Iranian poll draws startling response to nuclear question

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a ceremony at the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran Iran's media are not usually permitted to directly ask whether the country should have a nuclear programme

An online opinion poll by an Iranian state television channel asking audiences about Iran's nuclear programme has sparked an outcry over its credibility.

The survey was posted on the website of the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) on Tuesday and asked viewers to answer one question, using one of three options.

The question that was asked was: "Which way do you prefer to confront the unilateral sanctions of the West against Iran?"

In response, 63% of the respondents selected the option for "the suspension of uranium enrichment in exchange for gradual lifting of sanctions".

At the same time, 19% of the respondents favoured "closing the Strait of Hormuz as an act of retaliation", while another 18% selected the option for Iran to "resist unilateral sanctions in order to safeguard nuclear rights".

Alongside the poll, IRINN website published an analysis of the results.

While conceding that "over 60%" of the respondents favoured the suspension of uranium enrichment, the analysis added that the survey "by no means can reflect the views of all or even the majority of the revolutionary people of Iran".

The tone of the piece indicated an attempt to explain the deep rift between the audience's views and official state policy, which has until now presented nuclear enrichment as a "natural right" of Iran.

Pro-government news organisations attacked the credibility of the poll, and some of them blamed foreigners for interfering in its results.

Online polls do not necessarily accurately reflect the views of the majority of society.

But perhaps the more significant outcome of the survey is the fact that a direct question about the suspension of uranium enrichment targeted at the public, was published at all, and on a state-owned website.

A screen shot from IRINN's website showing the online poll in the left corner of the web page A screen shot from IRINN's website showing the online poll and its results in the bottom left-hand corner
Media red line

In recent years, discussions about uranium enrichment have emerged as a red line for the Iranian media.

Even defending such discussions has been a costly practice for some.

In Iran, television is a particularly sensitive media and it hosts few discussions on state policy. As such it is difficult to imagine that the poll was published without senior management at the network knowing about it.

It is possible that the poll's publication was a deliberate act by some officials in Iran who believe that the time has now come for a review of the media policy of the regime on the nuclear issue.

Under the current circumstances, there have been no remarks by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, or media regulators to indicate a change in the state's stance on media debates on Iran's right to nuclear enrichment.

While theoretically it is not impossible to view the survey as one of the first signs of such a change, subsequent events do not support this possibility.

An Iranian student holds up a sign in support of nuclear energy at an enrichment facility in Esfahan Iran's mostly state-owned media often emphasises the right to nuclear energy
Website 'interference'

In the first place, as the percentage of those selecting the suspension of the enrichment programme reached the 63% mark, IRINN removed the poll from its website without any explanation.

Then on Wednesday the public relations office of the network issued a statement in which it claimed that its website had been interfered with and that the real number of respondents who favoured the suspension of uranium enrichment was in fact no more than 24%.

But even if we accept the contention that the website had been interfered with, this does not negate the fact that senior management had at some point made a deliberate decision to give the option of a suspension of the country's nuclear enrichment in the survey.

Did the management believe that the results of the poll would be controlled, or that the polls would lead to different results?

Is the survey an indication that some elements of the state are concerned about the impact international sanctions are having on Iran?

It is still too soon to conclude that such an unusual survey is a sign that the country will change its nuclear stance.

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