Though many still see it as a point of national pride, this could be an opportunity to pressure Tehran to slow its nuclear pursuit.
"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.
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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.
Times have changed. Today's Iran is one marred by internal problems, from the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the tightly controlled parliamentary elections to the worsening economic strains on the daily lives of Iranians. Official figures put inflation at 21.6% and unemployment at 11.8%, although independent economists estimate that it is much higher. The Iranian currency, following the latest sanctions on Iran's Central Bank and its oil exports, has lost over 50% of its value, making trade riskier and more expensive for Iranians.
Naturally, public attention has shifted to daily problems. Many Iranians now consider pursuit of the nuclear program as too costly.
As Iranians continue to face economic sanctions and tough talk from abroad as well as economic and political turmoil at home, their support for a nuclear program will likely continue to drop. The interesting question is whether or not this changing opinion will trickle up into the regime itself.
The nuclear program is still closely tied to national pride in Iran, but the decreasing support for it could present two possible opportunities for the West.
The first is to play the waiting game: maintain the status quo and wait for public opinion to keep dropping. It may eventually go so low that the regime either decides to drop the program on its own or, if nuclear enrichment becomes unpopular enough, abandons it to appease the increasingly angry Iranian public. However, this could also risk tipping opinion in favor of the regime. As Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour put it, "Sanctions often accentuate people's existing political disposition. For government critics, it's another example of the regime's disregard for their well-being ... but for government supporters, the sanctions provide further fodder to resent Western imperialism."
The second opportunity is to 'befriend' the Iranian public and drive a wedge between the people and their government. If Iranians believe their country is being denied a nuclear energy program it's entitled to, then the West should emphasize that it's OK with a peaceful program. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated Iran's right to enrich, as long as the process is conducted under full IAEA supervision. If the regime still refuses to talk, they will be further discredited in the eyes of an already wary Iranian public. The regime's alleged weapons program, which the West opposes, has less than half of the public's support. Perhaps Iranians are coming to accept the idea that it's the regime -- not the West -- that's preventing them from developing a peaceful nuclear program.
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