Thursday, July 20, 2006

Young Iranians Find Outlet in Internet

Katie Stuhldreher, The Washington Times:
Young Iranians are turning increasingly to the Internet to voice their dissatisfaction with a hard-line regime that has placed nuclear development and confrontation with the West ahead of economic growth and jobs, according to a new analysis.

There are now 70,000 Farsi-language blogs on the Internet, roughly half of which originated in Iran, according to a study by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, which was released last week.

"Why is it that our planes crash, our buildings collapse at the slightest tremor, our cars burst into flames, we don't have a half-standard football stadium in the entire country, but when it comes to nuclear energy, it's a national issue?" wrote one anonymous Iranian blogger cited in the study.

Mehdi Khalaji, who trained in Iran's traditional clerical seminaries for 14 years before moving to Europe, said a growing number of Iranians think President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's focus on Iran's nuclear programs has caused him to neglect domestic needs, such as a struggling economy and high unemployment.

"The average Iranian is more concerned about the price of tomatoes than nuclear programs," said Mr. Khalaji, who appeared at the release of the study.

Michael Herzog, a brigadier general on leave from the Israel Defense Forces and the author of the report, said this growing discontent was causing worry within the highest ranks of Iran's leadership. Public dissent over the nuclear program could become a big handicap for Mr. Ahmadinejad in international negotiations, he said.

"Just over a year ago, conventional wisdom would suggest that the majority of Iranians support the development of a nuclear program. A speech by [former secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council Hassan] Rowhani suggested they are worried that public support may not be behind them and could cause big problems," Gen. Herzog said.

Some bloggers have even poked fun at the regime's nuclear slogan: "Nuclear energy is our indisputable right." The report quoted Iranian bloggers and public demonstrators as saying, "Permanent employment is our indisputable right," and, "An elected leader is our indisputable right."

The report suggested the United States could make better use of blogs, satellite television, radio and other means to communicate information that the regime withholds from its public, two-thirds of which is under age 30. READ MORE

Potential subjects include the scarcity of raw uranium in Iran and studies showing nuclear facilities won't be stable in Iran's earthquake zones.

In addition, the study said Iranians should be reminded that they may pay a steep price for the confrontational policies of its leadership in the form of sanctions, global isolation, continued repression and even military strikes.

"According to a poll this year by the Iranian Students Polling Agency, 85.4 percent support the nuclear program. But when asked if they'd support it after a referral to the U.N. Security Council, the number dropped to 74.3 percent, and even further in the event of sanctions to 64 percent. Lower still, only 55.6 percent would support the program if it risked military strikes," said Gen. Herzog.

"The more pressure the international community has put on Iran, the more debate has been sparked within Iran. Now Iranian leaders feel the need to have outreach campaigns about the program. This doesn't suggest that they are confident in public support or that they don't care about it," he said.