Pity the Iranian pollster.
To American politicians, poll results are a crucial political weather vane. But in Iran, where pollsters are often viewed as invaders of privacy, greeted with suspicion, and even lied to, polls are more likely to provide insight into the confusion of Iran's political firmament, than accurately reflect public taste.
Struggling against that trend is the Iranian Students' Polling Agency (ISPA), the most respected independent polling outfit in the country. The group released its latest results Tuesday, three days before Iranians vote on Friday to replace outgoing President Mohamad Khatami with one of eight approved candidates.
The results in such a close race are as uncertain as ever.
In face-to-face questioning of more than 4,500 people nationwide, ISPA teams found that support for front-runner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has dropped from 35 percent to 21.7 percent in recent weeks.
Mr. Rafsanjani's closest challenger, former national police chief Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, stands at 14.4 percent, while the reform candidacy of Mustafa Moin has jumped from 5.5 percent support to 11.5 percent.
The results spell a second-round run-off with more than 21 percent of voters undecided. ISPA estimates a low turnout of 50 percent, that could grow to 66 percent on Friday.
But in Iran, poll numbers are unlikely to predict where voters will come down on election day.
"While following the path to democracy ... some are not willing to tell the truth about their intentions," says ISPA director Ibrahim Hajiyani. He estimates that for 20 percent of respondents, political views "are secret; they don't want to reveal it."
Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News, says, "I'm sure we have good pollsters, but we don't have the environment to get an honest response. People say: 'It's none of your business.' "
"Polling is totally useless [because] Iranians never tell the truth," he says.
While ISPA has conducted 700 surveys and polls in the past four years with an accurate track record, the handful of other polling groups often have political agendas and use slipshod methods.
"Scientifically, there is a very large margin of error ... so polls must be taken with a chunk of salt," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in Tehran. Often half the people contacted refuse to answer. "And there is the human aspect - a very strong suspicion, in a culture where people say what they think you want to hear."
Indeed, even for those who do take part, loaded questions and caution skew the result. "These polls are very self-serving ... I wouldn't put it past them to make figures up," says a European diplomat. "It's not that the mechanisms are dodgy, but the integrity of the process as a whole. This is a country in which everyone has a learned habit of dissimulation and expediency.
"People don't answer honestly," says the diplomat, "because they don't know where the information is going."
And the results can be dangerous.
When a 2002 poll about Iranian attitudes toward America, secretly commissioned from ISPA and two other agencies by the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, was leaked to the press, it caused an uproar.
Some Iranians questioned were in favor of repairing relations with the US. Abbas Abdi, the reformist chief of one of the polling agencies, was arrested after the poll's release, only to be freed from prison in the past couple weeks.
Like political groups, government polling by the intelligence and other official ministries can be fallible. Mr. Khatami was the surprise victor of a landslide vote in 1997. During the 2000 parliamentary elections, secret government polls showed Rafsanjani - a two-time president - rated among the top five most popular candidates in Tehran. On election day, however, he placed 30th, or lower, on the list.
Such dramatic, last-minute turnarounds raise the stakes for politicians in Iran, who are couching their campaigns to broader trends in Iranian society. That means taking the unequivocal mandate for change as the framework.
"Even conservative candidates have come to realize that an anti-US, anti-West platform will not win them votes," says Mr. Sadjadpour.
Mr. Qalibaf, the hard-line former police chief, is "portraying himself as a Top Gun Tom Cruise," adds Sadjadpour. "The posters are all bright and colorful, with positive messages about the future, not dark revolutionary messages about Islam and martyrdom."
Critics are not sure if the shifting rhetoric will last after the campaign. A cartoon in a liberal newspaper last week illustrated the dynamic. It showed an unshaven hard-line candidate who shaves and adorns a flowery shirt - symbolic of young people who do not buy into the Islamic system - for a campaign poster. After the vote, the candidate is unshaven and even more sour.
"Even the most hard-line candidates are promising good weather, a fresh atmosphere, and freedom in every field," says analyst Saeed Laylaz. "They criticize the regime much more than Reza Pahlavi [son of the pro-West Shah, toppled by the 1979 Islamic revolution] or the [armed anti-Iran] mujahideen," says Mr. Laylaz. "This is democracy!"