IRAN. In a new public opinion poll across Iran before the critical upcoming 12 June presidential elections, a majority of Iranians said they would vote for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranians also continue overwhelmingly to favour better relations with the United States and would like to directly elect their Supreme Leader in a free vote.
The desire for improved American relations and a more open and democratic system in Iran have been consistent findings in surveys of Iran over the past two years. These are among the many results of a new nationwide public opinion survey of Iran conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow: the Center for Public Opinion (TFT), the New America Foundation, and KA Europe.
Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, polls in Iran are either conducted or monitored by the Iranian government and other affiliated interest groups, and can be untrustworthy. By contrast, this poll—the third in a series over the past two years—was conducted by telephone inside Iran over 11 to 20 May 2009, with 1,001 interviews proportionally distributed covering all 30 provinces of Iran, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1%.
Funding for the survey was provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The survey follows not only two prior polls of Iran, but also more than thirty similar surveys throughout the Muslim world by TFT since 2005.
At the stage of the campaign for president when the poll was taken, 34% of Iranians surveyed said they will vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad. The president's closest rival, Mir Hussein Moussavi, was the choice of 14%, with 27% stating that they still do not know who they will vote for.
President Ahmadinejad’s other rivals, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, were the choice of 2% and 1%, respectively.
A close examination of the survey results reveals that the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate. More than 60% of those who state they don’t know who they will vote for in the presidential elections reflect individuals who favour political reform and change in the current
Some 89% of Iranians say that they will cast a vote in the upcoming presidential elections. The poll shows that 87% of Persians, 94% of Azeris and around 90% of all other ethnicities intend to vote in the upcoming elections.
About seven in ten Iranians think the elections will be free and fair, while only one in ten thinks they will not be free and fair.
The current mood indicates that none of the candidates will likely pass the 50% threshold needed to automatically win; meaning that a second round runoff between the two highest finishers, as things stand, Ahmadinejad and Moussavi, is likely. In the 2004 presidential elections, the leader in the first round, Hashemi Rafsanjani, lost to his runner-up, Ahmadinejad, in the second round run off, though an incumbent has never been defeated in a presidential election since the beginning of the Islamic Republic.
Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Moussavi’s Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity may have for Azeri voters. The results of the survey indicate that only 16% of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Moussavi. By contrast, 31% of the Azeris claim they will vote for Ahmadinejad.
President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian economy
More than one-third of Iranians said they would vote for Ahmadinejad, even though those who think the Iranian economy is headed in the right direction has dropped from 42% in a survey from a year ago to 33% in the latest survey. Yet, in potentially good news for President Ahmadinejad, Iranians do not seem to hold him responsible for the weakening economy. While a plurality sees the Iranian economy as declining, Iranian are evenly split on whether President Ahmadinejad’s policies have succeeded in reducing unemployment and inflation.
Similar to the previous polls, about one-third of Iranians think their personal economic situation got better after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, while nearly half think it has remained the same. Yet, overall only 27% of Iranians think that Ahmadinejad was able to keep his pledge to share Iran’s oil revenues more fairly.
The number one priority Iranians have for their government is improving the Iranian economy, very closely followed by ensuring free elections, a free press and better trade and relations with the West. By contrast, developing nuclear weapons was not seen as an important long-term priority by most.
In another indication of the Iranian public’s strong support for a more open and fully democratic system of government, 77% said that they support a political system for governing Iran where the Supreme Leader, along with all leaders, can be chosen and replaced by a free and direct vote of the people.
The power and role of the Supreme Leader is at the core of the Islamic Republic because it is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not President Ahmadinejad, who exercises ultimate authority. Yet, the survey found that almost eight in ten want the most powerful official in Iran to be held accountable to the voters. Indeed, the most important long-term goals Iranians have for their government are ensuring free elections and a free press, in percentages almost identical to improving the Iranian economy.
