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On the Eve of the Iranian Elections

cross-posted on Huffington Post (world section)
–updated below–

Earlier this week I was at an event at the New America Foundation revealing the latest polling on Iranian public opinion as relates to the election tomorrow. As I do with much of the foreign policy reporting I do now that I’m in D.C., I liveblogged it via Twitter.

According to the polling done by Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion and the New America Foundation, Kenneth Ballen of TFT reported that 34% of Iranians plan to vote for Ahmadinejad. However, there is anecdotal evidence, especially since the contentious debate, that the energy has shifted towards Mirhossein Mousavi. This isn’t hard to imagine, because Ballen also reported that his polling revealed 27% undecided. Ballen said “a run-off is likely.” Not surprisingly, most polls are monitored by the Iranian government, with Ballen’s TFT actually independent. Full results are here.

One thing you won’t hear talked about much in the U.S. is the degree to which the Iranian people passionately desire a more open society and government. Right-wing radio goes out of their way to say just the opposite, with a lot of misinformation from Fox News Channel to back it up. Ballen’s polling found Iranians favor a system where they can even vote for the Supreme Leader; with the economy, assuring a free press and free elections their top priorities.

As for nuclear weapons, the issue came in last in importance, though Iranians polled by TFT support nuclear energy. These same people have no problem with inspections.

Azadeh Pourzand, another person on the panel, who has been following the election fervor through Facebook, the blogs, YouTube, etc. (she speaks and reads Farsi), said Ahmadinejad’s reported lead is surprising to her, given what she’s heard and read. She also mentioned 1/3 of Iranians have access to the web.

One entry in my live reporting feed might surprise you: Iranian people polled have a 71 percent favorable opinion of Sunnis; 49 percent favorable opinion of Jews.

Ballen and Amjad Atallah, of New America Foundation, wrote an article for CNN that outlines other important aspects of pre-election Iranian public opinion.

In a new public opinion poll before Iran’s critical June 12 presidential election, by large margins, most Iranians said they support an American-Iranian rapprochement for bringing a new era of peace to the Middle East. Surveyed on a wide range of issues, Iranians overwhelmingly favor better relations with the United States and greater democracy for Iran.

The poll shows that the Iranian public remains far removed from the stereotypes of apocalyptic fanatics commonly asserted in some circles in the United States. The survey suggests that Iranians instead are a people with self-confidence and hope in a more democratic future.

It also reveals a population with a strong awareness that the United States is as much a potential ally as it is now seen as a current threat. This holds much promise for U.S. national security interests in the region. …

At the event, Flynt Leverett, an expert on the Middle East, added quite a bit of context, as he always does. His belief is that there is an opportunity for a “grand bargain,” if only the Obama administration would make it clear they’re open to it. He commented that anyone who thinks this cannot be done doesn’t know what he is talking about when it comes to Iranian foreign policy. “Flynt, tell us what you really think about Dennis Ross,” quipped Steve Clemons. That brought a chuckle from everyone.

During the question portion, I asked Azadeh Pourzand to comment on Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who has become such an inspiration in the elections, as well as the brunt of Ahmadinejad’s fury, which prompted her to demand an apology or she’d sue him for libel. She’s been referred to as “Iran’s Michelle Obama,” so when I mentioned this everyone sort of chuckled. Ms. Pourzand lit up and then explained that she’s become important. Rahnavard really has ignited young voters. She and her husband hold hands, something never seen before during elections from a candidate and his spouse. Her strong presence is a new development, according to Pourzand. But one thing unexpected is that Rahnavard used to wear mini-skirts! In fact, she gave what was considered an important speech, Pourzand said, detailing that her shift to traditional dress for Iranian women was a real movement and more organic due to where she once stood on dress. Her presence has helped her husband, Mirhossein Mousavi, a lot.

In the end, Flynt Leverett said he believes that whomever wins in Iran, few things will change. The fact remains, as he sees it, that Iran has “no strategic depth” in national security, with asymmetric action a focus and nuclear weapons their only option, but that all of these are only “defensive in nature.” He also believes that neither Gates nor Clinton believe in Leverett’s coined phrased, “a grand bargain,” and he isn’t sure at all Pres. Obama will push for it.

Steve Clemons was more optimistic, saying Obama’s confidence reveals he “is his own national security policy.”

As for my thoughts as Iran gets ready to vote, reviewing all the independent study I’ve done, as well as what I’ve learned from the experts, the information reveals one thing. Maybe Iran’s policy will stay the same even with a change of leadership at the top, but the perception created if Ahmadinejad loses can’t help but be powerful. As in Lebanon, it will be more evidence of “the Obama effect” and that just maybe the tide is turning.

Just maybe.

UPDATE: Also see follow up forum where Clemons nails Flynt Leverett as the “crack cocaine of realists.” Live tweet feed here.

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