What Iranians Really Think

Recent polling and erstwhile supporters' criticism claiming that Iran's opposition movement has been tamed is based on some very flimsy evidence.

Even in the best of times, polling can be a dangerous business in Iran. Just ask Abbas Abdi, once a regime stalwart, and one of the leaders of the students who took over the American embassy in 1979. He spent two years in prison when in 2002 he tried to help Gallup conduct a serious, rigorous poll of public opinion in Iran. Some of his colleagues also spent months in prison or have been forced into exile for participating in the same “crime.” These draconian measures were taken during the tenure of reformist President Khatami. Needless to say, carrying out such a questionnaire is even harder today, as Iran is going through one of its darkest hours, with the regime most paranoid about the “soft war” it thinks America, much of Europe and Israel are waging.

Attempting to circumvent the harsh realities of the ruling elite’s intense sensitivity to independent opinion polls, the Charney poll used “a phone bank in Istanbul.” Between August 30 and September 7, 2010, the bank called 702 Iranians, and pollsters reassure us it was “a representative sample” of the country. The report declares that some “questions were asked to only half the sample.” We are not told which questions were asked of the half sample (i.e., 351 people), how the sample was chosen, why half of them were asked only half the questions or how many of those contacted refused to participate in the poll. In place of these critical pieces of information, we are simply assured that “telephone polling by various groups show relatively consistent results and indicate such polls can provide valuable insights.” However, if different groups bash their heads into brick walls and all feel pain, the consistency of the pain does not vindicate the validity of the process, but shows only that bashing heads into brick walls is painful. It is hard to imagine that anyone familiar with the realities of Iran today would still believe that Iranians will honestly share their views on sensitive political issues with a “phone bank in Istanbul.”

There is of course an element of hubris in any poll, in any attempt to ask a few hundred people some questions and based on their responses map out the whole population’s disposition. But polling in Iran, a country that is a quilt of ethnic identities, offers special challenges. A quarter of the population speaks Turkish, while some 10 percent are Kurds. At least two million speak Arabic. There are also important differences between people’s religious beliefs (Shia, Sunni, Bahai, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian), and where they live (cities big and small, villages and nomadic tribes). Based on what has been published so far in the Charney report, we have no idea whether and how any of these factors were taken into consideration in picking their sample. We do not know what language was used to conduct the interviews, nor whether those making the calls were men or women.

Anyone who has done any field work in Iran—and I taught Research Methods at Tehran University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science until 1986—knows that any of these factors is sure to impact the results of any poll. Experience shows that Iranians generally distrust pollsters, or anyone resembling a government agent. A history of despotism and of Shiism have combined to create confounding discursive practices in Iranians. The “word within the word” of what Persians say, the zaher and baten are often different. Caution bred of despotism, and circumlocution begot by this caution have been known to shape not only what Iranians say but also how they go about saying it.

Some sixty years ago, in his seminal book The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz, fighting the illusions and delusions of Stalinists in the West, borrowed the concept of ketman from a French diplomat who had served in Iran, and lamented the fact that “nobody dares to reveal” their real views. Milosz wrote that in any despotic society—whether Stalinist in the Occident, or Islamist in the Orient—“not only must one deny one’s true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one’s adversary.”

The “command” referred to by Milosz alludes to the concept of tagiyeh, a concept said by some of Shiism’s most venerable imams to be a “pillar of the faith.” Tagiyeh allows, indeed, commands the pious to lie about their beliefs to save themselves. What was true about the feudal polity of Iran one hundred fifty years ago is doubly true about the pseudototalitarian, electronically monitored Iran of today. The regime boasts about its ability to listen in on every conversation and read every email. The regime’s intelligence agencies boast that even the top men of the regime, men like former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami and their families, have not been immune from these wiretaps. The regime reportedly paid more than six hundred million dollars to Siemens-Nokia to buy state-of-the-art technologies to monitor the population. It employs an army of thousands to engage in what it has called cyberjihad. Some of the four thousand people arrested in the aftermath of the June 2009 election demonstrations—in Tehran alone the number of demonstrators was reported to be three million—were shown electronic maps that used the individuals’ cell phones to prove exactly where they were during the time of the demonstrations. Every Iranian today assumes their phones are bugged, their emails read. It is naive to believe that anyone will honestly respond to an unknown caller from Turkey about their political views.