Thursday, October 27, 2011

Post #25 - Who Are These People, Anyway?

(Apologies -- this'll be rather a long post -- but worth the space, I hope)

We need to know a great deal more about the Iranian people themselves – those people whose freedom we profess to cherish. Ill-fitting stereotypes -- a land of crazed Islamic radicals, or a “captive nation” just awaiting liberators from abroad – do not suffice. On a large sign outside a rural high school in central Iran (where an American school might have had “Home of the Tigers,” or “Welcome Back Alums”), I saw these words -- in English:

In the Name of Allah/ Welcome to the Land of the Freeborn,Poets, Devouts, Philosophers and Heroes/Shahid Salim Passargard High School

This kind of thing begs the question:  How much do we really know about the man and woman on the street in Iran, what makes them tick and what is going on inside their heads?

Search for Common Ground commissioned a poll released in January 2007 that looked at opinion in the United States and Iran. It was done in collaboration with WorldPublicOpinion, a project of the Program for International Policy Attitudes of the University of Maryland, which conducts surveys of public views on key international issues around the globe. The results were as intriguing for what they showed about what Americans think, as for the data regarding Iranian opinion. Excerpts from their results (with my bracketed notes) follow:

Clash of Civilizations: Although Iranians show substantial concern about the conflict between Islamic and Western cultures, a majority rejects the idea that it is inevitable…However, a substantially larger minority of Americans believe that conflict is inevitable.

{If two ships approach one another, either one acting alone can ensure that they are on a collision course; to avoid catastrophe, we must believe that we can, by force of will, take steps to change the plotlines. Akbar Ahmed, professor at American University and author of Islam under Siege, holds that “For the United States, understanding Muslims is not a luxury. It is an imperative. There is an intense debate in the Muslim world, and it is unclear which type of Islam will prevail: the more fundamentalist, aggressive type or the more moderate, compassionate type.” What is needed, he says, is “to create trust between societies through dialogue and understanding” – something Ahmed does by taking his graduate students into the heart of Muslim societies across the region to know for themselves -- and to be known by others. It should not be lost on any of us that the initial impact of America's entry into Iraq was to radically increase the influence of ardent Islamism in that country.}

Militant Islamic Groups and Terrorism: Iranians, like Americans, are concerned about terrorism and reject Osama bin Laden overwhelmingly…however, majorities have positive views of Hamas and Hezbollah. Iranians overwhelmingly reject attacks intentionally aimed at civilians, including those targeting Americans. Americans concur, though the percentage of Iranians who reject such attacks is somewhat higher than the percentage of Americans who do so.

{Iran has turned over Al Qaeda suspects to the United States as recently as 2003. Based on an audit by the Government Accounting Office released in August 2007, so many U.S.-supplied weapons (at least 165,000) had simply "gone missing" -- quite possibly falling into militia or insurgent hands -- that the odds are much, much greater of an American GI being killed by one of our own guns than by an imported explosive device, yet Iran is being held accountable for every IED used in Iraq, every missile fired by Hezbollah and every attack launched from Gaza.  Elements of the Iranian government may be implicated, but the situation is more complex and dynamic than official spokespersons often admit.}

Views of the United States and Iran: Very large majorities of Iranians have negative views of the United States overall, its influence in the world, its current government, its current president, and its culture. Views of the American people, however, are almost evenly divided. Large majorities perceive that US foreign policy is threatening and that US bases in the Middle East are destabilizing the region and threatening to Iran… Most Americans…agree that US bases in the region are threatening to Iran. A clear majority of Americans also have a negative view of the Iranian people…a growing majority of Iranians believe Iran is having a positive influence in the world.
Human rights activist/lawyer Shirin Ebadi

{A few years ago, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski quoted a BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries: Israel, Iran and the United States (in that order) were rated the states with “the most negative influence on the world.” “Alas,” Brzezinski bemoaned, “for some that is the new axis of evil!” Currently, U.S. Troops are stationed in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Uzbekistan, to name a few. All told, Americans maintain over 700 bases outside of US territory, not counting 98 “temporary” bases. The number of Western troops in Muslim countries, on a per capita basis (of the indigenous population), is 32 times what it was during the height of the Crusades. This includes 24 major bases placed in areas that surround Iran: in Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Oman and Bahrain, and others in Turkey, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan.}

