The Middle East Channel

Iran's nuclear resistance

Iran this week marked "Ten Years of Nuclear Resistance," a celebration at the University of Tehran to commemorate Iran's nuclear program, despite international efforts to limit it. The central message that emerged from this event was articulated by Iran's Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council, who said that the "dual strategy based on pressure and diplomacy the West insists on is failed and illogical."

It is time for the United States and its Western allies to realize, as the official, Ali Bagheri, stated, that the policy of more sanctions, intimidation, and pressure is counter-productive to the stated goal of changing the regime's behavior on the nuclear issue. Not only is the Iranian government becoming more belligerent, but according to polling data collected in recent weeks, the Iranian public overwhelming supports many of the government's positions on the nuclear program and related issues.

According to recent data collected by Ebrahim Mohseni, who is conducting research inside Iran as part of his dissertation at the University of Maryland, 85 percent of Iranians said it was very important for Iran to have a civilian nuclear program. This high statistic suggests that, despite the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, there is no hesitation with the public that it should continue. Mohseni's finding is consistent with a poll conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2009, which found that 87 percent of those surveyed said it was important to have a nuclear program.

On issues regarding the economy and sanctions, 65 percent blamed the worsening economy on sanctions, and only 11 percent said the state of the economy was due to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's incompetence. Nineteen percent said it was due to the obstructionist techniques of Ahmadinejad's opponents. When asked if Iran continues to enrich uranium, how likely is it that the current sanctions will be increased, 42 percent said sanctions would definitely increase. This finding is consistent with the same question asked in 2009 by the World Public Opinion poll, which found that 35 percent of Iranians definitely believed sanctions would increase -- and they have.

In a very telling question, respondents were asked: "Would you favor or oppose an agreement whereby all current sanctions against Iran would be removed and Iran would continue its nuclear energy program, except that it would agree not to enrich uranium?" Fifty-nine percent were opposed to stopping enrichment and only 29 percent were in favor.

When asked the question: "How important do you think it is for Iran to develop an atomic bomb?" Thirty-eight percent said it was important and 33 percent said not very important. Mohensi, an independent researcher, revealed the findings on October 17 at a conference at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan Washington think tank. His poll was conducted between September 29 and October 11 calling the respondents by phone in rural and urban areas of Iran. The sample size was 1,110 respondents and the margin of error was three percent.

When asked, "Which courses of action do you prefer?" Forty-one percent said to have both an atomic bomb and nuclear power and 56 percent said only nuclear power.

In another question, respondents were asked which statement is closer to their opinion: 1) "Iran should continue its nuclear enrichment activity even if it results in war;" or 2) "Iran should prevent a war from occurring even if it means suspending nuclear enrichment." Fifty-five percent chose to continue enrichment, while 33 percent said Iran should prevent a war, even if it means suspending enrichment.

If this data accurately reflects public opinion, a few lessons should be drawn: First and foremost, the theory that, when pressured hard enough from the effects of sanctions, Iranians will rise up against the regime, seems implausible. Two, the more Iranians suffer, the more they blame those imposing the sanctions, not their own government. According to Mohseni's poll, 76 percent had a very unfavorable view of the United States.

The narrative governments in the West have advanced about Iran is a country that talks a big game, but will wither if pushed hard enough. This argument is promoted in the U.S. Congress and the European Union each day, even though there is little historical precedence. This idea was repeated in the presidential debate this week, when both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney argued that increasing the pressure of crippling sanctions may yet alter Iranian behavior. It is likely that no matter who wins, more sanctions will be imposed on Iran. Such conclusions likely develop out of political expediency, but lack an understanding of the thinking in Tehran.

It is easy to be dismissive about the rhetoric from Iranian officials, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery speeches have defined his political legacy. But when it comes to the nuclear issue, their words should be taken seriously. In October, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made clear again his position on the Iran's reaction to pressure. "During the last thirty-three years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been faced with a wide range of different political, security, military and economic pressures and sanctions, but the Iranian nation has defused these pressures and even grown more powerful through its resistance," Khamenei told a group of young Iranian elites in Tehran, according to the state's Fars News Agency.

On October 11, Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the Iranian parliament's executive board, acknowledged that the economic hardships on Iran today have never been this damaging. But he reiterated a belief among Iran's political elites that the sanctions are not about the nuclear program, but aimed at attempting to weaken and destabilize the state. "From the early days of the Islamic Republic until today, the enemy has used any excuse to increase sanctions and pressures against the Iranian people. The enemies think that these sanctions and the people and officials will be forced to retreat." He went on to explain why this theory is false.

