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IA-Forum Interview: Kenneth Ballen
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International Affairs Forum: Your organization, Terror Free Tomorrow (http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/) recently performed a public opinion survey in Iran (March 2008). What do you consider to be the most important finding from the survey? Mr. Kenneth Ballen: We had many important findings, but the most significant would be that almost ninety percent of Iranians want the ability to elect their Supreme Leader. Under the current system in Iran, the most powerful official is the Supreme Leader, who is not subject to popular election. The overwhelming majority of Iranians want to change that and have the right to vote for their top government official. Indeed, the most important goals Iranians have for their government include free elections and a free press. In terms of the last Iranian Parliamentary elections in March, we asked Iranians, in an uncensored poll, who they would vote for. The most popular choice was not on the ballot. And only eight percent chose the conservatives, as broadly defined, yet the conservatives had a sweeping victory in the elections. IA-Forum: What did your survey results say about Iranian views on the United States? Mr. Ballen: Seventy-six percent of the Iranians want normal relations and trade with the United States. When we polled Iranians in June 2007, it was a similar figure. Seventy-one percent of Iranians are also in favor of working with the United States to help resolve the Iraq war. Iran is generally a pro-American population. Except for Israel, among the people themselves, it is probably the most pro-American country in the Middle East. IA-Forum: What about their views on Israel? Mr. Ballen: It’s not very favorable. Sixty-three percent of Iranians oppose a peace treaty recognizing the state of Israel. Less than a quarter of them favor a peace treaty that would recognize a peace treaty with Israel even if a Palestinian state is established. Most Iranians also support Iran helping Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and financial assistance to groups like Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias. IA-Forum: The biggest concern in the U.S. regarding Iran has been the nuclear issue. What do Iranians think about it? Mr. Ballen: We found that seventy percent of Iranians favor providing full inspections and a guarantee by Iran not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid and investment. The caveat though is that fifty-one percent of Iranians now favor the development of nuclear weapons. There has been a shift since our last survey in June 2007. The priority given to the Iranian government to develop nuclear weapons has increased since then. So there is a hardening of the popular attitude on the nuclear issue. When it comes to nuclear energy, there is a consensus view among almost everyone in Iran that they should be allowed to fully develop nuclear energy. IA-Forum: Reports about their economy have been bleak. How do they see their economic situation? Mr. Ballen: We hear a lot of reports about Iranians being dissatisfied with the economy and while the majority express dissatisfaction, a plurality now thinks that the economy is moving in the right direction. Forty-two percent said the economy is moving in the right direction, while only twenty-seven percent thought so in June 2007. IA-Forum: What good and bad trends do you see from the survey findings? Mr. Ballen: If you read between the lines of the survey, Iranians want more freedom, more economic development, close relations with the United States and the West, and they’re not happy with their current form of government. The opportunity for the United States to have a meaningful people-to-people relationship with the Iranians themselves is palpable. On the other hand, they are a proud and nationalistic people, like Americans, and, as such, they don’t want to be dictated to. Iranians see the irony now with nuclear energy. Iran had an active nuclear program under the Shah, which the U.S was the key backer of. Since June of last year, there has been a hardening of attitudes among Iranians toward the United States in terms of compromising on the nuclear issue. Perhaps because the Iranians see fiats from the U.S. and international community and not much in the way of positive incentives. That’s a worrying trend and the window for compromise, at least at the popular level, may be closing. Some may ask why we should we care about public opinion and what people inside Iran think when it’s a country ruled by an authoritarian system. First, there is a very limited kind of democracy inside Iran. It may not be what the people want, as our survey showed, but there is some form of democratic and public participation. So the regime has to be somewhat sensitive to what people are thinking. More importantly, this is a regime that came to power based on public opinion in the Revolution of 1979. So they know first-hand the power of public opinion. Lastly, they are attuned to public opinion. Many of the Iranian leaders believe very deeply in their ideology, what they stand for, and want people to follow them. They want their ideas to be a popular movement. From their own ideology, they