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Debates

Iranian elections 2009

15 Jun 2009 09:20

The candidate preferred by the media doesn't always get elected. This probably explains why the elections in Lebanon saw much rejoicing in the West for the success of the so-called pro-Western 'moderates', even though the electoral system massively discriminates against one (largely anti-Western) religious group — the Shi'a.

One week later, the return of a staunchly anti-Western presidential candidate in Iran provokes howls of outrage from the press because it was against what most Western media pundits had forecast (and hoped for).

'We write Mousavi, they read Ahmadinejad.' 

I am not for one moment implying that Iran's presidential elections were completely fair (the subjective approval of potential presidential candidates by the Council of Guardians being a significant impediment to true freedom of choice), but the media frenzy over the authenticity of the results does smack a bit of an unwillingness to countenance the fact that Iranians may have voted contrary to the way that Western media outlets expected them to.

So-called 'liberal' candidates supported by evocative sound-bites from English-speaking university-educated Tehranis appeared as proof that Ahmedinejad's days were numbered. A poorly performing economy and Ahmadinejad's propensity for aggressive foreign policy faux pas were cited as reasons why all right-minded voters would show him the door at this election. [fold]
 
But as this article illustrates, Iran is made up of more than young Tehrani university students. And the fact that the depth and breadth of common Iranians' revulsion at the rule of the Shah took many in the West by surprise in 1979 does lend weight to the fact that it is very easy to make interpretive errors through generalisations based on a small sample. 

I am in no way saying that the results were free from irregularities (as Juan Cole points out) but I think official reactions from Western governments are the most appropriate — accepting an Ahmedinejad win and urging on him to act responsibly on the nuclear issue and regional peace talks while referring claims of voting irregularities back to the Iranian authorities or referring to them obliquely.
 
It struck me that the demonstrations of opposition supporters I could see on TV, while subject to aggressive security force responses, were tiny compared to the election rallies, let alone any anti-government rallies 30 years ago. I also remember being in Isfahan in 1997 when Iran beat Australia to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, and having to walk from my hosts' house to my hotel because every Iranian in possession of a car had decided to stop and celebrate, clogging the roads until the early hours of the morning. 
 
Iran is a funny place, and both massive voter fraud or overwhelming support for an economically unsuccesful ultra-nationalist President are equally believable. What is real, though, is the fact that the West will have another four years of Ahmedenijad's presidency to deal with. And that, rather than accusations of voting irregularities, is what will be exercising the minds of Western Iran-watchers for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Flickr user John McNab, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

15 Jun 2009 10:57

What a difference an election makes. And I'm not talking about Iran's contested effort, but the one Australia conducted in late 2007. Before that poll, then-Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd was ready to take Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the International Court of Justice for inciting genocide.

Yesterday, it seems, Prime Minister Rudd would not even countenace the possibility of electoral irregularities in Iran, treating the re-election of Ahmadinejad as a fait accompli. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has yet to make a statement about the poll.*

Rodger Shanahan regards this as an 'appropriate' response. But why the rush? Yes, the clerical establishment and security forces will probably win the day over any popular movement, but why pull the rug out from under the feet of the reformists so early? US Vice-President Joe Biden's recent statement suggests the US is yet to make up its mind about the validity of the poll, and it's hard to see how it could harm Australia's interests for us to do the same.

Perhaps Rudd had no real plan when he made his statement, and he was just badly briefed about the Iranian election.

* Smith gave an interview to ABC TV this morning, in which he refused to say directly that Australia recognises the election result. Good. (Thanks to Scott for the correction.)

COMMENTS

15 Jun 2009 13:53

My colleague Rodger Shanahan argues that the election result shows that observers outside Iran, and Iranians who parse the country for the outside world (few of whom would have been Ahmadinejad voters), underestimated Ahmadinejad’s support and were engaged in wishful thinking.

He points to what is often called the 'north Tehran syndrome', where Western observers extrapolate their view of the country as a whole from interviews with middle class, English-speaking inhabitants of the capital’s up-scale neighbourhoods. This was true in the 2005 election, but as this blog post from Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation makes clear, at least one Western journalist did leave north Tehran this time around, and found far from uniform support for the incumbent.

Flynt Leverett argues that the margin of victory, while surprising, makes it unlikely that the usual forms of vote tampering that often take place in Iranian elections, and which might swing at best a few million votes, had been used to rig the election result. 

True. But it does not rule out that hardliners in the regime did not so much rig the election result as ignore it altogether, announcing their own results, which were then confirmed (rather more speedily than usual) by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Gary Sick and Juan Cole have already posted circumstantial evidence for this thesis, arguing that there has been, in effect, an internal coup. Three streams of evidence are to my mind compelling in favour of this thesis: [fold]

  1. By Iranian standards, the election result was announced by the Ministry of Interior very quickly (with an few hours of polls closing, as opposed to usually about 24 hours) and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei even more quickly thereafter (about 24 hours rather than the more usual three days later). The fact that all three challengers are contesting the result, and not just the margin, is significant. Remember, these guys are not busted-arse oppositionists, they are prominent and respected members of the regime, including in Rezai’s case, from its conservative wing.
  2. The election results as officially reported by the state-controlled media and Interior Ministry, both controlled by the incumbent, gave Ahmadinejad a fairly uniform vote across Iran, despite the fact that in past elections there have been significant ethnic and regional variations. In fact, according to these figures, all three challengers, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai, lost the vote in their home towns, respectively, Shabestar, Aligoudar and Masjed-Soleiman, which is surprising by the standards of previous Iranian elections. 
  3. If Ahmadinejad won by the landslide suggested by the official figures, why the heavy and orchestrated security response as polls closed? Reports from different sources have referred to concrete barriers being thrown up around the Interior Ministry, security forces heavily deployed (we don’t know what was happening in other parts of Iran), senior reformist figures being detained, Facebook and other social messaging networks being blocked, SMS communications shut down, patchy mobile phone coverage and heavy filtering of the internet.  A number of reformist newspapers were shut down and restrictions were placed on the Western media, including foreign journalists being told that their visas would not be extended.  

