Iran Poll Shows Strong Nationalism, Anti-US Sentiment

While only one in four Iranians believe that developing nuclear weapons should be their government’s most important long-term goal, more than half say that economic hardship should not deter the country from pursuing its nuclear program, according to a new survey [.pdf] released here Thursday.

The survey, which was carried out by Zogby International on behalf of Reader’s Digest, also found that well over half of the 810 respondents agreeing with the notion that Iran should play "the dominant diplomatic and military role in the Mideast region." Nearly one third indicated "strong agreement."

The poll, which was conducted during the latter half of May, also suggested that the anti-Israel opinions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be more widely shared among the general population that previously believed.

Some two-thirds of the sample expressed agreement with the assertion that the state of Israel is "illegitimate and should not exist." Nearly 52 percent said they strongly agreed with that position.

The survey results, which were released at a time of rising tensions between Iran and both the United States and Israel, was carried out by telephone by 30 Farsi-speaking Iranian interviewers based outside of Iran due to U.S. government regulations that prohibit U.S. research firms from working inside the country.

The sample, which consisted of 470 men and 340 women, was drawn from randomly selected adults with land line or mobile phones throughout Iran. Nearly 85 percent of respondents were city-dwellers, and the remainder lived in rural areas.

Consistent with its findings about popular attitudes toward Israel, the survey suggested that the defiant nationalism and anti-Western views voiced by Ahmadinejad may resonate more deeply with most Iranians than the more zealous U.S. foes of the Islamic Republic have asserted.

For several years now, neoconservatives and other anti-Iran hawks have argued that younger, urban Iranians, in particular, are strongly pro-U.S., fed up with theocracy, and thus represent the greatest hope, along with presumably disaffected minorities, for "regime change" in Iran.

"Iran is a country of young people, most of whom wish to live in freedom and admire the liberal democracies that Ahmadinejad loathes and fears," wrote Richard Perle, the influential former chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, just last month in an appeal for a more-confrontational stance toward Iran.

His colleague at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Michael Ledeen, has long claimed that Iranian youth will rise up against the mullahs when they receive political support from Washington.

The survey results paint a much different picture, however. Asked which of six countries they most admired, just 11.5 percent cited the U.S. (behind Britain and Turkey and just ahead of Germany and Saudi Arabia), while respondents over 50 were twice as likely to cite the U.S. than those between the ages of 18 and 29.

Asked which of six foreign governments they admired the least, the U.S. was the most cited – by one in four of all respondents, and almost one in three of those aged 18 to 29.

Although two-thirds of the sample, said they did not expect a military confrontation with the U.S. in the next 10 years, a plurality of 46 percent said they considered the U.S. "a dangerous country that seeks confrontation and control," as opposed to "a model country for its values and freedoms" (37 percent) or as "no better or worse than any other country (14 percent)."

On the direction of Iranian society, a plurality of 36 percent of all respondents said they wanted it to become "more religious and conservative," 31 percent said "more secular and liberal," while 15 percent said they preferred for it "just stay as it is." Remarkably, however, support for a more religious direction was highest among the youngest group.

When asked to choose between developing nuclear weapons, economic reform, and expanding freedoms as the "most important long-term goal" for the government, the youngest group also proved substantially more supportive of the first option than their older compatriots.

While only 11 percent of respondents 50 years and older chose nuclear weapons as the top priority, 35 percent of the 18-29 took that position. Twenty-eight percent of those aged 30-49 agreed.

With a plurality of 41 percent of all respondents, economic reform proved the most popular option within each of the age groups. Expanding freedoms, on the other hand, was the least popular option among the youngest group. Only 15 percent opted for it, compared to 27 percent of the two older groups.

"The poll illustrates the impact of 25 years of separation [between the U.S. and Iran]," said John Zogby, the CEO of Zogby International. "The attitudes of younger Iranians toward the government, people, and policies of the United States have been shaped by years of isolation, largely conservative religious leadership, and anti-U.S. rhetoric."

Access to communications technology appeared to have an important impact on some attitudes, although in ways that were not necessarily predictable. Respondents with regular Internet access, for example, were both much more likely to say they admired the U.S. government more than any other but much less likely to say they admired U.S. society.

Conversely, those with no regular Internet access or satellite TV were almost twice as likely to name the U.S. as their least-admired government and to consider it a "dangerous country" than those without. On the other hand, those linked to the Internet were more likely to consider Israel "illegitimate" than those who were not.

Respondents from the countryside were far more likely to have a favorable impression of the U.S. than city-dwellers. While more than half of the latter said they considered the U.S. "dangerous," only 17 percent of rural respondents agreed. And while less than 30 percent of the urban respondents said they considered the U.S. a "model country for its values and freedoms," three out of four of their rural compatriots took that position.

Asked which of five foreign leaders they most admired, Russian President Vladimir Putin received substantially more support than his counterparts from France, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. Putin was particularly popular among Iranian women, one in three of whom opted for the Russian leader.

Nor surprisingly, female respondents accorded substantially greater importance to increasing rights for women than male respondents, and rural respondents gave that goal the highest priority of all demographic groups. The two older age groups also rated it as a higher priority than the youngest group.

The survey also found an important gender gap on the preferred direction of Iranian society. While 28 percent of male respondents said they favored a "more secular and liberal" society, 35 percent chose that option. Conversely, 40 percent of men opted for "more religious and conservative," compared to 31 percent of women.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.