The 12th of June 2009 saw Iran’s tenth presidential election get underway with Iranians turning out in record numbers. As someone who decided to vote in one of the many polling stations made available for expats across the world, I can say that in the scenes I witnessed, the excitement was palpable; we all felt we were on the cusp of a potential leap forward in the ongoing and painstaking struggle for reform in Iran. While we remained cognizant of the constitutional and political constraints upon the Iranian presidential office, we felt there was great potential for a transformation of Iran’s image and place in the international order, prospects for economic growth and prosperity and of course, the future of women’s rights campaigners and human rights activists at home.
Estimates claim that 80-85% of the eligible electorate participated in what Tehran University Professor, Sadeq Zibakalam called “a big “no” to Ahmadinejad!” and thus by implication a break with the policies pursued by the hard-line president over the course of the last four years which have seen Iran’s international isolation increase and inflation and unemployment soar. Two, in many respects, irreconcilable visions for Iran’s future (at least at the domestic level) were presented by the two frontrunners, though it should not be forgotten that only the incumbent president out of the four presidential hopefuls, continues to maintain that the country’s present course is on the right track. The other conservative candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, had been unrelenting in his criticism of Ahmadinejad’s economic record and even went so far as to claim Ahmadinejad’s government had brought Iran to the “edge of the precipice”. The anti-Ahmadinejad coalition had and continues to have a broad base, with reform-minded politicians, pragmatic conservatives, university students, women, and ethnic minorities, at least for the time being, united in their opposition to a common foe.
Many turned out for the very first time to vote. Some simply wanted to be rid of Ahmadinejad and his government, others remained faithful to the Reformist cause, and finally many erstwhile supporters were simply disillusioned with the president’s failure to deliver on the many promises he made. His crack down on civil liberties and for many, perhaps more importantly, economic mismanagement has provoked inflation to climb to 23% and unemployment to over 17%. Ahmadinejad has enriched some segments of the population with cash handouts, but this has proven to be merely a transient phenomenon, especially in light of the Iranian economy’s unabated battle with inflationary pressures.
In the aftermath of former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, the pre-eminent reformist politician leaving office, the Iranian electorate became increasingly cynical and apathetic – the decisive transformations of Iranian society and Iran’s standing in the world had not been forthcoming and as a result many youthful voters lost faith in the power of the reformist movement, though many continued to stoically carry on.
Analysts to some extent agree that such apathy and the lower voter-turnout which was its direct consequence allowed a populist-demagogic vacuum to open up, in which the long-neglected rural and urban poor and lower-middle classes turned to “one of their own” in order to remedy the rampant corruption and narrow the gap between the richer and poorer segments of Iranian society. Serious doubts have been raised even about this electoral victory, in which the Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Mojtaba Khamenei, son of the Supreme Leader, and the Basij, Ahmadinejad’s most fervent constituency were said to have orchestrated the latter’s electoral victory, in which he narrowly defeated the former Speaker of Parliament and 2009 presidential candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, to run in the second round against, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad, of course, went on to win the second round.
The anger that now rages on the streets of Tehran, Mashad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Rasht and across the entire country is a response to Friday’s optimism, which was dashed in heartbeat. The depth of anger, a volcano on the verge of eruption is the result of these self-same individuals “buying into” the idea that “people-power” enshrined in the principle of “republicanism” would have the final say – this principle constitutes an important, though subordinate part of the Iranian Constitution and an integral part of the 1979 Revolution’s legacy.
The founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini famously said that “The measure is the nation’s vote” (mizan rai-ye mellat ast). Irrespective, of who said it, there is little doubt that this principle was flagrantly pushed aside when Ahmadinejad was declared the victor with some 63.29% of the total votes cast.
Many prominent commentators, including former Revolutionary Guard, Reformist journalist turned political analyst/dissident in exile, Mohsen Sazgara, world-renown film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and a host of other prominent individuals have said what has taken place over the last couple of days inside Iran is nothing short of a coup d’état. The events of the last couple of days can moreover, be situated in the context of a longstanding trend in which we have witnessed the growing militarization and securitization of Iranian politics.
At present, there is no getting away from the counter-argument that much of the evidence for electoral tampering is circumstantial. The evidence, however, leaves us nonetheless with compelling grounds for just such an assertion. Prior to the election, experts and indictors were pointing to a Mousavi win, if not in the first round, then most certainly in the second round, in which Mousavi in all likelihood would be forced to run-off against the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Initially there were sporadic reports that opposition observers were barred from entering some voting stations. Officials from the Mousavi campaign also alleged that a number of stations in the northwest and south had run out of ballots.
