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 “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.

Aside from these methodological issues, there are several revealing patterns and inconsistencies in the announced data. Even the best polls sometimes contain responses that seem either internally inconsistent or indicate irrational behavior on the part of the respondents. But in the case of the Charney poll these inconsistencies seem purposeful, indicating that people assumed their conversations were being listened to by the government. Only 44 percent of those who chose to participate in the poll—and thus accepted all the perils incumbent in engaging in such a politically charged conversation—said they felt “free to express their views.” In other words, 56 percent of those who dared answer the “Istanbul phone bank” chose to say they did not feel free to express their views.

To add to the questionable results, according to the Charney poll only 19 percent of the population feel the government has gone “too far” in its “crackdown on the opposition,” while 59 percent think the regime’s actions—with dozens killed under torture and around two hundred in street clashes—were measured and justified. Only 32 percent of the population feel the country needs “more democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” Though according to official results opposition candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi received more than 44 percent of the vote in the June 2009 contested presidential election, just over a year later a mere 26 percent said they support the Green Movement he represents.

Finally, a whopping 71 percent of respondents supposedly said they want a nuclear bomb. This is in stark contrast to a poll conducted in May 2009 by the Center for Public Opinion and the New America Foundation, in which 52 percent of the population said they were opposed to the development of a nuclear bomb. During those days, the regime in Tehran and its apologists here in America never tired of repeating the mantra that Iran’s nuclear program was an issue of “national pride” and supported by nearly everyone in the population. Now we are told that a majority of Iranians are actually in favor of the bomb. This newfound desire for an atomic arsenal is in apparent conflict with two other responses: 67 percent of the respondents want the government to focus its attention on domestic matters, and another 68 percent support the financial aid the regime gives to Hamas. Supporting a costly nuclear program and support for Hamas is in apparent conflict with the desire for the country to focus on domestic issues. Eighty-seven percent said they have a critical attitude toward the United States.

The poll also alleges that 60 percent of the population has “much hope for the future.” Yet three-fifths of today’s population is under the age of thirty, with unemployment in their ranks estimated to be more than 25 percent and divorce rates sharply increasing. Today Iran ranks first in the world in terms of the number of educated people fleeing the country (the brain drain) and the number of heroin addicts—hardly an image of a society hopeful for its future.

Who is right? This Istanbul-based poll and other “nattering nabobs of negativism” who dismiss the opposition and think the regime strategically secure? Or the scholars, journalists, opposition figures, artists, activists inside and outside Iran, and international organizations like Amnesty International and Journalists Without Borders who say Iran’s ruling elite is dangerously fractured, increasingly isolated and dependent on brute oppression, and that the people want democracy? Either the survey respondents were inconsistent and illogical in their views, or the responses given to the Istanbul callers did not reflect the people’s real beliefs but represented what the respondents assumed “Big Brother”—sure to be listening—wanted them to say.

The regime’s increasing dependence on the pseudofascist, paramilitary units of the Basij to intimidate and control every neighborhood and institution in the country, the defiant interference of the IRGC in every facet of the country’s economy and politics, can hardly be reconciled with the image of a society drawn by the Charney poll—an isolated, marginalized opposition, and an optimistic populace, supportive of the status quo. The stubborn facts of reality are more reliable than even the best of polls.