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Wishful Thinking from Tehran

Rally held for President Ahmedinejad In this election moreover, there were two separate governmental election monitors in addition to observers from each camp to prevent mass voter fraud. The sentimental implausibility of Ahmedinejad’s victory that Mousavi’s supporters set forth as the evidence of state corruption must be met by the equal implausibility that such widespread corruption could take place under clear daylight.

Rally held for President AhmedinejadI have been in Iran for exactly one week covering the 2009 Iranian election carnival. Since I arrived, few here doubted that the incumbent firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad would win. My airport cab driver reminded me that the president had visited every province twice in the last four years – “Iran isn’t Tehran,” he said. Even when I asked Mousavi supporters if their man could really carry more than capital, their responses were filled with an Obamasque provisional optimism – “Yes we can”, “I hope so”, “If you vote.” So the question occupying the international media, “How did Mousavi lose?” seems to be less a problem of the Iranian election commission and more a matter of bad perception rooted in the stubborn refusal to understand the role of religion in Iran.

Of course, the rather real possibility of voter fraud exists, and one must wait in the coming weeks to see how these allegations unfold. But one should recall that in three decades of presidential elections, the accusations of rigging have rarely been levied against the vote count. Elections here are typically controlled by banning candidates from the start or closing opposition newspapers in advance.

In this election moreover, there were two separate governmental election monitors in addition to observers from each camp to prevent mass voter fraud. The sentimental implausibility of Ahmedinejad’s victory that Mousavi’s supporters set forth as the evidence of state corruption must be met by the equal implausibility that such widespread corruption could take place under clear daylight. So, until hard evidence emerges that can substantiate the claims of the opposition camp, we need to look to other reasons to explain why so many are stunned by the day’s events.

As far as international media coverage is concerned, it seems that wishful thinking got the better of credible reporting. It is true that Mousavi supporters jammed Tehran traffic for hours every night over the last week, though it was rarely mentioned that they did so only in the northern well-to-do neighborhoods of the capital. Women did relax their head covers and young men did dance in the street.

On Monday night, at least 100,000 of the former prime minister’s supporters set up a human chain across Tehran. But, hours before I had attended a mass rally for the incumbent president that got little to no coverage in the Western press because, on account of the crowds, he never made it inside the hall to give his speech. Minimal estimates from that gathering have been placed at 600,000 (enthusiasts say a million). From the roof, I watched as the veiled women and bearded men of all ages poured like lava.

But the failure to properly gauge Iran’s affairs is hardly a new phenomenon. When the 1979 revolution shattered the military dictatorship of America’s strongest ally in the region, few experts outside of the country suspected that the Islamic current would emerge as the leading party.

But in Iran, even the secular intellectual Jalal Al-e Ahmad, author of the infamous Occidentosis, predicted the collapse of the regime at the hands of Islamic movement well over a decade before the fateful events of 1979. The maverick French philosopher, Michel Foucault, also made the right bet as he reported the events from the street – an insight that his many admirers still shy from. Since the Revolution, academics, intellectuals and pundits have predicted the imminent collapse of the regime. As of today, they have done no better.

Such anomalies can only be explained by a longue duree. Iran is a deeply religious society. Of the Shah’s mistakes, nepotism, autocracy, and repression were fought by communists and liberals for decades with no success, but it was his attack on the religious establishment that led to his almost overnight demise.

Since then, common Iranians have applied their ideals through the ballot box. In 1997 as the ashes of the Iran-Iraq war settled and the country saw a decade relative stability, voters came out in mass to support the former president-cleric Khatami against his rival, Natiq Nouri, a senior member of the establishment. Western reporters saw this in terms of a grand generational divide: young freedom loving liberals against elder conservative clerics. But it was really a vote for the ideal of honesty and piety against allegations of entrenched corruption. Many of those same Khatami supporters voted for Ahmedinejad yesterday, despite the fact that Khatami’s face was on every one of Mousavi’s campaign posters.

