Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Was Iran's Election result rigged?

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Update from AIJAC

June 16, 2009
Number 06/09 #06


As readers are probably aware, there were two major events in the Middle East over the weekend - Iran's election, which led to a landslide victory to the radical incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid widespread accusations of massive fraud and large-scale street demonstrations, plus Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's significant speech at Bar Ilan University on his approach to peace. This Update will deal with the former; the next will concern the latter.

On the Iranian election, it is interesting to note that Ehud Yaari, Israel's leading journalistic expert on the Middle East, made a prediction on Friday. He said that, given his electoral base, the main challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, might possibly eke out a narrow majority of the vote over Ahmadinejad. However, given the endorsement of Ahmadinejad by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mousavi would never be allowed to take power. If necessary, Yaari added, the election would be rigged, something the Iranians know quite well how to do. These words seem pretty prophetic at this juncture. 

First up, we bring you former New York Times journalist Judith Miller, now at the Hudson Institute, who assembles the evidence being put forward for fraud, and the views of numerous experts on Iran. The majority agree that large-scale fraud seems highly likely, however, she also looks at the possibility, favoured by some of those she canvassed, that the results are genuine - and points out that this also leads to worrying conclusions. Finally, she looks at the policy implications of the return of Ahmadinejad - and argues that the results clearly make US President Obama's plans for attempting to negotiate a solution to Iran's nuclear crisis more difficult. For her views, and the many other experts she canvasses, CLICK HERE. Miller refers to a list of evidence for fraud compiled by Gary Sick and Juan Cole - it is here. Another excellent summary of expert opinion on the Iranian election comes from Foreign Policy magazine. A summary of international political responses is here.

Next up is a perspective on the meaning of the election outcome from a remarkable Iranian analyst, Mehdi Khalaji, who obtained a doctorate in Islamic Jurisprudence at the Iranian holy city of Qom before becoming a journalist and eventually moving to the West in 2000. He argues that this election result can essentially be seen as a military coup, and that it "is a turning point in Iran's domestic and foreign policies that the West cannot ignore." He makes the case that to achieve the West's foreign policy goals in the Middle East, support for Iranian democracy is important. For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. For those who haven't seen it in today's Australian, Iranian exile journalist and writer, Amir Taheri agrees that what happened in Iran amounts to a military coup, and calls attentions to some of the alarming Persian language statements coming out of the election that have received relatively little attention in Western media. Plus, a story about 'Magic Ballots" from an Iranian dissident still in Iran

Finally, Barry Rubin takes issue with those arguing that essentially, the election is an internal Iranian matter and shouldn't affect the West's dealings with this regime. He argues that the point is not simply that the regime has blatantly torn up the democratic rules, but that it has done so in order to entrench in power the most extreme and aggressive faction of the regime. He says this not only gives the lie to claims that the regime behaves cautiously and moderately in practice,  but is likely to intoxicate the extremists with their own power, making them even less likely to compromise. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Iran expert Michael Rubin goes further and argues that the Iranian election result suggests current US policy is not working.

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Iran’s Fishy Election Is Trouble for Obama

By Judith Miller
Writer/Scholar, The Manhattan Institute

Fox Forum blog, June 14th

There are two equally appalling explanations for what happened in Iran’s presidential elections on Friday:  Either the election was stolen, or it wasn’t. Either scenario leads to the same conclusion: This is a truly sad day for Iran.

But it also confronts President Obama and others who oppose the hard-line clerics who have run the country (into the ground) since its revolution 30 years ago with a painful choice.

It is still possible, though unlikely, that 62.6 percent of Iran’s eligible voters may have spurned the pragmatic, reformist policies of former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the anti-Semitic, economically incompetent, Holocaust-denying president.

The election may indeed have reflected widespread support, especially among the old, the rural, and the poor for Ahmadinejad’s hateful, hard-line positions. While depressing, that is the view of a minority of Iran watchers who have weighed in with over 100 posts on Gary Sick’s awesome Web site, Gulf 2000, since the polls in Iran closed.

