Iran’s silence is deafening.
Judging by social media reactions and Iranian media reports, few, if any, members of the Iranian public seem to care that since 2011, the Israeli air force has attacked Iranian and Iranian positions in Syria more more than a thousand times.
Surprisingly, few members of the Iranian public seem to be concerned that these attacks have killed several Iranian members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
There have also been numerous reports of Israel attacking military installations inside Iran itself, including, most recently, in late January 2023 in the Iranian city of Esfahan. Once again, there was no reaction from the Iranian public. Some observers, such as Kasra Naji, author and senior reporter for BBC Persian, I even believe that some of them in Esfahan and other parts of Iran are happy that Israel attacked the military base in Esfahan.
Iranians are very patriotic. They fought for eight years against Saddam Hussein’s invading army, from 1980-88. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been killed, injured, and traumatized as a result of this conflict. History has repeatedly shown that Iranians are extremely sensitive about foreign countries challenging Iran’s sovereignty or attacking its soldiers.
So why does no one in Iran care that Israel is attacking and, according to some reports, even killing Iranian members of the IRGC in Syria? Why are there no spontaneous community demonstrations by the Iranian people against attacks that the international press has attributed to Israel on Iranian soil?
First, it is because the majority of Iranians seem to be against the regime’s foreign policy, especially its anti-Israel policy. Support for anti-Israel terrorist groups in the Middle East has not benefited the Iranian people. What has added to the unpopularity of the regime’s anti-Israel policies is that its proxies such as Hezbollah have sided with it against the Iranian people during the various uprisings of the Iranian people against the regime. This is despite the fact that they receive hundreds of millions of dollars a year in financial support from the regime, resources that the Iranian people desperately need to address their own domestic problems, such as fighting poverty, drought and unemployment.
Khamenei’s regime knows that its anti-Israeli policies are unpopular. “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life to Iran” was one of the main speeches during the 2009 Green Movement uprising against the regime’s support for anti-Israeli groups. It even attracted the attention of the Iranian leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a speech in January 2020 Ayatollah Khamenei directly condemned those chanting this slogan.
Another sign that confirms the regime’s awareness of the unpopularity of its anti-Israeli policies is that the subject is often censored in the Iranian press and during elections. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a few articles or statements in the Iranian press discussing the pros and cons of the regime’s anti-Israeli policies, including its support for anti-Israeli groups throughout the Middle East. . This is in direct contrast to Iran’s relationship with the US — a topic that is widely discussed and debated in the Iranian press and academic circles.
The second reason is probably the decline in the demand of the IRGC over the years. This began after the 2009 uprising and has been exacerbated by the growing role of the IRGC in the Iranian economy and the many reports of its involvement in widespread corruption. The desire of the IRGC peaked after the release of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on January 8, 2020, following the US assassination of IRGC leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad several days earlier. For three days, the IRGC lied about the cause of the crash, which killed all 176 passengers on board. This also helps explain the lack of sympathy for Iranian IRGC casualties in Syria.
Third, the regime’s defense-industrial complex and its nuclear program are seen as opaque, non-transparent industries in the hands of corrupt organizations like the IRGC. The Iranian public is not allowed to voice their opinion in debates about the funding or transparency of the industry. In addition, the Iranian public has no opinions about the export of Iranian weapons to support brutal regimes such as those of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Vladimir Putin in Russia.
So far, the regime has not acknowledged the lack of sympathy the Iranian people have shown for the reported Israeli attacks inside and outside Iran. Nor did he do much to remedy the situation. One likely explanation for this is that he is concerned that if he changes his nuclear or regional policies in the Middle East, the Iranian people would see it as a sign of weakness. This could encourage them to demand more changes to other unpopular policies at home and abroad.
The lack of empathy shown by the Iranian public has not been noticed by the Israeli press, although it is likely that the country’s decision makers have noticed it. Almost all Israeli leaders see the Iranian people as friends of Israel, and as a common ally against the Iranian regime. Israeli leaders take their views seriously. It is likely that Israeli decision makers will view the Iranian public’s silence as a sign that the reported attacks against regime installations and forces in Syria are acceptable, at least to the Iranian public.
And who can blame them? The Iranian public even strongly suspects that the poisoning of hundreds of girls in schools across the country may have been in retaliation for the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement that began in September 2022 as part of the regime’s latest crackdown on anti-regime protesters. Saddam is not worth doing that. It is understandable that most Iranians see the regime as their greatest enemy. They also see Israel as the greatest enemy of their oppressors, and as the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Meir Javedanfar, Ph.D., is an Iranian-Israeli lecturer, author and commentator. He has been teaching Iranian politics at Reichman University in Israel since 2012 and is a non-resident scholar with the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.
Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images
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