Why Iranian Public Opinion Is Turning Against the Nuclear Program

Though many still see it as a point of national pride, this could be an opportunity to pressure Tehran to slow its nuclear pursuit.

AntiNukeIran march16 p.jpg

A protester waits for IAEA inspectors to arrive in Tehran / AP

 "The nuclear program has considerable support in Iran," I heard someone say at a recent talk in London, repeating what's become one of the most entrenched pieces of conventional wisdom on Iran today. Western officials and media outlets often say that it wouldn't matter if the regime changed because support for the program cuts across political lines. This may have been true in the past, but continued pressure and the rising cost of sanctions is now changing Iranian public opinion, and the nuclear program may not be as popular as it once was.

Iranians have always been proud of their country's technological developments, and the nuclear program has been no exception. The Islamic Republic has successfully played on these sentiments, framing the issue as one of prestige and nationalism. Western pressure has only intensified this, making nuclear enrichment a symbol of national independence. The broad base of support for the program was especially clear in 2009, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad agreed to a fuel-swap deal that would have involved Iran trading a large part of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. When he brought the deal back to Tehran he could not get it approved, facing significant opposition, including from ex-presidential candidates and opposition figures Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

In fact, a 2010 Rand Survey found that a whopping 87% of Iranians surveyed strongly favored the "development of nuclear energy for civilian use" and 97% believed nuclear energy to be a national right. This helps the Iranian government to portray Western efforts to curtail the program as an assault on the Iranian public's rights. Interestingly, although the number of people who support the development of nuclear weapons is much lower -- 32% -- it is still considerable.

However, a much more recent poll, from just one month ago shows that most Iranians polled still approved of a civilian nuclear program, but by a significantly narrower margin. Only 57% of respondents say they supported the program, a decrease of 30%. And that's not the only interesting number. In the 2010 Rand poll, no one refused to answer the question and only 2% claimed they didn't know. In Gallup's most recent poll, the number of people who refuse to answer or say they don't know goes up to almost a quarter of those polled. Finally, the number of people who say they support the development of "nuclear power capabilities for military use" is still significant; 40% of those polled.

The change in polls numbers, assuming they're accurate, indicates three things about Iranian public opinion. There seems to have been a significant drop in Iranian support for a nuclear energy program, more Iranians are aware of how sensitive the issue is (which may explain why so many more people chose not to answer), and less than half of those polled are in favour of developing a nuclear weapon.

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Dina Esfandiary is a research associate with the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

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