Saturday, November 16, 2013

Public Opinion in Iran

Anti- American protests in Tehran.
While we have discussed over the last couple of weeks the importance of public opinion in the United States toward national security policy, it is interesting to witness foreign attempts to gain control of public onion on diplomatic matters in their own countries.  The recent few weeks in Iran have provided a stark contrast in public opinions about the increased overtures by the Rouhani regime toward the West, specifically the United States.   Every year, on the aniversary of the 1979 storming of the American embassy in Iran, protestors gather at the former embassy to protest the United States, but in recent years, the crowds had dwindled to just a few thousand.  There have been reports that the crowds have even been forcibly bolstered by bringing in school children on buses to the protest site.  This year was different.  

Earlier this month, upwards of over 50,000 people gathered to protest the United States, the largest protests in years.  American flags were burned, posters depicting America as “The Great Satan” were displayed, effigies of bloody, sinister Statues of Liberty were symbolically hung in the streets.  There was even a poster of President Obama in a wrestling outfit with Star of David earrings.  All of the while cries of “death to America” rang out extremely loudly from the protesting throngs.

None of this would be particularly groundbreaking, except this year the Iranian leadership specifically called for restraint from the crowds.  Backers of Rouhani had urged the protestors to stop the “Death to America” chant as they felt it would be counterproductive for the attempts at negotiation with the United States and others.  With the negotiations, they hope to achieve eased sanctions, which have been severely tightened surrounding the controversy of Iran’s nuclear program.  Even Supreme Leader Khamenei  joined in on the attempts to sway public opinion when on the official national television network he scolded those who would undermine the nuclear negotiations.  Iranian hardliners would not be quieted, however.

In fact, Khomeini portrayed the difficulty in utilizing multivocality.  At the same time that he was speaking against the protesters of the negotiations, he at the same time took the opportunity to praise the Iranian students who had originally stormed the American Embassy in 1979 which led to the multi-decade break in diplomatic relations between the two countries to begin with.  He was attempting to send different messages simultaneously.  Even in Iran, the new media, especially social media, have made circumventing official media messages easier, and thus made elite leadership attempts to control public opinion all the more difficult. 

Gallup polls within Iran from earlier this year show the challenge of public opinion that leaders there face.  The majority of Iranians blame the United States for the sanctions crippling their economy, but they also do not want to give up anything in their national nuclear program.  This public opinion reality is likely to plague the Rouhani government for the foreseeable future.

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