The speed with which the results were announced has concerned many, especially since it breaks with existing protocol, in which the Interior Ministry is supposed to wait three days until it certifies the final outcome, thereby providing an opportunity for all potential disputes to be properly resolved. In a matter of hours after polls closed, Sadeq Mahsuli, Minister of the Interior, former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and Ahmadinejad confidante, was announcing the results. The obvious question presents itself: how were millions of paper ballots counted in mere hours after polls closed?
Even the manner in which votes were announced was a strange deviation from standard practice. Instead of announcing the votes province by province or city by city, the results were released in counted batches of five million!
Moussavi, who is an ethnic Azeri, assiduously cultivated the minority vote (approximately 49% of the Iranian electorate). We also know from previous elections that Iran’s minorities are wont to vote reformist or not vote at all. According to the results released by the Interior Ministry, Mousavi was beaten by Ahmadinejad in his hometown of Tabriz, where he had addressed massive crowds in Azeri, to great applause. Similarly, in Loristan, from which both Mehdi Karoubi and and Mousavi’s wife hail, Mousavi and Karoubi were both beaten by Ahmadinejad. No wonder virtually every political analyst has been left scratching his or her head.
Mousavi’s formidable wife, the academic and public intellectual, Zahra Rahnavard, worked tirelessly at the very forefront of his campaign in a bid to appeal to women voters. With her husband, she addressed thousands upon thousands of supporters, on the importance of women’s rights, the rule of law and social justice, even going so far as to pledge the dissolution of the morality police, who stalk Iran’s city streets hauling in those who dare deviate from the strict dress code. On the basis of anecdotal evidence, the Iranian and foreign press, there is little doubt that both Mousavi and Karoubi had the overwhelming support of women voters.
And how are the authorities to account for the some 110 reformist politicians and activists who were rapidly scooped up and arrested, with no word as to where they were being taken and when they would be released? These figures include Mohsen Mirdamadi of the Islamic Participation Front of Iran (who has since been released), Behzad Nabavi of the Party of the Islamic Mojahedin, and even the former president’s brother, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, who at the time of writing has also been released.
In the wake of the election results announcement, a slew of Reformist websites, as well as SMS messaging via mobile, were blocked as part of a clearly orchestrated media/communication blackout. The reformists campaign headquarters were also surrounded by security forces. All this surely adds up to more than mere “circumstantial evidence” or banal “coincidence”.
As Professor Muhammad Sahimi, one of the most astute Iran pundits presently covering the election has demonstrated the results declared by the Interior Ministry are themselves indicative of electoral fraud:
To quote Sahimi:
“a perfect linear relation between the votes received by the President and Mir Hossein Mousavi has been maintained, and the President’s vote is always half of the President’s. The vertical axis (y) shows Mr. Mousavi’s votes, and the horizontal (x) the President’s. R^2 shows the correlation coefficient: the closer it is to 1.0, the more perfect is the fit, and it is 0.9995, as close to 1.0 as possible for any type of data.”
Moreover, “[s]tatistically and mathematically, it is impossible to maintain such perfect linear relations between the votes of any two candidates in any election — and at all stages of vote counting. This is particularly true about Iran, a large country with a variety of ethnic groups who usually vote for a candidate who is ethnically one of their own.” This would be amongst the most compelling and tangible evidence that has thus far come to our attention.
Nader Uskowi, another Iran-watcher has claimed that sources inside the Interior Ministry have given word to him that Mousavi was in fact the real winner of the election with some, 19,075,623 votes or 52% of the votes cast, while Ahmadinejad lagged behind with 13,387,104 or 37% of the total votes cast. Mousavi’s early declaration of victory was apparently due to a tip-off by a Ministry of Interior official.
Obviously, much of this information is difficult to confirm and may never be “forensically” verified. We can only hope for further leaks of the sort which have been coming out of official circles.
The Principalist Wave
On the 14th of June Ahmadinejad decided to offer a show of strength by inviting his supporters to attend a “victory rally” in the centre of Tehran. Many of those in attendance were said to have been bused in from the provinces, and many others were members of the paramilitary militia, the Basij, which is said to number some 2 million countrywide.
The Supreme Leader’s confirmation of the election results was also remarkably swift, which has added fuel to the fire of people’s suspicions regarding the Leader’s own complicity in a plot to bring Ahmadinejad to power for another four year term.
Former president and current head of the Expediency Council (Majma’ Taskhis-e Maslahat-e Nezam) and Assembly of Experts (Majlis-e Khobregan), Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader warning of vote-rigging and the potential for disorder if the people’s will were cast aside. Hindsight has proven his prediction correct, and yet his letter remained unanswered. We are obviously not privy to whether discussions took place behind closed doors. But in light of Ayatollah Khamenei’s swift confirmation of the election’s results, we can surmise that Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s exhortations didn’t make much of an impression.
