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Iran vote may be accurate

An independent effort to take the pulse of the country's electorate found that Ahmadinejad was poised to win reelection handily.

The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.

Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a ratio of more than 2-1 - greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.

While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran's provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.

Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, pre-election polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy.

By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years. Conducted by telephone from a neighboring country, the field work was carried out in Farsi by a polling company whose work in the region for ABC News and the BBC has received an Emmy award. Our polling was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The breadth of Ahmadinejad's support was apparent in our pre-election survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, a member of the second-largest ethnic group in Iran, after Persians. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad 2-1 over Mousavi.

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youths and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, and 18- to 24-year-olds were the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad.

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians.

When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

Some might argue that the professed support for Ahmadinejad in our poll simply reflected fearful respondents' reluctance to provide honest answers to pollsters. Yet the integrity of our results is confirmed by the politically risky responses Iranians were willing to give to a host of questions.

For instance, nearly four of five Iranians - including most Ahmadinejad supporters - said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran's supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities, virtually tied with improving the national economy. These were hardly politically correct responses in a largely authoritarian society.

Indeed, consistently among all three of our surveys over the past two years, more than 70 percent of Iranians also expressed support for providing full access to weapons inspectors and a guarantee that Iran will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, in return for outside aid and investment. And 77 percent of Iranians favored normal relations and trade with the United States, another result consistent with our previous findings.

Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator - the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal, rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.

Allegations of fraud and electoral manipulation will serve to further isolate Iran, and are likely to increase its belligerence and intransigence against the outside world. Before other countries, including the United States, jump to the conclusion that the Iranian presidential elections were fraudulent - with the grave consequences such charges could bring - they should consider all independent information. The fact may simply be that the reelection of Ahmadinejad is what the Iranian people wanted.