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Reading opinion polls in Tehran

I was both fascinated and perplexed by a poll of Iranian voters described on the op-ed page of Monday’s Washington Post. Fascinated, because glimpses into Iranian public opinion are rare; perplexed because the conclusions in the original poll analysis and in the op-ed were at radical variance.

Personally, I haven’t the foggiest idea whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection was valid or fraudulent, which differentiates me from the folks at Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT), who do purport to know. The organization, which seems to be run by fine people, none of whom appears to have a background in public opinion research, polled Iranian voters in May. Based on their survey analysis, they urged Post readers not to “jump to the conclusion that the Iranian presidential elections were fraudulent … they should consider all independent information. The fact may simply be that the reelection of President Ahmadinejad is what the Iranian people wanted.”

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In reading the op-ed, though, I was struck by what was missing — the horserace numbers. In evaluating polls, always “look for the numbers.” When they (or the pollster’s name) are missing, it’s a pretty good bet that the release is a stretch.

In fact, TFT’s original analysis not only failed to focus on Ahmadinejad’s “2 to 1 lead … greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election,” as they did in their op-ed, but also articulated a quite different interpretation of their data.

Terror Free Tomorrow’s pre-election analysis predicted that while Ahmadinejad led, “it appears that none of the presidential candidates will pass the 50 percent threshold needed to automatically win; a second-round runoff between … Ahmadinejad and Mir Hussein Moussavi is likely.”

Indeed, any experienced pollster would suggest an incumbent garnering only a third of the vote was in deep trouble, a conclusion TFT implicitly endorsed in their original report, writing, “A close examination of our survey results reveals that the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate.”

In support of this conclusion, TFT noted that over 60 percent of undecideds “favor political reform and change in the current system.”

Beyond the “undecideds” were 15 percent who refused to answer the vote question — three to 15 times more than refused to answer any other question. What is your best guess? Were those who refused afraid to say they were voting against the incumbent or unwilling to say they were voting against the challenger?

Without rehearsing other technical flaws, to put the central point bluntly, the same poll cannot both make it appear that the race is close enough to require a runoff and, at the same time, legitimate a 63 percent-34 percent victory by the incumbent. Either the poll analysis was far off the mark or the election was not as fair as TFT would suggest.

Whether or not “the reelection of President Ahmadinejad is what the Iranian people wanted,” TFT demonstrates voters dissent from some, though not all, of his polices. In contrast to their candidate, strong majorities support rapprochement with the United States and the establishment of democratic institutions.

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While a narrow 52 percent majority supports the development of nuclear weapons, 74 percent would have Iran guarantee not to develop nukes in exchange for trade and investment from abroad.

So while a deal on nuclear weapons may be possible with the Iranian people, if not with Ahmadinejad himself, one chilling statistic will send shivers up spines in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Just 27 percent of Iran’s voters would favor a peace treaty with Israel if an independent Palestinian state is established, but 62 percent “oppose any peace treaty” and “favor all Muslims continuing to fight until there is no State of Israel in the Middle East.”

On that issue, Ahmadinejad seems to command a majority.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.