In early April, the world held its breath as Israel and Iran looked like they would go to war. Not the stealth shadow war that the two countries have waged for years, but a catastrophic hot war that would annihilate the Middle East and upend the global security order. 

As the world anxiously watched the news — of Iran’s long-expected retaliation for Israel’s bombing of Iran’s Damascus consulate, of Israel’s response and the shuttle diplomacy urging restraint on both sides — one thing was noticeably missing from the coverage. There was no mention of the feelings of ordinary Iranians. Already suffering under an economy in freefall, rampant inflation and the violent repression of women’s rights by roving Morality Police, Western media showed only images of Iranians celebrating Iran’s retaliatory attacks in Tehran’s Palestine Square. 

As is so often the case in coverage of Iran, these images did not represent the feelings of average Iranians. When I spoke to contacts in Iran, many expressed fear, disappointment and fatigue as they watched the events unfold on their televisions. Some recalled the hardships the country endured during the horrific Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). The younger generation who spearheaded the Woman Life Freedom protests are too young to have lived through the war, but have heard stories from their parents about rations, nightly bombings and growing up in an atmosphere of fear and instability. 

“I saw how traumatized they are at the thought of another war,” said a female 20-year-old university student in Isfahan, one of the targets of Israel’s April 19 retaliatory bombing. “They have been dreading an all-out war with Israel ever since Ayatollah Khomeini started supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian groups when he took power in 1979, giving them so much of our money which could be used to solve Iran’s problems.”

When I spoke to contacts in Iran, many expressed fear, disappointment and fatigue as they watched the events unfold on their televisions.

One of her friends, also studying in Isfahan, noted that state resources were also likely behind the images of Iranians publicly celebrating the strikes on Israel. “The people [seen on television] celebrating are regime stooges,” she said. “They are paid to project support for the regime and its actions. We are used to these people being carted out every time they need a photo op to frighten the West, but I don’t know a single person who wants this. It’s just propaganda. We’re used to it.”

A third university student noted that, while in Iran there is widespread support for the Palestinian people, there is little appetite for the Iranian regime’s policy of diverting money to Hezbollah and Hamas. 

“Even my parents’ generation and the one involved in the revolution of 1979 — they never meant for our country’s resources to support those groups,” she said. “In Iran, people are falling into poverty every day and inflation is so bad that you don’t know if your salary can cover the price of bread tomorrow. It’s criminal of the regime to be funding these groups when they should be supporting the Iranian people. We feel like we aren’t safe from our own regime, and we aren’t safe from foreign regimes. We are being squeezed from all sides.”

After Israel and Iran drew back from escalating the conflict in April, ordinary Iranians were relieved that the immediate danger had receded. But they know regional tensions remain high, and the stakes of further conflict enormous — both for the world and the future of Iranian society. Many of the students in Isfahan and around Iran continue to risk their lives protesting mandatory hijabs for women and other discriminatory laws, and fear that the Woman Life Freedom would be an early casualty of war. 

“We fear that at any moment, we will be at war, and people would rally behind the regime, just as during the Iran-Iraq war,” said one of the students. “That is the worst thing that could happen for the movement, which we are sure will eventually win us our freedom.”

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