mismanagement by the ruling clerics and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which holds significant stakes in the economy.

More broadly, the government’s legitimacy is constantly challenged by an angry and resentful population that has taken to the streets in recent years. Iran’s government has long struggled with maintaining the revolutionary and Islamic ideals of the 1979 revolution that brought it to power as new generations of Iranians demand social and political freedom and prosperity.

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

Determined to head off a recurrence, the government began an offensive at home, Iranians say. It sent its security forces out to crack down on women not observing the hijab law, officials said.

Hours after launching its strike against Israel to retaliate for the Damascus attack, the Iranian government deployed battalions of security forces to swarm the streets of Tehran and many other cities. It violently cracked down on women defying the hijab rule, shuttered dozens of businesses for accommodating women without hijabs and threatened to punish anyone who dared to criticize or question its attacks on Israel.

Iranians described an atmosphere of intense security and surveillance as they went about their routines this week. Fahimeh, 32, said in a phone interview that she was on her way to the gym in Tehran last Monday when she encountered a heavily policed checkpoint stopping cars at random to inspect female drivers and passengers. A separate group, she said, was stopping women passing by on foot, many of whom were not covering their hair. Fearful, she pulled a scarf from her bag and covered herself.

Many women say the combination of the hijab crackdowns and the tensions with Israel is adding to 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 the crackdown over the hijab when they have entered a war against Israel? Everyone is tense and agitated.”

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

The scenes have set off an outpouring of anger and condemnation, particularly since the morality police were supposedly abolished during the protests in 2022, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in police custody. She was being held for violating the hijab rule.

Even supporters of the government have sharply criticized its decision to resurrect enforcement of the hijab rule, which the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced on April 13. They said the campaigns had backfired in the past and would only sow division and hatred during a time of high tensions with a foreign adversary.

“At this time-sensitive time, the country needs unity and calm to stand against the Zionist regime,” Mohammad Yousefinejad, a conservative lawyer and supporter of the government, said in a social media post. Activating the morality police stemmed from the Interior Ministry’s “stupidity and lack of understanding of priorities,” he added.

In the current atmosphere, however, the government has been particularly intolerant of criticism about the tensions with Israel. Mr. Abdi, the analyst, wrote a column in the Etemad newspaper last week saying it was not necessary for Iran to respond to Israel and cautioning that there would be social and economic costs to war. The judiciary promptly announced it had opened a criminal case against him and the newspaper.

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

“The notification was received,” Mr. Dehbashi said in a post on X last week. “I will not write for a while.”

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

“They are trying to send two very strong messages simultaneously,” said Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a think tank based in London. “On one hand, Iran feels confident enough to hit Israel and at the same time insecure enough to try to assert the red lines on social and cultural issues inside so that nobody underestimates them.”

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting from Belgium.





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