How credible are the results of your or any political polls in Iran, given the authoritarian nature of the government and possible fears that some respondents might have of reprisals?
Dr. Clay Ramsay:
Our report put out in February, called An Analysis of Multiple Polls of the Iranian Public, deals with twelve different polls, only one of which was done by us. It includes another poll that was sponsored by a western organization called GlobeScan, but which partnered with an Iranian organization. The rest of them were a series of polls done by a polling unit at the University of Tehran beginning at the opening of the official election campaign and continuing through to one month after the election. So you have a diverse set of time periods, each with its own distinct political atmosphere, and you have different organizations conducting the polls. Because of this, it is possible to cross-validate all this material and check to see whether they are all pointing in the same direction at given points in time. Where results shift over time, are they shifting in a way that is understandable? We can validate the results based on this.
Our assessment after going through all of this material was that there was no evidence that Ahmadinejad did not have a majority, and there was very little evidence that people in Iran regard the constitution and overall structure of the Islamic Republic as something illegitimate. Our conclusions are really based on what happens when you examine a whole set of different ranges of observations and compare them against each other.
In terms of whether people are uncomfortable or feel under stress when they are polled, yes, that can happen. Our own poll, which was conducted by callers from outside the country, was the last in this whole set of twelve. It was done at the end of August and beginning of September of last year. At that point, you had up to 27% who no longer wanted to say who they voted for, which was clearly an effect of the sense of greater constriction in the political climate in Iran at that point.
The coherence of an attitude is based on what you can observe across time, so during the period of the election campaign itself, it was authorized and accepted for people to espouse support for one candidate or another and to campaign for them. This was an officially legitimate activity. The views that people expressed during that time are not subject to the same kind of reasonable suspicion as those expressed during the period of the real repression. The first post-election poll that we looked at was done one week after the election, while another was done four weeks afterward—they were not conducted in the same political climate. The first took place in a period of confusion and turmoil, but also one in which the state was very far from having organized a systematic crackdown. Therefore, the views that are coherent and make sense across the whole period, or that evolve in an understandable way across the whole period, I think, have a lot of credibility.
With this past summer’s protests in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, some have drawn comparisons between the current situation and that of pre-revolutionary Iran in 1979. How valid are such comparisons?
First of all, there were no polls taken at the end of the Shah’s reign that we can look at, so that knocks out one thing that I wish I could speak to. My understanding of the dynamic of the revolution is that it included not only a strong urban intelligentsia, but also a strong bazaari movement, meaning a working class and sub-working class—owners of small businesses...people who are far from rich but nonetheless have some independence in the economy, and then peasant or rural support. All three of those elements (urban intelligentsia, bazaaris, and rural peasants) were part of the 1979 revolution. It is hard to see the other two pillars in the current opposition movement. Once you get past a kind of urban intelligentsia, it’s hard to see where else support is coming from. I believe there have been recent statements by Mousavi and Karroubi to the effect that the next task of the movement is to try to garner support in those other sectors of society. I would see that as a primary difference to look at.
That brings me to my next question. Were you able to get a picture of the demographics of the opposition movement?
Yes. In our report, we break down Mousavi’s relative support among subgroups. Looking across all these polls, we see that on the whole, among his supporters, there were relatively greater numbers of young people up to about age twenty-five, and there were actually slightly more men involved in the opposition movement, relative to the general population. The proportion of those with a college education or above was well above what you find in the general population. They were far more likely to be urban, and also more likely to be plugged into the Internet, particularly at the level of daily use—people for whom the Internet is integrated into their daily lives. So that’s the kind of portrait we got of Mousavi supporters—which doesn’t necessarily mean that Mousavi is the stronger candidate among all urban residents, but that if you take his group of supporters and compare them to the general population, they are just more likely to be urban.
What about Ahmadinejad’s core supporters? Were you able to get a demographic picture of them in comparison to the general population?
