What Do Iranians Want?
PRAGUE -- It's odd to hear commentators quibble about the "irregularities" in last Friday's Iranian elections. As one of my colleagues from Radio Farda, the Persian-language station of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, notes: The government began announcing results before the votes could have been properly counted. The widespread feeling that injustice has been done is what is driving tens of thousands into the streets of Tehran and other cities.
Of course, even before the voting took place, we knew there were problems. A group of men known as the Guardian Council decides who is permitted to run for president in Iran. We also know that the campaign did not take place in "fair and healthy" circumstances, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media watchdog group, calls Iran the "biggest prison" for journalists in the region. The government regularly jails dissidents. On the eve of the election, Web sites were blocked and cellphone text messaging was disrupted. A wave of arrests (numbering in at least the dozens) has been reported since Friday; on Sunday afternoon, a 28-year-old journalist in Tehran told one of our reporters that members of the Iranian intelligence service had just come to her office and taken away a colleague.
Irregularities in the election should come as no surprise. What are the preferences of most Iranians? It's hard to know. We subcontract to a polling group in a neighboring country to find out how many people listen to Radio Farda. In one recent survey, we determined our audience size to be 2.5 percent of an estimated 50 million adult listeners in Iran. The same firm, using the same method of telephone calls but asking questions in a different way, also came up with 24 percent.
The Iranian government jams our radio signals, blocks our Web site, threatens our journalists in Prague (we're not permitted a bureau in Tehran) and warns people inside the country not to speak with us. It's a safe bet that Iranians are not telling pollsters the complete truth about their listening habits, and possibly a number of other things.
But here's what we are hearing from our listeners today: There is frustration, dismay and a feeling of humiliation, many tell us in e-mails and phone calls, through Facebook and Twitter. One spoke of how angry citizens were buying up newspapers last Saturday so they could burn the edition declaring Ahmadinejad the victor. Another had dryly predicted before Friday that, to save time, the Interior Ministry would start counting votes before people went to the polls. It is strange: Ahmadinejad reportedly won a two-thirds majority across the entire country among young and old, men and women. His opponents all lost badly in their own respective home districts.
None of this is to say that Ahmadinejad is without support. Perhaps it is his particular brand of nationalism that appeals; or his stridently anti-Israeli views. It may be the subsidies he doles out. One woman told Farda that she lobbied for friends to join her in supporting the president because Ahmadinejad "stands firm against [the United States] and talks about the problems of poor people."
But the truth is that we can't know precisely what different parts of Iranian society think. Things such as free media, a thriving community of nongovernmental organizations, opinion polling in a society free of secret-police informers -- and ultimately fair and free elections, of course -- give us an idea of what's on people's minds.
How, then, to proceed amid the turmoil?
Protests in Iran are likely to intensify this week. But they may also fade quickly if the opposition fails to mobilize the middle class and offer a coherent strategy and inspiration to go forward. Whether peaceful or violent (already, at least one protester has been killed), gradual or abrupt, democracy will be won or lost in Iran by brave Iranians.
It would be foolish, though, to believe that the West has no role to play. The Iranians we hear from want the United States to engage.
They say: Engage the Iranian government and tell President Ahmadinejad that if he is confident he won these elections he can benefit enormously by opening his country to a team of international observers to certify the results. They say: Tell Iran's government that it should permit free media and respect the free flow of information and ideas. Radio Farda, the Voice of America and the BBC are important; independent, truly indigenous media are even more so. They also say we should insist to Tehran that the authorities refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters.
This is the least we can do. Pressing these matters may get us closer to knowing what a majority of Iranians really want. It also reminds us of the importance of engaging this Iranian government -- on behalf of the people of Iran.
The writer is president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose Farsi-language station Radio Farda ("Radio Tomorrow") is funded by Congress and broadcasts uncensored news and music in Farsi to Iran 24 hours a day.