Iran's stolen election, and what comes next

Farhang Jahanpour
18 June 2009

The great events unfolding in Iran have some way to go before they reach a form of resolution. It is already being said that the wave of protests taking place across the country and the state's efforts to  maintain control have taken the situation beyond the issue of what happened in the presidential election of 12 June 2009.

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the faculty of languages at the University of Isfahan

Also by Farhang Jahanpour in openDemocracy:

"Cartoons, caricatures and civilisations" (23 February 2006)This may be true, but it remains essential that what exactly happened in the election - of which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the outright winner with 63% of the vote on an 85% turnout - is established beyond doubt.

If it is too early to leave the election behind, it is also too early to offer a definitive account of its circumstances. But much can be said that helps to clarify what took place. This article looks at the context and outcome of the vote, and - in the context of what has become a major crisis - its implications for Iran's political future.

The context

The Iranian presidential election marks a turning-point in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in five ways.

First, a remarkable characteristic of this election was the sudden rise of the reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi to the status of a national hero. Although he served as prime minister for eight years under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war(1980-88), he had kept a low profile for the past twenty years and was almost unknown to many young people. But when Mohammad Khatami(Iran's president, 1987-2005) and other reformers persuaded him to run, his campaigning and demeanour - along with the active participation of his wife, the scholar Zahra Rahnavard - earned him great popularity among millions in a nation that was thirsty for change.

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)

"Iran's election: people vs power" (15 June 2009) - an ongoing symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, and Sanam VakilSecond, a defining feature of the election was the unprecedented series of live televised debates between the four presidential candidates - Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (former speaker of the majlis) from the reformist camp, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohsen Rezaei (former head of the Revolutionary Guards) from the conservative camp. In his debate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moussavi accused the president of incompetence and corruption in his domestic policies and of "adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism and superficiality" in his foreign policy. He said that it was his sense of danger for the fate of the country created  by Ahmadinejad's policies that had forced him to declare his candidacy.

In return, Ahmadinejad accused Moussavi's supporters - especially the powerful Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (president, 1989-97) and Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri (another former majlis speaker, and the main conservative candidate in the 1997 election that resulted in Khatami's victory) - of massive financial corruption and of plundering the wealth of the nation. He questioned the way that they and their children had managed to become billionaires in a short time. Ahmadinejad's main platform during the presidential election in 2005 had been his determination to fight against corruption and nepotism, yet there has been no sign of any action during these  four years.

It is interesting to note that in June 2008, a senior official with Iran's parliamentary investigations committee, Abbas Palizar, had accused top regime officials of large-scale corruption - including many among Ahmadinejad's main supporters (including the present judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahrudi; his predecessor Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi; and leading cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani).

In a speech at the University of Hamedan (the recording of which has been widely circulated) Abbas Palizar provided many details of cases of embezzlement and misappropriation that he had come across during his work as a researcher in the majlis. The response? The authorities, instead of conducting an official investigation, charged Palizdar and - on 13 June 2009, the day after the election - announced that he had been given a ten-year jail sentence.

Third, the election was notable for the second highest turnout in Iran's political history - after the nationwide referendum over the establishment of the Islamic Republic in December 1979.  The official figures provided by the interior ministry declare that over 42 million people (nearly 85% of the eligible voters) took part - an estimate which itself must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other, but which is echoed in other calculations. In any event, the only other election turnout that compares is the 1997 election that resulted in a landslide win for the reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, who won over 70% of the votes on an 80% turnout.

By contrast, when Ahmadinejad won in June 2005, the turnout at about 63% was far more typical of Iranian presidential elections. In that election, there were four reformist candidates:  Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, Mostafa Mo'in (the chancellor of Tehran University) and Mohsen Mehralizadeh (vice-president under Khatami). Together, they collected 57% of the votes cast in the first round. Then, in a second-round run-off with Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mahmud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. At the time, both Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi alleged massive interference of the Revolutionary Guards and members of the basij militia in the election in favour of Ahmadinejad. The government that emerged came to be known as the "government of the barracks".

