These findings do not prove that there were no irregularities in the election process. But they do not support the belief that a majority rejected Ahmadinejad. ~Steven Kull

Via Kevin Sullivan

The new WPO report released today compares a number of polls taken both within and from outside Iran and considers several important matters: the presidential election, public views of regime legitimacy and the views of the opposition. I have already touched on some of the things WPO learned from their polling done during the late summer of last year, but it seems worth revisiting them as February 11 approaches.

One thing that is consistent across all of the polls is the self-reporting by a clear majority of respondents that they voted for Ahmadinejad. The GlobeScan and WPO polls showed similar numbers for self-reporting Ahmadinejad voters: 56/55%. That is remarkably close to the last pre-election poll result for Ahmadinejad (57%). Obviously, it is significantly lower than the final, official result of 63%, and it is in the difference between the two that we may be able to see the effects of fraud. Self-reporting Mousavi supporters shrink in number over time (32% in GlobeScan, 14% in WPO), and we can see in the WPO poll the respondents who refused to answer more than double. These respondents are likely Mousavi voters who did not want to admit to supporting him. That leaves a hard core of 14% who are still willing to admit that they voted for Mousavi, and even among these half accept Ahmadinejad as the legitimate president and believe the election was free and fair.

If only half of the 14% deny Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy, the movement that is openly opposed to him probably accounts for no more than 6-7% of the Iranian public. Meanwhile, 70% of the public accepts Ahmadinejad as the legitimate president. So when skeptics of the movement have said that it is unrepresentative and small, and when they have argued that Ahmadinejad would have won outright even without cheating, this evidence seems to indicate that they were right all along.

When the official election results came out immediately after voting and on account of other irregularities in the numbers, it was reasonable to assume that there had been some fraud. The main question then was whether the fraud was significant enough to change the outcome of the election. The WPO report’s evidence suggests that Ahmadinejad’s outright victory in the first round of voting was real and that Mousavi’s support, while substantial, would not have been enough to force a run-off.

Why perpetrate electoral fraud when you are already going to win? As in Afghanistan and Russia, the incumbent who already commanded majority support decided to boost his numbers to make the victory even more lopsided. In Ahmadinejad’s case, as the WPO report mentions, his steadily falling poll numbers during the first weeks of the campaign may have been what inspired the effort to commit fraud. Even though the incumbent’s numbers recovered as the election approached, he was already prepared to commit fraud to secure victory if necessary, and carried out the plan even though it now seems that it was unnecessary.

Enthusiastic Mousavi supporters evidently believed that their candidate was going to win, and this conviction grew stronger as the election approached. The report notes that just 18% of Mousavi supporters expected Ahmadinejad to win. This was at the very time that Ahmadinejad was actually regaining support outside Tehran, but the Mousavi supporters had no reliable way of knowing this. The “Green Wave” encouraged them and apparently rattled Ahmadinejad enough to engage in electoral fraud, but Ahmadinejad’s anxiety and the Mousavi supporters’ confidence were apparently equally baseless. As it turns out, Mousavi was never going to force a run-off, much less win the election, but his supporters strongly believed that he would win. There was a moment at the start of June when a run-off might have been possible, but Ahmadinejad managed to pull away in the final weeks. When Mousavi supporters’ expectations were not met, they latched on to the very real fraud that had taken place to explain away the reality of the loss. But even after accounting for the fraud, Mousavi supporters’ expectations were at odds with reality. Not only were his supporters not representative of a majority of the country, but they seem to have had no awareness of what the majority of their countrymen believed.

Looking at the WPO poll again, we see that even among admitted Mousavi supporters (14% of respondents) there is actually limited dissatisfaction with the Iranian political system. Just 27% of Mousavi supporters said that they were somewhat or very unsatisfied with the current system. Overall, just 10% express similar dissatisfaction. 16% of the general public and 42% of Mousavi supporters are dissatisfied with the electoral system specifically. Granted, this poll was taken several months ago. It is possible that opinions have shifted and dissatisfaction may have grown, but from what we see in this report it appears that last July was the low point for the regime. Whether it is because of resignation and disillusionment or for some other reason, even among admitted Mousavi supporters Ahmadinejad has regained ground that he had lost during the first weeks of the protests.

On the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, we should remember that the attitudes of Mousavi supporters do not differ significantly from those of the general public. 37% of them want nuclear power and weapons, while 57% of them want just nuclear power. This is almost identical to the general public’s views (38/55). There is no significant constituency for abandoning the nuclear program all together. Even on the question of enrichment, majorities of the general public and Mousavi supporters oppose giving up enrichment in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Iranian policy would not have changed significantly had the outcome been different. For our part, the United States should not be defining its Iran policy around an unrepresentative political movement.