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Iran's Rohani Orders Opinion Poll In Bid To Outflank Hard-Liners

Rohani waving to supporters after arriving in Tehran last month following his ice-breaking trip to New York.
As debate simmers in Iran over the spirit of openness being displayed on the world stage by the country's president, his administration is turning to the Iranian people to hear what they think about his new approach.

President Hassan Rohani's recent announcement that he was commissioning a survey to determine whether Iranians favor or oppose ties with the United States has been met with criticism among hard-liners. But pollsters who ran into trouble with the authorities following a similar survey taken nearly a decade ago see the effort as a way for the new president to strengthen his domestic political position.

In ordering two polling agencies to conduct the survey, Rohani reportedly said it should show what percentage of Iranians support the government's course of engagement with the United States and what percentage does not.

"Even if those opposed to the government's path make up 1 percent, that 1 percent has the right to criticize," he was quoted as saying on October 2.

For decades, any mention of talks with the United States was considered taboo in the Islamic republic, where anti-Americanism has been at the core of the state's ideology.

Didn't Work Last Time

The last time a poll pertaining to relations with the United States was conducted in Iran, several pollsters ended up in jail on charges of espionage and acting against national security.

In 2002, a survey published by the official IRNA news agency showed that between 68 and 74 percent of the residents of Tehran favored restoring ties with the United States. The findings did not sit well with Iranian authorities, and some individuals connected to the effort were subsequently imprisoned.

The poll was conducted by a research institute connected to Hossein Ghazian, one of Iran's most prominent sociologists, and other pollsters. Ghazian escaped direct retribution for the 2002 poll, but was jailed for another survey he later conducted for the Washington-based Gallup organization.

Ghazian, who now resides in the United States, says the new poll could help Rohani counter his critics in Iran.

"[Rohani] can silence some of those within the establishment who oppose his efforts," Ghazian said. "He can tell them it's the people's wish. Most importantly he can silence those hard-liners who are not part of the establishment but who make up the hard-core supporters of the regime. They always mobilize against any such efforts. He can silence them by saying your demands are against the wishes of the majority of the people. [The hard-liners] claim they speak on behalf of the people."

Rohani has attracted some criticism at home, particularly for his recent telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Many citizens, however, have welcomed the 15-minute chat between Rohani and Obama, expressing hope it would lead to the lifting of sanctions and an improvement of ties between the two countries.

Iran and the United States broke ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage taking of American diplomats in Tehran. Since then ties between the two countries have been marred by hostility and tensions.

A poll showing support for Rohani's efforts to decrease tensions could be embarrassing to hard-liners, who have described the call with Obama as premature.

Behrouz Geranpayeh, a former head of the National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls, was jailed in Iran after the 2002 survey. He recently wrote in the daily "Shargh" that authorities who tried to skew the results could not handle the fact that the view of the majority of Iranians differed from theirs.

But conditions have changed since then, Geranpayeh wrote.

"There are more pragmatics and the number of those opposed to talks has decreased," Geranpayeh wrote, even as "those who view any kind of negotiations as a deviation from their principles and a compromise are still expressing their opposition."

Tactics Vs. Strategy

Ghazian says the Iranian establishment appears to be ready to "tactically" put aside some of its hostility toward the United States because of crippling international sanctions that are hurting Iran's economy.

"There is readiness perhaps because of the nuclear issue and the sanctions that are creating problems," Ghazian said. "They probably thought that there could be a war after the sanctions, and that has led to some flexibility. Also, they don't have a better option."

There have been signs of broader support for Rohani's efforts to reach out. The conservative-dominated parliament has expressed support for Rohani's diplomatic tack. And, although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared mildly critical of Rohani's telephone call with Obama, the new Iranian president is believed to have his full support.

Even the continued use of the "Death to America" slogans and chants that have been a staple at state-sponsored events for decades is being debated.

However, Ghazian notes, the clerical establishment is not likely to actually give up "its enemy" which, in the past, has also served as an excuse to silence its own critics.

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"Strategically, the Islamic republic needs an enemy," Ghazian said. "It has always needed one. It needs it now and will need it in the future unless it decides to give up the policies that have defined it."

The views expressed by some hard-liners in the Iranian press support Ghazian's assessment.

"We don't need such a survey about the cunning America," cleric Hojatoleslam Jafar Shabouni told the news website Fararu. "People know they have been hurt by the United States, and they know America cannot be trusted."

Hard-line lawmaker Hamid Rasayi has also said there is no need for the new poll.

"The view of our people is very clear," Rasyi said, according to Iranian media reports. "In addition to millions of people who take part in different demonstrations at [state events] such as [the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution] and Quds Day, the vote of 35 million Iranians in the [June] presidential election was also a slap in America's face."