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What Actually Happened in the Iranian Presidential Elections?

To characterize the struggle in Iran as a battle between democratic forces and a “dictator” is to exhibit total ignorance of Iran’s internal dynamics or to deliberately distort them. There is no doubt that there is a significant segment of Iranian society, concentrated around major metropolitan areas and comprising many young people, that passionately yearns for social freedoms.

Since the June 12 Iranian presidential elections, Iran “experts” have mushroomed like bacteria in a Petri dish. So here is a quiz for all those instant experts. Which major country has elected more presidents than any in the world since 1980? Further, which nation is the only one that held ten presidential elections within thirty years of its revolution?

The answer to both questions, of course, is Iran. Since 1980, it has elected six presidents, while the US is a close second with five, and France at three. In addition, the US held four presidential elections within three decades of its revolution to Iran’s ten.

The Iranian elections have unified the left and the right in the West and unleashed harsh criticisms and attacks from the “outraged” politicians to the “indignant” mainstream media. Even the blogosphere has joined this battle with near uniformity, on the side of Iran’s opposition, which is quite rare in cyberspace.

Much of the allegations of election fraud have been just that: unsubstantiated accusations. No one has yet been able to provide a solid shred of evidence of wide scale fraud that would have garnered eleven million votes for one candidate over his opponent.

So let’s analyze much of the evidence that is available to date.

More than thirty pre-election polls were conducted in Iran since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main opponent, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, announced their candidacies in early March 2009. The polls varied widely between the two opponents, but if one were to average their results, Ahmadinejad would still come out on top. However, some of the organizations sponsoring these polls, such as Iranian Labor News Agency and Tabnak, admit openly that they have been allies of Mousavi, the opposition, or the so-called reform movement. Their numbers were clearly tilted towards Mousavi and gave him an unrealistic advantage of over 30 per cent in some polls. If such biased polls were excluded, Ahmadinejad’s average over Mousavi would widen to about 21 points.

On the other hand, there was only one poll carried out by a western news organization. It was jointly commissioned by the BBC and ABC News, and conducted by an independent entity called the Center for Public Opinion (CPO) of the New America Foundation. The CPO has a reputation of conducting accurate opinion polls, not only in Iran, but across the Muslim world since 2005. The poll, conducted a few weeks before the elections, predicted an 89 percent turnout rate. Further, it showed that Ahmadinejad had a nationwide advantage of two to one over Mousavi.

How did this survey compare to the actual results? And what are the possibilities of wide scale election fraud?

According to official results, there were 46.2 million registered voters in Iran. The turnout was massive, as predicted by the CPO. Almost 39.2 million Iranians participated in the elections for a turn out rate of 85 percent, in which about 38.8 million ballots were deemed valid (about 400,000 ballots were left blank). Officially, President Ahmadinejad received 24.5 million votes to Mousavi’s 13.2 million votes, or 62.6 per cent to 33.8 per cent of the total votes, respectively. In fact, this result mirrored the 2005 elections when Ahmadinejad received 61.7 per cent to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 35.9 per cent in the runoff elections. Two other minor candidates, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezaee, received the rest of the votes in this election.

Shortly after the official results were announced, Mousavi’s supporters and Western political pundits cried foul and accused the government of election fraud. The accusations centered around four themes.

First, although voting had been extended several hours due to the heavy turnout, it was alleged that the elections were called too quickly from the time the polls were closed, with more than 39 million ballots to count. Second, these critics insinuated that election monitors were biased or that, in some instances, the opposition did not have its own monitors present during the count. Third, they pointed out that it was absurd to think that Mousavi, who descended from the Azerbaijan region in northwest Iran, was defeated handily in his own hometown. Fourth, the Mousavi camp charged that in some polling stations, ballots ran out and people were turned away without voting.

The next day, Mousavi and the two other defeated candidates lodged 646 complaints to the Guardian Council, the entity charged with overseeing the integrity of the elections. The Council promised to conduct full investigations of all the complaints. By the following morning, a copy of a letter by a low-level employee in the Interior Ministry sent to Supreme Guide Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, was widely circulating around the world. (Western politicians and media outlets like to call him “Supreme Leader”, but no such title exists in Iran.)

The letter stated that Mousavi had won the elections, and that Ahmadinejad had actually come in third. It also promised that the elections were being fixed in favor of Ahmadinejad per Khamenei’s orders. It is safe to assume that the letter was a forgery since an unidentified low-level employee would not be the one addressing Ayatollah Khamenei. Robert Fisk of The Independent reached the same conclusion by casting grave doubts that Ahmadinejad would score third – garnering less than 6 million votes in such an important election – as alleged in the forged letter.