If we are correct in assuming that a coup is in fact what has taken place, it should be viewed as part of a broader trend in which the Islamic revolution’s third generation, in tandem with the Supreme Leader, have done their utmost to entrench their hegemony at the expense of those who preceded them.
Ahmadinejad’s all too public denunciation of this “old-guard” e.g. Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Nateq-Nouri, has caused quite a rift within the ruling elite of the Islamic Republic and thereby led to a temporary coalition between pragmatists and reformists.
Another “prong” of the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei “silent revolution” is the erosion of the “republican” element of the Constitution by which elected bodies of the Islamic Republic derive their legitimacy from the people’s vote. I say “elected bodies” because we ought to bear in mind that according to the Constitution, sovereignty does not ultimately reside with the people, but with God and moreover, all three branches of government are subordinate to the principle of “the supreme rule of the jurisconsult” (velayat-e faqih). The Supreme Leader and his office oversee, supervise and issue executive orders in the judicial, legislative and executive spheres. He also has ultimate authority over the armed forces and the many parastatal organs of the state, e.g. the bonyads or foundations, through which he can bring further influence and pressure to bear.
The vibrant nature of the debate which preceded the election re-energized the voting-public, and the Supreme Leader’s alleged failure to play the role of honest broker have created a dangerous cocktail which if not channeled appropriately may well gain a momentum and life of its own, beyond the control of even the slighted candidates.
A Case of “Northern Tehran Syndrome”?
There has been some stern criticism in the Western media regarding the lack of transparency and numerous anomalies which blight this election, yet some journalists and pundits have put down the “unexpected” character of the Ahmadinejad win down to Western observers’ “northern Tehran syndrome”. This criticism alleges that Western journalists are guilty of restricting themselves to the most affluent areas of Iranian cities while paying scant attention to those rural and lower-income areas which go to make up Ahmadinejad’s power-base.
While this syndrome has been present in some of the more superficial reporting, in the final analysis, such an explanation just doesn’t hold water. Not only in light of the many glaring stated aberrations which have marred this election, but more importantly the fact that Iran’s society is overwhelmingly urban (70%), many of whom voted for the previous reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
A Self-Inflicted “Legitimacy Crisis”?
The massive irony of this episode is the self-inflicted wound cum “legitimacy crisis” and the growing polarization of Iranian society and even the governing elite. When the Iranian electorate chose to vote on such a massive scale, they were accepting the constitutional parameters postulated by the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is common knowledge that Iran’s presidential candidates and MPs are vetted by an unelected body, the Guardian Council (Shura-ye Negahban) and that the incumbent president by means of his powers of patronage has an asymmetrical advantage with respect to his opponents, but within such parameters it was expected that the election itself would be fair and transparent. When it became apparent that neither of these was the case, and the fraud perpetrated so vast, the gap between people’s sense of moral/ethical propriety and the events which in fact transpired has led hundreds of thousands to vent their frustration by means of peaceful protest.
Moreover, Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and Saafi Golpaygani are reported to have already called the election results suspect, with Sanei going as far as to declare Ahmadinejad’s victory illegitimate and cooperation with the incumbent president haram i.e. prohibited under Islamic law. The predominantly reformist Association of Combatant Clerics and even the conservative Society of Teachers of Qom Theological Colleges have called for an immediate investigation into the allegations of electoral fraud. Given that vociferous opposition to Ahmadinejad’s “victory” is even emanating from the Iranian bastion of religious conservatism, it looks like Ahmadinejad has very few places left to turn.
Due to the unparalleled protests taking place, even the Supreme Leader, who was so swift to endorse the election results, has since met with Mir-Hossein Moussavi and stated that former Prime Minister should pursue his grievances within the bounds of the law – this is quite different from the curt dismissal many of us expected. If Iran’s most important dissident Grand Ayatollah, Hossein Ali Montazeri, chimes in with the sentiments voiced by Sanei and Golpaygani, the Association of Combatant Clerics, and Society of Teachers of Qom Theological Colleges, the “religious” seal bestowed to the election by the Leader will be decisively debunked.
Notwithstanding, the views of such clerical luminaries, the momentum and power continues to reside with the people, who are letting their grievances be known through non-violent action.
Events are occurring in real-time as I type – the outcome remains uncertain – the Guardian Council has up to ten days to evaluate the fairness and transparency of the electoral process – whether they will return the verdict Mousavi and Karoubi supporters seek i.e. an annulment of the election, is unlikely, but we nevertheless remain hopeful.
 For details see, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, Kasra Naji, I.B. Tauris, 2007
 “New Conservative Politics and Electoral Behavior in Iran, Ali Gheissari and Kaveh-Cyrus Sanandaji, Comporary Iran: Economy, Society, Politics, ed. Ali Ghessari, Oxford University Press, 2009