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What do Iranians think?

March 3, 2009

The results of two rounds of U.S.-led polling of public opinion in Iran, conducted in 2006 and 2008, portray a moderate Iranian people. The studies show Iranians as relatively pleased with their own system of government and electoral system, although critical of certain aspects of it. Iranians appear open to multilateralism and international organizations, even in the realm of human rights. While they are eager to push forward with the nuclear program, they don’t necessarily want to develop nuclear weapons. They long to be treated as an important regional actor but don’t wish for regional hegemony. They are suspicious of terrorist groups and even hold a generally positive view of the American people. In this overall temperate picture, deeply rooted animosity toward the U.S. Government remains as a fundamental component of the Iranian identity.

While Iran’s presidential elections approach, and as the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress discuss opportunities for an overture toward Teheran, Washington Prism’s Valentina Pasquali spoke to Steven Kull, director of and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland, about his experience assessing the Iranian psyche. Mr. Kull is a political psychologist who studies world public opinion on international issues. He directed both the 2006 and the 2008 surveys in Iran.

Valentina Pasquali: What would you say was the most striking result of your two rounds of surveys in Iran?

Steven Kull: What comes through quite strongly is the extent to which Iranians are not in a revolutionary mindset. There is this image of Iranians being swept up by the kind of zeal one associates with the early days of the Bolsheviks, that they have an ideology that they are aiming to spread. I just don’t see any evidence of this, in the polling data and the focus groups. Iranians are supportive of an Islamic state, but they are also reaching out to the West in a variety of ways: they endorse democracy and human rights, and endorse changes for the role of women. They are evolving and trying to integrate these liberal ideas into their own system. But it is a struggle; they are not, by any means, ready to abandon their Islamic roots. They perceive the West, particularly the United States, as exerting a destabilizing effect on them and making it more difficult for them to find their way. In short, on the one hand, the number of people who truly identify with the revolutionary Islamic mindset is quite small. On the other, I should also underscore that the idea that Iranians, underneath it all, love America, love the West, and can’t wait for the current government to fall so that they can become a western-style democracy, is also a dream unsupported by reality.

VP: Where do Iranian people stand on the nuclear issue?

SK: Both in the polling and the focus groups we found widespread determination on the part of the Iranians to acquire a capacity to enrich uranium, combined with a strong sense of the constraints that should be put on developing a nuclear weapon. A fairly large majority perceives that developing a nuclear weapon would be contrary to the principles of Islam. The Iranian elite and religious leaders have put forward this view and it would be very difficult for them to change course. Maybe public opinion doesn’t determine their decisions, but there is something to be said about the normative environment the leadership has created, rooted in the idea that it would not be legitimate to acquire nuclear weapons. I think it would require a significant trigger for them to switch course, something would have to happen that dramatically increased the threat to Iran. It’s quite unlikely that they would just abruptly cross that line.

Now, it is also clear that the Iranians are aware of the fact that having a nuclear energy program serves more purposes than just nuclear energy. They want to be one step closer to having nuclear weapons capability. They perceive that this would give them a number of benefits: greater status and a deterrent effect on other parties. Moreover, there is a widespread perception that neighboring countries are not complying with the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iranians think that others are secretly developing nuclear weapons and that the NPT regime is fragile, and, as a result, they want to be well positioned should the NPT regime collapse.

VP: In the discussion of your work in Iran, you addressed the overstated perception Iranians have of American power in the world. Were you able to assess what this perception was born out of?

SK: The majority of Iranians we polled think the U.S. controls most of what happens in the world. In the focus groups we did, some of the views that were expressed were particularly potent, for example the idea that the U.S. controls Al-Qaeda. Why? I don’t have an easy answer to that. It is a belief that seems to have a quasi-religious connotation. When Iranians use the term ‘the Great Satan,’ they honestly describe how they perceive the U.S.; something like a cosmic principle, and not just an ordinary state that happens to be rather rich and well armed. Certainly the long history of the U.S. having a highly intrusive role in Iran matters. In general, I would say that there is a tendency in that part of the world toward conspiracy theory, a tendency to see complex organizing themes behind the surface of things. Even on the Al Jazeera website there is a section called conspiracy theory. With respect to Iranians in particular, there also is a history of discovering at a later time that America was behind something that they had not previously assumed. And so it has become a kind of default position to assume that America is behind something. Iranians’ perception of being under siege works as an important glue holding their society together. I think the best comparison to try understanding Iran is America shortly after 9/11. America was so cohesive, and there was very little criticism of the government. All the polls showed that the people’s attitude toward the government or everything American became much more positive. It’s not that people were lying, or making things up. But when people feel threatened, they tend to huddle closer together. Iran has that same quality, constantly feeling under siege.

