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Iranian public opinion and the nuclear stand-off

By Mahan Abedin - posted Friday, 19 May 2006

In an April 11 speech from the holy city of Mashhad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that the Islamic Republic had "joined the club of nuclear countries", a declaration broadcast live on Iranian television, followed by footage of scientists dancing and waving test tubes marked with the chemical symbol for uranium.

While the technical achievement in question (enrichment of uranium to the 3.5 per cent level required to fuel nuclear reactors) was relatively modest, the bombastic pageantry was perfectly attuned to prevailing public opinion. As Western journalists in Tehran frequently point out, it is difficult to find ordinary Iranians who are displeased with their new president's nuclear brinkmanship.

This public consensus derives from several factors, not least of which is the regime's success in shaping media coverage of the issue. At the elite level, however, beneath a thin veneer of public unanimity, there is much debate about the wisdom of his tactics. The political implications of Ahmadinejad's mobilisation of the public are worrisome not only to reformist factions of the elite, but to conservatives with entrenched economic interests.


Iranian public opinion

While anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of Iranians would like their country to be a nuclear power, what this means precisely, and at what expense they are willing to achieve it, are difficult to assess. Public discussion of whether Iran is or should be developing nuclear weapons is entirely absent from the media. Indeed, it's not entirely clear whether the Iranian public presumes that building nuclear weapons is, in fact, the intention of its government. Nonetheless, some generalisations can be made.

Iran's insecurity complex

Public support for nuclear weapons development is typically very high in countries that have been deeply traumatised by external aggression (Israel) or face powerful external threats (India, Pakistan). Iranians are predisposed on both accounts to view it favourably.

Iran was victimised by the bloodiest act of inter-state aggression since World War II. The eight-year war that followed Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion caused horrific levels of Iranian casualties, with conservative estimates putting the number of Iranian dead at around 300,000. To make matters worse, the outside world refused to sanction Iraq for the crime, even when the Iraqis made liberal use of chemical weapons, both against Iranian soldiers and civilians. The idea that Iran is on its own is deeply ingrained in the popular psyche, reinforced by the Persian-speaking majority's unique ethno-linguistic heritage and profound sense of cultural superiority over its immediate neighbours.

Iranians are painfully aware that their conventional military weakness, which invited Iraqi aggression, still endures. Iran's armed forces are plagued by a lack of access to Western technology, which puts them at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis other major regional militaries, namely Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iranian Government propaganda on advanced military research notwithstanding, the plain fact is that Iran's armed forces are in a terrible state of disrepair, with much of the equipment either obsolete or of little operational value against technologically advanced foes. The Iranian air force typifies this problem, with the bulk of its bombers and interceptors comprised of American F4D, F4E, RF-4E, F5E, F5F and F14 as supplied in the 1970s, a full generation behind the F15s, F16s and Tornadoes of neighbouring countries' air forces.

Indeed, this weakness was brought into sharp focus in September 1998 when the Taliban seized the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and slew ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist. The Iranian military establishment was painfully made aware of its lack of "strategic" assets to deter even the weakest of the country's adversaries.


Moreover, Iran has powerful nuclear neighbours. To the east are India and Pakistan, which officially became nuclear powers in May 1998, while to the west is Israel, which has possessed a nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s. Iran's relations with Pakistan have been strained since the 1990s when Tehran and Islamabad supported diametrically opposed factions in Afghanistan. There is a clear sectarian dimension to this strategic rivalry. The Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus, as Iranians are well aware, is thoroughly penetrated by the same ultra-radical Sunni Islamist currents that are committing mass murders of Shiites in Iraq.

Furthermore, to the country's west lies Israel, with which the Islamic Republic has an acrimonious relationship. While most Iranians (save for Islamists) harbour little animosity towards Israel, Iranian support for Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and to a lesser extent Hamas, has generated intense Israeli animosity which make's the Jewish state's nuclear arsenal and conventional military capabilities very menacing.

Nationalism and technology

Of course the regime does not market its nuclear program as a solution to Iran's security needs. Publicly, Iranian officials maintain that the nuclear program is intended only for civilian energy use and they are adept at pitching this objective on its own merits. The Iranian public is very receptive to the idea of self-sufficiency, a perennial battle cry of the Iranian revolution reinforced by the privations of war and international isolation. Although the country has abundant oil reserves, Iranian leaders offer apocalyptic warnings about their eventual depletion. "Enemies of the nation are looking for a day when Iranian oil reserves will be depleted and the nation will stretch its hands to them for help," Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned in 2004.

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First published in the April-May 2006 edition of Mideast Monitor.

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About the Author

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specialising in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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