For months, Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. The United States has urged restraint. If such an operation were launched, how might Tehran react?
Hamid has been awake since midnight, when Israeli bombs struck the Tehran Nuclear Research Center in nearby Amirabad. The boom reverberated throughout the city nearby, sending plumes of smoke into the night. Sirens punctuated the hours till the gray-pink dawn. With the Internet down, Hamid crouches before Radio Tehran, which reports that key nuclear sites at Arak, Natanz and Isfahan have also been hit.
He is surprised that the Israeli planes skipped Fordow, the site built under a fortified mountain near Qom. The war games that he and his colleagues conducted last summer at Shahid Beheshti University, where he teaches political science, placed the Fordow facility at the top of the expected strike list. Recently a military commander called Israel’s threats “hollow” and another said Iran would “welcome” an attack. He thinks about these men now, wondering whether they feel pleased or, like him, dead sick with terror.
Hamid walks to the supermarket on the corner. A crowd of people, some of them his neighbors, presses against the windows and bangs on the door, shouting for the owner to open. Shopping has been tense ever since sanctions turned chicken into a luxury good, but today everyone is frantic. When the owner admits them, anxious shoppers sweep cookies off the shelves. A young woman screams that her baby is allergic to milk: “Where is the formula?” Hamid backs away from the shop.
He flicks on the television at home; the state channel shows emergency workers in white hazmat suits carrying stretchers out of the dusty rubble outside Isfahan. All 1,000 workers at the plant have been killed, and winds are sweeping toxic smoke toward the nearby city. The supreme leader’s war council must be sitting on a woolen rug at Khamenei’s guarded house, appraising the damage to the nuclear sites and calibrating its response. The ticker at bottom of the TV screen says the price of crude oil has jumped to $130 a barrel.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemns the attacks and warns that his country’s airspace is off limits to “further aggression.” Iraq and Iran have grown friendlier since the end of the U.S. war, and Maliki might be willing to look the other way should some Iraqi pipelines mysteriously explode, diverting millions of barrels from the market. Hamid knows that the clerics want to avoid a regional war, but they can destabilize the world economy without going to such lengths. He thinks of the relief that Bashar al-Assad must be feeling in Syria, his regime bought precious days by Iran’s misfortune.
In the morning rush hour, cars whiz past billboards of smiling clerics on the expressway; everyone’s moving fast save for those in the two-block-long line at the nearest gas station. Hamid’s political-theory class starts at 10 a.m., but he has left early to see if he can get online at work; he must e-mail his daughter in Los Angeles to say he’s safe.
The authorities have shut down the cellphone network, worried that Israel’s agents will report back via the phone lines and that the Iranian opposition will scramble to exploit the chaos. The radio reports that the Islamic Association of Students has gathered outside the Swiss Embassy, which looks after U.S. interests in Iran, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” pelting rocks and tossing gasoline bombs over the concrete walls. These are the Basij front line, Hamid knows, the militiamen organized by the government.
He parks his Kia in the staff lot, wondering which former student he can reach to find out how officials are reacting. Most of Hamid’s students go on to key posts in the diplomatic corps and the Revolutionary Guard; he has supervised at least 20 theses gaming out precisely what might happen in this scenario, watched as his students defended their conclusions with glistening eyes, their fervor evident. Not all of them had itched for war with Israel, he reminds himself. Maybe just half.
After his class, in which rattled students argued that Iran should move to weaponize its nuclear program immediately, Hamid watches the supreme leader address the country, transfixed by the elderly mullah’s forceful calm. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never captured even a glint of his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini’s legendary fire. Today, however, his oratory is masterful. He vows that Iran will not be defeated, that the great nation will retaliate and bring the Zionist enemy to its knees.
The speech is over, and the broadcast cuts to images of Tehran’s snow-capped Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea, set to “Vatanam,” a patriotic song of his youth. Hamid’s eyes fill with tears. He is a secular aristocrat by birth, the grandson of a shah’s cabinet minister, trained in Weber and Rousseau, but he is not above being moved by nationalism. Today it is not propaganda; it is genuine solidarity.
On the way home, he passes Pars Hospital and sees swarms of people pushed back by navy-clad riot police. He leans out the car’s window to ask a flower vendor what’s happening. “They’ve been coming since morning; they want masks and oxygen tanks.”
The radio reports that Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah rockets are striking cities in Israel; already there are 10 dead in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. Hamid wonders why these strikes are Iran’s only military response. The Israeli attacks must have been only moderately damaging, he suspects; the commanders must know that the most advanced nuclear facilities have been spared. Their retaliation will be oblique and stealthy, designed to inflict economic damage by taking oil off the market. The Revolutionary Guard’s cyber-army will hack into the computer systems of countries controlling oil delivery throughout the Persian Gulf. The Saudis and the Qataris will be livid, but what can they do? Syria, emboldened by Iraq’s response, denounces the attacks.
At a big highway intersection, Hamid sees masses of young people assembled, some in black chadors, others with oversize sunglasses pushed back on their headscarves. They are singing “Ey Iran,” the country’s popular anthem, and holding hands, men and women alike. No one tells them not to. “O enemy, if you are of stone, I am of steel,” they sing, their voices rising over the traffic.
Later that afternoon, Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guard, a squat man with winged eyebrows, addresses the nation while sitting before a faded world map. He tells Iranians not to panic, that they are in no danger of radiation, and he exhorts them to defend the motherland as they did during the “Holy Defense” against Iraq three decades ago. He says that the Guard is planning to line the Iranian side of the Persian Gulf with mines and that enemies’ oil tankers will seek to cross at their peril.
As an amber dusk settles, Hamid drives to the Alborz foothills, to the home of a top Khamenei adviser whose brother directs the university where Hamid teaches. After stopping at a checkpoint, he continues on to the two-story villa. Inside, the men sit on the floor, leaning back against tulip-patterned cushions. They are all there: Jafari; the war council; Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba. As Hamid suspected, the Natanz centrifuges are only partially damaged and can be repaired within a year, barring further strikes. This is why Tehran has not yet lashed out, has held back from igniting Saudi Arabia’s eastern oil fields and attacking U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through its proxies.
The Americans have sent messages through the Turks and the Swiss asking for direct talks to end the hostilities. The men drink tea and talk heatedly, concluding that they must accede. Iran must resurrect the nuclear program at all costs; that is what matters most. They will threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, to pummel Israel with rockets, to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but they will contain themselves, determined to salvage the program that is their salvation. Their expressions are serious, but Hamid notices a lightness in their postures; the country, they know, is united in wrath behind them.
Azadeh Moaveni, a journalist based in Britain, is the author of “Lipstick Jihad” and “Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran.”