For 96% of Iranians, the Supreme Leader and the president are influential and important institutions in the Iranian government. However, seven in ten Iranians correctly think the president has limited but important power in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only two in ten Iranians believe the president is the most important official in the Iranian government.
Iranians favour compromise on the nuclear issue
More than 70% of Iranians also favour Iran providing full inspections and a guarantee not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid and investment. A majority of Iranians (52%), however, favour the development of nuclear weapons, though importantly, less than half consider developing nuclear weapons an important priority for the Iranian government. Nuclear energy is favoured by 94% of Iranians.
In another consistent trend over the past two years, 77% of Iranians back normal relations and trade with the United States. 68% also favour Iran working with the United States to help resolve the Iraq war, while 60% back unconditional negotiations with the US.
For more than six in ten Iranians, the most important steps the US could take that would improve opinions of America are: a free trade treaty between Iran and the US; the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and increasing visas for Iranians to study and work in the United States.
Despite the overwhelming Iranian desire for a fully democratic system, the US working to spread democracy inside Iran would not improve Iranian opinion of America, nor would brokering a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Apart from Israel, Iranians now consider the United States as representing Iran’s greatest threat.
Iranians are negative on Israel
Some 62% of Iranians oppose any peace treaty recognising the state of Israel and favour all Muslims continuing to fight until there is no state of Israel in the Middle East. Only a quarter of Iranians favour a peace treaty recognising the state of Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state is established.
Likewise, more than 64% support the government of Iran providing military and financial assistance to Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 52% of Iranians would, however, favour recognising the state of Israel as part of a deal with the United States.
Iranians are supportive of Iraqi Shiite militias and Lebanese Hezbollah. Some 60% of Iranians also support the government of Iran providing military and financial assistance to Iraqi Shiite militias (33% oppose), while 62% back such assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon (31% oppose). Again, however, as part of a deal with the United States, 54% of Iranians would endorse the Iranian government ending support for Iraqi militias.
Western trade and investment strongly supported
Iranians also continue to support the idea of Western investment and aid to Iran. Some 70% favour Western investment; 80% medical, education and humanitarian assistance from Western countries.
Clearly, the issue of foreign investment in Iran is a priority for Iranians. It may also be important for the Iranian government. A draft bill for improving legal protection of foreign investment is currently being examined by the parliament.
Significantly, among the possible ways that the US can improve Iranians’ opinion of America, the most important for Iranians is a free trade treaty between Iran and the United States, chosen by 69%.
Iranian Shiite Muslims think favourably of Sunni Muslims, Christians, Americans and others
While less a third of Iranians now have a favourable view of the United States itself, almost half think favourably of Americans, about the same percentage who think favourably of the French and Arabs.
For Iranian citizens of the Islamic Republic, 87% of who in the survey identified themselves as Shiite, views of both Sunni Muslims and Christians were overwhelmingly favourable, with only 8% voicing an unfavourable view of Sunnis and 11% of Christians. Opinions on Jews were divided, though more are favourable than unfavourable.
Indeed, Iranian views of Sunnis and Christians, as well as non-Iranians generally, are quite accepting, more so than the corresponding views of their neighbours, such as in Saudi Arabia, according to a TFT survey there.
Iranians clearly distinguish between countries and policies they do not like (US and Israel), and people they do like (Christians, Americans, Arabs, Sunni Muslims and Jews). Iranians are favourable to Christians by a 6:1 margin, Sunni Muslims by a 9:1 margin, Americans by a 2:1 margin and Jews by a 5:4 margin.
In fact, Iranians are as favourable to Americans as they are to their Arab neighbors. The high favorability of Sunni Muslims among Iranians (higher than for Arabs generally) demonstrates that Shiite/Sunni issues are not the primary force driving a wedge between Iranians and their Arab neighbours.
The vision of the Iranian people for a more democratic future, with normal trade and relations between Iran and the United States, remains the consensus over three nationwide surveys, now spanning two years. Even most Iranians who support incumbent President Ahmadinejad share these goals.