A news story broke recently that received scant attention from the West's major newspapers. The story dealt with the release of a poll of 1,500 Iranians which revealed numbers that proved to be the political and cultural equivalent of the major seismic events that often rock Iran. It was a poll which prompted that country's conservative judiciary to take two men to court for "publishing lies to excite public opinion," ignoring that the poll was in fact the public's opinion.
On Sept. 22, the news agency Irna published a poll conducted by Iran's National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls (NIRSOP) that found that 74 percent of respondents supported dialogue with the United States. Even more frightening to the Islamic fundamentalists who rule Iran, 45.8 percent believed America's policy on Iran is "to some extent correct." It seems that authoritarian regimes are always the last to know that they are unpopular with the people they rule.
Though many in the West may not be aware of it, Iran is currently tearing itself apart over the issue of its future. The poll was commissioned by Iran's parliament, a body dominated by reform-minded politicians. The parliament's board has demanded that the judiciary, dominated by hard-line Islamic clerics, halt the prosecutions of NIRSOP Director Behrouz Geranpayeh and Irna's Abdollah Nasseri. Mirroring that conflict, near-daily clashes occur on Iranian streets between those who chant "USA" and militants who quote passages from the Koran. Simply put, Iran is a nation at a crossroads.
We perhaps shouldn't be surprised. Middle East expert Gilles Kepel has argued that militant Islam is essentially a spent force. Although many have taken the September 11 terrorist attacks to mean that political Islam is as strong as ever, Mr. Kepel theorizes otherwise. The beginning of its end, he believes, was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, an action that effectively "wrecked the inner equilibrium" of the Islamist movement because it pitted Saudi Arabia against many of the militants that it funded. The only reason Iran was a success story — as much as authoritarian theocracies can be success stories — is because it managed to temporarily unite its different cultural and economic classes into a common purpose.
September 11, 2001 may have been the equivalent of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. The mass murder which occurred that day may have prompted millions in the Islamic world to re-evaluate their devotion to regimes which have failed utterly in improving their lives. As a May 2002 article in Arab News by Muhammad Omar Al-Amoudi bemoaning Middle East backwardness pointed out, "Israel's GNP exceeds $100 billion while the oil revenue of all the Arab countries combined is barely $113 billion. The average annual income of an Israeli is about 17 times higher than that of an Arab. The Arab's average annual income is $1,000 while the Israeli average is $17,000. Twelve percent of Israelis are employed in agriculture and another 12 percent in business, while the remaining 76 percent are employed in the industrial sector. The average spent on scientific research per year per person in Israel is $110. The Arab world, in contrast, spends a pathetic $2. Israel's leading electronic industry manufactures several times more than all the Arab countries combined produce."
Few people should have been surprised at the poll's results. Anyone who has read Alexander Solzhenitsyn has a good sense of how unstable authoritarian societies really are. You saw that with the collapse of the countries of the communist bloc, one that happened so fast that it was almost anti-climatic. Although the people may initially support an authoritarian government in response to some threat they've identified, the next age cohort rarely offers the same support. A significant chunk of Iran's population not only doesn't remember the 1979 revolution that propelled Islamic fundamentalists to power, but it wasn't even alive to witness it.
Although many in the West are not aware of it, a lot of Iranians want to dance, eat hamburgers, watch movies and kiss each other without the threat of prison or stoning. They may not want the typical middle-class rat race lifestyle that North Americans have built for themselves, but they want the opportunity to choose whether they adopt that lifestyle. The mullahs of Iran can't offer that, and the people know it and they are increasingly unsatisfied. All we have to do is give a little push to those moderate elements, simply acknowledging them openly and encouraging them. Although the Middle East could go either way and the choice is largely not up to us, we have a role to play. Iran may never be a close friend of the United States or Israel, but we can actively work now for the day when they aren't a bitter enemy. We have the numbers now to prove it's possible.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.