Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections; Iranians Continue to Back Compromise and Better Relations with US and West

Results of a New Nationwide Public Opinion Survey of Iran before the June 12, 2009 Presidential Elections

Executive Summary:

AhmadinejadIn a new public opinion poll across Iran before the critical upcoming June 12, 2009 Presidential elections, a plurality of Iranians said they would vote for incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranians also continue overwhelmingly to favor better relations with the United States and would like to directly elect their Supreme Leader in a free vote.  The desire for improved American relations and a more open and democratic system in Iran have been consistent findings in all our surveys of Iran over the past two years.

These are among the many results of a new nationwide public opinion survey of Iran conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion (“TFT”), the New America Foundation, and KA Europe SPRL (“KA”).

Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare.  Typically, polls in Iran are either conducted or monitored by the Iranian government and other affiliated interest groups, and can be untrustworthy.  By contrast, our poll — the third in a series over the past two years — was conducted by telephone inside Iran over May 11th to 20th, 2009, with 1,001 interviews proportionally distributed covering all 30 provinces of Iran, with a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.  Full survey results and methodology follow.  This survey tracks earlier nationwide surveys of Iran also conducted by TFT and KA in March 2008 and June 2007, which was the first to ask similar controversial questions since September 2002.  Funding for the survey was provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.  The survey follows not only two prior polls of Iran, but also more than thirty similar surveys throughout the Muslim world by TFT since 2005.

Iranians Favor President Ahmadinejad’s Re-Election

At the stage of the campaign for President when our poll was taken, 34 percent of Iranians surveyed said they will vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad.  Mr. Ahmadinejad’s closest rival, Mir Hussein Moussavi, was the choice of 14 percent, with 27 percent stating that they still do not know who they will vote for.

President Ahmadinejad’s other rivals, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, were the choice of 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.   A close examination of our survey results reveals that the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate.  More than 60 percent of those who state they don’t know who they will vote for in the Presidential elections reflect individuals who favor political reform and change in the current system.

89 percent of Iranians say that they will cast a vote in the upcoming Presidential elections.  The poll shows that 87 percent of Persians, 94 percent of Azeris and around 90 percent of all other ethnicities intend to vote in the upcoming elections.

About seven in ten Iranians think the elections will be free and fair, while only one in ten thinks they will not be free and fair.

The current mood indicates that none of the candidates will likely pass the 50 percent threshold needed to automatically win; meaning that a second round runoff between the two highest finishers, as things stand, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Moussavi, is likely.  In the 2005 Presidential elections, the leader in the first round, Hashemi Rafsanjani, lost to his runner-up, Mr. Ahmadinejad, in the second round run off — though an incumbent has never been defeated in a Presidential election since the beginning of the Islamic Republic.

Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Mr. Moussavi’s Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity may have for Azeri voters.  The results of our survey indicate that only 16 percent of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Mr. Moussavi.  By contrast, 31 percent of the Azeris claim they will vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Economy


More than one-third of Iranians said they would vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad, even though those who think the Iranian economy is headed in the right direction has dropped from 42 percent in our survey from a year ago to 33 percent in our latest survey.  Yet, in potentially good news for President Ahmadinejad, Iranians do not seem to hold him responsible for the weakening economy.  While a plurality sees the Iranian economy as declining, Iranian are evenly split on whether President Ahmadinejad’s policies have succeeded in reducing unemployment and inflation.  Similar to the previous polls, about one-third of Iranians think their personal economic situation got better after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, while nearly half think it has remained the same.  Yet, overall only 27 percent of Iranians think that Ahmadinejad was able to keep his pledge to share Iran’s oil revenues more fairly.

The number one priority Iranians have for their government is improving the Iranian economy, very closely followed by ensuring free elections, a free press and better trade and relations with the West.  By contrast, developing nuclear weapons was not seen as an important long-term priority by most.

Iranians by Large Margins Favor More Democratic System

In another indication of the Iranian public’s strong support for a more open and fully democratic system of government, 77 percent said that they support a political system for governing Iran where the Supreme Leader, along with all leaders, can be chosen and replaced by a free and direct vote of the people.

Supreme Leader

The power and role of the Supreme Leader is at the core of the Islamic Republic because it is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not President Ahmadinejad, who exercises ultimate authority.  Yet, the survey found that almost eight in ten want the most powerful official in Iran to be held accountable to the voters.  Indeed, the most important long-term goals Iranians have for their government are ensuring free elections and a free press — in percentages almost identical to improving the Iranian economy.