{We should note, however, that there was a shift in attitudes even within the West, during the Bush administration. Anne Applebaum, in an 2007 column for the Washington Post, said," for American leadership has declined among our traditional friends: Britain, Poland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands...Since 2002, according to the latest German Marshall Fund 'transatlantic trends' survey, support for 'U.S. leadership in world affairs'... has plunged by 30 percentage points in Germany, 26 points in Italy, 24 points in Poland, 23 points in Netherlands and 22 points in Britain...What's more curious is that our friends' faith in us has weakened just as their perceptions of potential threats are growing ever more similar to ours...we all worry terrorism, a nuclear Iran, global epidemics -- in almost equal measure."}

Improving US-Iran Relations: A slight majority…of Iranians favor a variety of possible steps that have been proposed for improving US-Iranian relations. Large majorities of Americans support most of these steps. The steps include direct talks between governments on issues of mutual concern, more cultural, educational and sporting exchanges, better access for journalists from both countries, increased trade and more tourism.

{When the United States finally consented to talk to the North Koreans about their nuclear program, an agreement (though far from perfect) was found to be achievable. In the case of Iran, genuine dialogue has simply never been tried. Congressional appropriations for “democracy support” to Iran had an inverse effect on reduction of tensions, causing civil society there to go to ground rather than to be revivified }

Iran’s Nuclear Energy Program: An overwhelming majority of Iranians believe that it is very important for Iran to have a full-fuel-cycle nuclear program. Majorities cite as key reasons for having such as capacity: securing Iran’s energy needs, enhancing Iran’s national technical competence, enhancing Iran’s great power status, preserving Iran’s rights to nuclear energy under the NPT and preventing other countries from trying to economically and politically dominate Iran…Iranians express substantial concern about the potential for disruption in the supply of energy and enthusiastically support nuclear energy…Americans have an even higher level of concern about possible disruptions in the energy supply, but resist the building of new nuclear power plants.

{Many still do not know that the idea of a nuclear-powered Iran was first floated by the United States; our two countries signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 1957, and ten years later we supplied Iran with a five-megawatt light-water reactor and related laboratories; in 1974 the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was established, with plans to generate 23,000 MW of power within 20 years and acquire a full nuclear fuel cycle; March 1975 an agreement was reached on construction of eight large nuclear power plants, to supply some 8,000 megawatts of power, at a cost of $15 billion. Iran had to start rationing fuel in 2006; the country must import some 15 million liters of gasoline a day (about $3 billion worth annually), even at the reduced levels of consumption.}

Nuclear Weapons and Non-Proliferation: A large majority of Iranians support Iran’s participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which prohibits Iran from developing nuclear weapons…Large majorities also support a Middle East nuclear-free zone…Iranians are divided about whether at some point in the future Iran will decide to acquire nuclear weapons…However, a very large majority of Americans believe that Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons…Iranians show strong resistance to negotiating away the ability to enrich uranium…A majority of Americans would be willing to allow Iran to enrich uranium if Iran agrees to limit its uranium enrichment programs to the low levels necessary for nuclear energy and to give UN inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities to ensure that such limits are respected.

{Bob Drogin and Kim Murphy, in a long article in the Los Angeles Times (“U.N. Calls U.S. Data on Iran's Nuclear Aims Unreliable,” February 25, 2007), gave this analysis of the case for an Iranian nuclear weapons program:

"...diplomats here [in Vienna] say most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran...the CIA and other Western spy services had provided sensitive information to the...[IAEA] at least since 2002, when Iran's long-secret nuclear program was exposed. But none of the tips about supposed secret weapons sites provided clear evidence that the Islamic Republic was developing illicit weapons.
"Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that's come to us has proved to be wrong," a senior diplomat at the IAEA said. Another official here described the agency's intelligence stream as 'very cold now' because 'so little panned out.'
"...American officials privately acknowledge that much of their evidence on Iran's nuclear plans and programs remains ambiguous, fragmented and difficult to prove. 
"...The U.S. government is not required to share intelligence with the IAEA, and relations between Washington and the U.N. agency are at times testy. In March 2003, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei embarrassed the White House when he told the U.N. Security Council that documents indicating Hussein's government in Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Niger were forged."