For over a week, the same social impulses of anti-corruption, populism, and religious piety that led to the Revolution have been on the streets available to anyone who wanted to report on them. Ahmedinejad, for most in the country, embodies those ideals. Since he came into office, he has refused to wear a suit, refused to move out of the home he inherited from his father, and has refused to tone down the rhetoric he uses against those he accuses of betraying the nation. When he openly accused his towering rival, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a lion of the revolution himself, of parasitical corruption and compared his betrayal to the alleged deception against the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) that led to the Sunni-Shia split 1,400 years ago, he unleashed a popular impulse that has held the imagination of the masses here for generations. That Rafsanjani defended himself through Mousavi’s newspaper meant the end for the reformists.

In the last week, Ahmedinejad turned the election into a referendum on the very project of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Their street chants yelled “Death to all those against the Supreme Leader” followed by traditional Shia rituals and elegies. It was no match for the high-spirited fun-loving youth of northern Tehran who sang “Ahmedi-bye-bye, Ahmedi-bye-bye” or “ye hafte-do hafte, Mahmud hamum na-rafte” (One week, two weeks, Mahmoud hasn’t taken a shower).

Perhaps from the start Mousavi was destined to fail, as he hoped to combine the articulate energies of the liberal upper class with the business interests of the bazaar merchants. The Facebook campaigns and text-messaging were perfectly irrelevant for the rural and working classes who struggle to make a day’s ends meet, much less have the time to review the week’s blogs in an internet cafe. Although Mousavi tried to appeal to such classes by addressing the problems of inflation and poverty, they voted otherwise.

In the future, observers would do us a favor by taking a deeper look into Iranian society, giving us a more accurate picture of the very organic religious structures of the country, and dispensing with the narrative of liberal inevitability. It is the religious aspects of enigmatic Persia that helped put an 80-year-old exiled ascetic at the head of state 30 years ago, then the charismatic cleric Khatami in office 12 years ago, the honest son of a blacksmith – Ahmedinejad – four years ago, and the same yesterday.


Abbas Barzegar is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. This article originally appeared in The Guardian and has been republished here with permission from the author.

About Abbas Barzegar

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  • ~55

    finally some real news about what happend……

  • Fatimeh12345

    Good job on this article; summarizes exactly what is going on in Iran.

  • minimadmonkey

    This review makes all the slanted stories in Western media make more sense. Hopefully Obama and Ahmedinijad can make some headway from Bush’s policies…

  • muzafer

    i knew the western media was bias…but this shows its extent. its hard to trust their 24/7 bombardment, thank you for opening my eyes though.

  • Rom

    [b]I’m happy to see that there are some people in this world who wants to get the truth out. Thank you for your honesty. We need people like you.

  • Matthieu

    I find your article biased on many points.

    (1) The challenge of the election result does not pitch Moussaoui against Ahmedinejad, but three out of the four candidates against Ahmedinejad. More than 600 irregularities from 3 out of 4 candidates are serious allegations for a process that should be “fair and transparent”. Additionally, some top clerics in the country challenged this result: ex: Grand Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri: “everybody in their right mind would question this result”.

    (2) There is no transparency whatsoever into how the votes are tallied (by regions, and at the country level), therefore, the ruling establishment in Iran has full discretion to change the results in a massive way without anybody to have a say… except the people (not only Moussaoui ‘s supporters) who filled the street because they fellt their votes was cheated. A true test of the election results would be to recount all the votes. Apparently, this should not take more than one day since the results were published in less than 24 hours. However, it is unlikely this ever happens.

    (3) It is a huge political risk for Moussaoui, a former prime Minister of 8 years under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , and the other candidates part of the establishment to accuse the vote to be riggued. They would not do it lightly if they had no proofs or serious allegations of massive vote frauds.

    (4) The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly went beyond his prerogatives when he immediately recognized Ahmedinejad’s victory and declared it a divine providence less than 24 hours after the vote had ended. According to Iran’s own consititution, the guardian council should have confirmed the result and validated the new president legitimacy within 10 days. The supreme Leader lost a lot of credibility by doing so and clearly aligned with the most extremists of the Iranian regime. Why did he do this?

