Public opinion in Iran — not all the same

Mohammed El-Nawawy and Sahar Khamis wrote an article, analysing the role of social media in the successful revolution in Egypt and the unsuccessful protests in Iran — unsuccessful in terms of failing to prevent the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, instead of Hossein Mousavi.

Egypt had in its recent history a number of attacks on the government of Hosni Mubarak, and other public display of civil activism. In 2000, the protests at Egyptian universities in support of the Palestinian Second Intifada; in 2003 against the U.S. invasion of Iraq; in 2005 the Kefaya movement against Mubarak’s fifth Presidential victory; the April 6 movement in 2008 fueled by discontent of industry workers; up to the 2010 creation of the Facebook-page “We Are All Khaled Said”, after activist blogger Khaled Said was found dead from torture earlier that year.

Conversely, the Iranian case was very different in many ways, and they are right. They also point out that the cause the Iranian opposition was fighting not for a revolution, but rather ‘only’ for different election results.

They argue that the Iranian protesters were disunified and that the Iranian state apparatus is very successful in both utilising the social media platforms to their benefit, as well as keeping track of the online ‘movements’ of the opposition.

The Iranian government has a very thorough censoring mechanism, the graphic below (PDF can be found be here) illustrates the ways in which Iran’s government censors the Internet for its users.

It spotlights four new bodies—the Supreme Council on Cyberspace, the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content, the Cyber Army, and the Cyber Police—that have emerged since 2009 as key institutions responsible for controlling the flow of online communications, both within Iran and between Iranians and the global cybersphere

Iran’s Internet Censorship

As such, life for the Ahmadinejad/Iran’s government system opponent  is made pretty hard in Iran.

But how is public opinion in Iran? Are most of the Iranians part of the protest movement?

The RAND Corporation, an non-profit U.S. institution “that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis”, published a report in 2011 analysing Iran’s public opinion on issues that are relevant for the U.S. — nuclear, the development of U.S.-Iran relations and the perceptions of the impact of the economic sanctions on Iran.

In this report the authors, Sara Beth Elson and Alireza Nader, took consideration of some very interesting — and statistically significant — parameters. Noteworthy and relevant factors in people’s perceptions of the questions at hand were income level, comfortableness with the telephone survey and gender (the latter to some extent only). I will look only at nuclear weapons/energy for the sake of making my point. (Other topics would leave us with results that provide the same point.)

Nuclear Energy and weapons

  • 90% of the respondents were strongly favour of the development of nuclear energy for civilian use. 
  • Though when it comes to the development of nuclear weapons, about 42% favours (strongly or somewhat), while about 50% opposes (strongly or somewhat).
  • Then the authors, looked the level of comfort the respondents felt with the interview and the questions; and some striking, though intuitively appealing, results emerged.
    • Half of the people who were comfortable with all the questions opposed the development of nuclear weapons.
    • People not comfortable at all with the survey either favoured the nuclear weapon development, don’t know what they thought or did not really have an opinion, and only 10% openly opposed the development of nuclear weapons.

RAND nuclear weapons iran

  • Income level has a large impact on the degree of support for the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Again the statistically significant findings (below figure) show that the richer segments of the Iranian population are much more opposed to nuclear weapons than the lower income groups. However, most of the hesitance in answering this question could be found in the lower middle income class (out of fear of repercussions?)

RAND nuclear weapons iran2

  • Similarly, expectable results are found in case of an analysis of opinion according to gender and education level. 
    • The higher the education level of the respondent, the more their apprehension to the development of nuclear weapons — on average that is.
    • Men are more inclined to favour nuclear weapons for Iran than women.
  • Lastly, and a surprise to me, is that 18-29 year old’s were most in favour of an Iran with nuclear weapons.

The reason I wanted to present these results, besides them being particularly informative and interesting, was that they tell us that the Iranian population is far from united on the future of Iran. This was also evident in 2009, when the political unrest was concentrated in the cities, particularly Tehran.

There is no one public opinion of the Iranians or in Iran. The temptation to formulate statements that group together a whole country is large, and common. This is misleading.

What I try to always try to do is offer perspective to the things I read and write about.


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