Iranians’ Support for Nuclear Program Cuts Across Political Lines

By Patrick Goodenough | February 23, 2010 | 4:46 AM EST

Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former president of Iran. (Wikipedia Commons)

( – Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, an important figure who has lent cautious support to the opposition, is accusing foreign countries of influencing an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran’s nuclear activities.
The stance taken by Rafsanjani, who chairs two key establishment bodies, illustrates the challenge facing the West in trying to tighten the screws on the regime over its nuclear program while backing an opposition whose leaders largely support Tehran’s right to pursue it.
Both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the opposition “green movement,” support Iran’s right to a nuclear program including uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. Opinion polls suggest that Mousavi’s supporters do not differ significantly from other Iranians on this issue.
On Tuesday, one of the two bodies chaired by Rafsanjani, the Assembly of Experts, begins a twice-a-year, two-day session expected to be dominated by discussions about the internal rifts that have shaken the Islamic Republic since last year’s disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility some 200 miles south of Tehran, in this Tuesday, April 8, 2008 file photo. (AP Photo/Iranian President's Office, File)

Coming at a time when a U.S.-led drive for new sanctions is escalating, the meeting will likely focus on the most obvious unifying factor for the various factions – Iran’s nuclear program.
Ahead of the Assembly of Experts meeting, Rafsanjani at the weekend in separate statements both stressed the need for “unity [and] commonalities,” and lashed out at an IAEA for its blunter-than-usual assessment. The Vienna-based body said Iran’s cooperation with the agency was decreasing, contributing to concerns about “possible military dimensions” to its nuclear program.
The IRNA news agency quoted Rafsanjani as saying the IAEA report was “biased” and not the work of an independent body.
“It is clearly evident that a part of this report has been presented following recommendation and under the influence of foreign elements,” he said.
Rafsanjani said the report was part of “psychological” warfare by the United States and others against Iran, adding that the campaign was doomed to fail.
Rafsanjani, 75, who served as president from 1989-1997, is frequently described as “influential” and “wily.” He chairs both the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 religious scholars whose functions include appointing and – in theory – dismissing the supreme leader, and the Expediency Council, a smaller body whose members are appointed by and advise the supreme leader, and which adjudicate in legislative disputes.
During the crisis sparked by the disputed June 2009 election, Rafsanjani’s position was closely watched. His daughter and several other relatives were briefly detained for involvement in street protests and in a sermon in July he called for all detained protestors to be released, warning that the government had lost the trust of millions of Iranians.
In August, he was among several figures associated with, or sympathetic to, the opposition who boycotted Ahmadinejad’s swearing-in ceremony.
Since then the “green movement” has marked some victories, turning out in large numbers for demonstrations on important national and religious days, but also setbacks such as the Feb. 11 revolution anniversary which saw a massive turnout of pro-regime Iranians and an accompanying crackdown on protestors.
As the U.S. and European allies, buoyed by the latest IAEA report, step up efforts to impose new U.N. Security Council sanctions on Tehran, the drive could play into the hands of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by providing an issue for conservatives and reformists to rally around.
Rafsanjani, who has been under fire from hardliners for not demonstrating unwavering support for Khamenei since the election, appears ready to call for a closing of ranks.
Observing the closed-door Assembly of Experts session will be a powerful Khamenei loyalist, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Tehran Times reported.
While the U.S., European countries and Israel believe Iran’s nuclear energy program is a cover for efforts to development weapons know-how, Tehran denies this. In the latest denial, Khamenei at the weekend reiterated a previous statement that “Islam is opposed to nuclear weapons.”
(Various Islamic figures, including a top Sunni cleric in Egypt, have made similar comments about Islam and nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the term “Islamic bomb” to describe Pakistan’s atomic capability has not only been used by critics but also by some Muslim figures, including Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. News reports from the 1970s indicate that the term was coined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan at the time his country was developing its weapons program.)
Iranian official and semi-official media outlets for years have presented the issue of a nuclear energy program as one of national pride, charging that nuclear states are trying to deprive Iran of the rights they enjoy.
“No one can stop history and the progress of nations,” the Tehran Times wrote in a typical perspective column last week. “Just as slavery in the United States and apartheid in South Africa could not withstand the resistance of the masses, the neocolonialist countries’ efforts to maintain their monopoly on advanced technology will also give way to the tide of history.”
That view appears to have some support among Iranians across political lines.
Earlier this month the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) released an analysis of several polls conducted in Iran over the last year, including one last September which offered respondents three alternatives regarding the nuclear program.
Asked whether Iran should develop nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, only nuclear energy, or have no nuclear program whatsoever, 37 percent of respondents who said they had voted for Mousavi in the 2009 election chose energy and weapons, 57 percent chose nuclear energy only, and only six percent wanted no program at all. The figures for Iranians in general were similar – 38, 55 and three percent, respectively.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow