The silence from Iran is deafening. Judging by social media reactions and media reports from Iran, few, if any, members of the Iranian public seem to care that, since 2011, the Israeli air force has attacked Iranian and Iranian-affiliated positions in Syria on more than a thousand occasions.
More surprisingly, few members of the Iranian public seem to care that these attacks have reportedly killed a number of Iranian members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
There have also been numerous reports that Israel has attacked 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, an author and a senior reporter for BBC Persian, even believe that some in Esfahan and elsewhere in Iran are happy that Israel reportedly attacked the military site 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 were killed, injured, and traumatized as a result of this conflict. History has shown time and again that Iranians are extremely sensitive about foreign countries challenging Iran’s sovereignty or attacking its soldiers.
So why is it that no one in Iran seems to care that Israel is attacking and, according to some reports, even killing Iranian members of the IRGC in Syria? Why are there no mass, spontaneous grassroots demonstrations by the people of Iran against attacks attributed by the international press to Israel on Iranian soil?
First, it is because the majority of Iranians seem to be opposed to the regime’s foreign policy, especially its anti-Israel policy. Support for anti-Israel terror groups in the Middle East has brought no benefits for the people of Iran. What has added to the unpopularity of the regime’s anti-Israel policies is that during various uprisings by the people of Iran against the regime, its proxies like Hezbollah have stood with it against the people of Iran. This is while they enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars every year in financial support from the regime, resources which the people of Iran desperately need to address their own domestic problems, such as fighting poverty, drought, and unemployment.
The Khamenei regime is aware of the unpopularity of its anti-Israel policies. “No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran” was one of the main chants during the 2009 Green Movement uprising in opposition to the regime’s support for anti-Israel groups. It even caught the attention of Iran's leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In a speech in January 2020 Ayatollah Khamenei directly condemned those chanting this slogan.
Another sign that attests to the regime’s awareness of the unpopularity of its anti-Israel policies is the fact that the topic is often censored in the Iranian press and during elections. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a few articles or statements in the Iranian press that debate the advantages and disadvantages of the regime’s anti-Israel policies, including its support for anti-Israel groups across the Middle East. This is in direct contrast to Iran's relations with the U.S. — a topic that is widely discussed and debated in Iran's press and academic circles.
The second reason is likely the IRGC’s declining popularity over the years. This started after the 2009 uprising and was exacerbated by the IRGC’s growing role in the Iranian economy and numerous reports of its involvement in widespread corruption. The IRGC’s unpopularity peaked after the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8, 2020, following the U.S. 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 to explain the lack of empathy towards Iran's IRGC casualties in Syria.
Third, the regime’s defense-industrial complex and its nuclear program are viewed as opaque, non-transparent industries in the hands of corrupt organizations like the IRGC. The Iranian public is not allowed to voice its opinions in debates over the funding or transparency of the industry. Additionally, the Iranian public has no say over the export of Iranian weapons to support brutal regimes like those of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Vladimir Putin in Russia.
To date, the regime has not acknowledged the lack of sympathy shown by the people of Iran towards Israel’s reported attacks both inside and outside of Iran. Nor it has done much to remedy the situation. One probable explanation for this is because it is concerned that if it changes its nuclear or regional policies in the Middle East, the people of Iran may view it as a sign of weakness. This could encourage them to demand more changes to other unpopular policies both at home and abroad.
The lack of empathy shown by the Iranian public is not something that has been noticed by Israel’s press, although it likely has been noted by the country’s decision makers. Almost all Israeli leaders view the people of Iran as friends of Israel, and as a common ally against the Iranian regime. Israeli leaders take their opinion seriously. The silence of the Iranian public is likely to be viewed by Israel’s decision makers as a sign that the reported attacks against regime installations and forces in Syria are, at the very least, acceptable to the Iranian public.
And who can blame them? The Iranian public even harbors deep suspicion that the regime’s latest crackdown on anti-regime protesters might have included the poisoning of hundreds of girls in schools across the country in revenge for the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement that began in September 2022. Not even Saddam did that. It’s understandable that most Iranians see the regime as their biggest enemy. They also see Israel as the biggest enemy of their oppressor, 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.
Second publication by courtesy of Middle East Institute, Original-Text