Iranians both nervous and relieved after narrow Israeli strike

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An uneasy calm settled over Iran on Friday as residents took stock of Israel’s pre-dawn strike in the central province of Isfahan.

The attack, which was narrow in scope, appeared aimed at de-escalating tensions, analysts and officials said, after a massive Iranian missile and drone attack against Israel last weekend.

But Iranians in Isfahan, which hosts sensitive military and nuclear facilities, said the strike was a reminder of how close the country has come to an all-out war, after years when Israel and Iran fought mainly in the shadows.

“This year, the talk of war feels much more real,” said a 33-year-old engineer and resident of the city of Isfahan, the provincial capital, near where the strikes took place. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal by Iranian security forces, and said he heard explosions early Friday.

“Some people are worried that the situation will get worse in the future and bombings will happen like during the war” between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, he said, adding that the incident “has become the only topic of people’s conversations, whether on the phone or face-to-face.”

Iranian officials and state media downplayed the attack, dismissing the strike as insignificant and saying the explosions reported in Isfahan, more than 200 miles south of Tehran, were from Iran’s air defenses intercepting drones.

Israel has made no official public comment on the strike, and the primary target remained unclear.

The narrative Friday was in sharp contrast to the fiery warnings Iran issued earlier this month after an Israeli strike on an Iranian consular building in Damascus, Syria, killed senior members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That attack prompted Iran to strike back at Israel last weekend, when it launched hundreds of drones and missiles, most of which were shot down by either Israel or the United States.

After Friday’s attack, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that “no damage has been reported in the incident.”

The muted response reflects a desire by Tehran “to quickly pretend that nothing happened,” said Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.

In Isfahan, a city famed for its ornate Islamic architecture, residents said that life continued normally on Friday but that the streets were quieter than usual. The city is the third-largest in Iran, with nearly 2 million residents and the spacious Meidan Emam square, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Today the city seems normal and quiet,” said Maryam, a 50-year-old retired factory worker. She spoke on the condition that she be identified by only her first name because of fears for her safety. Iran regularly cracks down on dissidents or others who speak openly about the country’s political and security situation.

Isfahan feels “suspiciously calm,” said Ashraf, a tailor. “Way calmer than normal.”

He said one of his sons heard explosions in the middle of the night, but the sound “was very weak and far away, so he just went back to sleep.”

Iran is eager to keep the public focus on its attack on Israel, which its government is framing as a success, Vatanka and other analysts said.

Later Friday, hours after the strike, the commander of Iran’s ground forces addressed a crowd of supporters in Tehran but didn’t specifically mention the attack in Isfahan.

Instead, Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heydari referred to the Iranian operation against Israel last weekend, according to excerpts of his speech broadcast on state TV.

Iran succeeded in “shattering” Israel’s “fake grandeur,” he said.

Israel and Iran have entered “a new equilibrium, not so different from the old one,” said Arash Azizi, a senior lecturer in political science and history at Clemson University. “The immediate threat of escalation has been lifted.”

Ahead of the strike, Iranian officials warned against an attack on the country’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack would cause Iran to “revise” its nuclear doctrine, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander said Thursday, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and denies seeking atomic weapons.

“If [Israel] wants to take action against our nuclear facilities, we will respond by attacking its nuclear sites using advanced weaponry,” said Ahmad Haghtalab, the Revolutionary Guard commander in charge of nuclear security.

Now, after days of bracing for an Israeli response, some Iranians felt relief at the news of a limited attack.

They circulated dark jokes online, mocking state media’s coverage of the strike. The only Iranian casualties were the result of laughter, one user posted on Instagram. Another suggested that if there were significant damage from the attack, the government would just deny that Isfahan even existed.

For others who have grown frustrated with Iran’s clerical rulers, a war would be welcome, they said, as long as it meant the government would fall.

“From the perspective of an Iranian woman, I have so many other concerns in my life that — and maybe this will seem odd to you — a strike from Israel doesn’t freak me out as much,” said a 40-year-old resident of Tehran.

“Being killed by the morality police is a much more real threat than being hit by a strike from Israel,” she said, referring to the special patrol unit that enforces, often violently, Iran’s strict Islamic dress codes.

George reported from Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and Tabrizy from New York.

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