As I have already implied, none of this is a smoking gun and it might still be true that the West will just have to ‘lump it’.  But if this is what the circumstantial evidence points to, then it is very significant, for Iran and for the international community’s dealings with the country. I will post on why shortly.

Photo by Flickr user Yahya Natanzi, used under a Creative Commons license.

COMMENTS

15 Jun 2009 16:43

In my previous post I presented circumstantial evidence suggesting that something much more irregular than usual occurred in Iran’s weekend presidential election. We may never know for sure what happened, though what transpires over coming days and weeks, especially what occurs to key figures like former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani as well as the candidates from this election, will give greater or lesser credence to the theory of a coup.

Since the revolution, the regime has relied on imperfect, unfair but reasonably competitive elections to demonstrate its popular legitimacy. If hardliners have carried out a coup, then someone has decided they no longer need legitimacy and can rely on coercion. They may well be right, at least in the short term.

As has been widely reported, there have been outbreaks of mass protest in Tehran, with a few reports of demonstration elsewhere as well. Some of these protests seem quite large, as shown in this YouTube footage, though on its own this is probably not going to trouble the regime security forces much. 

 

More interesting is what happens inside the regime. To understand this we need to understand who has undertaken the coup (again, if that is what has occurred). To my mind there are two possibilities, with some variations between them: [fold]

  1. Ahmadinejad, his supporters in the regime and the Revolutionary Guard preempted the election result, presenting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with a fait accompli that he was not prepared to countermand. This theory rests on the assumption that Khamenei is not as strong as people assume. Faced with a choice between backing the military and a younger generation of revolutionaries around Ahmadinejad (that would keep Khamenei around as a figurehead), versus the old guard around his some-time rival, former President Rafsanjani, Khamenei chose the former.
  2. The other possibility is that this has been instigated by the Supreme Leader himself or someone close to him. This theory rests on the thesis that the Leader is using this opportunity to purge the regime of old guard figures like Rafsanjani, as well as regime reformists, perhaps fearful the election was going to once again strengthen their hand. The Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani are the direct heirs of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s power has been slipping in recent years, he is the one figure in the regime who could potentially take on the Supreme Leader in the right circumstances. 

If it is the first scenario, then there may be a way back for Rafsanjani and Musavi, if the former can convince the Supreme Leader to change his mind in some face-saving way. If it is the second scenario, then Rafsanjani, Musavi and those aligned with them in the regime may have no way back, at least using the avenues available to them within the regime. This leaves the intriguing, but much less likely possibility of Musavi and possibly Rafsanjani going outside the system and placing themselves at the head of some form of popular movement against the regime — so far, all Musavi has called for is continued peaceful protests against the result.

If there has been a coup, and if it does succeed in purging the regime of more pragmatic and reformist figures, then predicting decision-making within the regime will suddenly get a lot more straight-forward. After Khomeini’s death, the regime developed a number of power centres, whose competition for influence often paralysed decision-making – including on issues such as relations with the US. The regime may now become a lot more internally cohesive, but I will explain tomorrow why this will make Obama’s efforts at diplomacy with Iran a lot harder.

COMMENTS

18 Jun 2009 10:12

The author has served as a foreign official in Iran.

We can be sure of very few things about the recent unrest in Iran, but one thing we know is that we aren’t seeing the full picture. Foreign media has been restricted from reporting freely on the demonstrations. For fear of losing their broadcast licence — and hence their ability to report at all out of Iran in the future — they are, with immense frustration, toeing the line. This means that we are left with Facebook updates, Tweets and YouTube videos to see what is really going on.

Judging from what I’ve seen from videos and photos sent to me from friends in Tehran, the violence is serious. What is less clear is how widespread this is. You only have to look at the photos of the vengeful beatings administered by the basij — the regime’s thuggish volunteer militia — to see that almost everyone on the receiving end has a raffish, gelled haircut and brightly coloured clothes. 

Attempts at fashion are the preserve of the North Tehrani elite. Until we see ordinary Iranians in dull, colourless clothes and unfashionable moustaches burning motorbikes, we can surmise that this unrest is limited in participation, and therefore most likely in duration too.

That the protests have lasted this long is surprising. The regime does not lack the ability and the willingness to shut down the demonstrations more forcefully. Clearly, they fear the repercussions of doing so.

This hesitation — and the climbdown represented by the Guardian Council’s announcement that some results will be recounted — is invigorating to the reform movement. In this respect, what has not been said is as revealing as what has been said. The fact that Mousavi has been able to get away for so long without calling for an end to the demonstrations — a demand that has presumably been made of him in no uncertain terms by the regime — shows the degree of strength he feels he has.

He won’t be able to get away with it for much longer. The point has been made, though, and when normal life resumes, Iranians — including the regime — will know that open dissent lies closer to the surface than they thought last week. 

Photo by Flickr user misterarasmus, used under a Creative Commons license. 

COMMENTS