VP: What do you think is the effect of international sanctions on the psyche of the Iranian people?

SK: It’s not something we polled on directly, but based on my experience, sanctions contribute to this generalized sense of being under pressure by the West. It also justifies the economic failures of the current government and it feeds into this idea that the U.S. is hostile to Islam itself and is out to undermine it.

VP: What was the people’s view of President Ahmadinejad, at least at the time of your most recent survey?

SK: About two-thirds of the people we interviewed at the beginning of 2008 expressed a favorable opinion. Because we heard so much about people coming to Iran and hearing negative views of the president we proofed further and divided people according to income and education. People with higher education or higher income were not as positive, they were more divided about Ahmadinejad. And those tend to probably be the people that Westerners encounter more often when they come to Tehran.

VP: How would you explain the animosity of the Iranian people toward the U.S. Government?

SK: I think it is important to recognize how deep the roots of this animosity are and how far back they go. For many people in Iran the experience of the Shah was a very negative one and the U.S. was always associated with it. I don’t think other Muslim countries have a history that could trigger that depth of animosity. However, it is also true that Iran has a stronger than average attraction to the west. It’s kind of a complex love/hate relation, which you can find broadly in the Muslim world but is more common in Iran. There is some magnetism, while, at the same time, animosity toward the U.S. plays a huge role in the structure of society. So much that it would be difficult to break away from it. Many politicians and leaders embrace this national narrative rooted in a negative relationship with the U.S. An effort to change this approach would rattle fundamental structures in Iran, and could be very destructive to the Iranian identity.

I do think that there is a genuine desire among most Iranians to improve relations; the question is whether or not this can be done in a way that does not make Iranians feel like they are just submitting. They have a strong sense of pride and any agreement would need not to be received as some kind of defeat, or capitulation. I think that the proposition that Tom Pickering, and others, have put forward as far as the nuclear weapons program, to multilateralize it or to create some kind of structure with intrusive inspections and a limit capacity to enrich uranium, would go over. We polled on it and the majority of Iranians said they would accept it. And it has been alluded to by a few Iranian leaders. To actually bring it about would probably require a more complex bargain touching on a wide array of components, as for example the removal of some or all of the economic sanctions. From the first to the second poll we conducted in Iran, we found an increase in the readiness to support steps that would improve relations with the U.S., such as growing diplomatic contacts and more people-to-people exchanges. Probably, some combination of removal of economic sanctions, limited enrichment capacity with highly intrusive inspections, and greater cultural contacts, could be a package that, from all the indications I have, would be feasible. Clearly, giving up the idea of regime change is a key part of this grand bargain. I don’t have poll data to show this but, from everything I see, the Iranian people as well as the Islamic regime find the rhetoric of regime change annoying and threatening. Iranians don’t react thinking that the U.S. is simply going after their government but not after them. Rather, they see this as part of the American attempt to undermine their way of life. And they identify with the regime. I think this is the most important thing that U.S. government leaders can understand better. When we threaten the Iranian government, the Iranian people feel threatened too.

VP: According to your study, Iranians view most terrorist organizations in a negative light. However, this doesn’t apply to Hezbollah and Hamas, outlining a difficult relationship with Israel. What is your understanding of the general perception of Israel among regular Iranian people?

SK: There is a very negative view. The polling numbers are extremely negative and there is definitely a lot of hostility. It’s also striking that, while Iranians reject attacks on civilians quite strongly, when asked about Palestinians attacking Israeli civilians they are more divided. I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very engaging to Iranians, and other Muslims, because it is a very distinct and vivid narrative of Muslims being victimized, in their mind, by a Western based force that ultimately works on behalf of the United States. It’s not so much that they care about the Palestinians per se, but they identify with the Palestinians and the conflict strikes a very strong emotional chord.

