Saturday’s announcement by Iran’s Interior Minister that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote set off a set a wave of violent clashes between protestors and government forces. The upsurge has shaken Iran’s ruling elite and exposed the election as a complete fraud before the world. As of this writing, protests are likely to continue despite the government’s massive crackdown. Incoming reports indicate that cell phone service in Tehran has been cut, thousands have been arrested and 50 protesters are rumored to have been killed. Police stormed the headquarters of Iran ‘s largest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front and arrested several leaders. Facebook reports that Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s chief rival and Mehdi Karroubi are under house arrest. Access to Mousavi’s website has been blocked.
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Manipulation at the margins of Iran’s election results is not new. However, the blatant irregularities and the lengths Iran’s establishment has gone to in order to secure Ahmadinejad’s “landslide” victory in the 2009 elections exceeds of all previous elections. How and why Iran’s clerical rulers and the power ministries controlled by the Revolutionary Guard overreached so badly, and then misjudged the peoples’ reaction to the rigged election is the question? The impact the protests will have on the Iranian establishment’s ability to consolidate power around Ahmadinejad’s tainted election may be far reaching. The shameful election is also a big source of concern that will complicate President Obama’s diplomatic overture to Tehran.
The Iranian ruler’s actions clearly show Ahmadinejad was the consensus pre-election designee. More importantly, they wanted nothing less than a landslide victory to demonstrate to the international community solid national support for their controversial leader. The nation’s elite concluded there was no need to change leadership as Iran has dramatically expanded its footprint across the Middle East over the past four years. Iran is now the undisputed leader of the anti-U.S. Middle East camp which includes Syria , Oatar, Hezbollah and HAMAS. Although Ahmadinejad’s statements denying the Holocaust and his strident anti-Israel rhetoric has earned him the reputation as a pariah in some international circles, the fact is that Iran is much more popular on the “Arab street” than the United States. Notwithstanding Ahmadinejad’s unsophisticated manner, Iran has a reputation of being the only nation that steadfastly defends the Palestinians, and the only Middle Eastern power that consistently delivers the weapons, food, financial assistance and social services supports on time. In fact, an argument can be made that Ahmadinejad’s inflamatory statements serve as useful distraction, that allow the “real work” of Iran pursuing its imperial ambitions to be conducted more effectively below the radar screen.
With President Obama on the defensive in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran ’s leaders are confident they can press ahead with their nuclear enrichment program. Ahmadinejad embodies Iran’s confrontational posture with the U.S. that has pushed America back on its heels. He is also the favorite of the hardcore conservative anti-American Revolutionary Guard, who Ayatollah Khahamei must keep on side to preserve the locus of their ruling partnership with conservative clerics.
Accordingly, the ruling elites did not want a run-off election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, if he failed to win fifty percent of the vote–which apparently was going to happen. Not only would Ahmadinejad look weak, the nation would appear to be divided. As Saturday’s eruption on the streets proved, fixing one election is difficult enough. Rigging two elections in the space of seven days could have a big downside, even for an authoritarian state. Indeed Mousavi was gathering momentum. His criticism of the government and the energy unleashed around his candidacy breached the boundaries of an “acceptable opposition” candidate of the establishment. Ayatollah Khamenei had no choice but to short circuit the elections after the first round and endure the political blowback. When Ayatolla Khamenei issued a statement of congratulations on Saturday, two days before election results are normally announced and certified by the Electoral Commission, he was attempting to present the fraudulent results as a fait accompli that the electorate would have to swallow whole. What Iran’s clerical elite didn’t anticipate was Mousavi’s defiant stance and the fierce reaction it provoked among the youth. At a press conference after the polls closed on Friday, Mousavi said “I am the absolute winner of the election by a very wide margin. It is our duty to defend the people’s vote. There is no turning back.” Mousavi all but called on his supporters to prepare to go to the streets. Reports are circulating that on Saturday morning Mousavi was on his way to see the Ayatollah Khamenei when he was picked up by state intelligence officials. He never appeared for a scheduled 10:00 a.m. press conference on Saturday morning.
In addition to the protests in Tehran activities have broken out in other cities around Iran . While anger over the election results is widespread, many of the protestors who took in the streets are not necessarily Mousavi supporters, but youth who are targeting the entire establishment. Within the ranks of the “moderate camp” it has been reported that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has resigned his position and head of the Expediency Council in protest of the results. Ahmadinejad ruthlessly attacked Rafsanjani during the election as stooge of the United States, colluding with America to undermine the Iranian state. Parliamentary leader Ali Larijani, Iran ’s former chief nuclear negotiator and critic of Ahmadinijad has been dispatched to Qum to talk with the clerical leadership.
The clerical elites are now on the hot seat to sell Ahmadinejad’s rump election. Iran ’s Interior Ministry reported Ahmadinejad won 24, 527,516 votes (62.7%) compared to Mousavi with 13,216,411 (33.7%). The two were followed by Mohsen Rezaei with 678,240 votes (1.73 percent) and Mehdi Karroubi with 333,635 votes (0.85 percent). According to some of results released Ahmadinejad carried almost every province with a similar percentage of the vote; a big departure from past elections where votes in the ethnic provinces have large variances than those from Iran ’s core urban areas. Ahmadinejad won the large northern city of Tabriz, the hometown of Mir Hussien Mousavi; a result most people agree is astonishing. He also won the city of Tehran where he popularity has plummeted due to his inability to deliver on economic reforms and mismanaging the government. Even less believable is the fact that Mehdi Karroubi did not win one percent of the vote. Possessing broad name recognition, and having run for president in 1995, Karroubi almost certainly should have gotton more than one percent of the ballots, especially in sections of Western Iran , where he remains a popular figure.
Where the struggle is headed in Iran over the next few days and weeks is hardly a settled question. Undoubtedly, the government will continue its crackdown and intimidation to end the protest. Whether they succeed is another matter. There is also the question of what to do with Mir Hussein Mousavi. He is an international figure now. Simply locking him away in jail or keeping him under house arrest hardly seems like a tenable position for the ruling elite to take, but they may certainly do so, while engaging to character assassination and possibly bringing charges against him for sedition.
As for the Obama Administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put as much distance between the United States and the Iranian government as possible. Clinton said “We are monitoring the situation as it unfolds in Iran, but we, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide.” The White House issued a two sentence statement saying there are “concerns about irregularities” that occured. Although White House officials privately concede that Mousavi’s position on the nuclear issue did not substantially differ from Ahmadinejad’s, they certainty were hoping for a Mousavi victory. Presumably the Obama administration has been waiting for Iran’s presidential elections to end before more seriously testing the diplomatic waters with Iran. President Obama has made several overtures restating his interest in diplomatic engagement with Tehran; all of which have met with a cool response. With Ahmadinejad’s tainted election victory, Obama’s pursuit the prospects of engagement with Iran has probably taken a turn for the worse.