In the high-stakes international discussions surrounding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran's 80 million people are often forgotten. So I, along with a small team of Israelis, decided to explore the driving forces of Iranian society. There have been signs, on the streets and over the Internet, of a battle raging between the country's Islamic fundamentalists and the proponents of freedom. The question we set out to explore is where the majority of the people stand.
Soon we were joined by leading experts in the fields of social psychology, cross-cultural research, the Shiite Muslim religion, statistics, and dozens of Farsi-speaking volunteers.
Circumventing Iran's "electronic curtain"—as President Obama described the Iranian government's efforts to control contact with the outside world—our research team conducted telephone interviews in late 2011 and earlier this year with nearly a thousand Iranians. The latter constituted an accurate representative sample of Iranian society, including all of Iran's 31 provinces as well as a representative distribution of all ethnic groups, ages and levels of education. The interviews were conducted anonymously and the country the calls came from was concealed in order to ensure the safety of the respondents.
To overcome the challenge of measuring the potential for freedom and democracy in an autocratic country like Iran, we had to innovate. Typically, researchers use questionnaires that include questions such as "are you for or against democracy?" Or "have you ever signed a petition?" However, citizens in authoritarian countries are often afraid to respond to such explicit questions, and if they do respond their answers are likely to be distorted by fear.
Therefore we used a psychological questionnaire that measures the basic values of society without posing a single question in political terms. The questions described the views of a figurative third person and then asked the Iranian interviewee to what extent that person was similar to them. The third person was described in sentences such as "It is important to him to make his own decisions about his life," "thinking creatively is important to him," and "it is important to him to be the one who tells others what to do."
The questionnaire used in Iran was developed by cross-cultural psychology expert Shalom Schwartz as part of his "Theory of Basic Human Values," which is widely used by psychology researchers. In cooperation with Prof. Schwartz, our team created an index which measures the potential of a society to foster democratization, based on its values.
We validated the index by representative samples from 64 countries, and 162,994 respondents, from the United States and Sweden to Indonesia and Ghana. This revealed a strong correlation between a society's score on the index and its degree of democratization (based on the Freedom House measure of what constitutes a liberal democracy).
Conducting the interviews in Iran, we were amazed by how forthcoming the Iranian people were.
An analysis of the Iranian sample showed that alongside conservative values, such as conformity and tradition, Iranian society is characterized by strong support for pro-liberal values such as a belief in the importance of self-direction and benevolence. For example, 94% of the respondents identified with the sentence "freedom to choose what he does is important to him," and 71% of the respondents identified with the sentence "being tolerant toward all kinds of people and groups is important to him."
Once we had samples from Iran, we could analyze them with global samples using the new index. Iran was placed on a continuum measuring the tendency of societies world-wide to foster liberal democracy. Remarkably, in comparison to 47 countries surveyed in the World Values Survey, Iranian society's potential for liberal democracy was found to be higher than that of 23 others—including Arab countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, and Asian countries such as South Korea, India and Thailand. In comparison to 29 countries surveyed In the European Social Survey, Iran was found to have higher tendencies toward liberal democracy than Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania.
We also discovered an abnormally large gap between the societal potential for liberal democracy in Iran and the actual level of democracy in the country. In most countries there is a high correlation between the two. When such a gap exists, there is a strong tendency for the country's level of democracy to adjust in accordance with the society's potential.
Our findings demonstrate that Iranian society as a whole is characterized by a pro-liberal value structure that is deeply at odds with the fundamentalist regime. This presents considerable potential for regime change in Iran and for the development of liberal democracy.
First published in The Wall Street Journal.
Yuval Porat is an Israeli political strategist. His full report can be found at www.iranresearch.org.
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