Let us begin by acknowledging that Iran is a complex society with an unusually opaque political system. Few outsiders genuinely understand the place. That makes understanding the country’s presidential campaign – and interpreting the events of the last 24 hours – particularly tricky.
As designed by the Ayatollah Kohmeini three decades ago the system of veliyat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurists, consists of broadly democratic political institutions that are overseen and regulated by clerics. The clerics are charged with preserving the system’s adherence to the norms of Shia Islam as they, the clerics, define it. The system is built around the theory that a properly educated and religiously observant populace will, by its nature, choose the ‘right’ candidates when given an opportunity to do so. Should they fail to do so religious authorities are standing by to ‘correct’ their choices.
In practice this means running for office requires the approval of the Council of Guardians, a committee of leading clerics that vets aspiring politicians and prevents those deemed insufficiently committed to the system and its ideals from appearing on the ballot. This vetting process has long been the main hurdle anyone labeled a “reformist” had to overcome. This time around, for example, 475 people applied to run for president. The Council approved four.
The conventional wisdom, however, has long been that if one could get past the Guardian Council and secure a slot on the ballot the actual vote, while far from perfect, was relatively clean. More than anything else it is this assumption that has been challenged over the last 24 hours.
Anyone paying attention to CNN, the BBC or even Fox over the last week or two will have noticed reports about the extraordinary excitement generated by this election – Iran’s 10th presidential vote since the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. The broad storyline here in the West has been about the reformist former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi generating huge excitement, particularly among young people, in his bid to deny President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad a second term. Conventional wisdom has long held that one of the reasons Ahmedinejad was elected in the first place was because younger voters and cynics among the educated elite did not bother to vote back in 2005. With Tehran’s international reputation in tatters many appeared determined not to make that mistake again. The campaign rallies were huge. Televised debates (a first for Iran) reportedly attracted audiences of 40 million, which works out to around 85% of the potential electorate. Opinion polls showed Mousavi competitive with Ahmedinejad or even in the lead. There was talk that he might even avoid a run-off (scheduled to take place next week if no candidate got 50% in the first round). Turnout for Friday’s vote was widely reported to be heavy, with voting extended for several hours to accommodate the crowds.
Late Friday night Mousavi claimed victory. But within two hours of the polls closing state-run media announced that Ahmedinejad had won reelection by a 2-to-1 margin. The Interior Ministry (which runs the election) announced Saturday that the incumbent garnered just under 63% of the vote to Mousavi’s 34%. Mousavi is crying foul, but any hope that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might intervene was dashed Saturday when he issued a statement calling on all Iranians to support their newly reelected leader. Street protests described as the worst in a decade have broken out in the capital, Mousavi has not been seen in public and rumors are flying every which way.
Broadly speaking, there seem to be three scenarios for what is unfolding in Iran.
Scenario One: Ahmedinejad and his supporters stole the election, plain and simple. The revolutionary old guard felt threatened by the reformists so it rigged the vote to guarantee a conservative victory. As is usual in such cases there are rumors of ballot boxes stuffed, of precincts reporting numbers completely at variance with what poll watchers observed, etc., etc. From this perspective it appears that there was never a real campaign, and the outcome was always foreordained. Robert Dreyfuss’ excellent dispatch today in The Nation includes an interview with former Iranian foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi in which a number of election irregularities are outlined. It is all standard dictatorship fare. This scenario sees the outcome, in effect, as a reassertion of power by the Supreme Leader and the religious old-guard. There is, however, another way of looking at things…
Scenario Two: There has been a coup. Ahmedinejad and the security services have taken over. The Supreme Leader has been preserved as a figurehead, but the structures of clerical rule have effectively been gutted and are being replaced by a National Security State. Reports that facebook, twitter, text messaging and foreign TV broadcasts have been blocked, that foreign journalists are being expelled and that large concrete roadblocks (the kind that require a crane to move) have appeared in front of the Interior Ministry all feed a sense that what we are now seeing was pre-planned. Underlying this is the theory that Ahmedinejad and the people around him represent a new generation of Iranian leadership. He and his colleagues were young revolutionaries in 1979. Now in their 50s they have built careers inside the Revolutionary Guard and the other security services. They may be committed to the Islamic Republic as a concept, but they are not part of its clerical aristocracy and are now moving to push the clerics into an essentially ceremonial role. This theory in particular seems to be gaining credibility rapidly among professional Iran-watchers outside of the country. Then again…
Scenario Three: Ahmedinejad won. Really. At moments like this it is easy to forget that Tehran is not Iran. Foreign media tend to congregate in capitals and, in any case, the Iranian security services do not make it easy for foreign journalists to travel outside of Tehran. Please note I am not pushing this theory, only saying it merits consideration. This article from Saturday’s Guardian makes especially interesting reading.
Four years ago Ahmedinejad was elected because the rural and urban poor bought into his populism. In the years that followed he showered his rural base with road-building, electrification and water projects. Moreover, is it so hard to believe that the antics which cause educated Iranians to cringe and westerners to recoil in horror might inspire in ordinary Iranians (particularly those who live outside the capital) a feeling of pride at seeing their president stand up for the nation and confront its enemies? If the career of George W. Bush taught us anything it ought to have been that being loathed by foreigners and the local elite can be good for one’s political fortunes at home.
So was it stolen? Are we watching a coup? Or did Ahmedinejad actually win? A decent case can be made for any and all of these scenarios and it is far too soon to say how the situation on the ground is going to play out.