Peter Loewen is director of the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto, Janice Stein is the founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, and Farhaan Ladhani is director of the Digital Public Square at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Protests recently spread across 80 cities and towns in Iran until they were repressed. When they first took to the streets, marchers chanted against corruption and the high cost of basic foods, but very quickly they called for an end to authoritarian government and even to the Islamic regime.
Experts inside and outside Iran scrambled to explain why the protests had erupted and could only guess at the support the protesters had in the broader Iranian public. Did protesters take to the streets because they were angry about economic inequality? Were they demonstrating against steep spending increases on religious institutions, which became public in the budget that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani released? Were they angry at the corruption that they encountered on a day-to-day basis?
Most important, how widespread is the support among Iranians for the protesters? The big question is whether these protests reflect anger at the existing government's policies or whether they represent a fundamental challenge to the system of Islamic government that grew out of the 1979 revolution. Are the protests simply an expression of frustration, or early evidence of a regime nearing its end? Only Iranians inside the country can answer these questions.
So we asked them.
Using a unique online platform that allows individuals to anonymously share their opinion, we surveyed 1,054 Iranian adults between Jan. 5 and 9.
The Digital Public Square at the Munk School at the University of Toronto partners with a Canadian technology firm, RIWI, which uses an "intercept" method to survey individuals in any country that has internet access.
We asked Iranians about their support for the protesters and their confidence in the government in Tehran. We asked directly about their concern about corruption, economic inequality and gender inequality. We also asked about a feeling of nostalgia among some, a belief that life was better before the revolution in 1979.
We found that support for the protests is thin. Only 27 per cent of respondents agreed that they supported them; 45 per cent disagreed. Three in 10 neither agreed nor disagreed. The protesters and their supporters are still very much in the minority.
What drives support among the minority who do back the protests? Our results suggest three factors matter: a lack of confidence in the government, a belief that corruption is rampant and, in a result that surprised us, a belief that life was better before the revolution. Our survey data do not support the argument that those among the Iranian public who are sympathetic to the protesters are motivated in an important way by anger about inequality.
We also asked Iranians whether they believe that the Supreme Leader should be selected by the Assembly of Experts (the status quo) or elected by the people. A majority of respondents (52 per cent) believe the head of state should be chosen by the people. As with support for the protests, the drivers of these opinions are anger about corruption, a lack of confidence in the government and a belief the past was better than the present. Even among the majority who disagree with the protests, 34 per cent support a change in the way the Supreme Leader is chosen.
What do our data tell us?
Those who support the protests in Iran are not only expressing discontent about the regular failings of a government. Instead, these supporters believe that life was better under a different system of government and that the current system should be changed. Even among those who do not support the protests, a third want change in the way they choose their Supreme Leader. A significant proportion of the Iranian public support some change in their political system.
How confident are we in these results?
It is very difficult to survey Iranian opinion. Foreign press are severely constrained and the domestic press is far from free. During the protests, the Iranian government restricted access to social media, an important source of information for the outside world to learn what was going on inside Iran.
Survey data are never perfect, but our interviews let Iranians speak for themselves about why these protests matter and what drives support among the broader public for those who took to the streets.