They tended to pick up healthy numbers in just about every subgroup. In other words, there was no subgroup in which Ahmadinejad seemed to be uncompetitive. It is important to understand that if Mousavi had won, he would have been the first candidate to defeat an incumbent in the history of the Islamic Republic, so there is certainly a built-in predisposition for the incumbent to succeed in getting a second term. I think the tendency to support incumbents that one often finds in other countries plays in a similar way in Iran.
There has been a lot of talk of women playing a central part in the opposition movement. Did your analysis verify this?
Everyone was surprised by the high extent to which women participated in the opposition movement. So we expected to see women represented among Mousavi supporters to at least the level that they are in the general population. However, this was not the case.
You need to consider women throughout all of Iran, and women of every age, not just young women, and women of every level of education, not just women in college. It is then more understandable that Ahmadinejad was in fact very competitive with women overall.
I noticed when looking at your poll results from late September through early October of 2009 that 81% of those surveyed consider Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate president of Iran. Why do you think such a high percentage of those surveyed answered this way?
I want to point out that among those who supported Mousavi and were surveyed a week after the election—before the real government crackdown on dissent began—a majority said the election was fair. By mid-July, that had dropped, so that only 39% of Mousavi supporters felt the election was fair, with more thinking not. By the beginning of September, this number went back up to the previous level. So among the people who voted for Mousavi, many were at first convinced by their own candidate’s argument that the election was fraudulent, but then over time they weren’t finding enough credence in the evidence presented by the opposition and went back up to their previous levels of believing that the election was fair.
You still had perhaps a third of Mousavi supporters who thought, going into the fall, that the election was not fair—and that’s still a lot of people. If they are concentrated in the city then that’s certainly enough people to stage significant demonstrations. But the fact is that by the time you got to September, four out of five Iranians believed that, whether they like him or not, Ahmadinejad actually had majority support.
That doesn’t mean that everybody is happy about it. It’s very much like if you had asked Americans in 2000 if they thought Bush was the legitimate president of the United States. Many people who had not voted for Bush would say “yes, I think he is the legitimate president.” Some of them would be gritting their teeth, but they would still say so, because the way people think and feel about their country—the overarching legality, as they understand it, starts to be more important than the political results.
It seems that when people were asked questions regarding the economy, they were more likely to voice dissent. For example, pluralities of those surveyed answered that the overall economic situation of the country as a whole had worsened over the past few years, as had economic equality across the country. Why does it seem that Iranians are more willing to voice dissent when it comes to economic issues than purely political ones?
The economy was certainly something that was discussed high and low over the course of the election campaign, so it had a recent past of being a completely open question. If I think about what is easier or harder for an Iranian to answer—what puts them under more or less stress—the kind of questions that put them under the least stress of all are questions about the United States. Questions that are more intermediate would be things like the Iranian economy and where it’s going. Things that would be most potentially stressful to answer would be the legitimacy of the election and questions about the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council, both of which we asked—and you did not have a majority of Iranians expressing the highest degree of confidence in the Guardian Council. Those kinds of questions are the most stressful. But just because a question is stressful doesn’t mean that the people can’t give you a sign that indicates their attitude.
There is one more thing I would like to add, which is that I think it’s worthwhile to pan back and think about what is important for US-Iranian relations in all of this. It’s really crucial, I think, to try not to look at the domestic turmoil in Iran through the lens of what would be easier for the United States—what would make it easier to get results in its foreign policy. That is a very dangerous habit to get into. First of all, you start to formulate your policy in a way that ignores the real obstacles. Second, you send a signal to the government of the other country that you are sort of living in a different universe, relative to the facts as they understand them. It makes you appear very dangerous to them, and that puts them on a course of being willing to consider more desperate actions than they might otherwise. These are very serious risks and this is a great part of the reason why we undertook the thankless task of trying to understand what happened.
Clay Ramsay, Director of Research at the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and a CISSM fellow, co-founded PIPA in 1992. He regularly appears in the US and international media providing analysis of public opinion. With a background in history and psychology, he has focused on the study of ideology and mass psychology. He received his Ph.D. in History from Stanford University, has taught at Oberlin College, and is the author of The Ideology of the Great Fear (Johns Hopkins University Press). He is a faculty member of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.
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