Despite persistent mass demonstrations protesting June’s disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a new survey of Iranian public opinion released here Saturday suggests majority domestic support for both him and the country’s basic governing institutions.
Four out of five of the 1,003 Iranian respondents interviewed in the survey released by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO), a project of the highly respected Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) of the University of Maryland, said they considered Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate president of Iran.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said they had "a lot of confidence" in the declared election results, which gave Ahmadinejad 62.6 percent of the vote within hours of the polls’ closing Jun. 12 and which were swiftly endorsed by the Islamic Republic’s Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Three of four respondents said Khamenei had reacted correctly in his endorsement.
Opposition candidates and their supporters contested the official results, setting off mass protests centered in Tehran. At least 30 people were reported killed and thousands more arrested by the regime’s paramilitary and security forces in the days and weeks that followed in what most analysts consider the most serious domestic challenge to the Islamic Republic in its 30-year history.
The new poll, which was conducted Aug. 27-Sep. 10 by native Farsi speakers who interviewed respondents by telephone from outside Iran, also found that 63 percent of respondents favor restoring diplomatic relations with the United States; 18 percent said they "strongly" favor renewing ties; 43 percent said they favored it "somewhat."
Twenty percent said they "strongly favored" engaging in "full, unconditional negotiations" between Tehran and Washington, while 40 percent said they favored such talks "somewhat."
While a majority still backs such talks, however, the latest results showed some flagging of enthusiasm. As recently as four months ago, another survey group, Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT), found that 40 percent of respondents "strongly favored" such talks, and 20 percent "somewhat."
The new survey also found widespread skepticism about U.S. intentions. Three out of four respondents said the U.S. "definitely" (57 percent) or "probably" (18 percent) wanted to "impose American culture on Muslim society". Similar percentages said Washington’s goals included "maintain(ing) control over the oil resources of the Middle East" and "weaken(ing) and divid(ing) the Islamic world."
While Barack Obama found significantly more favor among respondents than his predecessor, George W. Bush, did in a similar poll conducted by WPO 18 months ago, nearly six in 10 told interviewers they had "no confidence at all" in the new U.S. president "to do the right thing regarding world affairs."
And despite widely hailed efforts by Obama to reassure Muslims worldwide about U.S. intentions notably in speeches in Istanbul and Cairo and in a special Nowruz greeting for Iranians a similar percentage of respondents said they believed that he "does not respect Islam."
"While the majority of Iranian people are ready to do business with Obama, they show little trust in him," said Steven Kull, WPO’s director.
The new survey the first since the Jun. 12 elections by a major U.S. polling organization comes at a critical moment both within Iran, where renewed protests involving tens of thousands of opposition supporters broke out during the annual Qods (Jerusalem) Day demonstrations in Tehran Friday – and in relations between Tehran and the major western powers, including the United States.
Critical talks between Iran, the United States, the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany (P5-plus-one) are set to begin Oct. 1. While Iran has proposed a wide-ranging agenda, the Obama administration, backed by the EU3 France, Britain and Germany has made clear its top priority is to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.
Washington has indicated it will push for the imposition of "crippling" economic and other sanctions if the talks do not make tangible progress toward that goal by early next year.
Some Iran specialists, persuaded that the regime in Tehran has been weakened internally by the post-election unrest, have argued that Ahmadinejad, whose appearance at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week is expected to attract thousands of protesters, and Khamenei may be more eager to compromise at the negotiating table in order to shore up their position at home.
Some analysts, notably neoconservatives closely identified with Israel, have asserted that negotiations are a waste of time and that the regime has become so unpopular that imposing tough sanctions now could bring about its collapse.
The WPO survey, however, casts serious doubt on the latter assumption, in particular. In addition to the broad acceptance of Ahmadinejad as the "legitimate president", the poll found a relatively high degree of confidence in the country’s main governing institutions.
Nearly three out of four respondents, for example, expressed either "a lot" (38 percent) or "some confidence" (34 percent) in the Ministry of Interior, which ran the election; 85 percent expressed either "a lot" (64 percent) or "some" (21 percent) confidence" in Ahmadinejad himself; and 83 percent expressed "a lot" (52 percent) or "some" (31 percent) confidence in the police. Six in 10 said they were comfortable with the extent of Khamenei’s power.
And about eight in ten respondents said they were either "very" or "somewhat satisfied" with the process by which the authorities are elected" in Iran an increase of 22 percent over another WPO survey taken in February 2008. Two-thirds of respondents said they considered the June election to be "completely free and fair."
Some Iran specialists here suggested that the high approval and confidence in the government and the elections expressed in the survey could be explained by fear of retaliation, particularly in light of the regime’s harsh crackdown against the opposition throughout the summer.
"If I were in Iran and someone called me to ask those direct questions, I would be leery of answering them honestly or directly," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii. "I have to ask whether fear may have been a factor in the results."
Indeed, as noted by PIPA’s director, Stephen Kull, the refusal of one out of four respondents to say whom they voted for in the election was an "extremely high number" and "…suggests that people have some discomfort with this topic". Given that discomfort, he said, "the findings on voting preference are not a solid basis for estimating the actual vote."
Fifty-five percent of respondents said they voted for Ahmadinejad; 14 percent said they voted for former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi; and a total of four percent said they voted for the two other candidates, Mohsen Rezaei and Mehdi Karroubi.
Asked for whom they would vote if the election were repeated, 49 percent of respondents chose Ahmadinejad; eight percent, Mousavi; and three percent, Rezaei and Karroubi. Thirteen percent said they would not vote, while 26 percent said they didn’t know (seven percent) or refused to answer (19 percent).
Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia, agreed that fear could have played a role in the survey results but suggested that the ability of the regime to control information consumed by the general public as opposed to elite sectors where strong divisions have clearly emerged since the election – "is greater than we given them credit for."
"A lot of the (survey) results look like they could have been scripted by the regime," he told IPS. "You can read it one of two ways: either people are afraid to say things that could get them into trouble, or it could simply be that’s what they’re told day in and day out through public media, and that’s where they get most of their information."
While about 69 percent of respondents said they lived in urban areas, only one in five said they accessed the Internet at least once a week or followed radio and satellite broadcasts of BBC or Voice of America.
Sick also suggested that the poll’s use of telephone landlines may have resulted in an under-representation of the more "plugged in, younger generation" that relies much more heavily on cellphones.