    (5) To whom would profit the crime if there was a fraud?
    By reading Machiavel, “the Prince”, one understands that absolute powers can corrupt anybody for the sole sake of surviving at the helm of power. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in its power struggle with Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for the supreme leader’s position would have been seriously isolated if Moussaoui (Rafsanjani’s ally) had been elected. He therefore had a vested interest in choosing Ahmedinejad over Moussaoui. I believe this could explain his “strange behavior” to say the least, announcing the election results earlier than anticipated and publicly supporting Ahmedinejad and threatening the opposition leaders if they kep organizing protests marches.

  • Matthieu

    (6) Comparing the size of Pro Ahmedinejad’s supporters and Pro opposition supporters and stating that only 100,000 Moussaoui’s supporters showed up is a gross mis information. According to the mayor of Teheran, 3 million people showed up in the streets of Teheran to support the green revolution. This demonstration dwarfed Ahmedinejad’s supporters. It is not to be denied however, that there are numerous supporters on both sides. More interesting is the comparison of the look of the young supporters. Ahmedinejad’s supporters wear black (woman) or conservative pants and shirts (men). Opposition supporters clearly are more open to fashion and display more colors including of course the green. Two widely different looks contrast with the myth that the Iranian society is united under its austere Religious Leadership. (How many satellites Antennas in Iran?). In a country with 30% youth, high inflation and unemployment, it is hard to believe that there is not an explosive mix for the stability of the country itself, if the religious theocracy does not allow for some level of freedom and economic growth.

    (7) With its confrontation with the west over its nuclear program, Iran is under economical sanctions that have curtailed its growth. For instance, it has become a net importer of refined oil (out of a lack of refineries). This shows how poor the economy is for a country with the 2nd or 3rd largest oil production in the world.

    (8) It is untrue that the opposition just used the internet to spread its words however relevant or irrelevant facebook and twitter may be (they are probably quite relevant for the educated portion of the Iranian youth which will form the future elite of the country). Actually, the Iranian television covered extensively the debates between the candidates which profoundly influenced people in every region of the country. The level of transparency during the debate (and only during the debate, otherwise the official media are profoundly distrusted due to misinformation) was extremely high, and Ahmedinejad was publicly on the defense due to his poor management of the economy, and lack of results on the international front. With its lack of parties structure, the Iranian vote can swing from a candidate to another based on personalities in a matter of weeks in a proportion unheard of in the West elections (where big parties guarantee more stable results along parties lines). Therefore, it is not unbelievable that Moussaoui could have won the vote.

    (9) The “Western misinformation myth”. Why not another semitic complot against Iran? The freedom of information has been curtailed in Iran. This does not facilitate the independent reporting from news organizations and certainly does not help West news organizations to give an unbiased view of the sitation. However, I have been following closely the news delivered by Al Jazzera, http://english.aljazeera.net/ the most independent Middle East News coverage. These guys know the situation in Iran, and on many points reflect what is said in the Western News Organization. This goes a long way to show that the entire world canno’t be false on the Iranian situation if an independent news organization from the Middle East reports along similar lines.

    10) Long story short. The current Regime ‘s legitimacy and prestige in Teheran is at its lowest internally and internationaly. As long as the supreme Leader controls the army, I don t think we will see any changes in the election results (and a palace revolution is extremely unlikely), but the hearts and minds of the population in Iran have certainly changed, and the biggest impact may be how the world will look at Iran in the coming 4 years. As much as there is not a liberal inevitability, there is no longer an Islamic Revolution Hardliners inevitability. Time will go by quickly and then we will be able to say peacefully Ahmedinejad bye bye in 2013 (he cannot represent himself for another term according to Iranian Constitution) . It will be interesting to see if the hardliners will make some concessions in the future to regain the legimacy and prestige they lost in this election with the hope of retaining the power democratically, or if the Regime will throw its mask and become a Religious dictatorship. The latter would not have been desired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran who wanted the power to the People.

  • Paymon

    Matthieu is a perfect example of one who thinks something must be true because he wants it to be true. Was there fraud? Maybe. However, those who WANT to believe that there was fraud have gone around making the claim with only circumstantial evidence. He is clearly one of the sheep-like Twitter “revolutionaries” who didn’t know anything about Iran before the election and still doesn’t, but who flaps their gums off anyway, to no one’s use.