Earlier this year, Julian Borger reported on a provocative piece of news that appeared on the Gerdab website, run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). The piece addresses the day after Iran’s first nuclear test, stating in a satirical tone that, “The day after Islamic Republic of Iran’s first nuclear test will be an ordinary day for us Iranians but in the eyes of some of us there will be a new sparkle.”
It is possible that Borger and others may have gone a little far in their interpretation of the article’s existence.
Fast forward a couple of months and a couple of flame wars and it turns out that the piece was not actually related to the IRGC at all, but was written by an ordinary Iranian.
Today, Borger released an interview with Seyed Ali Pourtabatabaei, a journalist from Qom who says he wrote the piece. Apparently, Pourtabatabaei’s post was picked up by an Iranian college student working for Gerdab whose job it is to repost at least five articles a day. The student liked the piece.
Countless polls seem to show that Iran’s nuclear program garners support from the masses, which, while often misguided on the part of the masses, is an important factor in Iranian politics. Pourtabatabaei identifies himself as a reformist who is critical of the current regime, but supportive of the Islamic Republic, much like many supporters of the 1979 revolution who may not have gotten exactly what they bargained for. In his remarks to the Guardian, Pourtabatabaei does not blame the regime for its obstinance. He’s not angry that the regime’s continued refusal to cooperate in any productive way has led to crippling sanctions on its people, or that the regime has the power to make a change and does not. Pourtabatabaei is angry because Iran has not, as of yet, succeeded in developing a nuclear weapon. “I think sanctions will just continue until the end of days,” he says, “and they make us so angry. We don’t need nuclear weapons otherwise, but if we are going to have these sanctions, we should do a nuclear test to bring them to an end.”
Borger is able to explain this statement in a little more detail:
I asked how a nuclear test would end sanctions, and it emerged that what he meant was that if Iran was going to be under sanctions anyway, it might as well have a bomb and get some respect, and provide a counter-balance to the Israeli arsenal. He would view it as a regrettable necessity, as he believes nuclear weapons are ultimately futile.
Borger goes on to ask Pourtabatabaei about a topic he had previously seen as taboo in Iran, talking about nuclear weapons:
In the media and in formal situations there are rules against saying such things. But in Iran, in our blogs, we speak about them freely. Many people think this way. Many people in Iran think we already have a nuclear weapon, because of what they hear at Friday prayers. It is a wish: we would be stronger in our region – strong like Israel or like India and Pakistan. If we had a nuclear weapon there would be a balance.
Of course, there are many possible reasons for this view in Iran: misinformation and control of the media by the state, national pride, fear of an outside attack, the list goes on. It is not always clear in polls if Iranian support is limited to a purely civilian nuclear program or extends to a weapon as well, and (I can’t stress enough) Pourtabatabaei is just one Iranian, but his piece does raise an interesting question.
The true effect of sanctions is based on their ability to influence those one wishes to coerce. In this case, the target is the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, most economic sanctions end up targeting a given regime through its people, thus forcing the target to base its decision on the level of public outrage that results. At this point, it becomes a propaganda game, and if there is one thing the Iranian regime understands quite well, it is propaganda.
At this point it is unclear to me what, if anything, is being done to turn Iranian opinion in favor of the US and against the regime (short of propping up the MEK and imposing more sanctions). I could be wrong, but it seems that an important piece of the puzzle might be missing.