- By Geneive AbdoGeneive Abdo is an Iran analyst at the Century Foundation.
Iran this week marked "Ten Years of Nuclear Resistance," a celebration at the University of Tehran to commemorate Iran’s nuclear program, despite international efforts to limit it. The central message that emerged from this event was articulated by Iran’s Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council, who said that the "dual strategy based on pressure and diplomacy the West insists on is failed and illogical."
It is time for the United States and its Western allies to realize, as the official, Ali Bagheri, stated, that the policy of more sanctions, intimidation, and pressure is counter-productive to the stated goal of changing the regime’s behavior on the nuclear issue. Not only is the Iranian government becoming more belligerent, but according to polling data collected in recent weeks, the Iranian public overwhelming supports many of the government’s positions on the nuclear program and related issues.
According to recent data collected by Ebrahim Mohseni, who is conducting research inside Iran as part of his dissertation at the University of Maryland, 85 percent of Iranians said it was very important for Iran to have a civilian nuclear program. This high statistic suggests that, despite the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, there is no hesitation with the public that it should continue. Mohseni’s finding is consistent with a poll conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2009, which found that 87 percent of those surveyed said it was important to have a nuclear program.
On issues regarding the economy and sanctions, 65 percent blamed the worsening economy on sanctions, and only 11 percent said the state of the economy was due to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s incompetence. Nineteen percent said it was due to the obstructionist techniques of Ahmadinejad’s opponents. When asked if Iran continues to enrich uranium, how likely is it that the current sanctions will be increased, 42 percent said sanctions would definitely increase. This finding is consistent with the same question asked in 2009 by the World Public Opinion poll, which found that 35 percent of Iranians definitely believed sanctions would increase — and they have.
In a very telling question, respondents were asked: "Would you favor or oppose an agreement whereby all current sanctions against Iran would be removed and Iran would continue its nuclear energy program, except that it would agree not to enrich uranium?" Fifty-nine percent were opposed to stopping enrichment and only 29 percent were in favor.
When asked the question: "How important do you think it is for Iran to develop an atomic bomb?" Thirty-eight percent said it was important and 33 percent said not very important. Mohensi, an independent researcher, revealed the findings on October 17 at a conference at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan Washington think tank. His poll was conducted between September 29 and October 11 calling the respondents by phone in rural and urban areas of Iran. The sample size was 1,110 respondents and the margin of error was three percent.
When asked, "Which courses of action do you prefer?" Forty-one percent said to have both an atomic bomb and nuclear power and 56 percent said only nuclear power.
In another question, respondents were asked which statement is closer to their opinion: 1) "Iran should continue its nuclear enrichment activity even if it results in war;" or 2) "Iran should prevent a war from occurring even if it means suspending nuclear enrichment." Fifty-five percent chose to continue enrichment, while 33 percent said Iran should prevent a war, even if it means suspending enrichment.
If this data accurately reflects public opinion, a few lessons should be drawn: First and foremost, the theory that, when pressured hard enough from the effects of sanctions, Iranians will rise up against the regime, seems implausible. Two, the more Iranians suffer, the more they blame those imposing the sanctions, not their own government. According to Mohseni’s poll, 76 percent had a very unfavorable view of the United States.
The narrative governments in the West have advanced about Iran is a country that talks a big game, but will wither if pushed hard enough. This argument is promoted in the U.S. Congress and the European Union each day, even though there is little historical precedence. This idea was repeated in the presidential debate this week, when both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney argued that increasing the pressure of crippling sanctions may yet alter Iranian behavior. It is likely that no matter who wins, more sanctions will be imposed on Iran. Such conclusions likely develop out of political expediency, but lack an understanding of the thinking in Tehran.
It is easy to be dismissive about the rhetoric from Iranian officials, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery speeches have defined his political legacy. But when it comes to the nuclear issue, their words should be taken seriously. In October, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made clear again his position on the Iran’s reaction to pressure. "During the last thirty-three years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been faced with a wide range of different political, security, military and economic pressures and sanctions, but the Iranian nation has defused these pressures and even grown more powerful through its resistance," Khamenei told a group of young Iranian elites in Tehran, according to the state’s Fars News Agency.
On October 11, Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the Iranian parliament’s executive board, acknowledged that the economic hardships on Iran today have never been this damaging. But he reiterated a belief among Iran’s political elites that the sanctions are not about the nuclear program, but aimed at attempting to weaken and destabilize the state. "From the early days of the Islamic Republic until today, the enemy has used any excuse to increase sanctions and pressures against the Iranian people. The enemies think that these sanctions and the people and officials will be forced to retreat." He went on to explain why this theory is false.
There appears to be a perception among U.S. officials — not to mention among exiled Iranians in the opposition — that the more sanctions bite, the more the Iranian regime becomes fearful of popular unrest. This is the reason there was so much optimism two weeks ago when protests broke out in the Tehran bazaar over the plummeting rial, Iran’s currency. But this is also a false assumption. If anything, the regime has become very confident since 2009 — when at one point three million protesters were on the streets of Tehran — that it can overcome popular uprisings. It is important not to confuse Iran’s reaction to a domestic threat of unrest — which historically has been disproportionate to the threat at hand — with the regime’s degree of fear of its own people.
The only way out is through bilateral talks, which last weekend the New York Times reported had been agreed to, but both governments denied the reports. The United States and Iran should also negotiate to find other issues upon which to develop mutual cooperation with the hope that once trust is established, the nuclear issue can return to the negotiating table.
Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center.
* This article was updated on October 26, 2012. *