The closure of a state-run polling institute is causing an uproar in Iran as reformists accuse hard-liners of abusing their power in an effort to silence the expression of public opinion. The institute angered hard-liners by finding that a majority of Iranians support the opening of talks with Washington, something many reformists have periodically called for but that hard-liners resolutely oppose.
Prague, 10 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The uproar over the closing of one of Iran's most prestigious polling institutes is pitting hard-liners and reformists against each other in an increasingly angry debate over freedom of opinion and focusing new attention on Iran's difficult relations with the United States.
The war of words broke out after the state-controlled National Institute for Opinion and Research Polls released a parliament-commissioned survey that found that three-quarters of 1,500 people questioned in Tehran backed the opening of talks with Washington. It also found that 46 percent of those polled said U.S. policies on Iraq are "to some extent correct." Two other polling institutes participating in the work found similar attitudes.
Mohammed Hussein Aghassi, a lawyer in Tehran, told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the polling institutes did nothing illegal. "Legally, the act of these institutes is not a crime, and even if they had initiated the survey and distributed it themselves, they cannot be prosecuted. In the Islamic Republic's Penal Code, only what has been prohibited and has a specific punishment attached to it can be referred to as a criminal act and the perpetrator referred to as a criminal," Aghassi said. "Recently, the Tehran Justice Department announced that anybody who voices an opinion on U.S.-Iranian relations is liable and will face prosecution. The Justice Department is acting politically, and it does not have a legal base to do so. Therefore, the pollster and the publisher of the survey are not prosecutable by law."
The results of the poll infuriated Iran's hard-line camp, which has consistently opposed calls by some reformists to explore opportunities for dialogue with the United States. The hard-liners used their dominance of the courts to close the National Institute for Opinion and Research Polls. It also charged the director, Behrouz Geranpayeh, with "propagating lies to excite public opinion." The same charge was brought against the head of the state-run IRNA news agency, Abdollah Nasseri, for publishing the poll.
Pollster Geranpayeh subsequently released the results of what he said was another poll showing that "Iranian people do not have any positive attitude to the U.S. administration and do not consider its officials honest."
Reformists see the court's action as the extension of an ongoing crackdown on speech that in recent years has closed scores of liberal newspapers.
A prominent pro-reform parliamentarian this week used some of the strongest language to date by describing the closure of the polling institute 10 days ago as a form of "thought control." Reza Yousefian, a legislator from Shiraz, said the closure was "clearly aimed at intimidating people.... Today, they shut down scientific institutes. Tomorrow, these thought police will prosecute people for what is in their inner conscience."
The furor has also seen hard-liners escalate their rhetoric over the event.
Earlier this week, the hard-line head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, accused what he called pro-U.S. elements in Iran of trying to deceive the public through a falsified poll. He said that "unfortunately, some people who are for the resumption of a relationship with the U.S. are trying to imply that their own thoughts are the wish of the people. They are deceiving people, but their whole conspiracy will be neutralized."
In a further development this week, the Ministry of Justice said it is gathering evidence that the poll results were forged. The ministry said 50 of the people allegedly surveyed claimed they were never contacted by a pollster.
The ministry's statement conflicts with an earlier statement by a spokesman for the Iranian government, Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, who called the polling institute "one of the most credible in Iran." He told reporters that the institute "has done nothing wrong and has just carried out a poll that was ordered by parliament."
Beyond the issues of freedom of opinion, the row has focused new attention in Iran on the perennial question of what Tehran should do about its continuing hostile relations with Washington.
That question has seen not just reformist members of parliament but also top reformists in government periodically suggest that discussions with the United States of the two countries' differences could be in Iran's interest.
Last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi sent new, but mixed, signals that Tehran might be open to dialogue when he said Washington missed what he called a "golden opportunity" to improve relations amid the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Saying that Tehran had cooperated with Washington in brokering a post-Taliban government in Kabul and in tracking down Al-Qaeda members fleeing into Iran, Kharrazi said, "We had very good cooperation on Afghanistan with the United States."
But turning to Washington's branding of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" in January, Kharrazi added: "Despite these positive moves and our constructive role, look how they responded.... This does not produce trust but mistrust."
U.S. President George W. Bush dubbed Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil" for their suspected efforts to acquire nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials have also charged Iran with harboring Al-Qaeda fugitives.
After the axis-of-evil speech, some reformists in Iran called for talks with Washington as a way to ward off any U.S. attack, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei later quashed the suggestions by saying talks would not solve any problems and that "those who think about negotiations when they are threatened are showing their weakness."
In a sign that the war on terrorism is now moving Iran and the United States further away from the possibility of dialogue, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami two months ago warned Washington against any action targeting Tehran. He also said there are no differences of opinion in Iran over the United States when it comes to protecting Iran's national interests. "God forbid, if [the U.S.] tries to do something against Iran, we must, with our current capability, be ready to protect our independence and our national interests, and I think the Iranian state, on this issue, has full solidarity," Khatami said.
Those top Iranian officials who have periodically called for exploring ways to ease tense relations with the United States have tied any progress to several conditions. Among these are demands that the United States apologize for supporting a 1953 coup in Iran and for supporting the former shah, and that Washington lift sanctions against Iran and restore all assets frozen after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Washington, in turn, has previously said dialogue with Tehran should be preceded by Iranian commitments to end what the United States calls its state support for terrorism. The United States also wants any dialogue to address its concerns that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and Iran's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.
Iran and the United States broke ties after revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took American diplomats hostage. The diplomats were held 444 days before being released.