The decades since the Islamic revolution have weighed heavy on the people of Iran. Living in fear, under extreme levels of surveillance and oppression, ordinary citizens have seen their quality of life plummet and their horizons shrink, as their country became an international pariah. Those who dared to protest have been brutally repressed by regime goons with knives, axes and heavy weaponry. And while forced to suffer the deprivation of draconian sanctions, hardworking families could only look on as their despotic leaders splurged billions of dollars on military meddling overseas.
When the senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar boasted in December that the regime had given him £15.8 million of government money, Farsi social media lit up in rage. The average wage in Iran may be hovering around £1,500 a year, but Iranian cash now funds 80 per cent of the threats facing Israel, intelligence sources tell me.
Yet it is surely a powerful tribute to the rich and ancient Persian civilisation that despite all the anguish imposed by these deeply malevolent rulers – and despite the constant waves of anti-Western propaganda – the public remains the most tolerant in the region.
It goes without saying that decent opinion polls from inside Iran are non-existent. The few that have been conducted over social media are too unreliable to cite, relying on small sample sizes with no proper weighting. But vivid indications can be found elsewhere.
Take attitudes towards Israel, always a useful barometer of the health of public opinion. Shortly after the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh near Tehran last year, two banners appeared on a prominent bridge nearby. The first was a handmade sign saying, ‘thank you Mossad’. The second was an Israeli flag.
This was more than a stunt by a small number of near-suicidal activists. It represented a strong pattern of pro-Israel sentiment in the country. If you search Farsi social media in the aftermath of any Israeli attack on Iranian forces in Syria, you’ll find an outpouring of jubilation. If you visit key sites in Iran, where Israeli flags have been painted on the floor to be trampled, you will see passers-by carefully avoiding them. And if you’re in Iran for Quds Day – the annual carnival of hatred where Israeli and American flags are burned – you’ll notice that it is rather less popular than the state-controlled media likes to suggest.
Last week, the Iranian judo champion Saeid Mollaei, who accepted a life of exile rather than refuse to compete against Israelis, took part in a tournament in Tel Aviv. He was welcomed to the country by the Israeli Judo champion Sagi Muki, who called the Iranian his ‘brother’.
Mollaei was one of many young Iranian athletes from conservative roots who used their profession as a means to escape and take a public stand against the Ayatollahs. And it is not only the younger generation that is liberalising.
After the Islamic revolution of 1979, ordinary Iranians tended to embrace the anti-Israeli and anti-Western slogans pumped out by the new rulers. Not anymore. Pro-Israel views range from an ‘Iran first’ indifference to the Jewish state – a popular slogan is ‘Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life only for Iran’ – to out-and-out Iranian pro-Zionism, which is tied into a hatred for the theocracy that makes hell out of daily life.
In such a corrupt, statist country, huge numbers of people rely for their living on the government, and this has traditionally helped to keep any resistance in check. And citizens have previously put up with the oppression partly out of a hope for reform. But the bite of sanctions is making people bolder. Sporadic demonstrations are put down with increasing levels of lethality, to which the public is gradually becoming inured. Perhaps the only thing saving the Ayatollah is the absence of a well-organised opposition.
From the regime’s point of view, all of this makes the threat of popular uprising very real. The authorities are in a constant state of alert, clamping down on organised groups such as labour unions in a desperate bid to cauterise any roots of dissent. State surveillance has become absurdly extensive. In fact, Israeli intelligence sources have told me that their spies are able to operate so effectively in Iran because the security services are burdened by having to monitor such large numbers of their own citizens.
Recently, while briefing off-the-record on aggressive operations targeting the Tehran regime, an Israeli official described the place as a ‘beautiful country with beautiful people’. ‘We are aiming to defend ourselves, not harm them,’ the source told me.
In this statement, I found great hope. Israel and Iran may be sworn enemies, but take the regime away and there is no bad feeling. In their deep tolerance, the people of Iran are remarkable. The international community must not lose its affection for them, or allow their reputation to be contaminated by their oppressors. Iran: we love you; we respect you; we are waiting for you. One day, there will be peace.
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