WASHINGTON - While still distrustful of U.S. intentions, the Iranian public believes that the threat posed by Washington has diminished over the past year and favours increased exchanges between the two countries, including direct talks on stabilising Iraq and other issues, according to a major new survey released here Monday by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO).
The poll, which included person-to-person interviews with more than 700 people across Iran during the first half of February, also found strong domestic support for Iran's nuclear-energy programme, with more than eight in 10 respondents insisting that it was "very important" for Tehran to master the uranium enrichment process to produce fuel for its nuclear plants.
But only 20 percent said Iran should develop nuclear weapons, while two-thirds said they agreed with the government's official policy that it should not, and 58 percent said that the production of nuclear weapons would violate Islamic principles.
The same percentage said they would support a deal with the U.N. Security Council whereby Iran could have a full-fuel cycle nuclear programme in exchange for "permanent and full access" by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to all of Iran's nuclear facilities to ensure that the programme was limited to energy production.
"While it is not clear if the Iranian government would accept permanent and full U.N. access to ensure Iran is not developing nuclear weapons, most of the Iranian people are ready to accept it," said Steven Kull, director of WPO and its associated Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), who helped design the survey and participated in focus groups in Tehran to test its findings. "Most Iranians are ready to foreclose developing nuclear weapons."
The survey, which followed a similar WPO survey conducted in December 2006, was designed in part to track how public attitudes on key foreign policy and political issues have evolved over the past 15 months during which tensions between Tehran and Washington have see-sawed.
Based on comments voiced in the focus groups, Kull said Iranian perceptions of the threat posed by the United States -- and particularly its military presence in neighbouring countries -- appear to have moved in a more hopeful direction after the publication last November of the U.S. intelligence agencies' National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear programme. It concluded that Tehran had suspended one key part of an allegedly secret weapons programme in 2003.
While 48 percent of respondents in the 2006 poll believed that a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was either somewhat or very likely, that number fell to 34 percent in February. Moreover, 55 percent of Iranians said U.S. bases in the Middle East constituted a threat to their country, down from 73 percent 14 months before. Kull said those respondents who knew about the NIE were more sanguine about U.S. intentions.
WPO also found Iranians markedly more open -- by some 10 percentage points or more in most cases -- to exchanges and diplomatic discussions with the U.S. than in December 2006. For example, seven out of 10 respondents said they favoured more tourism between the two countries, compared to less than five out of 10 some 15 months before.
Nearly six in 10 Iranians said they favoured direct talks between the two countries on "issues of mutual concern", compared to 48 percent who took that position in December 2006. Seven of 10 respondents said they favoured talks "to stabilise the situation in Iraq," although nearly two-thirds said Washington should withdraw all of its forces from Iraq within six months, up from 58 percent who took that position in 2006.
On Iran's regional ambitions, nearly half of respondents said they would prefer that Tehran be "part of a cooperative arrangement in which it is one of many countries" as opposed to 31 percent who said they favoured Iran becoming "the dominant power" in the region, and 14 percent who said they believed Iran should "go its own way and not try to influence other countries."
Similarly, 47 percent said Iran should work cooperatively with other countries and not try to exercise any "special influence" over Iraq, compared to 24 percent who said Tehran should try to exert "a very strong influence", and 19 percent who said it should not try to influence Iraq in any way.
Despite the declining perception of the threat posed by Washington, Iranians remained deeply distrustful of the U.S. Consistent with findings of post-9/11 surveys of Arab attitudes toward the U.S., 84 percent of Iranians agreed with the notion that the U.S. regional goals were either "definitely" or "probably" to maintain control over the oil resources and to "weaken and divide the Islamic world".
Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed with the assertion that the U.S. "purposely tries to humiliate the Islamic world", while about one in five said Washington's disrespect toward Muslims was based more on ignorance than on premeditation.
The survey also found general satisfaction with both Iran's form of government and the performance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two out of three respondents said Iran is going in the right direction and three out of four said they were "mostly satisfied" with Iran's relations with its regional neighbours.
As in the 2006 survey, WPO found strong support -- roughly comparable to a companion survey of U.S. respondents -- for the proposition that countries should be governed "according to the will of the people" as expressed both through elections and between them. Iranian respondents rated their government's performance in that respect much higher than their U.S. counterparts.
Indeed, 74 percent of Iranians -- compared to only 40 percent of U.S. citizens -- said they trusted their national government to do "what is right" either "just about always" (48 percent) or "most of the time (26 percent).
In the companion poll of U.S. respondents, WPO found stronger support -- 82 percent -- for direct talks with Tehran on issues of mutual concern than it found in Iran. Two-thirds of U.S. respondents said weakening and dividing the Islamic world should not be a goal of U.S. policy.
One area in which respondents from the two countries differed particularly widely was on the question of U.S. power over world events. Almost two-thirds of Iranian respondents said that "most" (32 percent) or "nearly all" (33 percent) of "what happens in the world today ...is controlled by the U.S. -- a view that was repeatedly expressed in focus groups, as well. By contrast, nearly seven in 10 U.S. respondents said Washington exercised either only "very little" (12 percent) or "some" (56 percent) control over world events.
Overall, Iranians saw Washington's influence as the most negative (75 percent) of a list five countries that included China, Russia, France, and Britain, although younger respondents tended to have a somewhat more positive impression. China was viewed most favourably, with 55 percent of respondents asserting that it exercised a "positive" influence on the world.
© 2008 Inter Press Service