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In Iran, Talk Of Military Strikes From Above Raises Fears Below

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

Many Iranians suggest that any military attack on their territory would rally the public behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- or at least stifle the harshest criticism.

Many Iranians suggest that any military attack on their territory would rally the public behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- or at least stifle the harshest criticism.

As the international community digests the UN watchdog's assertion of "possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" the specter of armed conflict is very much a reality to Iranians, leaving ordinary citizens in fear of dark days to come.

Fears arose following media reports suggesting that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites was imminent. They will be fueled by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) publication on November 8 of a report concluding that Iran has pursued the development of nuclear weapons. Iran's leadership has responded with a vow not to "budge an iota."

Iran fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s in which 1 million people are thought to have been killed.
Iranians have expressed concern about the return of such hardship in telephone and other conversations with RFE/RL. In most cases, these Iranians have withheld their identities to protect themselves from possible government retaliation.

One man in Isfahan says he is worried that ordinary people will become the victims of any military action. "People are the victims of the sanctions; Iran's leaders are not suffering," he tells RFE/RL by telephone. "People will bear the brunt of war."

"I cannot sleep out of worry," says a 56-year-old woman in the capital, Tehran. She says she thinks military action against the Islamic republic would benefit the clerical establishment and negatively affect the people.

Question Of Unity

"A war will unite the regime, and it will also force many to unite behind a regime they don't even support," she says during a phone interview before asking: "What else should we do, [cheer] for Israel, which would kill our countrymen working in the nuclear sites?"

Like many others in Iran, she suggests that strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities by Israel or the United States aimed at halting or slowing Iran's nuclear progress would prompt a full-fledged war. That belief has been strengthened by promises by Iranian officials of retaliation for any such act against the country.

Outside the country, concerns are also running high amid reports that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has sought support from his government for such attacks. Some analysts have suggested that war rhetoric from Israeli officials is part of that country's strategy to bring greater international pressure to bear on Iran.

The United States has not ruled out any options, but officials have said they remain committed to a diplomatic solution to resolve the crisis.

That has not convinced Mohammad, a man from the Iranian city of Mashhad who provided only his first name in a message to RFE/RL's Radio Farda. In it, he accuses U.S. President Barack Obama of preparing an attack on Iran. And if an attack comes, he predicts, millions of Iranians will be spurred to fight for their country.

"Inside Iran all people are supportive of [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei," Mohammad says. "They support their government. There are millions who are [one] with their government. They will all defend the establishment."

Iran, he warns, will become "a cemetery" for U.S. soldiers in the event of an attack.

A 2005 file photo of the Natanz nuclear-enrichment plant in central Iran.

A 2005 file photo of the Natanz nuclear-enrichment plant in central Iran.


A number of Iranian observers and activists have suggested during years of mounting Western concern over Tehran's nuclear activities that an attack on Iran would serve to rally deeply nationalistic Iranians behind the country's theocratic establishment. Military action, they have predicted, could also make the regime more repressive and worsen Iran's already poor human rights record.

Blow To Opposition?

Hossein Ghazian, a prominent Iranian sociologist who was jailed in Iran, shares that assessment. He tells RFE/RL that military action would be good news for the Iranian establishment and bad news for democracy in Iran.

"This establishment [would] have enough legitimacy, excuses, and reasons to repress those opposed to it, particularly when it is being attacked by a foreign enemy," Ghazian says. "The political culture of the Iranian people is such that it [would] lead them to mobilize against any foreign intervention. The Iranian establishment [would] be able to use the public's mobilization, not the opposition."

Ghazian, who is currently a visiting scholar at Syracuse University, says that in the event of an attack it the Iranian opposition would feel obliged to mute distinctions between its own positions and those of Iran's ruling establishment.

"In addition, if some of the country's infrastructure is being damaged, time would be needed to rebuild," Ghazian says. "That could mean that democracy-building would be off the agenda of social and political forces for some time."

A Tehran-based journalist who sympathizes with the opposition Green Movement writes that many are taking a wait-and-see approach in the hope that talk of an impending attack subsides, as has happened in the past.

"[Iranian] society will not welcome any country that attacks its soil," he says in a message exchange. "But that doesn't mean that all the people will stand behind the establishment. [Some] will probably only watch the confrontation."

A computer analyst who works for a major Iranian bank expresses concern that any military action against Iran could lead to the rise of extremism in Iranian society.

In a reference to government forces' response to widespread protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election, he suggests that "If until now we were being killed by batons, from now on we should be ready to be killed by bombs and perhaps suicide attacks."

Iranians Abroad

Among the Iranian diaspora abroad, talk of military action against Iran has led some to say they would risk returning to their home country to be with their families.

Recently, more than 100 Iranian activists and intellectuals based in the United States, Europe, and Canada signed a letter condemning both the Iranian state's repression of its people and the prospect of outside military action against the country.

Well-known Iranian journalist and writer Akbar Ganji, who is among the letter's signatories, says Western countries should refrain from attacking Iran and that Iranian officials should take steps to remove ambiguities regarding the country's nuclear activities.

"We don't want a war that will destroy our country and our people, so we believe both sides are responsible," Ganji says. "Israel and Western government don't have the right to attack Iran under any condition. On the other hand, in the event of an attack, not only they are to blame but so are Iran's leaders -- namely, [Supreme Leader Khamenei], for pushing the country in that direction."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at EsfandiariG@rferl.org

     

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