There were a total of 45,713 ballot boxes that were set up in cities, towns, and villages across Iran. With 39.2 million ballots cast, there were less than 860 ballots per box. Unlike other countries where voters can cast their ballots on several candidates and issues in a single election, Iranian voters had only one choice to consider: their presidential candidate. Why would it take more than an hour or two to count 860 ballots per poll? After the count, the results were then reported electronically to the Ministry of the Interior in Tehran.

Since 1980, Iran has suffered an eight-year deadly war with Iraq, a punishing boycott and embargo, and a campaign of assassination of dozens of its lawmakers, an elected president, and a prime minister from the group Mujahideen Khalq Organization. (MKO is a deadly domestic violent organization, with headquarters in France, which seeks to topple the government by force.) Despite all these challenges, the Islamic Republic of Iran has never missed an election during its three decades. It has conducted over thirty elections nationwide. Indeed, a tradition of election orderliness has been established, much like election precincts in the US or boroughs in the UK. The elections in Iran are organized, monitored, and counted by teachers and professionals including civil servants and retirees (again, much like the US).

There has not been a tradition of election fraud in Iran. Say what you will about the system of the Islamic Republic, but its elected legislators have impeached ministers and “borked” nominees of several presidents, including Ahmadinejad. Rubberstamps, they are not. In fact, former President Mohammad Khatami, considered one of the leading reformists in Iran, was elected president by the people, when the interior ministry was run by archconservatives. He won with over 70 percent of the vote, not once, but twice.

When it comes to elections, the real problem in Iran is not fraud but candidates’ access to the ballots. (A problem not unique to the country, just ask Ralph Nader or any other third party candidate in the US.) It is highly unlikely that there was a huge conspiracy involving tens of thousands of teachers, professionals, and civil servants that somehow remained totally hidden and unexposed.

Moreover, while Ahmadinejad belongs to an active political party that has already won several elections since 2003, Mousavi is an independent candidate who emerged on the political scene just three months ago, after a 20-year hiatus. It was clear during the campaign that Ahmadinejad had a nationwide campaign operation. He made over sixty campaign trips throughout Iran in less than twelve weeks, while his opponent campaigned only in the major cities, and lacked a sophisticated campaign apparatus.

It is true that Mousavi has an Azeri background. But the CPO poll mentioned above, and published before the elections, noted that “its survey indicated that only 16 per cent of Azeri Iranians will vote for Mr. Mousavi. By contrast, 31 per cent of the Azeris claim they will vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad.” In the end, according to official results, the election in that region was much closer than the overall result. In fact, Mousavi won narrowly in the West Azerbaijan province but lost the region to Ahmadinejad by a 45 to 52 per cent margin (or 1.5 to 1.8 million votes).

However, the double standard applied by Western news agencies is striking. Richard Nixon trounced George McGovern in his native state of South Dakota in the 1972 elections. Had Al Gore won his home state of Tennessee in 2000, no one would have cared about a Florida recount, nor would there have been a Supreme Court case called Bush v. Gore. If Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards had won the states he was born and raised in (South and North Carolina), President John Kerry would now be serving his second term. But somehow, in Western newsrooms, Middle Eastern people choose their candidates not on merit, but on the basis of their “tribe”.

The fact that minor candidates such as Karroubi would garner fewer votes than expected, even in their home regions as critics charge, is not out of the ordinary. Many voters reach the conclusion that they do not want to waste their votes when the contest is perceived to be between two major candidates. Karroubi indeed received far fewer votes this time around than he did in 2005, including in his hometown. Likewise, Ross Perot lost his home state of Texas to Bob Dole of Kansas in 1996, while in 2004, Ralph Nader received one eighth of the votes he had four years earlier.

Some observers note that when the official results were being announced, the margin between the candidates held steady throughout the count. In fact, this is no mystery. Experts say that generally when 3-5 per cent of the votes from a given region are actually counted, there is a 95 per cent confidence level that such result will hold firm. As for the charge that ballots ran out and some people were turned away, it is worth mentioning that voting hours were extended four times in order to allow as many people as possible the opportunity to vote. But even if all the people who did not vote, had actually voted for Mousavi (a virtual impossibility), that would be 6.93 million additional votes, much less than the 11 million vote difference between the top two candidates.

To characterize the struggle in Iran as a battle between democratic forces and a “dictator” is to exhibit total ignorance of Iran’s internal dynamics or to deliberately distort them. There is no doubt that there is a significant segment of Iranian society, concentrated around major metropolitan areas and comprising many young people, that passionately yearns for social freedoms. They are understandably angry because their candidate came up short. But it would be a huge mistake to read this domestic disagreement as an “uprising” against the Islamic Republic, or as a call to embark on a foreign policy that would accommodate the West at the expense of Iran’s nuclear program or its vital interests.

Nations display respect to other nations only when they respect their sovereignty. If any nation, for instance, were to dictate the United States’ economic, foreign, or social policies, Americans would be indignant. When France, under President Chirac, opposed the American adventure in Iraq in 2003, some US Congressmen renamed a favorite fast food from French Fries to “Freedom Fries”. They made it known that the French were unwelcome in the US.

The US has a legacy of interference in Iran’s internal affairs, notably when it toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. This act, of which most Americans are unaware, is ingrained in every Iranian from childhood. It is the main cause of much of their perpetual anger at the US. It took 56 years for an American president to acknowledge this illegal act, when Obama did so earlier this month in Cairo.

Therefore, it would be a colossal mistake to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs yet again. President Obama is wise to leave this matter to be resolved by the Iranians themselves. Political expediency by the Republicans or pro-Israel Democrats will be extremely dangerous and will yield serious repercussions. Such reckless conduct by many in the political class and the media appears to be a blatant attempt to demonize Iran and its current leadership, in order to justify any future military attack by Israel if Iran does not give up its nuclear ambition.

President Obama’s declarations in Cairo are now being aptly recalled. Regarding Iran, he said, “I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”

But the first sign of respect is to let the Iranians sort out their differences without any overt – or covert – interference.

About Esam Al-Amin

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  • Zain

    Great article!

  • Fatimeh12345

    Very thorough analysis. I’ll just add that another reason for Ahmadinejad to win in the Azarbijani provence is that he served in office in that region for 8 years and speaks fluent Azari – and makes good use of this fact during his campaigning.

  • minimadmonkey

    Still, I think there is a lot of negative publicity that Iran will probably get for the time being because of the widely propogated videos of people getting beaten, and even killed.
    There is the very real question of why so much force was used to put down the demonstrators. It is sort of counter-intuitive. But even then, I admit, the violence is significantly less than what would have happened in another country, thats for sure.

  • Iran2009

    I think that complaints need to be addressed and that the members of the Guardian council, such as Janaati should not have come out in support of Ahmadinejad during campaigning, as this raised many eyebrows. Also, I don’t think that Mousavi would have gone through all this if there wasnt some serious concern over what had happened, neither would Khatami, who is a respectful individual. I hope the situation is resolved, and although there are many points in this article I disagree with, the last few statements about USA staying out of this is something I have to agree with and commend the author for this statement.

  • Long Live Iran

    Excellent Article!!!! depicts the Iranian election situation 100%. Great Job Esam!!!

  • Irfan

    Loved the article!!
    We need to spread it as much as possible, most people are looking at it in a very negative way.
    Well written, and keep up the good work!

  • Mohammad88

    I have been tortured by the iranian regime and it helped me to “discover” about the real actions and ways they are using to achieve their political goals.
    I am not believing anymore at the “pure” religious intention of the iranian regime.
    It is something “normal” and “standard” for the iranian regime to cheat on votes and to “modify” results.
    May Allah accept our intentions

  • Iman

    Let’s say (for the sake of the argument) there was a fraud. Let’s assume (for 1 stupid second) there was a manipulation. Even so, there is the constitution, pre designed channels of complain and control. It’s not the rule of jungle (!!) No one has the right to violate the rules and trespass others rights based on assumption and guess. The phrase: “We believe so and so, hence it is true, has neither any logic nor a democratic ground”
    I saw the comment from my dear friend “Iran 2009” writing against Mr. Jannati support of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Although in a perfect utopia I had to agree 100% but:
    1) In the type of world we live in, every person has the freedom of choice and hence can be pro or against a candidate
    2) Being a supporter or against a particular candidate is no proof, of being an arrogant individual who will allow himself to manipulate the votes which are “Amanah”.
    In this sense one can be a supporter of a particular candidate, express his support and yet be a Moumin and trustworthy
    There are other points as well:
    A) If one doesn’t trust the system at all, WHY does he become a candidate within that very system??!! And if he does recognize the system HOW can he skip and reject it.
    B) Worst case scenario, if one doesn’t respect the regime and the governing system still he has no right to attack, disrespect, harm and dishonor others. Setting public property on fire, accusing people…are few examples of such
    In response to the comment “Mohammad 88” please note that: No one ever claimed that the “Islamic Republic” is a perfect manifestation of the Pure Islam. It is our effort towards the real Islam which unfortunately is not out of mistake or error. There were/are and will be elements within the regime that no matter what prefer their personal affairs over the original aims and targets. But this is nothing specific to Iran. Didn’t the people disobey our holy prophet (pbuhf) in MANY occasions?? Although I don’t know why or how Mr. /Ms. “Mohammad88” was tortured but still it is possible. The problem though is when we generalize such an act to the ideology behind the regime. It’s not the person who matters, it’s the message.
    Let’s pray for all of us, all humanity not to be stimulated by anything but God.
    Allahoma Sale Ala Mohammad Wa Ale Mohammad

  • Joe

    excellent article.