But in all honesty, I don’t think you would find the desire to annihilate the state of Israel to be the majority opinion in Iran. My impression is that Iranians would probably be fine with the two-state solution, and that the Arab initiative that is in play right now would be attractive to them. I don’t see any real indication that Iranians are dead-set on some kind of maximal outcome where Israel is eliminated. They don’t perceive themselves as pursuing maximal outcomes at all. They perceive themselves as in a defensive mode.

VP: Do you have a sense of how consistent, or inconsistent, the mood of the Iranian public is? Your latest survey was conducted approximately 12 months ago; do you have reasons to believe that, were you to do another one now, the results would be fairly similar, or quite the contrary, completely different?

SK: All publics are pretty stable and so, as a general baseline, as a pollster you don’t expect big change. The most interesting question is what changes might be happening given the new U.S. Administration of President Barack Obama. To the extent that we have data from the Muslim world, but not Iran, I can tell you that people are hopeful, but on a wait-and-see mode. Iranians have an elaborate belief system that says it is impossible for the U.S. to change, that the U.S. is structurally the way it is, driven by lobbies, and particularly the Israeli lobby. There is this narrative that says that Obama couldn’t change these things even if he wanted to. But I still think that, underneath, there is hope nonetheless, and that, if the U.S. does offer an overture, it would be difficult for Iran not to respond in some way.

VP: While surveying people in Iran you were free to touch upon almost every topic, with the exception of the clergy and the role of the Supreme Leader. Do you have a sense of how much the lack of such discussion clouds the overall validity of the survey?

SK: To make things clear, it wasn’t the government that forbade us to ask these questions, they didn’t have any direct involvement; rather the local polling organization we selected did its own self-censorship. And I think that, if we had brought the issue of the role of the clergy up directly in the focus groups, people would have been uncomfortable. I certainly would like to understand this issue better. From what I read, I don’t see a lot of signs that people are burning to actually discuss it though. It’s not that they are fully content. In a sense, this is comparable to asking Americans about the Supreme Court. “Should we get rid of the Supreme Court?” Americans don’t really think about it. They generally like the Supreme Court, they have some respect for it, but it’s mostly just part of the furniture. In Iran, the clergy is not one of those things that people are accustomed to challenging, no more so than the Americans are accustomed to challenging the Constitution. It should be understood that the Council of Guardians can be criticized, for example, for excluding candidates from elections. People do it all the time in Parliament, and there are demonstrations against such decisions. Specific choices can be questioned. But whether the Council of Guardians ought to have any role at all, that’s probably a question beyond what Iranians are willing to discuss. This is, in a way, very similar to asking Americans whether the Supreme Court should have any role. Here, where we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court that interprets it. In Iran the idea that the clergy plays some role in the interpretation of Sharia law and the Koran is not seen as something to question. However people might have criticisms about specific decisions, like people here might have criticisms about specific Supreme Court decisions. To an extent that we have trouble understanding, Iranians don’t perceive Islam, and even the Islamic state they have, as intrinsically opposed to democracy. Again, we have constraints on democracy here as well, it’s not like the majority can make any decision it wants; it is limited by the Constitution and how the Supreme Court interprets it. Iranians would say that this is the same for them, although they would probably acknowledge that their system is more restrictive. But they don’t see it as intrinsically problematic. Words like democracy and human rights are popular words.

VP: What do you think a U.S. Government official should come away from these surveys with? What is most important to understand about the views of the Iranian people?

SK: The combination of openness to the West as well as the rootedness in the idea of an Islamic government. That democracy and an Islamic government are not contradictory. And that Iranians are not in a pre-revolutionary state, but even open to influences from the West. I think it’s very important to get rid of the notion that they are against us; they are simply struggling with the process of modernization, and that is a difficult process. They are people with very proud roots, they achieved very high level of culture, but in the current period they are not doing so well, which is humiliating to them. They are also not ready to abandon their roots. Even as they open up to Western influences. In the end, you have some rejectionists, as you might say, and you have those that are totally ready to go over to the Western model, but the big majority both wants to keep its root and be in a relationship with the West. The problem is that we are not good at talking to that group, we tend to threaten the former and seduce the latter, or treat them as some kind of ally, but we haven’t found a good voice for the middle masses. This approach is rooted in our fantasy that, underneath, everybody is like us and people really want what we have. I think we really must let go of this, while also understand more clearly that Iranians are not in a revolutionary mindset. A lot would follow from this, I think.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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