x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Iranians back uranium curb in return for end to sanctions: poll

Rare opinion poll by a state television news channel unexpectedly reveals 63 per cent of Iranians favour curbing uranium enrichment in return for an end to increasingly draconian western sanctions.

Iran has cried foul after a rare opinion poll by a state television news channel unexpectedly revealed 63 per cent of Iranians favour curbing uranium enrichment in return for an end to increasingly draconian western sanctions.

True to form, Tehran blamed the United Kingdom, a perennial scapegoat, for the embarrassing findings that it claimed were doctored by BBC hackers.

Only 20 per cent of those polled supported retaliatory measures such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a global oil export chokepoint at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf.

The United States and Great Britain have vowed to keep the waterway open, by force if necessary.

The poll results contradicted the Iranian regime's repeated assertion that, no matter what the cost, the public supports the country's nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is solely peaceful in nature.

Little wonder that Tuesday's online poll abruptly vanished from state television's irinn.ir website - one of Iran's most visited news portals - after Persian language social media picked up on the results. It was replaced by an innocuous poll on the chances for football glory of the popular Persepolis team.

The survey was conducted amid soaring tensions in the Gulf. Iran this week test-fired ballistic missiles it boasted were capable of striking Israeli and US targets across the Middle East, while Washington was reported to have "significantly" bolstered its military presence in the Gulf.

On Wednesday, irinn.ir discredited the country's nuclear survey, proclaiming the results did "not represent the whole population of Iran" because only 2,000 people responded. That excuse, bizarrely, was undermined by Iranian state television, which insisted there was no such result at all.

It instead accused the BBC's Persian Service of hacking its website to fiddle with the findings of the uranium poll. Other hostile "foreign networks" had joined in the "psychological warfare", Iran's official news agency, Irna, said. Iran television insisted that only 24 per cent of respondents favoured halting enrichment, while the majority favoured retaliation. The BBC said in a statement the Iranian accusations were "both ludicrous and completely false".

While many Iranians value the BBC as a trusted source of impartial news, officials in Tehran vilify the corporation as a cap-doffing servant of "perfidious Albion's" Foreign Office.

Soliciting public opinion on sensitive issues of national security is extremely rare in the autocratic Islamic republic. So when the poll results appeared on Tuesday, some Iran experts speculated Tehran could use the findings to make concessions on its nuclear programme, arguing compromise had popular support.

But the swift and furious backlash against the poll suggests Tehran may be heading in the opposite direction. New European Union and US sanctions against Iran's oil exports, the lifeblood of its economy, came fully into effect in recent days.

On the same day of the poll, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Rahim Mehmanparast, claimed calls by the Iranian parliament to shut the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation against these "hostile measures" reflected Iranian public opinion.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, also declared this week his country would resist the sanctions regardless of their severity. Iran would instead use them to wean itself from dependence on oil sales, which finance 80 per cent of the national budget. Scorning the US, he proclaimed: "Today Americans are on their way to destruction, facing collapse, and the Islamic republic is on its way to blossoming and rising."

Most Iranians support their country's nuclear programme, viewing it as a symbol of national pride, independence and scientific progress. But, as the disputed poll indicates, many fear the price has become too high and believe compromise is necessary.

One 30-year-old Tehrani told Radio Free Europe: "We should have a nuclear programme - scientific progress is definitely important - but many are asking what is it good for when we don't have food on our tables?"

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae