Has the Election Been Stolen in Iran?

By Stephen Zunes · 15 Jun 2009

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Picture: Faramarz & Shahran Sharif
Picture: Faramarz & Shahran Sharif

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading Stephen Zunes follow up article: "Iran's Stolen Election Has Sparked an Uprising -- What Should the U.S. Do?" There's also this superb must-read article by M K Bhadrakumar from Asia Times Online "Beijing Cautions US Over Iran." The article is extremely valuable for its demystification of internal Iranian politics and how the US consistently misreads this.


It is certainly not unprecedented for Western observers to miscalculate the outcome of an election in a country where pre-election polls are not as rigorous as Western countries, particularly when there is a clear bias towards a particular candidate. At the same time, the predictions of knowledgeable Iranian observers from various countries and from across the political spectrum were nearly unanimous in the belief that the leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi would defeat incumbent president  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decisively in yesterday’s presidential election, certainly in the runoff if not in the first round.  This also appeared to be the assumption among independent observers in Iran itself.

So overwhelming were the signs of imminent Ahmadinejad defeat and so massive was the margin of his alleged victory, the only reasonable assumption was that there has been fraud on a massive scale.  What polls did exist showed Mousavi leading by a clear majority and Ahmadinejad well under 40%, a margin roughly similar to what most analysts had suggested based on anecdotal evidence.  Instead, the official results show Ahmadinejad winning by an overwhelming 63% of the vote.

The unmistakable political trend in Iran in the past four years has been toward greater liberalism and moderation, particularly with the addition of millions of new younger voters who are overwhelmingly disenchanted with Ahmadinejad’s ultra-conservative social policies and failed economic policies.  The very idea that he would do substantially better than he did in the election four years ago, therefore, is ludicrous at face value.  Indeed, in municipal and other elections held over the past couple of years, Ahmadinejad’s preferred slates lost heavily to moderate conservatives and reformers.

Ahmadinejad won a tight presidential race four years ago campaigning as an economic populist, gaining wide support among the poor for his calls for reducing inequality and fighting endemic corruption.  However, his administration has been at least as corrupt as his predecessors, his economic policies have resulted in high inflation and high unemployment, and he has been ruthless is suppressing labor unions, such as the bus drivers strike in Tehran.  As a result, his popularity has plummeted, making the idea of substantially greater popular support today particularly questionable.  

There are also more direct indications of fraud.

In past elections, there have been substantial variations in the vote of various candidates based on ethnicity and geography, but the official results show Ahmadinejad’s vote totals being relatively uniform across the country.  Mousavi, an Azeri from the province of Azerbaijan who has been quite popular there, did poorly, according to official results.  This is particularly striking since even minor candidates from that area had done disproportionately well in previous elections.  Similarly, Mehdi Karoubi, the other reformist candidate and an ethnic Lur, supposedly fared poorly in his home province of Luristan.  Nationally, Karoubi went from 17% in the 2005 election to less than 1% this year with no apparent reason for such a precipitous decline.  Meanwhile, the much-despised Mohsen Rezaie, the other hardline candidate, allegedly got twice as many votes.

Among the most implausible part of the official results is the claim that Ahmadinejad won a clear majority in the capital of Tehran.  In reality, most knowledgeable observers have estimated that he has the support of barely half the population in his stronghold in the southern part of the city while he is overwhelmingly despised elsewhere in that city of 12 million.  Had Ahmadinejad somehow been able to eke out a legitimate victory, it would have come from the rural areas, not urban strongholds of the opposition like Tehran and Tabriz.

Iran's Electoral Commission, rather than waiting the customary three days before having the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei certify the results of the election, instead had Khamenei approve the alleged results immediately, presumably as early returns showed the likelihood of a substantial Mousavi victory.  While in previous elections the results were announced by each voting district, which would allow at least some degree of follow-up regarding their validity, this time the results were announced only at the citywide of provincial level.  Already, Interior Ministry employees are beginning to speak out about witnessing the fabrication of phony vote totals.

The electoral system under the Islamic Republic has always been tightly controlled to the point that the Guardian Council pre-screened potential candidates for what they considered to be appropriate adherence to their theocratic order.  However, within that rather limited range of legitimacy, previous elections were deemed relatively free and fair.  This massive fraud, then, is unprecedented.  Indeed, as security forces seized newspapers and other media election night to ensure the fraud would not be reported and government has shut down much of the country’s electronic communication, Iranians spoke in terms of what appears to be nothing less than a internal coup.  

While there is much to criticize about U.S. policy towards Iran over the years as well as the double-standards of the U.S. government regarding election-rigging and autocratic rule among its allies, there should be no denial that yesterday’s presidential election in Iran involved fraud on a massive scale. 

The stealing of the Iranian presidential elections is a dream come true for American neo-conservatives and others pushing for a more confrontational approach with Iran.  It is imperative that we not allow the hard-liners of either country an illegitimate victory and give our support to Iranian democrats in their struggle to reclaim their country.

By Stephen Zunes. Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.

This article was originally published by Alternet. SACSIS cannot authorise it republication.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/301.1.

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