Saturday, 20 June 2009


Ahmadinejad won. Get over it

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
June 15, 2009

Without any evidence, many U.S. politicians and “Iran
experts” have dismissed Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad’s reelection Friday, with 62.6 percent of the
vote, as fraud.

They ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the
vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the
61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005
presidential election, when he trounced former President
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the “Iran
experts” over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated,
based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.

Although Iran’s elections are not free by Western
standards, the Islamic Republic has a 30-year history of
highly contested and competitive elections at the
presidential, parliamentary and local levels. Manipulation
has always been there, as it is in many other countries.

But upsets occur — as, most notably, with Mohammed
Khatami’s surprise victory in the 1997 presidential
election. Moreover, “blowouts” also occur — as in Khatami’s
reelection in 2001, Ahmadinejad’s first victory in 2005
and, we would argue, this year.

Like much of the Western media, most American “Iran
experts” overstated Mir Hossein Mousavi’s “surge” over the
campaign’s final weeks. More important, they were oblivious
— as in 2005 — to Ahmadinejad’s effectiveness as a populist
politician and campaigner. American “Iran experts” missed
how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having
won the nationally televised debates with his three
opponents — especially his debate with Mousavi.

Before the debates, both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad campaign
aides indicated privately that they perceived a surge of
support for Mousavi; after the debates, the same aides
concluded that Ahmadinejad’s provocatively impressive
performance and Mousavi’s desultory one had boosted the
incumbent’s standing. Ahmadinejad’s charge that Mousavi was
supported by Rafsanjani’s sons — widely perceived in
Iranian society as corrupt figures — seemed to play well
with voters. The Politico 44 Story Widget Requires Adobe
Flash Player.

Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s criticism that Mousavi’s reformist
supporters, including Khatami, had been willing to suspend
Iran’s uranium enrichment program and had won nothing from
the West for doing so tapped into popular support for the
program — and had the added advantage of being true.

More fundamentally, American “Iran experts” consistently
underestimated Ahmadinejad’s base of support. Polling in
Iran is notoriously difficult; most polls there are less
than fully professional and, hence, produce results of
questionable validity. But the one poll conducted before
Friday’s election by a Western organization that was
transparent about its methodology — a telephone poll
carried out by the Washington-based Terror-Free Tomorrow
from May 11 to 20 — found Ahmadinejad running 20 points
ahead of Mousavi. This poll was conducted before the
televised debates in which, as noted above, Ahmadinejad was
perceived to have done well while Mousavi did poorly.

American “Iran experts” assumed that “disastrous” economic
conditions in Iran would undermine Ahmadinejad’s reelection
prospects. But the International Monetary Fund projects
that Iran’s economy will actually grow modestly this year
(when the economies of most Gulf Arab states are in
recession). A significant number of Iranians — including
the religiously pious, lower-income groups, civil servants
and pensioners — appear to believe that Ahmadinejad’s
policies have benefited them.

And, while many Iranians complain about inflation, the TFT
poll found that most Iranian voters do not hold Ahmadinejad
responsible. The “Iran experts” further argue that the high
turnout on June 12 — 82 percent of the electorate — had to
favor Mousavi. But this line of analysis reflects nothing
more than assumptions.

Some “Iran experts” argue that Mousavi’s Azeri background
and “Azeri accent” mean that he was guaranteed to win
Iran’s Azeri-majority provinces; since Ahmadinejad did
better than Mousavi in these areas, fraud is the only
possible explanation.

But Ahmadinejad himself speaks Azeri quite fluently as a
consequence of his eight years serving as a popular and
successful official in two Azeri-majority provinces; during
the campaign, he artfully quoted Azeri and Turkish poetry —
in the original — in messages designed to appeal to Iran’s
Azeri community. (And we should not forget that the supreme
leader is Azeri.) The notion that Mousavi was somehow
assured of victory in Azeri-majority provinces is simply
not grounded in reality.

With regard to electoral irregularities, the specific
criticisms made by Mousavi — such as running out of ballot
paper in some precincts and not keeping polls open long
enough (even though polls stayed open for at least three
hours after the announced closing time) — could not, in
themselves, have tipped the outcome so clearly in
Ahmadinejad’s favor.

Moreover, these irregularities do not, in themselves,
amount to electoral fraud even by American legal standards.
And, compared with the U.S. presidential election in
Florida in 2000, the flaws in Iran’s electoral process seem
less significant.

In the wake of Friday’s election, some “Iran experts” —
perhaps feeling burned by their misreading of contemporary
political dynamics in the Islamic Republic — argue that we
are witnessing a “conservative coup d’état,” aimed at a
complete takeover of the Iranian state.

But one could more plausibly suggest that if a “coup” is
being attempted, it has been mounted by the losers in
Friday’s election. It was Mousavi, after all, who declared
victory on Friday even before Iran’s polls closed. And
three days before the election, Mousavi supporter
Rafsanjani published a letter criticizing the leader’s
failure to rein in Ahmadinejad’s resort to “such ugly and
sin-infected phenomena as insults, lies and false
allegations.” Many Iranians took this letter as an
indication that the Mousavi camp was concerned their
candidate had fallen behind in the campaign’s closing days.

In light of these developments, many politicians and “Iran
experts” argue that the Obama administration cannot now
engage the “illegitimate” Ahmadinejad regime. Certainly,
the administration should not appear to be trying to “play”
in the current controversy in Iran about the election. In
this regard, President Barack Obama’s comments on Friday, a
few hours before the polls closed in Iran, that “just as
has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well
is that you’re seeing people looking at new possibilities”
was extremely maladroit.

From Tehran’s perspective, this observation undercut the
credibility of Obama’s acknowledgement, in his Cairo speech
earlier this month, of U.S. complicity in overthrowing a
democratically elected Iranian government and restoring the
shah in 1953.

The Obama administration should vigorously rebut any
argument against engaging Tehran following Friday’s vote.
More broadly, Ahmadinejad’s victory may force Obama and his
senior advisers to come to terms with the deficiencies and
internal contradictions in their approach to Iran. Before
the Iranian election, the Obama administration had fallen
for the same illusion as many of its predecessors — the
illusion that Iranian politics is primarily about
personalities and finding the right personality to deal
with. That is not how Iranian politics works.

The Islamic Republic is a system with multiple power
centers; within that system, there is a strong and enduring
consensus about core issues of national security and
foreign policy, including Iran’s nuclear program and
relations with the United States. Any of the four
candidates in Friday’s election would have continued the
nuclear program as Iran’s president; none would agree to
its suspension.

Any of the four candidates would be interested in a
diplomatic opening with the United States, but that opening
would need to be comprehensive, respectful of Iran’s
legitimate national security interests and regional
importance, accepting of Iran’s right to develop and
benefit from the full range of civil nuclear technology —
including pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle — and aimed at
genuine rapprochement.

Such an approach would also, in our judgment, be manifestly
in the interests of the United States and its allies
throughout the Middle East. It is time for the Obama
administration to get serious about pursuing this approach
— with an Iranian administration headed by the reelected
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Flynt Leverett directs The New America Foundation’s Iran Project and teaches international affairs at Pennsylvania State university. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy. Both worked for many years on Middle East issues for the U.S. government, including as members of the National Security Council staff.

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