For 96 percent of Iranians, the Supreme Leader and the President are influential and important institutions in the Iranian government.  However, seven in ten Iranians correctly think the President has limited but important power in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran; only two in ten Iranians believe the President is the most important official in the Iranian government.

Iranians Favor Compromise on the Nuclear Issue

NukeMore than 70 percent of Iranians also favor Iran providing full inspections and a guarantee not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in return for outside aid and investment.  A majority of Iranians (52 percent), however, favor the development of nuclear weapons, though importantly, less than half consider developing nuclear weapons an important priority for the Iranian government.  Nuclear energy is favored by 94 percent of Iranians.

More than Three-quarters Back Better U.S. Relations

In another consistent trend over the past two years, 77 percent of Iranians back normal relations and trade with the United States. 68 percent also favor Iran working with the United States to help resolve the Iraq war, while 60 percent back unconditional negotiations with the U.S.

No Thank You

For more than six in ten Iranians, the most important steps the U.S. could take that would improve opinions of America are: a free trade treaty between Iran and the US; the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and increasing visas for Iranians to study and work in the United States.

Despite the overwhelming Iranian desire for a fully democratic system, the U.S. working to spread democracy inside Iran would not improve Iranian opinion of America, nor would brokering a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Apart from Israel, Iranians now consider the United States as representing Iran’s greatest threat.

Iranians Are Negative on Israel

62 percent of Iranians oppose any peace treaty recognizing the State of Israel and favor all Muslims continuing to fight until there is no State of Israel in the Middle East.  Only a quarter of Iranians favor a peace treaty recognizing the State of Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state is established.  Likewise, more than 64 percent support the government of Iran providing military and financial assistance to Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  52 percent of Iranians would, however, favor recognizing the State of Israel as part of a deal with the United States.

Iranians Are Supportive of Iraqi Shiite Militias and Lebanese Hezbollah

60 percent of Iranians also support the government of Iran providing military and financial assistance to Iraqi Shiite militias (33 percent oppose), while 62 percent back such assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon (31 percent oppose).  Again, however, as part of a deal with the United States, 54 percent of Iranians would endorse the Iranian government ending support for Iraqi militias.

Western Trade and Investment Strongly Supported

Iranians also continue to support the idea of Western investment and aid to Iran.  70 percent favor Western investment; 80 percent medical, education and humanitarian assistance from Western countries.

Clearly, the issue of foreign investment in Iran is a priority for Iranians.  It may also be important for the Iranian government.  A draft bill for improving legal protection of foreign investment is currently being examined by the parliament.  Significantly, among the possible ways that the US can improve Iranians’ opinion of America, the most important for Iranians is a free trade treaty between Iran and the United States, chosen by 69 percent.

Iranian Shiite Muslims Think Favorably of Sunni Muslims, Christians, Americans and Others

Other Nations
Other Sects

While less a third of Iranians now have a favorable view of the United States itself, almost half think favorably of Americans, about the same percentage who think favorably of the French and Arabs.

For Iranian citizens of the Islamic Republic, 87 percent of who in our survey identified themselves as Shiite, views of both Sunni Muslims and Christians were overwhelmingly favorable — with only 8 percent voicing an unfavorable view of Sunnis and 11 percent of Christians.  (Opinions on Jews were divided, though more are favorable than unfavorable.)

Indeed, Iranian views of Sunnis and Christians, as well as non-Iranians generally, are quite accepting — more so than the corresponding views of their neighbors, such as in Saudi Arabia, according to our TFT survey there.

Iranians clearly distinguish between countries and policies they do not like (US and Israel), and people they do like (Christians, Americans, Arabs, Sunni Muslims and Jews).  Iranians are favorable to Christians by a 6:1 margin, Sunni Muslims by a 9:1 margin, Americans by a 2:1 margin and Jews by a 5:4 margin.  In fact, Iranians are as favorable to Americans as they are to their Arab neighbors.  The high favorability of Sunni Muslims among Iranians (higher than for Arabs generally) demonstrates that Shiite/Sunni issues are not the primary force driving a wedge between Iranians and their Arab neighbors.


The vision of the Iranian people for a more democratic future, with normal trade and relations between Iran and the United States, remains the consensus over our three nationwide surveys, now spanning two years.  Even most Iranians who support incumbent President Ahmadinejad share these goals.

The text above is the executive summary of the report published by Terror Free Tomorrow in June 2009.  The charts also come from the same report.  They are reproduced here for informational purposes.  For a full statement on survey methods, topline questions and answers, charts, and background information, click here.