Iranians on edge as leaders say ‘Tel Aviv is our battleground’

Tehran is tense, two days after Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel.

Worried about war and its impact on Iran’s already flailing economy, a significant proportion of Iranians oppose what they see as the reckless adventurism of the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which fired more than 300 drones and missiles on Saturday night.

In a letter sent to BBC Persian, a long list of Iranian activists both inside the country and abroad criticised the IRGC’s actions and saying “No to warmongering!”

Many Iranians also see the Iran-Israel confrontation now emerging from the shadows as being orchestrated by the Iranian government rather than reflective of the will of the Iranian people.

This perception is underscored by a heavy police presence on the streets of Tehran – ostensibly about enforcing strict Islamic dress codes requiring women to cover their hair but which many suspect is mainly about crushing any possible protests.

Some decision-makers fear that if Iranian security forces and the IRGC’s command centres are hit in a war with Israel and the US, this could reignite nationwide protests that erupted in 2022 after the death of a young woman in police custody.

Some graffiti has appeared on walls in Iranian cities – “Israel, strike the supreme leader’s [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s] house,” reads one. “Israel hit them, they lack the courage to retaliate,” read another.

The government has its own billboards – “Tel Aviv is our battleground, not Tehran,” reads one.

Supplied "Tel Aviv is our battleground not Tehran," says a propaganda billboard in the Iranian capitalSupplied
“Tel Aviv is our battleground not Tehran”, says a propaganda billboard in the Iranian capital

Immediately after the IRGC attack, supporters of the Islamic Republic celebrated and a banner warning Israelis that “the next slap will be fiercer” was hung from a building in Tehran.

“I believe it was the right decision to attack Israel to prevent further killings of Iranian commanders in Syria and elsewhere,” one woman said in a voice message sent to BBC Persian.

But another said: “Iranians themselves are in a state of war with the current regime. We harbour no animosity towards any nation, including Israel.”

Meanwhile a woman said she was concerned about a wider war. Such fears appeared to prompt people to scramble to stock up on essentials like food and fuel, with pictures showing queues forming outside petrol stations in Tehran and supermarkets inundated with shoppers.

With the official inflation rate standing at just over 40% and tens of millions of people struggling with the cost of living, a military confrontation with Israel was the last thing most Iranians wanted.

The value of the Iranian rial fell against the US dollar after the IRGC attack, as it had already done after Israel’s earlier attack on the Iranian consulate in Syria.

Many worry that, sooner or later, the military escalations will hike the prices of many goods, from mobile phones to home appliances and many foodstuffs.

EPA tehran billboardEPA
A Tehran billboard showcasing the country’s missile capability

The Iranian government sets the price of some essential items such as bread and fuel, and lets many items be imported on a preferential exchange rate (in other words cheap foreign currency). But still the price of many goods follow the open market exchange rate.

Iran’s economy has been struggling since the US left an international deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in 2018 and re-imposed crippling sanctions, particularly curbing Iran’s ability to export crude oil.

On Tuesday, Iranian newspapers were focusing on international pressure on Israel to show restraint but also attempting to allay any economic concerns.

Iran’s press – which reflects a range of political viewpoints, albeit within unwritten rules – has been largely supportive of the IRGC action.

Keyhan insisted that there was “economic calm by showing Iran’s power”. Hardline Vatan-e Emrouz said Sunday night’s emergency UN Security Council meeting called by Israel was a “night of isolation” for Israel, while reformist newspaper Arman-e Emrouz noted a “global wave to end tensions in the Middle East”.

Online, the Islamic Republic’s supporters have been posting under the Persian-language hashtags #punishing_the_aggressor and #we_made_them_regretful.

However critical posts under the English hashtag #IRGCterrorists have swept Persian-language X, urging Western countries to designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation and paying tribute to protesters that they say the IRGC and other security forces killed during the 2022 nationwide protests.

Popular former footballer Ali Karimi, also based outside Iran, meanwhile posted a photo of intertwined hands overlaid with the Israeli flag and a previous version of the Iranian flag that was in use before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

“We are Iran, not the Islamic republic,” he said.

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