One of them, Flynt Leverett, a former State Department critic of the Bush administration who supports diplomatic engagement with Teheran, argues that Ahmadinejad’s alleged 62.6 percent margin of victory is “essentially indistinguishable from the 61.69 percentage he received in the second round of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former president Rafsanjani.” Similarly, while not discounting the possibility that the election was stolen, Deborah Campbell, a veteran Canadian journalist, urges us to remember “how strong is the conservative and rural sector in Iran (where Ahmadinejad was greeted as one of their own in the last election)” and how few journalists venture out of the wine-sipping, Facebook-watching, text-message sending confines of the capital, and of Northern Teheran, in particular, where those who inhabit the wealthy flats and villas nestled in the mountain overlooking the capital breathe, figuratively and literally, freer air.

“At moments like this,” conceded Middle East analyst Gordon Robison, (MideastAnalysis.com) who still believes that the election was probably stolen, “it is easy to forget that Teheran is not Iran.”

But a majority of those who published posts on Gulf 2000, on Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish,” and on Trita Parsi’s site, the National Iranian American Council’s “Insight,” which translates many of the Iranian Facebook and Twitter feeds from Farsi into English, smelled a rat in the election outcome.
 
Scholars Gary Sick and Juan Cole cite several indications that the ruling clerical clique denied Mousavi and his young “green wave” supporters a hard-fought electoral victory in what amounted to a veritable political “coup d’etat,” or a palace revolution within Iran’s ruling elite. Near the polls’ closing time , Sick and Cole noted, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide and security forces poured into the streets. Hours later, Facebook, YouTube, and other social networking systems were also blocked. Unlike previous elections, the Interior Ministry, which runs the election, failed to breakdown the vote by province, which would have helped observers assess its credibility. Moreover, the voting patterns that the government announced were identical in all parts of the country — an impossibility — Cole asserts. Writing in the New York Post, Amir Taheri noted that Ahmadinejad allegedly beat each of his three challengers in their own hometowns. Although the government was supposed to wait to examine complaints of irregularity before announcing a victor, the state-run media pronounced Ahmadinejad the winner less than two hours after the polls closed. On Saturday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blessed that verdict by declaring Ahmadinejad’s alleged victory, ludicrously, a “divine assessment.”

Predictably, Mousavi, the defeated reformer, cried foul and urged the powerful Guardian Council to annul the results. By Sunday, a Persian Web site was reporting that Mr. Mousavi himself –- along with other reformist leaders –- was under house arrest.

While the regime has not previously hesitated to tamper with election results at the margin, what would have caused the senior clerics to panic to such an extent as to intervene so brazenly and fabricate elections results so clumsily?

That, too, remains unclear. The mullahs, after all, had already manipulated the contest to ensure that Ahmadinejad would not face serious opposition. The unelected 12-member Guardian Council, which represents the senior mullahs’ interests and hence, holds real power, had disqualified 470 would-be candidates, including 42 women, even before the race began. Iran’s election was supposed to be a show — a carefully orchestrated shadow play in which Iranians complained about their deteriorating economic conditions and stultifying political repression and chose among carefully vetted, Islamicly  correct candidates who would perpetuate clerical rule.

So, if it turns out that the aging clerics stole the election, they must have felt genuinely threatened by the belated, but massive outpouring of “Mousavi-mania,”  especially among those under 30 — which includes 70 percent of Iran’s population. Though Mousavi, a former prime minister and founder of the revolution, never challenged the political system, he was promising reform, a softer tone, and ambiguous “engagement” with the West. And although the aptly named “supreme leader” Khamenei, not the Iranian president, makes decisions about pursing nuclear weapons and other national security issues, the ruler’s clique must have been terrified that the popular tide was finally turning against them. Perhaps they were rattled by the electoral victory of the pro-Western “March 14 coalition” over the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Perhaps the warm reception for President Obama’s speech to the Muslims, offering engagement and a new beginning, denied them the cudgel of anti-Americanism that has previously served the regime so well.

Despite its belligerent rhetoric and aggressive covert actions, the clerics must clearly have felt embattled. As Iranian author Reza Aslam argues, while many Western critics see Iran as an aggressive rogue state intent on expanding its power throughout the region, the regime itself feels beset by internal and external foes, particularly America, whose forces now encircle them in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Afghanistan.

