One of the most enduring assertions about Iran is that its people support the government’s determination to continue its nuclear programs. This belief underlies our hesitance in preventing development of an Iranian bomb, and also constrains our options. If in acting against this Iranian government we cause Iranians to rally around it, Iran could become even more dangerous, the time delayed when this government so damaging to Iranians themselves is finally brought down.
But is it true that Iranians en masse support their country continuing its nuclear programs, especially at the price in sanctions and international opprobrium they are currently paying? We don’t actually know. However, it appears Iranians are beginning to question this shibboleth, and their prods for the government to determine public attitudes may become an important means by which Iranians challenge their authoritarian government.
The Iranian political class seems to believe they are on solid ground in asserting the Iranian people consider nuclear energy a national right. A 2010 RAND survey showed 97% of Iranians believe so (although only 32% supported developing nuclear weapons).
It’s very difficult to get accurate information in repressive societies, especially about government policies that are well-known to the public. If you were Iranian, would you honestly answer a stranger asking you whether you support your government’s most visible international policy, when people are routinely sent to prison for such things?
Two weeks ago, an Iranian state tv station polled viewers on the subject, and an amazing 63% opposed the Iranian government position. The majority of respondents believed their government should end its nuclear enrichment in return for gradual lifting of sanctions by the international community.
The poll was shut down as soon as media reports began covering the findings, the site (irinn.ir) saying it did “not represent the whole population of Iran.” But it had received enough attention that the Iranian government felt the need to discredit the poll: they comically alleged that the British Broadcasting Company had hacked the site (the Iranian government has a particular obsession with the British).
The sample from the tv poll is unlikely to be representative: only 2,000 people answered, and its respondents would need to have computers and be willing to risk identification. But despite that, a significant slice of viewers chose to record their opposition to the government’s policy. More than that: they repudiated the government and supported much of our negotiating position.
The L.A. Times reported today that a prominent Iranian cleric, Abdullah Nouri, has suggested the Iranian government hold a national referendum about whether to continue its nuclear programs. Speaking to a group of students, he said “It is quite obvious that we should have the right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs, but the question is whether it is worth sacrificing national interests for the sake of only one issue...It would therefore be wise to let the people decide in a referendum about the nuclear dispute between Iran and the world powers.”
Iranian news outlets are not reporting his statements, not surprisingly since the government censors all media in Iran -- Iran ranks 192nd in press freedom (only Belarus, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and North Korea rank lower). And Nouri is not a mainstream elite voice, having spent 5 years in prison for political activism in the late 1990s. But he is not an insignificant voice.
There are many possible explanations for these glimpses of Iranian opposition to their government. It could be that Iranians were never enthusiastic about the policy. It may well be that sanctions have been in place long enough (recall the Bush Administration achieved three unanimous UN Security Council Resolutions putting sanctions in place) and are now significant enough that Iranians are revising their opinions -- Iran’s currency lost 50% of its value in the past year and trading grows ever more constrained. But this is how democratic revolutions often begin.