Iranians Keen on Improved Ties With US

More than three out of every four Iranian citizens favor improved relations with the United States, according to a major survey [.pdf] conducted less than one month before this Friday’s presidential elections in Iran by a U.S. non-governmental organization, Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT).

Just over half (52 percent) of the pool of 1,001 respondents also said they believed Tehran should develop nuclear weapons, although more than 70 percent said they would support a deal by which the government would agree to forgo that option in exchange for outside aid and investment.

Whatever hopes exist for improved relations with Washington, however, do not extend to Israel, according to the survey. Only one in four respondents said they favored a peace treaty recognizing the Jewish state, even with the creation of an independent Palestine alongside it.

Sixty-two percent said they opposed any such treaty, while nearly two out of three respondents said they supported Tehran’s provision of military and financial aid to Palestinian resistance groups.

At the same time, however, 52 percent said they would support a peace treaty recognizing Israel if it were part of a larger deal leading to better relations with Washington. That was the same percentage who took that position in TFT’s last poll of Iran one year ago.

The survey, which was conducted by telephone May 11-20, comes less than a week before Friday’s elections in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is running for a second term. While an incumbent has never lost a reelection bid since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, most analysts believe he could well be forced into a runoff with his closest rival, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is supported by Ahmadinejad’s popular predecessor, former president Mohammad Khatami.

Indeed, as campaigning has hotted up in the last three weeks, informal polling has suggested a major surge by Mousavi, an architect by profession, which could carry him to victory. One recent government-funded poll cited by Newsweek Monday suggested that Mousavi could win in a landslide if, as expected, a runoff is held June 19.

The stakes are considered particularly high by many analysts, not because the Iranian president controls foreign policy – the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is believed to play that role both with respect to foreign policy and Tehran’s nuclear program – but because Ahmadinejad’s more provocative statements, notably his repeated questioning of the Nazi Holocaust, has made him an easy target for rallying public opinion against Iran.

Mousavi, who appears to be more moderate both in temperament and ideology, would present a very different and more acceptable face of the Islamic Republic than the incumbent.

According to the TFT poll, 34 percent of Iranians planned to vote for Ahmadinejad during the period respondents were contacted and before the reported surge by Mousavi that has been detected in subsequent informal surveys. Mousavi was in second place with 14 percent; Mehdi Karroubi held 2 percent; and Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, held 1 percent.

Forty-two percent of respondents said they didn’t know or declined to answer. At the same time, nearly nine of every 10 respondents (89 percent) said they intended to vote in the upcoming election.

In remarks at the survey’s release Monday at the New America Foundation (NAF), TFT president Ken Ballen agreed that his findings about the campaign itself may be outdated. He predicted that Ahmadinejad will likely be forced into a runoff but should still be considered the favorite.

The poll found that the top priority for Iranians at the moment is the state of their economy, followed by a strong desire for free and fair elections and other democratic institutions, including a free press, and then better relations with the West.

"The hunger for a democratic system exists, as well as the need for Western investment and humanitarian assistance in Iran," Ballen said.

The percentage of respondents who believe that the economy is on the right track has fallen from 42 percent to only 33 percent over the past year, according to the survey, which, found, however, that most respondents do consider Ahmadinejad responsible.

Support for better relations with the United States is generally unchanged from TNT’s previous two surveys in 2007 and 2008. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they favor normal diplomatic and trade relations with Washington. Indeed, among the possible ways the U.S. can improve its image in Iran, most respondents (69 percent) said it should negotiate a free-trade treaty with Tehran.

Sixty-eight percent said they also wanted Tehran to cooperate with the U.S. in resolving the Iraq war, although 60 percent said they supported Tehran’s backing of Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Two-thirds said they wanted the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq. The same percentage (67 percent) said such a withdrawal would improve their opinion of Washington.

Asked which of six countries represented the greatest threat to Iran, 44 percent chose Israel and 38 percent selected the U.S.

"[The poll] reveals a population with a strong awareness that the United States is as much a potential ally as it is now seen as a current threat," wrote Ballen in a commentary published by CNN. "This holds much promise for U.S. national security interests in the region."

The survey also found that Iranians – who are overwhelmingly Shi’ite– are generally more accepting of sectarian or religious differences than some of their Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, where TFT conducted a survey last year.

Iranians have generally favorable opinions of Christians by a six-to-one margin; of Sunni Muslims by a nine-to-one margin; and of Jews by a five-to-four margin, according to the poll. They also expressed a generally favorable opinion of U.S. citizens, by a two-to-one margin.

On Iran’s nuclear program, Ballen said the poll results suggest that most Iranians believe that the government is developing a nuclear weapons capability, despite repeated government denials.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.