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Comment | New Study of Iranians' Democratic Values Causes Stir


30 May 2012 00:08Comments

Research finds exceptional gap between people's values and form of government.

Amir Bagherpour leads a public policy research initiative at the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA). The first Iranian-born graduate of West Point, he recently completed his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University in political science with a focus in international relations.
[ comment ] Last year, a team of Israeli researchers set out to conduct a study on Iran's democratic potential. Prior to examining Iranian society, they created a cross-societal index comprising more than 60 countries that measures psychological characteristics linked to democratic behavior -- a strong correlation between a given country's degree of democratization, as measured by its Freedom House rating, and its score on the index was shown. When the researchers then turned to Iran, the results were staggering: the Iranian society's score was higher than those of many successful democratic countries such as South Korea, India, Thailand, and Ukraine. The study indicates that Iran is an outlier, one of very few societies whose democratic values do not match their form of government.

For the first time, there is now empirical evidence indicating that Iranians do indeed hold values that correlate with democratic societies. Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, commented on the study's importance in an interview: "It shows that Iranians have democratic aspirations as individuals but the system they are under in Iran is one that does not allow them to trust each other. We have truly been deprived of this process called democracy." Addressing the study's implications, Khaliji stated, "The findings indicate the disturbing gap between the government of Iran and its people; it is further proof of the failure of the government's Islamic ideology on Iran and the promises they made over three decades ago."

Yuval Porat, the strategic consultant who led the Israeli research team, reflected on his experience conducting interviews of Iranians from each of the country's 31 provinces. He stated, "In trying to understand the people of Iran, we ended up learning about ourselves too. At the end of the day, people across different cultures have common human values." Asked about his goals in pursuing the research, Porat replied, "I did not know the outcome of the research until we ran the data. I want the results to create a conversation and I am willing to talk with all who seek to further this dialogue, especially those who may disagree."

The dialogue has already begun. Since Porat first publicized the study's results in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, dozens of Iranian news websites and blogs from across the political spectrum, both within Iran and the diaspora, have cited the report and commented on its findings. The first to cover it, surprisingly, were Islamic sites such as Asr Iran, Meli Mazhabi, and Shora News, which presented the research under the title "Iranians Are the Greatest Believers in Democracy of All Middle Eastern Nations"; at least one Green movement site covered it with a very similar headline. Baztab Emrooz emphasized the conclusion that Iranians have a greater potential for democracy than people in many other countries, but failed to mention what the research had to say about Iran's actual level of democracy. Opposition blogs and news websites tended to cite a Deutsche Welle report that emphasized the gap between the people's prevailing value system and the government; among the headlines were "Freedom Seekers in the Shadow of a Totalitarian Regime" and "Wish for Regime Change and Liberal Democracy."

Initially, none of the sites, not even the Islamic ones, criticized the fact that the research was done by Israelis. This public tolerance toward Israeli statements, of whatever kind, is virtually without precedent on Islamic sites. The first such criticism occurred three days after the publication of the op-ed, when the website of the Kayhan newspaper, whose editorial position is closely aligned with the perspective of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, published an item critical of the research and its "Zionist" authors. Titled "Agents of Israeli Psychological Operation Acting Snakelike," it claimed that the findings were obvious, but that the conclusions were a Zionist scam. The item was subsequently copied by several other sites -- not all of them firmly regime-aligned -- such as Shenidi, Quds Online, and Bultan News. The research has also been taken up by scholars around Iran, including at Imam Mohammad Bagher University, where many Intelligence Ministry employees study, and by a special team headed by Hassan Abbasi at Imam Hossein University, which is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The research on Iranians' democratic values has clearly sparked a significant conversation, involving a diversity of ideological perspectives. It may well play a major role in the larger debate over the future of Iranian society.

by the same author | The Future of Egypt and What It Means for Iran | Getting Recognized the Right Way: What Iranian Americans Can Learn | Oppression 2.0: Iranian Discontent in Cyberspace (with Roya Soleimani)

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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