There appears to be a perception among U.S. officials -- not to mention among exiled Iranians in the opposition -- that the more sanctions bite, the more the Iranian regime becomes fearful of popular unrest. This is the reason there was so much optimism two weeks ago when protests broke out in the Tehran bazaar over the plummeting rial, Iran's currency. But this is also a false assumption. If anything, the regime has become very confident since 2009 -- when at one point three million protesters were on the streets of Tehran -- that it can overcome popular uprisings. It is important not to confuse Iran's reaction to a domestic threat of unrest -- which historically has been disproportionate to the threat at hand -- with the regime's degree of fear of its own people.

The only way out is through bilateral talks, which last weekend the New York Times reported had been agreed to, but both governments denied the reports. The United States and Iran should also negotiate to find other issues upon which to develop mutual cooperation with the hope that once trust is established, the nuclear issue can return to the negotiating table.

Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center.

* This article was updated on October 26, 2012. *

ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Egypt brokers unofficial truce between Israel and Gaza

After two days of fighting, Egypt has brokered a tentative ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. According to Israel, no rockets have been fired since Wednesday night and the unofficial truce is appearing to hold. Fighting began on Tuesday after a landmark visit from Qatar's emir to Gaza, when Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel drawing retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, which killed four Palestinians including three militants. Israeli officials said around 80 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel injuring six people, including two Thai workers who were critically wounded. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he hoped the truce would stand, but said over 600 rockets had been fired into Israel since the beginning of 2012 and that the struggle was far from over. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton is visiting with Israelis and Palestinians in attempts to revive stalled peace talks

Syria

The Syrian government is expected to give its decision Thursday on a ceasefire for the Eid al-Adha holiday brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakdar Brahimi. Brahimi announced Wednesday that President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the temporary truce beginning Friday, but that was immediately thrown into question when Syria's foreign ministry said the military was still studying the proposal. In a meeting with the U.N. Security Council, Russia said it had "indications" that the Syrian government would approve the plan, and the Security Council members expressed their support for Brahimi's proposal. The opposition Free Syrian Army said it would adhere to a ceasefire if the government does, but expressed doubts. Other groups within the opposition said that no one is taking the ceasefire proposal seriously. Meanwhile, a day ahead of the truce deadline, violent clashes have broken out in the Sunni dominated Damascus suburb of Harasta. Fighting began when opposition fighters overran a roadblock on a highway connecting Damascus to the north. Syrian forces have retaliated with fierce tank and rocket fire, killing five people. Fighting also continued in the Damascus suburb of Douma, the town of Maarat al-Numan, along the highway between Damascus and Aleppo, and in the city of Homs near the Lebanese border with over 100 people reported killed across the country on Wednesday.

Headlines  

  • A man suspected of involvement in the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi has been killed in Cairo. Meanwhile, Tunisia has arrested a Tunisian man linked to the attack.
  • Sudan has blamed Israel for carrying out air strikes on an arms factory in Khartoum that was hit by several explosions late Tuesday and said it reserves the right to retaliate.

Arguments and Analysis

Meet the Israelis (Gideon Levy, Haaretz)

"Nice to make your acquaintance, we're racist and pro-apartheid. The poll whose results were published in Haaretz on Tuesday, conducted by Dialog and commissioned by the Yisraela Goldblum Fund, proved what we always knew, if not so bluntly. It's important to recognize the truth that has been thrown in our faces and those of the world (where the survey is making waves ). But it's even more important to draw the necessary conclusions from it.

Given the current reality, making peace would be an almost anti-democratic act: Most Israelis don't want it. A just, egalitarian society would also violate the wishes of most Israelis: That, too, is something they don't want. They're satisfied with the racism, comfortable with the occupation, pleased with the apartheid; things are very good for them in this country. That's what they told the pollsters."

Hezbollah uses its military power in a contradictory manner (David Hirst, The Daily Star)

"Nobody, neither its friends nor its foes, ever questions Hezbollah's military prowess. During its last major engagement, the July war of 2006, an Israeli general ruefully called it "the greatest guerilla organization in the world today," and the entire Arab world thrilled at its exploits, not only in classical guerilla warfare, but in higher-tech forms of combat, such as the sea-borne missile which very nearly sank the Israeli navy's flagship.

The really contentious question is: What does it use its prowess, and its weapons, for? In the past two weeks, it has given two dramatic, and profoundly contradictory, answers.

One came in the shape of the drone that Hezbollah launched over Israel on Oct. 6. In a subsequent speech, Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah called it an "Iranian-built," "Hezbollah-assembled" device which, during its three-hour, 300 km mission, conducted reconnaissance of sensitive sites, including that "holy of holies," the ultra-secret nuclear facility at Dimona."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey