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.



13/06/2009 22:18

It's quite a shock to me that no mainstream US news sites are covering this in detail. Thank you for what looks to be a restrained informative opinion on what is actually going on in Iran right now.

14/06/2009 00:05

"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."

Good article...up to that gratuitous remark. You saying Bush got elected in 2004 for being loathed by foreigners? Not only wrong, but American voters are probably the least concerned voters about foreign loathing or praise. The need for foreign approval is a small American elite hangup.

Oswald von Wolkenstein
14/06/2009 13:58

nice article -- @ Jason -- in fairness to Gordon, you should recall that a big part of 2004 campaign revolved around, on the one hand, the Kerry camp claiming that Bush's unilateralism alienated the U.S. from it's allies and on the other hand, the Bush camp claiming that George W. Bush was a leader who put America's interests first and wasn't going to let foreign power's dictate foreign policy -- and Bush won. I think that was Gordon's point on that.

14/06/2009 14:09

Is there a possibility that the situation may be a bit of scenarios one and two?
Perhaps the Supreme Leader and his cronies rigged the vote while Ahmedinejad and his political allies decided to stage a more direct coup?
Ahmedinejad and Khamenei are not exactly friends, after all, I can easily see them not coordinating their actions while each acted to prevent a result they did not want using the tools they had.

14/06/2009 16:32

Just to put in my few bits, I had actually traveled to Iran to cover the elections. The Western media was couped up in a Tehran hotel and they saw what they wanted to see. Mousavi surpporters held rallies outside these hotels all through the night, creating the impression that he was the favourite. Unfortunately, if the Western journalists had been prudent enough to walk down a few blocks from their hotels, they would have seen the true picture. There was not a sighn of the so-called Mousavi wave. And it's funny how the Western media blames the "government" for violent repression. I thought it was the Mousavi supporters who were staging violent protests. The police, I believe, are expected to stand by and watch, let them burn up Tehran? Sounds a bit odd, even by Western duplicity.

15/06/2009 00:49

@ Amir: My parents and brother still live in Iran and they and some of my friends have told me about the Pro-Mousavi rallies. Tehran according to them was swept up by the "green wave". If you don't believe check out youtube footage. And about violent protests, again check out youtube and see how the rallies were disturbed by the armored, motorcycle-riding policemen wielding truncheon!

15/06/2009 02:37

For some statistical analysis, check out hat Juan Cole has to say about the likelihood of vote fraud.


15/06/2009 19:06

I'm going for all three! It was rigged, Ahmedinajad is taking advantage of the protests to expand his power, and he won anyway, probably by a narrower margin.

16/06/2009 07:31

i live in iran- tehran , i saw after election what happened here, all the people that were disagree with ahmadinejad came to streets and Basijis and police hit them n killed some too. 2 nights ago they came to chamber of students of theran university n killed 5 , all the news thet u see from tv r right, but here very sites r filtering and iranian dont know what is happening in tehran, tabriz, shiraz n all the big cities, we believe that it wasnt election it was selection, we r never agree with ahmadinejad n his cimes, yesterday(15th of jun) we gather in street we didnt say any slogan it was a gathering with silente , more that 2 million people gather in street , i hope u saw all the news, today we wants to gather again but ahmadinejad wants his fans come out n hit people, now we canceled all the gathering , we never burn any places they were basijis who burn banks n killed people, i hope u can say all the world about iran, here isnt any democracy.

23/06/2009 09:37

thank you for this enlighting article

24/06/2009 14:30

This is the best analysis I have read so far of what "might" be going on. Thank you for being fair and informative.

26/06/2009 13:36

WOW! Thank you for this assessment of what is going on. You are straightforward and get right to the heart of the matter. You also show all sides which is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

12/08/2009 20:20

I guess I was sleeping under a rock and thinking everything in the world was ok. Today my co-worker walked in my office and was wearing a green wrist band and I made a joke about it not knowing the back ground on why he was wearing it, he then asked me to look up a video called NEDA, I was really upset at my self and I think I apologized 100 times too him. I felt very sad and sick to my stomach and realized that I take for granted so many thing in my day to day life. After reading this I can only say one thing and that’s I'm sorry to the people of iran.

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