Monday, November 18, 2013

Why polls do not tell you everything about Iranian public opinion

Iran's (and most of the Middle East’s) public image in the West is tainted in similar ways that the public images of many parts of Africa are tainted.  Whenever the average American hears about any part of Africa (if he/she hears anything at all) it is usually when something bad happens, it is similar with Iran… nobody hears anything about the country unless there is some death to America protest.  It is like if the rest of the world only ever heard about the U.S. when some crazy pastor in Florida is burning the Qur'an.
So what is the rest of a country of 77 million doing while there are 50 thousand people gathered around the ex-U.S. embassy in Tehran chanting for death to America?  Well, the rest is likely working or in school - shocker.  Actually, many students every year try to receive a student visa to the U.S. or to Europe (the U.S. actually maintains a virtual embassy to Iran, specifically to help students and others to obtain visas).  The plan then is to study, find a job and bring over the rest of the family or to join their relatives already in the U.S. Yes, this may come as a surprise to many, but Iranians are the 5th largest group of non-European ancestry in the U.S., with anywhere from 300-600 thousand in California alone.  The majority of these Iranian Americans is better educated than the average American and is earning significantly above the average U.S. income.

But enough about Iranian Americans, let’s look at the other Iranians that aren’t out and about burning American flags.  In order to do this we have to look at little bit at soft power.
So, while the Iranian government heavily polices and censors facebook, twitter and domestic internet users in general, the U.S. and the U.K. are supplying Iranians with entertainment and news via satellite.  One of these satellite channels is BBC Persian, one of several foreign language offshoots of the BBC, which brings 8 hours of Persian language news and programming to the Persian speaking world (Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan).  And what is Iranians' most favorite program on the BBC? Talk shows discussing politics or religion… no, it’s Top Gear!  For those who enjoy this show as much as I do, it isn’t hard to understand why.  But if you do not know the show, let me sum it up – it features 3 middle aged men driving luxury sports cars that go on trips where they mostly play pranks on each other and crack below-the-belt jokes.
The other channel that is widely watched is Voice of America, basically the State Dept.’s foreign radio and TV channel, broadcasting in many languages, including Persian. VOA, like BBC Persian, features news and other programming, like President Obama addressing Persian speakers every year for the Persian new year, Nowruz. The single most watched show is “Parazit”, a news satire show run by two Iranian Americans, making fun of Iranian politics, criticizing the government and news events.  One of the two producers left the show and now produces a YouTube show called “Poletik” where he recaps the week’s news in a Colbert-like fashion and interviews activists, reporters, artists and musicians (most recent one of the members of the Yellow Dogs after the murder-suicide).
So while 50 thousand are out burning flags one day, roughly 1 million are watching a show broadcasted by Voice of [Great Satan] America every week; so much for public opinion.
While I do not want to deny that there are the flag burners and people that are generally angry at the U.S., I do not think that these make up the majority of people.  Not all polls can be trusted – Gallup’s polls are done over the phone, in a country where the government systematically spies on its citizens and arrests activists - I do not expect that people are giving honest answers on all questions. The questions that do receive honest answers are not really surprising: Iranians are in favor of developing nuclear power. Who would not support having better, more reliable electricity? Like most Americans, I would expect the average Iranian to care little about international relations as long as they do not affect their livelihoods.  One cannot expect that all people in a country in which the government forces schools to preach propaganda, censors the internet and violates human rights like free speech to have nuanced opinions on foreign affairs.
We also must not forget that while it is an authoritarian government, it still has a parliament and there are power-struggles within government.  Rouhani has had difficult times getting some of his ministers passed as conservatives are opposing him.  Sounds familiar to some of the stuff that goes on in the U.S.? So let’s not assume away complexities that are in play when looking at other nations.

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