Stealing the Iranian Election

By Juan Cole

[ED. NOTE: What follows are two pieces of analysis by Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of Engaging the Muslim World (Macmillan, 2009) behind his conclusion that the Iranian election was stolen.]


1. It is claimed that Ahmadinejad won the city of Tabriz with 57%. His main opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is an Azeri from Azerbaijan province, of which Tabriz is the capital. Mousavi, according to such polls as exist in Iran and widespread anecdotal evidence, did better in cities and is popular in Azerbaijan. Certainly, his rallies there were very well attended. So for an Azeri urban center to go so heavily for Ahmadinejad just makes no sense.

2. Ahmadinejad is claimed to have taken Tehran by over 50%. Again, he is not popular in the cities, even, as he claims, in the poor neighborhoods, in part because his policies have produced high inflation and high unemployment. That he should have won Tehran is so unlikely as to raise real questions about these numbers.

3. It is claimed that cleric Mehdi Karoubi, the other reformist candidate, received 320,000 votes, and that he did poorly in Iran's western provinces. He is a Lur and is popular in the west, including in Kurdistan. Karoubi received 17 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in 2005. While it is possible that his support has substantially declined since then, it is hard to believe that he would get less than one percent of the vote. Moreover, he should have at least done well in the west, which he did not.

4. Mohsen Rezaie, who polled very badly and seems not to have been at all popular, is alleged to have received only 670,000 votes, twice as much as Karoubi.

I am aware of the difficulties of catching history on the run. Some explanation may emerge for Ahmadinejad's upset that does not involve fraud. For instance, it is possible that he has gotten the credit for spreading around a lot of oil money in the form of favors to his constituencies, but somehow managed to escape the blame for the resultant high inflation.

But just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene. And here is how I would reconstruct the crime.

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi's spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi's camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

This clumsy cover-up then produced the incredible result of an Ahmadinejad landlside in Tabriz and Isfahan and Tehran.

The reason for which Rezaie and Karoubi had to be assigned such implausibly low totals was to make sure Ahmadinejad got over 51% of the vote and thus avoid a run-off between him and Mousavi next Friday, which would have given the Mousavi camp a chance to attempt to rally the public and forestall further tampering with the election.

This scenario accounts for all known anomalies and is consistent with what we know of the major players.

In the past decade, reformers have always backed down in Iran when challenged by hardliners, in part because no one wants to relive the horrible Great Terror of the 1980s after the revolution, when faction-fighting produced blood in the streets. Mousavi is still from that generation.

My own guess is that you have to get a leadership born after the revolution, who does not remember it and its sanguinary aftermath, before you get people willing to push back hard against the rightwingers.

So, there are protests against an allegedly stolen election. The Basij paramilitary thugs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will break some heads. Unless there has been a sea change in Iran, the theocrats may well get away with this soft coup for the moment. But the regime's legitimacy will take a critical hit, and its ultimate demise may have been hastened, over the next decade or two.

What I've said is full of speculation and informed guesses. I'd be glad to be proved wrong on several of these points. Maybe I will be.

PS: Here's the data:

So here is what Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli said Saturday about the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections:

"Of 39,165,191 votes counted (85 percent), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the election with 24,527,516 (62.63 percent)."

He announced that Mir-Hossein Mousavi came in second with 13,216,411 votes (33.75 percent).

Mohsen Rezaei got 678,240 votes (1.73 percent)

Mehdi Karroubi with 333,635 votes (0.85 percent).

He put the void ballots at 409,389 (1.04 percent).



Some commentators have suggested that the reason Western reporters were

shocked when Ahmadinejad won was that they are based in opulent North

Tehran, whereas the farmers and workers of Iran, the majority, are

enthusiastic for Ahmadinejad. That is, we fell victim once again to upper

middle class reporting and expectations in a working class country of the

global south.

While such dynamics may have existed, this analysis is flawed in the case

of Iran because it pays too much attention to class and material factors

and not enough to Iranian culture wars. We have already seen, in 1997 and

2001, that Iranian women and youth swung behind an obscure former minister

of culture named Mohammad Khatami and his 2nd of Khordad movement,

capturing not only the presidency but also, in 2000, parliament.