Fourth, a striking aspect of this election was that the number of votes counted in some constituencies  far exceeded the number of eligible voters. Ali Akbar Mohtashipur, a former interior minister who is very familiar with the nature of elections in Iran, claimed in a television interview that he possesses documents showing that in at least seventy constituencies more than 140% of eligible voters were recorded as having voted; and that the number of votes for Ahmadinejad recorded in these constituencies was 110% of total eligible voters.

Fifth, the election was marked by the unmatched extent of fraud in the announced results. There were relatively minor irregularities and shortcomings that would, nonetheless, have rendered the election null and void in many democratic countries. The deadline for the election was repeatedly extended, but many polling booths closed their doors to voters before the official deadline; many polling-booths ran out of ballot-papers; the marking of the ballot-papers done on open tables where everybody could see in which box the voters put their crosses.

However, there had been similar incidents in previous elections too; these are part of the lessons that those in charge of elections must learn in order to improve voting procedures in future. What has set the June 2009 election apart from earlier ones is the way that the votes were counted and the results announced.

The result

Many opposition supporters believe that the official results of the election are indeed fraudulent. The authorities in Iran dispute this vehemently. A number of reports and assessments in the western media also argue that the landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is most likely genuine (see Ken Ballen & Patrick Doherty, "The Iranian People Speak" [Washington Post, 15 June 2009] and George Friedman, "Western Misconceptions Meet Iranian Reality" [Stratfor, 15 June 2009]).

A great deal clearly depends on this issue, making it important to look at the election and its aftermath to see whether the results can be trusted or not (see Mansoor Moaddel, "Iran Election Fraud: Moaddel on Ballen and Doherty" [Informed Comment, 18 June 2009)] and Muhammad Sahimi, "Why Ahmadinejad did not win" [Tehran Bureau, 17 June 2009]).

In examining this issue, six points are relevant. First, in all previous elections in Iran, a number of observers from different candidates were admitted to the polling stations and during the counting of the votes to prevent vote-rigging. This time, however, very few observers were allowed to witness the voting; on election-day, Mir-Hossein Moussavi officially protested about these and other violations of voting rules.

Second, in all previous elections, the number of votes cast in each constituency and the number of spoilt ballots were released before the announcement of the results. Later, detailed results  from different provinces and constituencies were published separately. This did not happen this time, and the results were declared in a haphazard way.

Third, after the results are collated and given to the ministry of the interior and the supervisory bodies, the rules prescribe that they should be sent to the Guardian Council (the body in charge of verifying the results). The Guardian Council must approve the way that the voting and counting has been carried; only then are the results revealed. This time that procedure was not followed.

Fourth, Mir-Hossein Moussavi claimed in a press conference soon after voting ended that on the basis of the exit-polls conducted by his headquarters at different constituencies, he was on course for a big victory. Then, within the same hour and in great haste, the Islamic Republic News Agency (Irna) quoted the interior ministry to report that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was already ahead with over 60% of the votes (a percentage that, oddly, remained the same throughout the counting of votes over the next twenty-four hours).

Fifth, the results were put together in such an amateurish way that none of the reformist candidates won a majority even in his own constituency. The popular former majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who comes from a tribal region in Lorestan with strong ethnic bonds, was said to have received only 3% of the votes in his hometown of Aligudarz. His 44,036 votes were dwarfed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 677,829 - in other words, Ahmadinejad received fifteen times more votes than his reformist rival in the rival's birthplace, though Karroubi in 2005 had won six times more votes here than Ahmadinejad. In the 2005 presidential election, Karroubi received 5 million votes nationwide - which are said to have collapsed to 300,000 in 2009 (see Juan Cole, "Stealing the Iranian Election", Informed Comment, 13 June 2009).

Mir-Hossein Moussavi is a native of Khamene, a town in eastern Azerbaijan with strong ethnic ties. Here, he allegedly received 837, 858 votes (42%),against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 1,131,000. A similar fate befell Mohsen Rezaei, the other rightwing candidate; in his native Masjed Soleyman, in Khuzestan province, his 139,000 was crushed by Ahmadinejad's 1,500,000.

