What Iranians Really Think

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.

The failure of American and British governments to predict the fall of the shah in 1979 was one of the biggest intelligence failures of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of that monumental mess, the British government ordered a policy review to learn what went wrong. They identified three main errors: inattention to the brutality of the regime’s secret police (SAVAK), insufficient knowledge of the corruption of the ruling elite and a lack of focus on the intellectual life of Iran.

Today, thirty years later, the dominant discourse on American policy toward Tehran often suffers from exactly the same three maladies. As the nuclear impasse with Iran continues, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is likely to pressure the Obama administration for harsher measures against the clerical regime, so the debate about the stability of the Iranian elite and the power of the opposition, and about what would be the right U.S. policy, is only likely to increase.

In the weeks before the policy of ending subsidies on food and petroleum was implemented, several leading security officials of the regime threatened the people with harsh punishment should they react to the new economic landscape. Lest anyone missed the message, and lest anyone did not hear about the prison sentences against leaders of the opposition, the regime also organized a major show of force in Terhan—a “security exercise,” they said—intended to remind the people of what might happen if they dared demonstrate against the new harsh reality. In the days after the implementation of the policy, every night President Ahmadinejad is reported to have convened special sessions with his cabinet to address or contain any problem. The regime was clearly worried that any small incident might act as a trigger that would once again lead to mass demonstrations.

Facing a massive economic crisis, in recent weeks the regime has intensified its attacks against the opposition inside Iran. They have openly threatened its leaders with prosecution; condemned the filmmaker Jafar Panahi to six years in prison for “planning” to make a film about the opposition; imprisoned human-rights activist Emad Baghi with a six-year sentence for conducting an interview with dissident Ayatollah Montazeri; and, they have executed several radical members of the opposition, to name only the most egregious examples.

Those who expected Iranians to ignore these threats and immediately take to the streets overlook one of the keys to the country’s long history of survival. Iranians are not dogs—an easily domesticated animal—but foxes: wily, wise and hard to tame. They don't bark to satisfy our whimsy—they do so for their own interest. For over a hundred years, they have been struggling for democracy, and there is no evidence that the regime has “domesticated” this aspiration. In America, questions about the stability of the clerical regime and the claim that the democratic opposition is powerful and persistent have come under attack from at least three different sources.

One group who has dismissed or doubted the Iranian opposition of late is its erstwhile but impatient set of supporters. They expected mass demonstrations and upheavals as the result of the regime’s new economic policies, particularly those that led to a sharp increase in prices for many basic commodities. When the demonstrations failed to materialize, these impatient supporters wrote of the "Iranian dog that isn’t barking."

Then there are regime apologists who had all along dismissed the durability of the opposition. They suggest that what the United States needs in Iran today is a repeat of Nixon’s China policy. Like Mao’s China, the clerical regime is here to stay, they surmise; the opposition is a figment of the Iranian diaspora’s wishful, even delusional, thinking or at best a passing aberration. Either way, they claim, the opposition should be discounted and should have no weight in determining what America should do in Iran. This alleged “realism” has more in common with Chamberlain’s “appeasement” than with Nixon’s pragmatism.

And then there is the danger of the “Cubanization” of America’s Iran policy. A combination of conservative Americans and members of the diaspora disparage and dismiss any “engagement” as compromise. If regime apologists exaggerate the power and stability of the ruling triumvirate of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), this group exaggerates the power of the opposition and the vulnerability of the regime.

Even more ignorant of these and other facts of Iranian culture and history is the recently released poll conducted by Charney Research and the International Peace Institute. The poll alleges that it reveals new opinion trends in Iran—trends that confirm much of what the regime and its apologists have claimed and show the opposition to be weak and marginalized. The poll, republished on the website of Anthony Cordesman’s Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is likely to impact policy through the image of the Iranian society it depicts.

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.”