{This last incident was the debacle that ultimately led to the “outing” of CIA agent Valerie Plame, who (quite ironically) was working undercover on keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and the conviction of high White House official Scooter Libby. The Bush administration subsequently opposed El Baradei's reappointment to his post -- and commuted Libby's sentence.}

Identity: A large majority of Iranians see their central identity in terms of their religion while one in four identify as a citizen of their country; very small minorities see their identity primarily as members of an ethnic group or as an individual. In sharp contrast, only a small minority of Americans identify themselves primarily in terms of their religion, while about half identify themselves primarily as citizens of the United States and nearly as many identify themselves primarily as individuals. Large majorities of both Iranians and Americans see themselves as citizens of the world as well as citizens of their country, but in both cases most identify more as citizens of their country.

Democracy and Human Rights: Iranians and Americans overwhelmingly endorse the importance of living in a country that is governed by representatives elected by the people. Iranians and Americans both give their country good marks in terms of being democratically representative and respecting the rights of the individual.

{Consider Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr on this subject: "With the rise of secularism, many people in the West saw the rule of God through religion as tyranny and identified the tyranny of their rulers with the tyranny of religion, as is seen so clearly in the French Revolution. In contrast, in the Islamic world the tyranny of worldly rulers was never identified with what agnostic philosophers in the West called the tyranny of religion, and in this matter there are certain resemblances between the views of Islam and those of America's founding fathers...In much of the Islamic world today, Muslims are governed by dictatorial regimes, usually supported by the West if they happen to have a pro-Western stance and preserve Western interests. Muslims see Islam as a means of protecting themselves against this worldly tyranny as they had done in ages past."}

Iraq: A majority of Iranians believe that the current Iraqi government is the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people, have a fairly favorable view of Prime Minister Malaki and other Iraq leaders, and think US troops should be withdrawn within six months. Americans lean toward not seeing the current Iraqi government as the legitimate representative, have an unfavorable view of Maliki, and think US troops should be withdrawn according to a timeline of two years or less. Both Iranians and Americans see instability in Iraq as an important threat and believe that the war in Iraq has increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks.

{An op-ed piece in the Washington Post of July 1, 2007 by Michael Hirsh, senior Newsweek editor, quoted Mohsen Rezai, secretary of Iran's powerful Expediency Council, as telling him, "Rival Sunni countries oppose Maliki. We haven't.” Americans, according to an article that fall in the Baltimore Sun, have little understanding of the impact of the war on the people of Iraq. "An Associated Press poll in February found that the average American believed about 9,900 Iraqis had been killed since the end of major combat operations in 2003. Recent evidence suggests that things in Iraq may be 100 times worse than Americans realize."}

Middle East: Iranians have positive views of the influence of Syria, the Palestinians, Hamas and Hezbollah, while Americans have quite negative views. A large majority of Iranians have a negative view of Israel’s influence in the world, while nearly half of Americans concur.

{The Israeli declaration of independence (May 1948) states: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the in-gathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” For many detractors of today’s Israel, that exposition of lofty and laudable goals is far different from the daily reality of Israeli citizens and Palestinians -- both Muslims and Christians.}

{By way of further comparison, a study released in June 2006 by the Pew Research Center contained polling data from six predominantly Muslim countries: Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Most polled saw Americans and Europeans as selfish, arrogant, immoral and greedy, with those percentages having increased over the previous year. They also see Westerners as disrespectful toward women. About 27% of Pakistanis and 16% of Turks see Christians favorably (these nations are considered allies in the “war on terror”). “Westerners,” said the Center's president, Andrew Kohut (reported in the Washington Post by Delphine Shrank) “think more Muslims support suicide bombings and other violence against civilians than is actually the case; moreover, the survey showed increasing opposition among Muslims to “targeting civilians in the name of Islam.” “Well over half of both Westerners and Muslims “expressed concern over the global rise of Islamic extremism.”}
{Readers are also well-advised to take a look at the documentary called Inside Islam:  What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Winner of several documentary film awards, this reports on the results of the first major opinion poll of Muslims, conducted by the Gallup organization.  Based on six years of research, it is distributed by the Unity Productions Foundation; see}

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