Is Ahmadinejad actually popular? What should Obama do?

I’m getting a daily digest from the expert friend I mentioned in the previous post and picking out some highlights. Here are some of his thoughts about two of the biggest questions I have: How popular is Ahmadinejad, really? And what should Obama be doing in reaction?

Ahmadinejad’s popularity

Pro-Ahmadienjad poll: There was a pre-election poll carried out by an NGO called “Terror Free Tomorrow” that some of you may have seen mentioned in various articles (they defended their poll a few days ago in the Washington Post). The poll was taken via telephone and purportedly showed Ahmadinejad was twice as popular among the respondents, which is now being cited to show that Ahmadinejad did win the election, and the cries of fraud are unwarranted. I’m including the link to a full debunking of this poll below, but there are 2 major problems with this poll. First, methodologically, the phone survey was of a little over 1,000 people, and just only 57% answered definitely. The rest either said “no comment” or were undecided. That’s a large number of unanswered, and when you weigh that with the percentage that said they did support Ahmadinejad, you get a far less overwhelming endorsement of him. Second, and more importantly, there are political problems with this poll. This poll was conducted around a month before the election, and before the official campaign time began. Unlike American, Iran has no strong political parties, and people will not just vote for someone—say, like Musavi—because he’s a member of the party they identify with. Opinions change and undecided sway much more in Iran than in American. Musavi had been out of the public eye for almost two decades before the official campaigning began, so it’s no wonder he didn’t have more support when this poll was taken. On top of this, his campaign really built steam later in the campaign period, particularly after his June 3rd televised debate with Ahmadinejad when the latter attacked numerous members of the establishment such as Rafsanjani’s family, Musavi’s wife, and others. If you want to read more about this poll, check here.

Parliamentary investigation: the parliament’s investigation into the attacks on the Tehran University dormitory began and ended in a fistfight. MPs who convened the investigation asked why plainclothes officers had been sent here without official orders, and also questioned the Treasury Ministry as to why “shares” of money were given to Ahmadinejad before the election basically to dole out to people on his campaign stops. When the questioning of the attacks continued some of their staunchest supporters in parliament began arguing with those asking questions, and eventually the verbal fight turned physical. I highlight this just to show that while support for the regime and such tactics may be waning, it is nevertheless still strongly held by an amount of people that should not be discounted.

What should Obama do?

Obama: Lastly, as the protests pick up steam Obama is being urged to take a more definitive stand in support of the opposition. Some republicans like McCain have been urging him to do so, but some Iranians I’ve talked are agreeing with this. The European Union in fact came out in support, but I’m not sure if any individual countries have followed suit. This is an extremely complicated question and one I’m still unsure about. My default position is to listen to Iranians on the ground themselves and respond to their wishes, but I still believe Obama fully supporting the protests just plays into the hands of the regime and lets them paint the opposition as foreign puppets. Obviously he should continue to support the peaceful right of assembly and speak out against the violence, but perhaps he should take more of a stand on electoral transparency. Again, a tricky question, but I’d urge caution.

My take-away from these analyses and other news I’ve read is that while it certainly seems as though the election was fixed, there remains real support for Ahmadinejad in Iran. That support is something that the country will have to reckon with as its people find a solution to the current crisis. Even if it is somehow admitted that Ahmadinejad did not win the vote, his people are not going to give up every shred of power just because they got, say, 45 percent (a completely made up number) rather than 51 percent of the vote. (In fact, the United States is one of the few countries where winner-takes-all is accepted and considered logical.) It’s not a question anyone’s going to have to deal with in the next few days, however.

As far as Obama’s reaction, I think he’s absolutely doing the right thing. People who are arguing for more open support from him, I am sorry to say, do no understand the reputation of the United States, not only in Iran (in which I admittedly have no first-hand knowledge) but in the rest of the Middle East. Obama’s open support for the opposition could turn this — in the minds of many in the region — from a grassroots movement into just another American manipulation. If we want this to succeed — for the sake of Iran and for everyone else — the U.S. government should butt out.

Finally, a clip of today’s mourning rally.

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