Khatami received 70 percent of the vote in 1997. He then got 78% of the

vote in 2001, despite a crowded field. In 2000, his reform movement

captured 65% of the seats in parliament. He is a nice man, but you

couldn't exactly categorize him as a union man or a special hit with


The evidence is that in the past little over a decade, Iran's voters had

become especially interested in expanding personal liberties, in expanding

women's rights, and in a wider field of legitimate expression for culture

(not just high culture but even just things like Iranian rock music). The

extreme puritanism of the hardliners grated on people.

The problem for the reformers of the late 1990s and early 2000s was that

they did not actually control much, despite holding elected office.

Important government policy and regulation was in the hands of the

unelected, clerical side of the government. The hard line clerics just

shut down reformist newspapers, struck down reformist legislation, and

blocked social and economic reform. The Bush administration was

determined to hang Khatami out to dry, ensuring that the reformers could

never bring home any tangible success in foreign policy or foreign

investment. Thus, in the 2004 parliamentary elections, literally

thousands of reformers were simply struck off the ballot and not allowed

to run. This application of a hard line litmus test in deciding who could

run for office produced a hard line parliament, naturally enough.

But in 2000, it was clear that the hard liners only had about 20% of the

electorate on their side.

By 2005, the hard liners had rolled back all the reforms and the reform

camp was sullen and defeated. They did not come out in large numbers for

the reformist candidate, Karoubi, who only got 17 percent of the vote.

They nevertheless were able to force a run-off between hard line populist

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a

pragmatic conservative billionaire. Ahmadinejad won.

But Ahmadinejad's 2005 victory was made possible by the widespread boycott

of the vote or just disillusionment in the reformist camp, meaning that

fewer youth and women bothered to come out.

So to believe that the 20% hard line support of 2001 has become 63% in

2009, we would have to posit that Iran is less urban, less literate and

less interested in cultural issues today than 8 years ago. We would have

to posit that the reformist camp once again boycotted the election and

stayed home in droves.

No, this is not a north Tehran/ south Tehran issue. Khatami won by big

margins despite being favored by north Tehran.

So observers who want to lay a guilt trip on us about falling for

Mousavi's smooth upper middle class schtick are simply ignoring the last

12 years of Iranian history. It was about culture wars, not class. It is

simply not true that the typical Iranian voter votes conservative and

religious when he or she gets the chance. In fact, Mousavi is

substantially more conservative than the typical winning politician in

2000. Given the enormous turnout of some 80 percent, and given the growth

of Iran's urban sector, the spread of literacy, and the obvious yearning

for ways around the puritanism of the hard liners, Mousavi should have won

in the ongoing culture war.

And just because Ahmadinejad poses as a champion of the little people does

not mean that his policies are actually good for workers or farmers or for

working class women (they are not, and many people in that social class

know that they are not).

So let that be an end to the guilt trip. The Second of Khordad Movement

was a winning coalition for the better part of a decade. Its supporters

are 8 years older than the last time they won, but it was a young

movement. Did they all do a 180 and defect from Khatami to Ahmadinejad?

Unlikely. The Iranian women who voted in droves for Khatami haven't gone

anywhere, and they did not very likely much care for Ahmadinejad's stances

on women's issues:

'In a BBC News interview, Mahbube Abbasqolizade, a member of the

Iranian Women’s Centre NGO, said, “Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies are that

women should return to their homes and that their priority should be

the family.”

* Ahmadinejad changed the name of the government organization the

“Center for Women’s Participation” to the “Center for Women and Family


* Ahmadinejad proposed a new law that would reintroduce a man’s right

to divorce his wife without informing her. In addition, men would no

longer be required to pay alimony. In response, women’s groups have

initiated the Million Signatures campaign against these measures.

* Ahmadinejad’s administration opposes the ratification of the UN

protocol called CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms

of Discrimination Against Women. This doctrine is essentially an

international women’s Bill of Rights.

* Ahmadinejad implemented the Social Safety program, which monitors

women’s clothing, requires the permission from a father or husband for

a woman to attend school, and applies quotas limiting the number of

women allowed to attend universities.'

Mir Hosain Mousavi was a plausible candidate for the reformists. They

were electing people like him with 70 and 80 percent margins just a few

years ago. We have not been had by the business families of north Tehran.

We've much more likely been had by a hard line constituency of at most

20% of the country, who claim to be the only true heirs of the Iranian

revolution, and who control which ballots see the light of day.