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.