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They Risked Their Lives for Freedom in Iran. Now They Fear Israel’s Bombs.

Having survived waves of domestic repression, protesters in Iran are now in the crosshairs of Israeli bombs.

A girl in a black hoodie with her back turned to the camera makes a peace sign while standing beside a painting reading "Women, life, freedom," in Tehran, Iran, on November 22, 2022.

In fall 2022, they were on the streets of Tehran facing down Iranian riot police.

Chanting “Woman, Life, Freedom,” their voices captured the world’s attention — until their friends were shot, loved ones arrested, and they were forced to run for their lives.

Less than two years later, those same protesters now face a very different kind of danger.

Having survived waves of domestic repression, they are now in the crosshairs of Israeli bombs.

“In the protests, we found a strength to fight for our lives, our future, and our freedom,” Banafsheh, an activist from Tehran who requested to use a pseudonym to protect her from state repression, told me in a phone interview. “Even though we were defeated on the street, the ideas we fought for changed us — and they changed society.”

“But Israel’s attacks on Iran have made people afraid. War will not lead to a better future,” she added. “Look at Gaza. Has Israel freed the Palestinians?”

Banafsheh has been part of Iran’s pro-democracy movement for two decades. A civil society activist, she has been detained and interrogated repeatedly. Previously a journalist, she was banned by the government from working as retribution for her activism.

One thing she has learned from her years in the underground movement is that “change can only come from within Iranian society.”

“Some people in Iran thought Western governments would stand with Iranian protesters. But those same governments make deals with lots of countries that abuse human rights. They’re just interested in their own power,” she told me.

Although she is forbidden by Iranian authorities from leaving the country, Banafsheh told me in no uncertain terms: “If I could, I would go to Palestine to fight alongside them against Israel. That’s how vital of an issue this is for me.”

Payam, a graduate student at University of Tehran who also took part in the 2022 protests and spoke to Truthout on condition of anonymity, told me that he believed Israel’s attempts to goad Iran into war undermined pro-democracy movements inside the country.

“The more Israel militarizes the situation,” he told me, “the worse things become for us. When a military mindset becomes dominant, it creates an anti-democratic environment. When you’re a dissident,” he added, “you become considered a traitor.”

A Cold War Heats Up

Never before have Israel and Iran been as close to war as they were this month.

On April 1, Israel bombed Iran’s embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing 16 people. Two weeks later, Iran hit Israeli territory with a missile barrage, leaving one wounded. On April 19, Israel struck military sites inside Iran.

While Iran’s direct attack on Israel was unprecedented, it followed a decade and a half of Israeli attacks inside Iran. These have largely targeted its nuclear program, which Iran insists is for civil energy use but Israel considers a military threat.

Since Israel’s embassy attack, Iranians have witnessed scenes rare since the 2022 protests. Morality police have flooded the streets of Tehran.

Israel has used agents and drones to assassinate scientists and generals on Iran’s streets, cyberwarfare to target the program Iranians use to fill their cars with gasoline, and remote explosions to hit its military bases.

Israel pulled the strings from afar. But on April 1, by bombing part of Iran’s embassy, it engaged in a massive escalation.

An embassy is considered a country’s inviolable sovereign territory under international law. Yet Western powers failed to condemn the attack, setting a dangerous precedent. This infuriated many Iranians, who saw it as a double standard. An attack on Israel’s embassy in Washington D.C., for example, would surely be condemned around the globe.

Two weeks later, when Iran responded with a strike on Israel, it was arguably re-establishing deterrence — making the point that it would respond when attacked.

The artillery barrage created shock and awe across the region. Never before had Iran so directly confronted Israel.

While Israelis fled to underground shelters, Palestinians across the West Bank, where there are no shelters, took to the streets to watch.

For most, it was the first time they’d seen another country attack Israel, under whose occupation they’ve lived since 1967.

“We followed the news on TV, and then went outside and couldn’t believe it — there they were in our skies!” Samir, a Palestinian artist in Bethlehem told me in a phone interview. “People paid close attention because they’re desperate to stop the war.”

He said many Palestinians initially celebrated the attack because they saw it as a hope to stop the violence they are faced with on a daily basis.

Israel’s invasion of Gaza has killed at least 34,000 Palestinians since October, leaving 1.8 million people displaced and facing starvation due to Israel’s limits on aid. Thousands have been abducted by the Israeli military while many bodies remain in the rubble, including in mass graves that are being discovered in areas Israel has withdrawn from.

Simultaneously, Israel has tightened its grip on the West Bank. While Israeli settlers move freely, 3 million Palestinians live under military curfew. A wave of attacks by Israeli settlers has forced thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes, and Israel recently announced the largest confiscation of West Bank land since the early 1990s. Israeli forces carry out nightly raids and have killed hundreds and arrested thousands of Palestinians.

Samir said he was arrested and beaten himself a few weeks before our call.

“I was sleeping in bed with my 2-year-old daughter,” he told me. “Suddenly, I woke up; when my eyes opened, there was a gun in my face, and my home was full of Israeli soldiers.”

“They handcuffed me, screamed at me, took me to a detention center and interrogated me for nine hours about one of my relatives,” he added. “I told them I didn’t know where he was. ‘But what does that have to do with me?’ I asked. They told me directly: ‘This is collective punishment.’”

“What Has the Effect on the Ground Been?

Samir has never known a life free of Israel’s occupation.

