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Iranians React to Tensions in Middle East with Sympathy, Fear

July 18, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Suddenly there is a new story on Iran’s front pages. The country’s nuclear standoff with the West is now below the fold. Temporarily, at least, it’s been eclipsed by the violence roiling the Middle East, and residents of Tehran have a new international crisis to discuss.

TEHRAN RESIDENT (through translator): I sympathize with the Lebanese, not just because they’re Muslims, but because they are human beings. They are people, and they have a right to live.

TEHRAN RESIDENT: This is not Iran’s business at all. This is something between Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah and other countries.

SIMON MARKS: That is not the way Israel, the U.S. and many European nations view things. A foreign ministry spokesman told reporters that Hezbollah is sufficiently strong, that it doesn’t need supplies from Iran or Syria, and he warned Israel against widening the current conflict.

HAMID REZA ASEFI, Spokesman, Iranian Foreign Ministry (through translator): We hope the Zionist regime does not make the mistake of attacking Syria; expanding the front of aggression and attacks will definitely face the Zionist regime unimaginable damages.

SIMON MARKS: Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is going even further. Weeks ago, he called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Now he’s publicly comparing the government in Tel Aviv to the Nazis whose World War II Holocaust he previously denied.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Every day there is an excuse. The Israelis say, “Mister, you took two of our soldiers.” They attack; they take out bridges; they hit infrastructure; they hit the water sources and the power plants.

People are in the streets. They bomb their homes. But you also imprison 10,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. You took innocent people to prison, so should they come attack you, too?

Involvement in the conflict

Saeed Shariati
Former Reformist Lawmaker
There must be an international consensus for stopping the violence in this region. Everyone must try to do this. Iran, for its part, has influence on Hezbollah and can convince it. On the other side, the West has influence on Israel.

SIMON MARKS: The Iranian government is walking a fine line. It did help establish Hezbollah in 1982 to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. It does allow Hezbollah to maintain an office in the Iranian capital, one that we have not been permitted to film.

And analysts in Tehran not affiliated with the government concede that Iran has been directly involved in Hezbollah's affairs in the past.

HOSSEIN HAFEZIAN, Political Scientist: I think there is no doubt that Hezbollah has quietly received financial assistance and other kinds of assistance from Iran. But it doesn't necessarily mean that Hezbollah takes orders from Iran for every action or plan that it wants (inaudible)

SIMON MARKS: Reformers in Iran are urging the government to help tamp down the violence. Saeed Shariati is a former member of the Iranian parliament.

SAEED SHARIATI, Former Reformist Lawmaker (through translator): There must be an international consensus for stopping the violence in this region. Everyone must try to do this. Iran, for its part, has influence on Hezbollah and can convince it. On the other side, the West has influence on Israel. This must all be coordinated to stop the current violent path.

SIMON MARKS: But others suggest the current headlines are helping the Iranian government in its bid to take the world's focus off Iran's nuclear aspirations. Tehran, they say, is trying to win support in the Muslim and Arab world for its claim that Israel is a more immediate threat in the region.

HOSSEIN HAFEZIAN: They can attract the attention of the Muslim world toward Israeli actions, Israeli, indeed, savage actions in this part of the Middle East, so that Iran's nuclear program can be can sidelined for some time and it can buy some time for Iran to handle its nuclear program's case in a better way.

Iranians remain wary

Iranian citizen
Everything is possible, but I hope that our government and diplomat people are intelligent enough to avoid that [war].

SIMON MARKS: The Iranian government has been busy rallying public opinion. Today in Tehran, there was a large demonstration in support of both Hezbollah and the Palestinians. "Hezbollah will be victorious; Israel will be eliminated," protesters chanted.

Asked if the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers was a good thing, one student responded...

TEHRAN PROTESTOR (through translator): It was good. The Hezbollah should take them all.

SIMON MARKS: Not all Iranians agree. On the streets of Tehran, there are some voices expressing fear about the possibility of a wider conflict that could engulf Iran in war.

IRANIAN CITIZEN: Everything is possible, but I hope that our government and diplomat people are intelligent enough to avoid that.

SIMON MARKS: So do Iran's reformers, who fear that the hard-line clerics who exercise ultimate authority in the country may bring full-scale war to Iran's doorstep.

SAEED SHARIATI (through translator): I don't really think that, in my opinion, Iran can derive much benefit from a war in the Middle East. If the powers here in Iran think that, that we should use our forces to create problems in the Middle East, well, this is a minority view.

SIMON MARKS: Other Iranians are putting money where their mouths are. On Friday, cash was being contributed after the prayer service to a fund for the Lebanese and Palestinian people.