What Iranians really think – and the questions that still remain
Recent report on Iranians' inclination toward democracy leaves behind a slew of unanswered questions regarding the nuclear program and relations with Israel.
On the streets of Tunis and Cairo in January last year, in the early days of what we were beginning to naively call the Arab Spring, demonstrators would say to me that "our inspiration is the people of Iran, who tried to overthrow their government in the Green Revolution."
While the Green Revolution has long been suppressed, the feelings that engendered are still alive, according to a survey released this week.
The difficulties of finding out what the people living under a dictatorship really think are well known. As I highlighted here in the past, public-opinion surveys in Iran have been few and were usually tainted by being carried out by organizations with ties to the Tehran regime. Neither are the elections results any indication, as in the words of the New Yorker's Laura Secor, in the last parliamentary elections, the range of candidates on offer to Iran's voters "was as though the contest between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were the whole of American politics."
For that reason, the survey titled "Can Iran Turn Into a Liberal Democracy?" published this week by a group of Israeli experts headed by strategic consultant Yuval Porat and reported upon in Haaretz and the Wall Street Journal, is worthwhile reading. The team of researchers, concealing their country of origin, contacted over the phone a wide sample of Iranians, representing all ethnic and social groups and in all 31 provinces, used a specially-prepared questionnaire and explored their attitude toward the basic values of liberal democracy. You can read more about the methodology and results on the survey's website.
Perhaps the most significant detail in the results, alongside the high percentage of Iranians identifying with an individual's freedom of choice (94%) and with tolerance to all kinds of people and groups (71%) is the fact that the lack of correlation between the actual absence of democracy in Iran and the democratic beliefs of most of its citizens. While in many dictatorships the civilians have a lowered affinity with democracy, thirty years of Islamic theocracy, which followed long decades of repression by the Shah, do not seem to have dampened Iranians' yearning for freedom.
While the potential for a liberal democracy, indicated by the survey, is very encouraging, there are still a number of key questions left unanswered and I hope that Porat's group will use their methodological tool to address them in future reports.
1. Are Iranians with democratic aspirations in favor of continuing their nation's nuclear program and acquiring nuclear weapons? In the past, also reform-minded Iranian politicians, including former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (now under house arrest), staunchly supported nuclear development. Would Iranian democrats be willing to subject the program to strict international supervision to ensure it was only for civilian purposes? Or would they see this as an issue of national pride?
2. Do Iranians who are not supporters of the regime see the region in the stark terms of Shia versus Sunni? Would they relinquish Iran's current policy of destabilizing other nations in the Gulf and cut off support to Hezbollah and other such groups? Or would the hostile standoff between the regional powers remain also if a democratic government would rule in Tehran?
3. Would some form of democracy in Iran equate with a renewed openness with the West and what of a resumption of the once close ties with Israel? Or will one of the first things they agree upon in a new constitution be a ban on "normalizing" ties with Israel, as the new democratically-elected Tunisian parliament did early this year.
4. Are Iranians prepared to act upon their desire for freedom and democracy and challenge the regime? And what would they be willing to risk in such a challenge? This is a question no survey can give anything near an accurate answer to, but it is key in trying to establish where the regime's tipping-points are. A tipping-point could be the refusal of security forces to fire on demonstrators. It could be a level of civil disobedience and chaos which shuts down a nation's infrastructure and it could be violence of a magnitude that would necessitate foreign intervention. An understanding of these points is crucial to any decision-making process regarding Iran.