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Analysis: Finding Iran's weak spot

By MARK MAATHUIS, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, July 13 (UPI) -- Just hours after the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency called Iran's moratorium on its uranium enrichment activities a step in the right direction, an Iranian senior official denied any such delay. "The suspension of Iran's nuclear activities makes no sense and no final decision whatsoever has been taken yet on the issue," the Iranian official was quoted as saying by the Iran Daily.

This remark is yet another example of Iran's time-buying techniques; but while it pushes the international community into thinking it has only three options left -- economic sanctions, military action or peaceful coexistence with a nuclear Iran -- help might come from an unexpected place: the Iranian people.

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A survey conducted in Farsi by telephone June 5-18 with 1,000 interviews covering all 30 provinces of Iran found that the popular will to live in an open democracy with ties to the West and the United States and greater economic opportunity comes from every region and segment of Iranian society. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said "they oppose the current Iranian system of government, where the supreme leader rules according to religious principles and cannot be chosen or replaced by direct vote of the people," the survey showed.

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The No. 1 issue is the economy: 88 percent of the respondents believe that creating new jobs and curbing inflation should be "very important priorities for their government"; eight out of every 10 Iranians think the present economic situation in Iran is fair or poor.

The survey was conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-partisan, non-profit Washington-based organization, and has a 3.1 percentage point error margin. It is the first uncensored public opinion survey of Iran since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, according to the survey.

Last month, as the ISNA news agency reported that inflation is expected to hit 17 percent in March 2008, Iranian economists said in an open letter to Ahmadinejad that his economic policies are driving the inflation process; officially, 3.6 million people -- 15 percent of Iran's total labor force -- are unemployed, but international estimates are higher.

Recent gasoline rationing limits owners of private vehicles to 22 gallons a month. Iran, OPEC's second-largest oil producer and the world's fourth largest, pumps 4.3 million barrels of oil a day but still spends an estimated $4 billion annually on gasoline imports because the country lacks refineries.

This situation forms a sharp contrast with Ahmadinejad's 2005 election promise to share oil revenues and create a more equal society. It also shows Iran's vulnerability, according to Ilan Berman, author of "Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic."

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"The largest Achilles heel of this regime in economic terms is this intersection of really poor state planning and dependence on foreign petroleum," Berman said at a news conference in Washington earlier this week. Iran imports 40 percent of its total consumption, he said, and "without that gasoline, Iranian cars won't run and the Iranian military won't have fuel."

This "pretty draconian rationing system" has led to widespread unrest and looting in Tehran, Berman said; at least 12 gasoline stations and several cars were burned in the days following its announcement. "What is going on in Iran today is a real good demonstration of how vulnerable Iran actually is," he said.

Despite the country's 45-day gasoline reserve, Berman said, the regime prefers to bear the present self-inflicted social unrest over possible future disorder derived from foreign import bans. They argue that as long as the regime creates the unrest, it controls it; and if the country is already in turmoil, international restrictions will not have much effect, Berman said.

But even before the rationing system's introduction, the survey found that "56 percent of the Iranians stated that President Ahmadinejad has failed to keep his campaign promise to 'put oil money on the table of the people themselves.'" Today's percentage will probably be higher. And if the international community gets its act together in reaching out to the 45 million to 50 million Iranians -- something Berman favors -- the social unrest might just lead to something bigger. After all, when the Iranians brought down the Shah in 1979 -- an experienced political leader backed by a viable economy -- nobody saw that coming, either.

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