The recent outburst of militant demonstrations, especially in parts of Iran where support for the Islamic Republic has been strongest in the past, has led to speculation, in the absence of reliable information, that it has entered a death spiral owing to its economic failure, severe limitations on democracy, and restrictions of civil liberties and personal freedoms. This belief of impending regime change might someday turn out to be accurate, but the best available evidence---from scientific polling reported by The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies--- indicate widespread unhappiness about economic conditions and corruption co-exist with substantial majorities supporting existing political institutions and foreign policies.
What do Iranians want? The CISC has affiliated with a Canadian company, IranPoll, which has conducted telephone polls in Iran since 2006. The most recent one, in June 2017, was done after the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, who received 57 percent of the vote against his rivals in an election with just over 70 percent turnout—far higher than the 58 percent who voted in the US in 2016. Another survey was undertaken in 2016, a year after Iran, the US, and other major powers signed the nuclear treaty.
The most unique and undemocratic feature of the Islamic Republic’s political system is that the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vet all aspiring candidates for President and the parliament, and the former is only nominally independent of the latter. In practical terms, some candidates, despite having substantial support among voters, might not be allowed to run. In the run-up to the 2017 election, for example, former two-time President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was barred just a few months before the voting. Although polls showed him behind Rouhani, he still had about 53 percent favorability as an individual (compared to Rouhani’s 76 percent). Nevertheless, after Rouhani’s re-election, when Iranians were asked whether the Guardian Council was “fair and impartial in the election process,” merely 4 percent thought they were unfair, and 72 percent believed they were very or somewhat fair. Eight percent indicated being very dissatisfied with the list of candidates.
On the broader question, fundamental to the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, of whether policymakers should “take religious teachings into account when making decisions,” 47 percent thought this should be done “a lot” and 29 percent “somewhat.” Only 6 percent supported an entirely secular state, with 7 percent believing most Iranians strongly disapproved of the ideals of the Islamic revolution
When it comes to analyzing the responses to certain questions, the pollsters seem to have gotten seemingly contradictory results, Overall, 65 expressed a desire for Rouhani to improve civil liberties, including 21 percent who thought it was very important to do so. Oddly, about the same percentage, 67 percent, contended Iranians had the “right amount” of freedom. About as large a proportion, 15 percent, claimed that there was too much freedom as too little (16 percent). It is possible that the respective terms used had distinct meanings to the respondents. Civil liberties might have, for example, been perceived as having to do with limits on the public expression of dissent and the workings of the judicial and penal systems, whereas freedom might have been interpreted as pertaining only to private life (e.g., freedom of association, right to privacy and personal conduct).
The polls also asked the respondents directly about their foreign policy preferences. Although some protester’s calling for the government to stop spending money and risking lives in Syria were noted in US media and highlighted by President Donald Trump, most Iranians support the regime’s foreign policy. Sixty-six percent thought it was unacceptable to recognize Israel; 58 believed it was unacceptable to stop helping Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, and about the same percentage held similar views regarding withholding aid to Hezbollah.
Regarding attitudes towards the US government and people, Iranians seem to make distinctions between the two. Just over half, 51 percent, had positive sentiments towards the American people, with 80 percent supporting tourism from the US and to it. However, because of the economic consequence of sanctions (and, undoubtedly widespread knowledge of past US government’s undisputed efforts to undermine Iranian sovereignty, e.g., the 1953 CIA orchestrated coup and support for Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion), only 11 percent have a favorable attitude towards the U.S. government. Favorable attitudes towards President Trump are in the low single digits.
If relatively few Iranians favor regime change, what were the motivating factors behind the protests? The initial demonstrations might have been instigated by hardline rivals of President Rouhani, but their spread reflected widespread despair regarding the dismal state of the Iranian economy. The June 2017 survey indicated 64 percent described the economy as “bad.” with 34 percent labeling it “very bad.” Half of the respondents thought it was “getting worse.” When asked what President Rouhani’s top priorities should be 86 percent said it should be “reducing unemployment”; 79 percent “fighting corruption”; 74 percent “helping the poor.” Only 26 percent thought improving civil liberties should be a top priority, A mere 2 percent wanted to re-negotiate the nuclear treaty to conform to Trump’s wishes.
There are, of course, those who maintain polling itself is a poor way of learning the state of public opinion anywhere. While all polls have limitations, no one has been able to develop a more scientific method of describing how large populations think and behave. Objections to specific findings often represent wishful thinking rather than its rational form.
One could contend, however, that surveys in a country such as Iran, which harshly represses dissent, are pointless. This view has been belied even by past polls sponsored by the regime. If such a concern affected a significant portion of Iranians, it would be hard to explain why so many felt free last June to register their deep discontent with the economy and corruption, and even favorable attitudes towards the regime-sidelined Ahmadinejad . It’s time for both the US government and the Iranian Supreme Leader, who, unlike President Rouhani, dismissed the protests as a foreign plot, to acknowledge all Iranian voices, not just the ones they want to hear.