To a Kremlin analyst in 1968 America may have looked similar to the way that Iran looks to some American analysts today. Large-scale demonstrations to protest the Vietnam war and disrupt the Democratic convention in Chicago may have led to some to conclude that the long-awaited collapse of capitalism was close at hand. Indeed some demonstrators called for the overthrow of the system, some were explicitly pro-communist, and some government leaders portrayed the demonstrators as a threat to the American way of life. But if Kremlin analysts had come to those conclusions, they would have been wrong.
And if they had called for the Soviet Union to pursue a confrontational approach to the United States on the basis that this would hasten its demise they would have been misguided.
Today some call for the United States to refrain from negotiating with Iran on the basis that the recent demonstrations are a sign that the Iranian system is cracking. It is better, they say, to increase the pressure on an already stumbling government whose people have turned against them; the government that is likely to replace it will be much more accommodating. They too are misguided.
A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of Iranians—conducted by native Farsi speakers calling into Iran, thus bypassing any possible government controls—reveals that large majorities continue to support the Iranian system.
Naturally this raises the question of whether people are answering honestly in an autocratic environment where people are being imprisoned for protesting against the government. But we can focus just on those who were brave enough to say that they did vote for the opposition candidate Mousavi. Presumably they are being frank in response to other questions as well.
What we find is that those who openly support Mousavi are different from others. Unlike the others a majority of Mousavi supporters that the press should be completely free from government controls (59%) and that Iran’s relations with the west have worsened under Ahmadinejad (57%).
As compared to others, Mousavi supporters are far more likely to say that the election was not free and fair, that they do not have confidence in the election results and that the Ahmadinejad is not the legitimate president of Iran.
However a modest majority of Mousavi supporters says the opposite.
More important, they express support for the Iranian system. Fifty-three percent say that a body of religious scholars should have the right to overturn laws they believe are contrary to the Koran. Two thirds say they trust the government in Tehran to do the right thing at least some of the time. Majorities say they have some confidence in the Guardian Council (55%) and the President (62%).
Furthermore, even if these people were to have a powerful influence over Iranian foreign policy it would not signal a transformation of US-Iranian relations. Only 35 percent say they trust Obama, and majorities have pernicious assumptions about US goals such as the belief that the US is hostile to Islam (68%). Like the rest of the sample, less than half say they oppose attacks on US troops in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
Perhaps most significant, only 43 percent say they would be ready to give up enriching uranium in exchange for removing sanctions.
This does not mean that all the news is bad. Three quarters of Mousavi supporters, like two thirds of all Iranians polled, would be willing to preclude developing nuclear weapons—either through stopping enrichment or allowing unlimited inspections—in exchange for sanctions.
Similarly three quarters of Mousavi supporters, like two thirds of the whole sample, would support Iran establishing diplomatic relations with the United States.
These numbers do not say what the Iranian government will or will not be willing to do in a negotiation, but they do tell us something about the normative environment that exists in Iran today.
Altogether they suggest that an alternative strategy of refraining from negotiation in the hope that the Iranian government is profoundly weakened from internal dissent is unlikely to be any more promising than if a similar strategy had been tried by Moscow in 1968.