07.04.12

Controversial Poll: Do Iranians Really Support Nuclear Enrichment?

State TV removed an online controversial survey when participants said they would ditch the country's nuclear enrichment for fewer sanctions. Omid Memarian reports.

Is it myth or reality that Iranians support the government’s policy of pursuing the enrichment of uranium that has brought the country severe sanctions and international isolation? In a country where the state controls all means of communications, and where anybody who challenges the state’s official narrative faces persecution, that’s not easy to find out. But citizens’ responses to a survey that appeared on the website of Iran’s state TV on Tuesday might be revealing.

Sixty-three percent of users said they favor suspending Iran's uranium enrichment in exchange for a gradual lifting of international sanctions against Iran. Those results were registered by 8:30 p.m. Tehran time Tuesday. There was no estimate for the number of respondents.

Participants were offered three possible responses when asked, “What method do you prefer vis-à-vis the unilateral sanctions imposed against Iran by the West.” Aside from the 62 percent who favored suspension of enrichment, 19 percent chose “Retaliatory action by Iran to close the Hormuz Strait,” while 18 percent chose “Resistance against the unilateral sanctions in order to maintain the nuclear rights.”

This survey was published one day after Ebrahim Agha Mohammadi, a member of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, presented a bill to Parliament urging that members "block the Hormuz Strait in response to the sanctions by West." Such a measure would be a radical, highly confrontational response to sanctions. No action has yet been taken by lawmakers.

A separate survey on the website of IRINN (Islamic Republic of Iran News Network) asked viewers whether they support "the Iranian Parliament's decision to close the Hormuz Strait in response to the Western oil sanctions.” It might have been surprising for Iranian officials that until 9 p.m. Tehran time Tuesday, only 11 percent of participants said they approved of the closure of the Hormuz Strait by Iran, while 89 percent said they opposed it. Hardliners are testing public opinion on the drastic move—and the online results suggest Iranians have grown weary of the saber rattling.

It is not clear how many people participated in the IRINN survey. The IRINN website is one of the most frequently visited official sites in the country, with millions of monthly visitors. Once the results were reported by a number of opposition websites, IRINN took down the survey.

"Taking the survey down from the website indicates that what the Iranian television authorities expected was different from the results,” Ali Mazrouee, a reformist former member of Parliament told The Daily Beast.

Once the results were reported by a number of opposition websites, IRINN took down the survey.

Sociologist Hossein Ghazian, who spent three years in prison in 2002 after his Ayandeh Institute conducted a joint poll with the Gallup Organization on a  number of issues—the collaboration alone landed the institute in trouble—said authorities did not expect the results of this poll to be so radically different from what they usually publicize. “When the news was published in different media, they took it down,” he said.

"These surveys are not reflective of public opinion, because those who go to news websites are educated individuals who are seeking the news, and, anyway, one cannot rely on Internet polls,” Ghazian said in a telephone interview. Nevertheless, he said, the results show that the middle class is unhappy with the government’s policy—and the authorities’ quick action in removing the survey shows their concern.

He added, “But the fact that the survey was removed from the website also says something about the Iranian government's claims about their inalienable right to enrichment, and that the Iranian people demand this, and that the enrichment must be continued under any circumstances, because they need to say that the Iranian people wish for the Iranian government to continue down this path.”

"Nuclear energy is our inalienable right" is a slogan repeatedly heard in public forums and gatherings where Iran's supreme leader or president gives speeches. For the past several years, the Islamic Republic's insistence on its right to nuclear energy persists amid daily reports of increasing human-rights violations in the country and mounting pressure on the Iranian nation, limiting their choices in their private lives.

“Americans are told they have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Daily Beast. “Iranians are deprived freedom, but told that they have an inalienable right to enrich uranium. You can only insult your population’s intelligence for so long.”

On Sunday, Iran faced a new round of sanctions, as the European Union halted imports of Iranian oil into EU countries, ended exemptions for shipments signed before 2012, and barred insurance for Iranian oil shipments.

A defiant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that the sanctions against Iran are the heaviest and hardest ever implemented against any country, but claimed that oil revenue contributes less than 10 percent of his country's economy.  He also ridiculed the U.S., comparing it unfavorably to Iran: “Today, Americans are on their way to destruction, facing collapse, and the Islamic Republic is on its way to blossoming and rising.”

The Iranian Central Bank announced in March that the country's inflation rate is 21.5 percent. Many experts believe, however, that prices in Iran are on an accelerated upward trend, a result of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, including a "targeted subsidies plan." Independent economists believe the real inflation rate is considerably higher than 21.5 percent.

“The economic well-being of the Iranian people has never been a top-tier priority of the Iranian regime,” said Sadjadpour. “The colossal domestic and foreign-policy mismanagement during the Ahmadinejad era has been a far greater contributor to Iran’s economic malaise than sanctions.”

Mazrouee, the former member of Parliament, said it would be very difficult to say whether the sanctions would lead to a nuclear compromise on Iran's part, because the country has at least one year's reserves of dollars to run the country. “Iranian authorities will wait until after the November presidential elections in the U.S.,” he said. “We should look then to see what kind of impact the sanctions have had on the country internally. Both (sanctions and the U.S. election) could be effective.”

Addressing the question of why negotiations between the 5+1 countries and Iran repeatedly fail, Mazrouee said, “The Iranian leadership believe that U.S. demands on Iran are not limited to Iran's nuclear program, and that if Iran backs off on the issue of its nuclear program, at the next levels they will have to give in over the issue of human-rights violations, and regional issues such as Iran's stance vis-à-vis the Palestine-Israel crisis.”

“For 10 years now the Iranian government has been touting its nuclear program as a technological and economic crown jewel. Given that life has gotten harder for most Iranians during this period, it’s only natural that people are questioning whether it’s worth the enormous costs they’re enduring,” said Sadjadpour.