He grew up in a refugee camp, home to descendants of Palestinians who fled villages destroyed by Israel in the 1948 war. He watched Israel promise to allow Palestinian self-determination in the 1993 Oslo Accords — only to immediately begin construction on Jewish-only settlements that today ring Bethlehem on every side, making a Palestinian state impossible to even imagine.

“My message to people abroad is that we don’t just need a ceasefire where things return to what they were before. We want freedom.”

“The settlements, the checkpoints, the apartheid wall, the prisons — all of them are symptoms,” he told me. “The cause is the colonial regime we live under.”

“Israel doesn’t want Palestinians to exist,” he added. “In Gaza, we’re seeing what they do when they know there is no accountability — when no one tries to stop them.”

As we spoke, Samir’s voice hesitated. “It’s impossible to talk freely. Everything we say is surveilled. All of our calls are listened to. There are drones flying 24 hours a day above Bethlehem. You can lose your life for saying much less than I’ve said so far.”

After a moment, he continued.

“But I will say that when Iran attacked Israel, it was crazy to see the occupier targeted. We are facing a genocide and repression on a daily basis. Any response that stops the violence, even if temporarily, is important for us.”

But while Iran’s attack brought fear into Israelis’ homes, Samir pointed out that it had little effect on the ground.

“Iran struck Israel,” he said. “But Palestinians are still being killed. So was this all just political theater?”

He also pointed out that Iran’s attack had even potentially helped Israel, since Western countries that had been more openly criticizing the country before the attack quickly came to its defense against Iran.

“All I’ve seen since the attack is that the U.S. is helping Israel more and Israeli troops have become even more vicious against us,” he added.

In Iran as well, the ratcheting up of hostilities has been accompanied by spiraling domestic repression.

Since Israel’s embassy attack, Iranians have witnessed scenes rare since the 2022 protests. Morality police have flooded the streets of Tehran, arresting women deemed “improperly covered” according to the mandatory dress code, which stipulates they cover their heads and bodies. Grainy videos show women being beaten and dragged into vans as they resist arrest.

“Whenever this government feels vulnerable or weak abroad, it makes a show of force against internal dissidents,” Payam, the graduate student in Tehran, told me. “Just like in the 1980s war with Iraq, when it was losing the war, it would crack down on the domestic front, for example by executing political prisoners.”

The recent death sentence handed out to dissident rapper Toomaj Salehi — who became a well-known figure in the 2022 protest movement — underscores his point.

After the 2022 protests, morality police largely disappeared from Tehran’s streets. Even though the laws didn’t change and parliament even passed harsher laws, in practice many women flouted them and authorities backed off of enforcement.

“Tehran before and after the protests was a totally different city,” Banafsheh told me.

But in recent months, government supporters urged authorities to crack down. Amid regional tensions, authorities recently decided to comply.

Mohsen Hesam Mazaheri, a prominent Tehran-based sociologist, described the battle over hijab enforcement as an “excuse.”

“The central problem,” he wrote, “is the [state’s] political will for complete domination over the street.”

Banafsheh argued that society had changed so much that authorities would ultimately fail. She described the move as an attempt to scare people and shore up faith among government supporters.

She had faith in Iranians’ ability to continue fighting for democracy. But she feared U.S. policies to put pressure on Iran’s government had undermined their struggle.

“Sanctions have weakened Iranians, not our government. We are poorer than before. The middle and working class, the people who should be strong to push back on the government, are struggling and marginalized,” she told me. “People are hungry, tired and scared.”

Since the early 2010s, successive U.S. presidents have imposed sanctions on Iran that have strangled the economy. When the U.S. and Iran signed the 2015 Nuclear Deal, many hoped the cycle of sanctions and threats of war would end.

But in 2017, Trump ripped up the deal and reimposed sanctions. Millions of Iranians entered poverty. And the Iranian reformists who argued that Iran could trust the U.S. lost credibility. After highly restricted elections in 2021, hardcore government loyalists have come to power.

Shortages of medicine have become common across Iran, causing untold hardship and unnecessary deaths. The value of Iran’s currency has tanked by 98 percent since sanctions were first imposed, meaning that prices across the board have soared astronomically.

Those I spoke to in Iran agreed that if the U.S. wanted to help Iranians, it needed to lift sanctions. This in turn could create an opening for a new deal that could avoid war.

“We Want Freedom”

Just like Iran, Gaza was put under an economic blockade by Israel for nearly 20 years, with a similar goal of weakening Hamas. The blockade weakened Gaza’s economy, impoverished its people, and left Hamas the strongest force in Gaza.

Both Gaza and Iran show how sanctions have had the opposite effect their supporters claim they will. And they underline that the only way out of this situation is to end the cycle of militarization — and return to diplomacy.

“The U.S. needs to fight for peace and put pressure on Israel,” Payam told me. “If Biden had done that, this situation between Israel and Iran wouldn’t have happened. The central issue is stopping this war and helping the Palestinian people.”

Back in Bethlehem, Samir argued that people in countries like the U.S. that support Israel’s occupation had a duty to act.

“This is our home. We just want to live in our land and to protect our lives and our children,” he told me, his voice breaking. “We have nowhere else to go.”

“My message to people abroad is that we don’t just need a ceasefire where things return to what they were before,” he said, pointing out that Israel’s occupation long predates the current situation. “We want freedom.”

“My responsibility is to be steadfast and not leave my land. Yours is to stop the bloodshed.”