But if the clerics stole the race, they may have badly miscalculated. At very least they will have outraged their internal and external critics and given opponents cause to deny the Islamic republic’s legitimacy. If they resist President Obama’s engagement –- should he choose to continue pursuing that course — pressure for serious, crippling economic sanctions is likely to grow. If, on the other hand, the clerics try to defuse the uproar against them by seizing the diplomatic initiative and offering to engage Washington in talks, they will enter such negotiations on the defensive. Permitting user-friendly Mousavi to have been the benevolent, smiling face of this oppressive regime might have eased domestic pressures at home and assuaged naïve critics abroad. Retaining Ahmadinejad, who never saw an outstretched hand he did not want to bite, is likely to weaken Iran’s credibility over time. The bar for any deal with Teheran, could well be higher now. But this is what the clerics probably wanted.

Much depends on understanding what has happened in Teheran. Now more than ever, President Obama must not appear over eager to engage Iran after what may turn out to have been a rigged election. Unless Iranian fury touches off sustained nation-wide protests that destabilize the 30-year old Islamic regime — an unlikely scenario since the mullahs and the military have the guns –- Obama will find his administration engaging a regime whose duly, or unduly elected president holds views that the president himself, in his now-famous Cairo speech to Muslims called “baseless,” “ignorant,” and “hateful.”

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Khamenei's Coup

Mehdi Khalaji

Washington Post, June 15, 2009

Large-scale manipulation of Friday's presidential election in Iran was to be expected, but few could have predicted that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had a military coup in mind. By declaring incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, Khamenei conveyed a clear message to the West: Iran is digging in on its nuclear program, its support to Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, and its defiant regional policies.

In the streets of Tehran and other major cities, riot police, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij militias are battling reformist demonstrators who are protesting the results. The government has cut Internet connections and cellphone service and jammed foreign satellite TV and radio broadcasts. Most foreign journalists in Iran to cover the election were expelled after the voting ended. More than 100 leaders of the reform movement have been detained so far, and others are under what amounts to house arrest.

Even though Khamenei asked the candidates not to dispute the results, a reformist group called the Council of Militant Clerics, led by former president Mohammad Khatami, apologized to the people for not being able to protect their votes and asked the government to overturn this result and hold new elections. In statements Sunday, two of the presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, asked people to continue their "nonviolent demonstration" throughout the country and criticized the government for using violence against demonstrators.

More than 80 percent of Iranian voters turned out primarily because Ahmadinejad's three challengers succeeded in mobilizing Iran's silent majority, especially in the two weeks before the election. All three warned explicitly about the risks of Ahmadinejad's domestic and foreign policies. Although Ahmadinejad enjoys the support of Iran's powerful supreme leader, in the final two weeks before the election all reputable polls inside and outside of Iran showed that Ahmadinejad's popularity had decreased significantly -- particularly following televised campaign debates -- even in rural areas and among the urban working class.

Ahmadinejad took office four years ago through an engineered election. This time Khamenei announced -- before the official Interior Ministry count had been issued -- that Ahmadinejad had won more than 24 million votes, surpassing even the record set by Khatami 12 years ago.

Mousavi and Karroubi have called the announced results "ridiculous." Mousavi said Sunday that invalidating the election is now the only way to restore the people's trust. The Iranian supreme leader's post-election statement, in which he described a "people's epic" through a "completely fair and free election," did not prevent shocked followers of reformist candidates from rioting over the weekend to chants of "down with the dictator."

The challengers also asked people to go to the roof of their homes and shout "Allah is great," a slogan that reminds people of the 1979 revolution. Mousavi has invited protesters to gather this afternoon on Enghelab Square in Tehran; gatherings are expected in more than 20 other cities.

The current social solidarity and political unity in Iran is unprecedented since the revolution. Banners, headbands and signs in green, the color of the anti-Ahmadinejad movement, were prominent before the election and are still on display. No one can predict where this situation will lead and whether Khamenei's nightmare of a "velvet revolution" will come true.

