Parvin Heydari, an Iranian mother of two, was flipping back and forth between the nightly news and Oprah when a bulletin on an Iranian state channel caught her attention. It urged Iranians to boycott what it called “Zionist products,” including those made by Pepsi, NestlÃ© and Calvin Klein, and warned that profits from such products “are converted into bullets piercing the chests of Lebanese and Palestinian children.” As evidence, the voice-over intoned, “Pepsi stands for ‘pay each penny to save Israel.'” Heydari says she changed the channel, as she has no intention of crossing NestlÃ©’s Nesquik off her shopping list. “Lebanon has nothing to do with us,” she says. “We should mind our own business and concentrate on policies that are good for our economy, and our kids.”
To many observers in the Western world, Hizballah, the Lebanese guerrilla group battling Israel, is a mere puppet of Iran. Some are convinced that Hizballah triggered the crisis on Tehran’s orders to divert world attention away from Iran’s controversial nuclear plans. But client states are not necessarily as docile as one might think. Just as Israel sometimes takes actions that surprise (and even displease) the U.S., Hizballah does things Iran has neither ordered up nor necessarily approves of.
It’s impossible to know the precise origins of the current crisis in Lebanon, but since it erupted two weeks ago, the mood in Tehran has swung between indifference–the fighting rarely makes the headlines–and resentment over Iran’s longstanding sponsorship of Hizballah. True, there have been officially sponsored rallies declaring support for Hizballah, whose leaders pledge religious allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. But the emotional support for Hizballah common throughout the Arab world is largely absent here.
Iranians like Heydari believe that their country, ethnically and linguistically Persian, should stay out of the Arabs’ fight with Israel and focus on improving living standards at home. “I don’t think it’s right to support them when our own people are hungry,” says Mohammad Reza Afshari, 23, a mechanic who works two jobs yet still cannot afford to move out or attend college. The shop where he works abuts a vast mural depicting a female suicide bomber with a baby in her arms, accompanied by the words I LOVE MOTHERHOOD, BUT I LOVE MARTYRDOM MORE. Frustration with such propaganda underpins young people’s reactions to the conflict. “Where are the Arabs?” asks Afshari angrily. “They’re sitting around, while we’re risking our position in the world.”
It’s not only ordinary Iranians who are worried about what the Middle East explosion means for Iran. Even as state infomercials order Iranians to boycott soft drinks, officials in Tehran–pragmatists and conservatives alike–concur that the conflict is bad news for the Iranian regime because it exacerbates the West’s image of Tehran as a regional troublemaker. Rather than helpfully distracting attention from Iran, as many have charged, the conflict “undermines Iran’s position,” says a university professor close to senior Iranian officials.
The thorny nuclear negotiations with the West are likely to become even trickier. The delay in efforts to enforce a cease-fire in Lebanon is inflaming divisions within the Iranian regime on how to respond to the U.S.-backed package of incentives offered to Tehran in June. Before the crisis erupted, the momentum seemed to favor advocates of a pragmatic, positive response. But now the radicals are using the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign in Lebanon to push their case for a tough line. As an adviser to a senior conservative ayatullah puts it, “This has strengthened the hand of those who argue, ‘If this happened to us, the only thing that would save us is a nuclear deterrent.'”
In the low-rent neighborhood of Tehran Pars, patrons at a cafÃ© talk of how to balance faith with the politics of aiding Islamic militant groups. Mehdi Sedaghat, 27, a clothing-store clerk, speaks between bites of his bologna sandwich. “It’s our religious duty to aid Muslims who are being killed,” says Sedaghat, whose car bears a sticker on the rear window that reads INSURED BY IMAM REZA (Shi’ite Islam’s revered figure). “But reality is reality, and we can’t afford it.” He quotes a Persian proverb: “If the lantern is needed at home, donating it to the mosque is haram [forbidden].”