Iran’s silence over possible reprisals against Israel poses domestic risks

<span>Iranians drive down a street next to a pro-Palestine poster in Tehran.</span><span>Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty</span>
Iranians drive down a street next to a pro-Palestine poster in Tehran.Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty

If Iran is on the brink of war with Israel, and possibly the US, astonishingly little is being done by the regime to prepare its people for the coming struggle. That may be because Iran does not want an all-out conflict.

Even Iranian reporters have noticed the silence and how the rhetoric of imminent war is largely being stoked by US intelligence officials in Washington. One Iranian reformist newspaper had five reports on a possible imminent attack on Israel, including predictions of hundreds of cruise missiles raining down on Israel, entirely based on US news outlets, such as CBS, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

US intelligence was entirely correct before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and if it is again today, the least that can be said is that Iran is simply not joining the war of narratives. The sabre rattling has, by Iranian standards, been low key.

That may be because Tehran does not want to give any clue to its plans, but that comes with domestic risks, even in such an authoritarian society.

Related: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seize Israeli-affiliated ship

The seizure of an Israeli-linked container ship, the MSC Aries, in the strait of Hormuz on Saturday, is important in that it strengthens a trade blockade against Israel. But the action as yet does not match the barrage of missiles the US media had been predicting.

Similarly, Iran is downplaying multiple instructions to foreign citizens to leave either Iran or Israel, and reports that embassies such as the Dutch one in Tehran are to close are being denied.

The lead item on the Iranian Students news agency on Saturday morning was about a clampdown on bad driving, and many of the Tehran Friday prayers eschewed attacks on the US in favour of religious themes or urging the police to go ahead on Saturday with the plan to fully enforce the compulsory hijab on Iranian women in the streets of Tehran.

Speculation about Iran’s wrestling contestants for the Paris Olympics occupies space. Apart from that, the continued slide in the Iranian rial and how it fuels poverty and inflation animates public debate.

The relative air of normality in Tehran struck some dissident commentators, such as the political analyst Ahmad Zeidabadi. He said the US media and some in the Iranian government seemed involved in a collective countdown to war, but all the official news channels continued as normal. In the streets of springtime Tehran, he said: “The possibility of war was not the concern for the people who crowded around the water to watch the dancing fountains. It’s as if they usually don’t follow the news related to mutual threats between Iran and Israel or don’t take them seriously.

“The few people who were interested in talking about it believed that at most something like the attack on the American base in al-Asad would happen [the Iraqi airbase housing US troops was attacked after the killing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps chief Qassem Suleimani]. As a result no serious US reaction would follow. My suggestion that repeating that kind of ‘reprisal’ this time may not be acceptable to the hardline supporters of the government and make things worse in terms of dignity – they considered it unimportant.”

The low-key approach may be because the Iranian regime does not want to stir up an atmosphere of fear. Equally, leaving the enemy guessing while the Israeli public listen out for air raid warnings is a small victory in itself.

It seems more likely, however, that the muted propaganda reflects the regime’s desire to contain its reprisal for the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus so the conflict does not subsequently spiral out of control. A population whipped up into war fever will hardly help dampen popular demand for more conflict.

Voices that doubt the war’s wisdom are being allowed a hearing on social media. Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador in Jordan, said: “The goals of those interested in expanding the war are clear, but the government and analysts should not exaggerate the attack on the consulate, which is not Iran’s territory! Israel has already invaded and carried out operations on Iranian soil. Iran’s current interests do not lie in expanding the war in the Middle East. It is a fatal miscalculation.”

Mohsen Abdollahi, a Tehran university professor, warned that any expansion of the conflict by Iran, and especially the threat of one on civilian areas, would completely change the situation against the government and would move the existing global consensus against Israel, against Iran.

Other dissidents said Iran’s theory of fighting war outside Iran’s walls and fighting through proxies has ended.