Earlier this year, in his message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (Nowruz), Barack Obama became the first U.S. president since the hostage crisis to address "Iranian leaders" and the "Islamic Republic" rather than the Iranian "regime." The Obama administration had been careful not to take any position that could be seen as supporting a particular candidate in the Iranian election. Obama's Iran team was surely watching the decreasing support for Ahmadinejad and waiting to see what would happen. While Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and leaders of the Palestinian Hamas and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movements were among the first to congratulate Ahmadinejad, people everywhere, certainly including in Iran, expect the United States to speak out.

This military coup is a turning point in Iran's domestic and foreign policies that the West cannot ignore. The U.S. reaction in particular is meaningful not only for Iran's democratic movement but for all democrats in Islamic countries who suffer under autocratic governments. In coordination with European and other nations, the United States should respond to the message being sent by Iran's supreme leader by condemning the election and backing the Iranian people's demand for a free and fair revote under the supervision of international observers.

Iran's people have a living memory of U.S. involvement in the 1950s coup against the government of Mohammed Mossadegh. They expect the Obama administration not to make the same mistake at this crucial time in U.S.-Iranian relations by recognizing the coup carried out under the cover of this election.

It will be easier to bring an end to Iran's controversial nuclear program and defiant foreign policy working with a democratic Iran rather than the military government that is in power. Iranian society will not forget this historic moment and is watching to see how the free world reacts.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the domestic policy of Iran as well as the politics of Shiite groups in the Middle East. He is the author of Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy.

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Iran: Yes, Stealing an Election and Imposing Ahmadinejad Is Rather Significant

Barry Rubin

GLORIA, June 14, 2009

Many Western analysts and journalists are treating the stolen election in Iran as something of no international significance. After all, they say, it is only an internal matter. Why should it affect Western attempts to engage with the Islamist regime?

If we hadn't been previously conditioned by so many crazy ways to view Middle East politics this alone would be a shocker. True, in international affairs one has to deal with many dictatorships and national interests sometimes require putting aside one's repugnance at repression.

(Though, by the way, are we now going to see efforts at academic boycotts and nonstop human rights' denunciations of Iran in the manner apparently reserved for democratic Israel?).

Let me put it this way. I certainly expected Ahmadinjad to win but figured the regime would play out the game. He'd either genuinely gain victory in the second round or they'd change just enough votes to ensure his victory. What no one expected is that the regime would tear up the whole process like this. Their brazen way of doing so--if you don't like it you can go to hell, we're going to do whatever we want, and we don't care what anyone thinks--signals to me that this ruling group is even more risk-taking and irresponsible than it previously appeared.

This is the key point: the problem with Iran's regime isn't just that it is a dictatorship, it's that it is such an extremist, aggressive dictatorship.

The only logical explanation for why the regime did this is that Ahmadinejad's opponents got so many votes that it frightened the regime. It also shows that the regime is wedded to Ahmadinejad and his approach.

Is a regime that just committed itself irrevocably to the most extreme  faction, most radical ideology, and most repressive control over the country going to compromise with the West on nuclear weapons or anything else?

Of course not, like Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Syria's rulers in the 1970s, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and many examples elsewhere in the world) it is going to use foreign adventurism and mobilizing hatred against the West and Israel to consolidate its hold on the country.

Remember all those people who've said that Iran can be entrusted with nuclear weapons because the regime was so cautious in practice and its rhetoric should be disregarded?

And there's more. It isn't just a stolen election but the imposition by the ruling group of the most extreme, adventurist, nuclear-weapon waving, Holocaust-denying candidate. I would have been pleased if either of the two less radical candidates had won, not because they are super-moderate but that would have signalled a government less likely to go (or blunder) into war or use nuclear weapons.

Again, though, the significance of events in Tehran is the triumph of both the most extreme elements of the regime and of the advocate of the most far-out policy. Can any sane person think this group--intoxicated in the belief they are winning victories everywhere and will win more in future--is going to compromise with America and Europe?

Remember, too, before taking this step, the regime's leaders calculated they had nothing to lose internationally. What could that mean except that they hadn't planned on making nice with the West in the first place and also that they don't take Western pressure--at a time when there's so much talk of engagement, apology, and appeasement in the air--as a serious threat?

So now are we going to see an all-out effort to conciliate with the Islamist regime which has just signalled its intentions in the clearest possible terms? For goodness sake, is there truly no limit?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/

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