Fear Hits Tehran Over What Might Come Next
Protesters march during a demonstration following the U.S. airstrike in Iraq which killed a top Iranian commander, in Tehran, Iran. (Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg)  

Fear Hits Tehran Over What Might Come Next

(Bloomberg) -- Their supreme leader promised revenge and thousands gathered in Tehran to watch American flags burn, but any show of defiance after the assassination of their most prominent military man is laced with anguish for many Iranians.

In the capital, the strike that took out Al Quds commander Qassem Soleimani capped a year that had already been dominated by turmoil and fear as the country’s finances crumbled, the authorities struggled to contain civil unrest, and provocation of the U.S. backfired.

“It's a nerve-racking situation that only adds to the likelihood of more unforeseen circumstances,” said Hossein, 44, sitting on a park bench in central Tehran with a newspaper. “We’re in a tinderbox ready to explode. I'm afraid of a chain of aggressive reactions that will throw the political and economic situation into further chaos and uncertainty.”

Fear Hits Tehran Over What Might Come Next

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened “severe retaliation” for Soleimani’s killing by an American drone in Iraq, though what that might entail is unclear. U.S. sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy and any form of war with the U.S. would likely be unsustainable for the Islamic Republic. President Hassan Rouhani said the response would be long and drawn out and referred to the reaction to the coup that reinstated the Shah in 1953.

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said his administration took action to stop a war rather than start one. Two officials said the military is deploying an additional 2,800 troops to the Middle East after the escalation of tension.

“The killing of an Iranian general by a foreign government is deplorable and unforgivable and I hope that Iran will respond with tact and patience just the way they have done so far,” said Ali, 32, an economic graduate hovering near a Tehran bookstore. “But I’m scared of the breakout of a war. The United States has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed.”

Like Hossein and others interviewed for this story, Ali declined to be identified by his full name when speaking to international media in a country that’s endured a torrid period.

Tehran’s strategy since Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that had promised rapprochement between Iran and the West has been to soak up the economic hit while flexing its muscle through proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. But people at home have grown increasingly weary—and wary.

Fear Hits Tehran Over What Might Come Next

Within the first few months of 2019, the U.S. allowed key oil waivers for Iran’s remaining crude customers to expire as part of its drive to wipe out the Islamic Republic’s main source of foreign exchange income. 

While inflation continued to hit consumer spending and many Iranians struggled to pay for staples such as meat, there were signs the currency was beginning to stabilize after the country limited foreign exchange outflows. 

But April’s move by the U.S. to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization triggered a series of tit-for-tat moves that brought more upheaval. They included a series of pinpoint attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf last year that culminated with a brazen attack on an oil facility in regional rival Saudi Arabia.

In September, Rouhani left the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the only last credible chance of reaching a detente with the U.S. without an agreement to lift sanctions and end the standoff with Washington. On his arrival in Tehran he faced the challenge of drafting Iran’s most draconian annual budget since the Iran-Iraq war if the 1980s.

Fear Hits Tehran Over What Might Come Next

By November, the bloodiest protests since the 1979 revolution plunged the country into a state of heightened security as authorities, unable to contain the unrest, switched-off access to the internet and launched a crackdown on dissent that killed some 304 people within several days, according to the London-based Amnesty International.

“How do they expect people to rally behind them and support their cause for vengeance when they beat the same people on the streets and cut their internet just a few weeks ago?” said Atena, 30. She expects action to avenge Soleimani. “I don’t think they should or will stay silent, but I don’t want to be part of the drama because this is their loss, not mine.”

Trump’s policies, in dismantling the nuclear deal and severely weakening the Rouhani government, cemented the Revolutionary Guards’ position as an organization effectively overseeing a parallel system of governance and law and order in the country. The sole objective is to preserve the hardline, Shiite ideology that underpins the Islamic Republic.

Had Soleimani been slain a year ago, nationalist fervor may have been far more pronounced. Iranians, though, are exhausted. People routinely evoke memories of the eight-year war with Iraq and its subsequent food rationing, and ask whether their sons will soon be called-up to enlist.

In the meantime, giant posters featuring Soleimani line the main avenues in Tehran and billboards commemorating the commander overlook traffic on the city’s biggest highways.  “Death to America” placards were distributed among crowds after Friday prayers and demonstrations were continuing on Saturday.

Hossein, sitting in a park away from any crowds, has hope that the ratcheting up of tension between Iran and U.S. will have some sort of silver lining in the near future.

“Maybe the escalation will prompt both sides to try and reach some sort of truce or agreement,” he said, “to prevent an even bigger disaster from unraveling.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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