Public opinion under Iran’s theocratic and authoritarian rule can be better understood through qualitative methods such as people’s true expressions in public and private spaces. For example, since December 28, 2017, tens of thousands of Iranians have poured on to the streets of many cities across Iran’s provinces to protest against corruption, the thievery and tyranny of the ruling theocracy, and its funding of proxy armies and terrorists across the region.
The protesters echoed national sentiments with chants of “death to the dictator,” “death to (Supreme Leader Ali) Khamenei,” “death to (President Hassan) Rouhani,” “reformists, hardliners, your game is now over,” “mullahs, have shame and let go of our country,” and “we will die but will take our country back.”
Obtaining public opinion in Iran through traditional methods comes with many limitations. For example, a new report indicated that only 16.4 percent of Iranians agree that “Iran’s political system needs to undergo fundamental change.” That would mean 68 million people in Iran don’t see a need for fundamental change.
First of all, the demographics and realities on the ground strongly point to the opposite conclusion. More than a quarter of young people aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed; more than 40 percent of the population live below the relative poverty line; and at least 11 million people are currently living in slums around the large cities.
The people’s views can be more effectively found in their sophisticated, nuanced and delicate day-to-day resistance to the regime, widespread protests and chants, and social media posts.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Secondly, such statistics contradict the findings of a report issued by Iran’s own Interior Ministry on Feb. 3. The Ministry pointed out that “people’s trust in the regime has been diminished, institutions have lost their effectiveness.” It added that: “The slogans raised in the protests were 30 percent economical, 70 percent political, and 75 percent of the people sympathized with the demonstrators in 80 Iranian cities.”
In addition, by any definition Iran is ruled by, to put it mildly, an authoritarian regime — therefore any reports of people’s opinions ought to have reference to the prevailing repressive and authoritarian environment as a caveat.
Furthermore, any report on Iran’s public opinion ought to provide detailed and specific data about the process. Any poll result must be accompanied with information about how it was conducted and specific data about its demographic (gender, age, occupation, etc.), validity, survey reliability, response rate, margin of error, and other critical measurements.
It is worth noting that the Iranian regime often attempts to exploit public opinion reports. As Prof. Cale Horne, of Covenant College in the US, has written: “In places where dissenting opinions may be punished harshly, the reliability and validity of politically sensitive public surveys is far from self-evident.” He adds that “when politically sensitive questions have been asked in repressive contexts, data quality has been questionable.” Prof. Horne asks: “To what extent can opinion surveys on politically sensitive topics reflect public opinion in countries intolerant of political dissent?”
Finally, regarding sensitive questions, would any rational observer really expect that an Iranian respondent would give an honest answer to questions regarding national security issues and the regime’s legitimacy over the phone? Would the respondent not assume that this is just another ploy by the rulers’ security institutions to identify the potential regime changers?
In a nutshell, the public opinion of Iranian people can be more effectively found in the people’s sophisticated, nuanced and delicate day-to-day resistance to the regime, the widespread protests and chants, as well as activities on various social media platforms in both the Persian and English languages.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh