[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Kelly Niknejad, Host:
Iran held its tenth presidential election on June 12, 2009. From the outset, it seemed like it would be a watershed moment for the Islamic Republic. As Tehran Bureau political analyst Muhammad Sahimi wrote for us three months before,
The significance of the upcoming elections cannot be over-emphasized. At no time in the past 100 years has Iran faced as many problems and crises as it is grappling with now…. No other election in Iran has held such importance in the contrasting and fundamentally different views it represents in the path Iran should take domestically, as well as internationally.
“One side espouses a fundamentalist, confrontational approach to both domestic and international problems. Internally, it wants to suppress all the dissidents, even among its own ranks, and silence any voice of moderation. Internationally, it advocates an aggressive and uncompromising approach. In contrast, the opposite camp favors an open society at home, which can move on a democratic path, albeit slowly, while advocating a rational and sober diplomatic approach to the international problems that Iran is facing.
Therefore, no election in Iran has ever been so polarized.
After a very stringent vetting process, the Guardian Council whittled down the list of contenders to Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s wartime prime minister; Mohsen Rezaei, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards during that same era of the Iran-Iraq War; and Mehdi Karroubi, a close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini, who had served as speaker of the parliament and at the helm of the Association of Militant Clergy — and the powerful Mostazafin Foundation. All bona fide revolutionaries. Apparently, the establishment was overconfident in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ability to secure a second term and in the other candidates’ inability to mount a significant challenge.
“This confidence was reinforced by a pre-election poll taken by a Washington-based organization called Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion,” the Iranian scholar Ervand Abrahamian noted in an essay republished in this book. “The poll found that of 1,001 Iranians interviewed by phone from outside Iran, 34 percent favoured Ahmadinejad; 14 percent Mousavi; 50 percent had not yet made up their minds; 80 percent wanted the constitution to be altered so that the Supreme Leader would be elected directly by the public; 70 percent wanted to give the UN greater access to the country’s nuclear facilities; and 77 percent wanted better relations with the US. Apologists for the regime who continue to cite this survey ignore these findings, as well as the significance of the name and location of the polling organization.”
Former President Mohammad Khatami had entered the fray but quickly withdrew, throwing his support behind Mousavi, whose campaign steadily gained steam. In the two weeks before the polls, it caught on fire, fueled in part by six televised debates between the candidates.
Turnout was unprecedented on June 12. Many came to the polls for the first time in their lives. It looked like a very tight race. That’s why many were incredulous when state television quickly declared Ahmadinejad the winner, with 63.29 percent of the vote no less. The Press TV anchor who announced the results made sure to add that Ahmadinejad’s landslide was more significant than Khatami’s had been when he was elected to a second term in 2001. According to the official figures, Mousavi had only 34 percent of the vote.
Since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979, every incumbent had won a second term with a smaller percentage of the votes than he had the first time around — with one exception: Khatami, who won reelection with a million more votes than his 20 million of 1997, despite a smaller total turnout. Ahmadinejad on the other hand, had hardly eked out a win in his first run. The 2005 election had to proceed to a second round. Though there were accusations of fraud in that election, the populace was too apathetic to care. This time they weren’t. They had turned out in full force and demanded to know what happened.
“Do you feel the election was rigged?” Frontline asked Scott Peterson, the Middle East correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who was in Iran for the election.
“I’m not sure that the word ‘rigged’ is probably the best way to describe what happened in Iran, and the reason is because the word ‘rigged’ implies that there was ballot-box stuffing, that there were little things around the edges that were conducted that changed the result….
“And I think that what we’ve seen in Iran is something very, very different, something that the people who are trying to change the result really were not prepared for…. They didn’t expect that there was going to be such a large turnout, that it was going to favor Mousavi, and therefore would require not just rigging around the edges, but would require simply — from the election analysts I’ve spoken to — a pulling of the numbers out of thin air. They literally created this election result, it seems, out of nothing.”
In The People Reloaded, Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of essays that help explain what happened. Though both are unabashed supporters of the Green Movement, and their anthology makes the case from that angle, it does so based on the perspectives of some of the leading scholars, analysts, and journalists who have been following Iran, many of them for decades.