  • IWpower

    We did what we needed to do and that was to weaken the Mullahs and Ahmadinejad dictatorship in Iran by using the 2009 election. This dictatorship is on its way out and Iranians will have their Freedom and their country back within the next two to three years. We really didn’t care if Musavi won or lost and as matter of fact Mousavi’s lost was our gain. What this dictatorship did after the election showed what a lie this Islamic Dictatorship really is. What Iranians did during this uprising forced the whole world to take a look at what a corrupted government can do under the Islam umbrella.

  • Ibrahim

    Is it ok for me to go to Iran and start a newspaper that covers deep and thorough analysis of the lack of human rights in Iran ?

    I also wonder if its ok to build a church and bring with me some of the opressed christian minorities in Iraq.

    No ? Wonder why…

  • .

    who said that newspapers in Iran don’t cover human rights issues in the country? Either you are ignorant or just trying to throw mud.

    Is it ok to build a church in Iran? Actually, I don’t know. I do know they already have churches which are recognized by the state and its no big deal. The same is true for synagogues. Bahais have a lot more to complain about than Christians.

  • Joshua Zelinsky

    This article ignores the fundamental problem. The voting totals show statistical anomalies. This has nothing to do with the prior poll data. The supposed precinct data doesn’t fit Benford’s Law and various similar laws. There’s no way of explaining that other than large scale election fraud. It might very well be that Acheminejad would have won even without that, but it is clear that substantial tampering occurred.

  • Ali is Justice

    In the Name of Allah
    At this point it is quite obvious that there was wrongdoing in the election process in addition to the brutal way in which security forces cracked down on demonstrators, even attacking them in their University dorm rooms. Your defense of this regime is deplorable and removes any credibility that your site may have had. I suggest you come to terms with reality and realize that clerics are just as capable of lying and thievery as American and Israeli officials. Even outspoken critics of American aggression and espionage in the Middle East like Noam Chomsky have noted that the election was far from regular. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sk04v2yq4PQ )

    Please stop spreading lies and refrain from indoctrinating Muslim youth to believe in the innocence of the Islamic Republic just as young Jews are brainwashed into complacency in criticizing Israel.

  • reason

    Brother “Ali is justice”, first of all, you are beginning in the name of Allah, but you are being completely out of line by saying “I feel sorry for you”. You owe the many volunteers, many of who have differing views not only but Iran but other things as well, an apology.

    I see no “defense of this regime” in the above article. You come across as one of those people who would argue that being against the war on Iraq is an act of support of Saddam. It is not fair to say that just because someone is against aspects of western media coverage of the Iran election — which does not look very different in quality from that of the US reporting on the war on Iraq — that they are a supporter of Iran. That you are calling the II team liars simply for pointing this out, is highly ironic from someone who begins in the name of Allah and calls himself “Ali is Justice”.

    Take one aspect of the coverage of Iran’s election. Although there were plenty of interviews with Moussavi supporters, how many interviews did you see with basijis who supported Moussavi? Much less difficult to do but still virtually non-existant, how many interviews did we see with AN supporters? Did we see any condemnation of Moussavi supporters destroying public and private property across Tehran? You seem far more interested in indoctrination than the author of the article above! You are no one to judge. Get off your high horse and open your eyes. It is odd to say the least that The Guardian can have a Wall of Shame in support of Moussavi’s supporters who were brutally killed, but not for people of any other unrest or uprising, or that Tehran Bureau can send out reporters across Iran’s capital before the election and not find a single Ahmedi supporter.

    There is plenty of blame to go all around both inside Iran from Ahmedi’s supporters as well as Moussavi’s supporters, not to mention outside interests looking to inflame the situation. Recognizing that the western media has not taken all claims to task and has taken sides looks like a much bigger act of indoctrination than any little article published on a site like Islamic Insights!

  • reason

    In the last para, it should have said that the fact it is NOT being recognized smacks of indoctrination.

  • PinkMuslimah

    assalamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah
    I certainly hope that in future Islamic Insights will refrain from casting itself wholly in one direction or the other concerning the governments of foreign countries. I would hate to see this fine blog decide for the rest of us which countries or which political parties have the backing of Allah, or which reports are reliable and which are false. At the very least, it should be possible to publish political views which are dissenting, as most major newspapers do.

    That an editorial such as this was posted to the “News” section is very disappointing.