Ordinary Iranians Don’t Want a War With Israel

Published by the Atlantic

The moment we were all afraid of finally arrived yesterday evening. For me, it was announced by a phone call from a terrified teenage cousin in Iran. Had the war started? she asked me through tears.

Iran had fired dozens of drones and missiles on Israel, hitting much more widely than most of us had anticipated. Only thanks to Israel’s excellent defenses, and the help of its Western and Arab allies, have almost all of these been intercepted. The only casualty so far is a 7-year-old Arab girl in southern Israel.

Nevertheless, the Rubicon has clearly been crossed. Iran and Israel have been fighting a shadow war for years, but on April 13, the conflict came into the open. No longer hiding behind deniable actions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the militia that holds most of the power in Iran, declared that it was behind the attacks, which seem to have been launched from various cities in Iran as well as by Tehran-backed militias in Yemen and Lebanon. The IRGC said that it was responding to Israel’s April 1 attack on an Iranian consular building in Damascus, which killed several commanders, including Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the IRGC’s chief official in the Levant region.

You don’t need to be an expert on Iran to know some facts about Iranians in this moment: First, most are sick of the Islamic Republic and its octogenarian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been in charge since 1989, and whose rule has brought Iran economic ruin, international isolation, and now the threat of a war. You need only look at the majority of Iranians who have boycotted the past two nationwide elections, this year and in 2021, or the hundreds killed in the anti-regime protests of recent years to know that this government doesn’t represent Iranians.

Second, the people of Iran have no desire to experience a war with Israel. Despite decades of indoctrination in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment by their government, Iranians harbor very little hostility toward Israel. In the past few months, many Arab capitals have seen mass demonstrations against Israel, but no such popular event has taken place in Iran. In fact, in the early stages of the Israel-Hamas war that broke out in October, many Iranians risked their lives by publicly opposing the anti-Israel campaign of the regime.

Third, Iranians have a recent memory of how terrible war can be. I was born in Tehran in 1988, in the final throes of the brutal eight-year conflict that began when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and continued for way too long because of the Iranian regime’s ideological crusade. My mother spent many nights in Tehran’s bomb shelters when she was pregnant with me, taking refuge from the missiles that Iraq rained down on Iran. A cousin of mine was killed in that war, and my father was among the many injured. Iranians remember those years too well to want to repeat the experience. (Incidentally, some also remember that Israel gave occasional military help to Iran in that war.)

The people of Iran know that their main enemy is at home, and that war will bring them only more repression and hardship. Hours before Iran started firing missiles on Israel, it sent police around Tehran to crack down on women’s compliance with the mandatory veiling rules. After the attack, for hours past midnight, thousands of cars thronged gas stations around Tehran; a friend FaceTimed me from a Tehran supermarket crowded with people frantically stocking up. Another friend told me he had retreated to his rooftop and was refusing to sleep for fear of an attack.

The U.S. dollar was already trading for a record 647,000 Iranian rials yesterday morning, and now Iranians are bracing for another increase, which will further diminish their livelihoods. As a point of comparison, in 2022, the dollar sold for fewer than 220,000 rials. I’m old enough to remember when it was just 8,000; in 1979, it was 70. The collapsing Iranian currency reflects Iran’s economic destruction.

Many Iranians will hold their own regime accountable for the horror that a hot war with Israel could bring. Labor unions have already said as much. “With firing hundreds of drones and missiles on Israel, the Islamic Republic has adventurously begun a war that could turn a society of 90 million to a torched ground,” declared the Independent Iranian Workers Union, which represents thousands of workers around the country. “The regime is concluding its final mission to destroy Iran.” A teacher’s union issued a similar call. On X, a user well-known for her support of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote, “I spit on anybody supporting this war on either side. Poor Iran and the people of Iran who are saddled by you.” The Persian-language hashtag #no_to_war has been shared by thousands of Iranians inside and outside the country. Many have used it to attack Khamenei and the Islamic Republic.

The regime has tried to muster a show of public support for the strikes on Israel, with unimpressive results. Videos of a Saturday-night rally for this purpose in Tehran’s Palestine Square appeared to show a couple of hundred people there at most. A gathering at Zahedi’s grave in Isfahan looked to consist of fewer than 30 people. Only slightly more assembled at the grave, in Kerman, of Qassem Soleimani, IRGC’s leading commander who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

For his part, Israel’s troubled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may want nothing more than a war with Iran to distract from his failing war in Gaza and his declining popularity at home. The United States and its European and Arab allies, who rightly stood by Israel against Iranian aggression tonight, would be wise to push Netanyahu to avoid a broader conflagration that will benefit no one in the region, least of all the people of Iran or Israel. Saudi Arabia, which joined Jordan last night in helping to intercept Iranian missiles, has started off well by calling for immediate de-escalation. Israelis should remember that even after six months of their brutal war in Gaza, several Arab nations stood by them against aggression from Tehran.

Decision makers in Riyadh and Amman, as well as elsewhere, are well aware that Khamenei and his murderous regime are a threat to the peace and security of their own people, the region, and the world. The interests of the whole region lie in helping the people of Iran in their long-lasting quest to overthrow Khamenei and build a different Iran. Short of such a victory, it is quite likely that when the octogenarian Khamenei dies, Iran’s rulers will move away from his disastrous policies, which have brought Iran to the brink of a disastrous war. Even many of Iran’s current elite don’t want such a conflict.

More than a decade ago, in 2012, when Israel came close to attacking Iran over its nuclear program, an online campaign began in Israel that led to thousands of ordinary Iranians and Israelis posting their pictures online with a seemingly naive message: “Israel loves Iran” and “Iran loves Israel,” an announcement that the people of these two nations had no desire to die in a war with each other.

This fundamental reality has not changed. The people of Iran don’t want a war against Israel. And the people of the region and the world can’t afford one.

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