TEHRAN -- How much does the Iranian public really support Iran’s contested nuclear program?
One prominent and outspoken Iranian cleric, Abdullah Nouri, has suggested that the question be put to the people in a national referendum, according to media reports.
The proposal is an audacious one in a theocracy where the senior clerical leadership has the final say on all matters of national security.
“It is quite obvious that we should have the right to pursue peaceful nuclear programs, but the question is whether it is worth sacrificing national interests for the sake of only one issue,” several Iranian opposition websites quoted Nouri as telling student activists during a visit to his home in Tehran. “It would therefore be wise to let the people decide in a referendum about the nuclear dispute between Iran and the world powers.”
Iranian opposition websites said Nouri spoke his mind at the recent meeting, which lasted for several hours, about “how to get the country out of the crisis” and that the national referendum on the nuclear issue was one of his proposals in the meeting. Students also talked about the "necessity of founding a think tank for reform movement," the opposition sites reported.
Iran’s leaders have repeatedly said that the country’s nuclear program enjoys overwhelming public backing, despite the crippling Western sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has vowed not to bow to intense Western pressure on the issue.
Not surprisingly, there has been no mention of Nouri’s incendiary statements on any official or semi-official Iranian news agencies or websites.
Nouri, 62, has an undeniable revolutionary pedigree. He was once a key aide to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. He later served as interior minister for a pair of reformist presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
But Nouri is a controversial figure, now far distanced from the Iranian power elite, and his reformist views are clearly a minority opinion inside government circles today.
Nouri’s suggestion that the Iranian public decide the future of the nuclear efforts comes at a sensitive moment. Iran and world powers are involved in delicate negotiations about Tehran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is strictly for peaceful purposes. (Washington and its allies suspect a clandestine effort to build an atomic bomb.)
Less than two weeks ago, more than 60% of respondents to an online survey on the website of the state television news channel said they would favor Tehran ending uranium enrichment activities in exchange for the gradual removal of international sanctions.
The survey mysteriously disappeared from the news site irinn.ir after some Persian-language media began reporting on the findings. Later, Iranian state TV charged that the BBC's Persian-language service had hacked into its website to change the results of the poll to make it appear that respondents favored dumping nuclear enrichment if that would lead to a reduction in sanctions. The BBC denied the allegation.
With Iran’s current leadership, observers say, it is virtually impossible for reformists such as Nouri to translate bold ideas into action. Those who voice views unpopular with the leadership may be subject to being hushed up or detained for a while to “forget what they said.”
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut