Intimidation and self-censorship

Iranian reform supporters less willing to tell truth to pollsters.

WASHINGTON – Iranian supporters of reformist candidates have more favorable views of the US, support greater international engagement and are more willing to make concessions on the country’s nuclear program than their fellow citizens, according to a new analysis of polls of Iranians.
The analysis by the Program on International Policy Attitudes of its own and several University of Teheran polls, presented Wednesday at the New American Foundation think tank, found that Iranians who acknowledged voting for a reform candidate in June’s presidential election backed Western-friendly views by 10 to 20 percentage points more than the population overall. The spread jumped even further when compared with those who backed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Asked whether they agreed that Iran shouldn’t give up its nuclear activities regardless of the circumstances, 73 percent of the general population strongly agreed and another 13% somewhat agreed. The number who agreed hit 90% among those who voted for Ahmadinejad.
In contrast, of those who voted for the chief reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, only 57% strongly agreed with 21% somewhat agreeing.
When it came to a proposal that Iran abandon uranium enrichment, a crucial step in building a nuclear bomb, in exchange for removing sanctions, 43% of Mousavi supporters approved of the idea with 51% opposed, in comparison to 31% and 55% of the general public and 29% and 58% of Ahmadinejad voters.
The favorable-unfavorable view of the United States split 31-61 among Mousavi voters and 17-77 among the general public.
“It’s a very significant difference,” said David Pollock, an expert on polling in the Muslim world at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The opposition is less determined to pursue the nuclear option and more receptive to international engagement with the United States by a significant margin.”
In a rare instance, however, the numbers for Mousavi voters and the general public were nearly the same, with 37% and 38%, respectively, supporting Iran pursuing both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and 57% and 55%, respectively, supporting only nuclear power.
Still, Pollock maintained that the support for Mousavi was likely heavily under-reported in the poll due to flaws in the methodology and ability of pollsters to accurately assess Iranian opinion.
He pointed out that the polls relied on land lines, while one-fifth of the population – the younger, urbane and often most politically liberal – uses cellphones. In addition, the polls were conducted in Farsi, though it’s not the first language of about half of the Iranian population and carries the weight of the establishment in its use, particularly as 10 of the 12 polls compiled were carried out by the University of Teheran. Lastly, he noted that the 48% rate of those refusing to participate in the surveys – while lower than the nonresponse rate of many polls in the Western world – could mean that those afraid to give honest answers simply did not answer the questions.
He also pointed to what he characterized as troubling data indicated the polls were “fatally flawed” when it came to assessing how many people voted for Mousavi – and therefore what percentage of the population shared the reformist perspective identified in the polls.
He highlighted the August/September survey carried out by WorldPublicOpinion, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which found that those who reported voting for Mousavi (15%) had dropped to half the number of those who reported voting for him right after the disputed June election. Instead, as the brutal crackdown on the opposition intensified, the number of those who said they “didn’t know” whom they had voted for jumped to 27%.
And while a month after the election, only 29% of admitted Mousavi supporters called the election “free and fair,” by the end of the summer, 58% did.
“There’s no possible, plausible explanation for that trend except intimidation,” sock said. Over time, “it became more clear that if you gave politically incorrect answers you could die or your family could be hauled off to jail.”
He concluded, “What you can infer from these findings is that there’s a tremendous amount of intimidation and self-censorship and increasingly successful inhibition of freedom of thought and freedom of experience since the elections.