care about popular sentiment. In fact, public opinion surveys in Iran are not uncommon and are frequently conducted by the government. This means that the people being asked questions know exactly how they’re supposed to be answered because they know the government is asking the questions. But the fact that the government sponsors the surveys inside Iran shows that they’re interested in public opinion. The fact that they spend perhaps as much as hundreds of millions (US dollars) on information—some might say propaganda—also shows that they care what people think. Public opinion inside Iran is not insignificant. IA-Forum: How have your survey results been received in the U.S.? Mr. Ballen: We get very good reception on the surveys in the United States from the government and non-government sectors. Committees on Capitol Hill and government agencies have contacted us and pay attention to the surveys. Moreover, the academic community, think tanks, and news media have reported on the findings. As significant, however, is the impact we have in other countries. For example, according to the Daily Times, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, the Pakistani government had a plan to rig the Pakistani elections in February, but that Terror Free Tomorrow’s public opinion poll helped to “definitely prevent the government from massive rigging.” IA-Forum: Turning to that survey in Pakistan, what was the most surprising finding? Mr. Ballen: We saw a dramatic drop in public support for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Bin Laden, and other radical groups. Between our last survey there in August 2007 and the most recent at the end of January 2008, there were dramatic drops by over half in public support for these groups. Even in areas near or in their home base, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are losing public support. Favorable opinions of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province have sunk to single digits. In August, 70 percent of the population of this region expressed a favorable opinion of Bin Laden. Earlier this year just 4 percent did. Indeed, these survey results mirror the stinging defeat of the Islamist parties at the hands of the voters in the North-West Frontier Province. The religious parties were big losers there, winning just nine seats in the provincial assembly, as opposed to 67 in the 2002 elections. Our survey was conducted just before the February 18th Parliamentary election vote and we asked people, ‘if Al Qaeda were on the ballot, would you vote for them?’ Only one percent of Pakistanis said they would vote for Al Qaeda, and the Taliban drew only three percent. While 18 percent said they sympathized with Al Qaeda, it’s telling that only one percent said they would actually vote for them. We also asked which political parties, like the PPP (Bhutto’s party) and the PLM-N, people would vote for. In fact, our survey results mirrored the actual election results, at just the three percent margin of error of our poll. IA-Forum: Why do think public support of those groups dropped so much? Mr. Ballen: The overwhelming reason was the dramatic increase in suicide bombings against civilians and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. IA-Forum: How do they view General Musharraf? Mr. Ballen: At the time, seventy percent of those polled wanted him to resign immediately. IA-Forum: What about the views in Pakistan on America? Mr. Ballen: The results were very negative in Pakistan. We didn’t see any improvement in their view towards the United States, which is quite low. After the earthquake in 2005 there, we did the first nationwide survey (October 2005) and we saw a huge upswing in favorable feelings for the United States because of our humanitarian relief to victims in the Kashmir region. That’s been lost unfortunately. We’ve polled Pakistan repeated since then and have seen public opinion of the U.S. decline steadily. Now it’s down to very little support. IA-Forum: Do you see any ray of hope to improve Pakistani views of the United States? Mr. Ballen: Yes. As we saw in the upswing of public opinion in the aftermath of the earthquake support, anti-American feelings and support for Al Qaeda and the Taliban throughout Pakistani society is soft. It can easily be changed. An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis said that if we increased humanitarian aid, visas, economic investment and free trade, people’s views of the United States would change dramatically. For the vast majority of Pakistanis, anti-Americanism is not a permanent state of mind. But it’s based on our policies towards Pakistan, particularly our support of President Musharraf. Kenneth Ballen is President of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, a Washington-based non-profit that has conducted over 30 international polls in the past three years, widely published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal USA Today, the Associated Press and worldwide. Mr. Ballen has spent more than 20 years on the frontlines in law enforcement, international relations, intelligence oversight and congressional investigations. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Ballen successfully prosecuted international terrorists.

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