The president broke the pattern in the area of his own birthplace of Aradan in Semnan province; there he  received 295,177 votes, against  77,754 votes for his nearest rival, Moussavi.

Sixth, the percentage of votes for the two leading candidates throughout the country were have almost uniform. Ahmadinejad received nearly twice the number of votes of Moussavi in every province (with the exception of West Azerbaijan and Sistan-Baluchistan, two of the least populous provinces). Some electoral experts argue that in view of the enormous regional, ethnic and linguistic differences in different parts of Iran, such a close correlation between the votes of the two main candidates is statistically impossible.

The aftermath

On the morning of 13 June 2009, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement. Before the official announcement and approval of the results, and amidst loud protests by Moussavi's camp that the results declared by pro-government media had been rigged, Khamenei congratulated Ahmadinejad on his brilliant victory. He called the results "divine blessings" and forbade anyone from questioning them. There is no way that he could have been so certain about the real outcome of the election without having investigated the matter further. The least that he could have done should have been to ask the Guardian Council to investigate the matter and report to him. His undue haste and unjustified certainty about the outcome suggest that he was personally involved in the decisions that produced the results.

The renowned Iranian film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, had been asked to act as a spokesman for Mir-Hossein Moussavi in view of the restrictions imposed on the candidate. Makhmalbaf stated in an interview that in the early hours after the elections the interior ministry had called Moussavi's campaign to inform him that he had won the election. The campaign was asked to prepare its victory statement without boasting too much, in order not to upset Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supporters. But, a few hours later, Moussavi's campaign centre was ransacked by security agents, and everything suddenly changed: Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.

The available evidence makes it safe to conclude that the official election results were fraudulent. Indeed, the outcome was nothing short of a coup d'etat by Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the will of the nation. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who had been the designated heir to Ayatollah Khomeini before falling out with him over the execution of a large number of prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, has openly questioned the accuracy of the results. He issued a statement saying: "No sensible person can accept the declared results of the election, and on the basis of available evidence major changes have been made in the results." He added that the rigging of the results and the suppression of the protestors would undermine the legitimacy of the system and its officials.

It should be pointed out that many of those who are protesting against the election outcome are some of the leading figures of the Islamic Republic. They include two former presidents; a former prime minister; two former majlis speakers; the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Hashemi-Rafsanjani is the chairman of the Assembly of Experts that appoints the leader and can theoretically remove the leader, as well as the chairman of the Expediency Council that can overrule the Guardian Council and arbitrate between the Guardian Council and the majlis in cases of disagreements between them.

There are no reports about Rafsanjani's whereabouts since he wrote his open letter to Khamenei, which remains unanswered. There are some reports that he has gone to Qom in order to convene an extraordinary session of the Expediency Council. If this is true, it is potentially very significant and could signal changes at the very top of the system.

The future

The issue at stake has indeed moved beyond the election and its outcome. The epic protests by Iranian citizens have been met by a disproportionate degree of force from government agents and revolutionary militia:

* at least eight people were killed during the peaceful demonstrations by Mir-Hossein Moussavi's supporters in Tehran on 15 June

* there are many reports from all over the country of brutal attackson university campuses and dormitories, which have injured and even killed a large number of students

* student organisations have published the names of a large number of their fellows who have disappeared, presumably into detention

* over 300 reformist politicians and journalists have (as of 18 June) been arrested

* internet access, SMS messages, Facebook, mobiles and many other means of communication have been blocked. Foreign websites, including the BBC Persian website, have been closed down and the programmes of foreign radio and television stations have been jammed. Foreign reporters have been banned from reporting about "unauthorised" demonstrations or from travelling freely in Tehran or outside the city.

Iran is at the moment in the grip of massive military and security control, which however is still unable to subdue the people who wish to affirm their rights and declare to the rest of the world what is happening in their country. The global genie is out of the national bottle, as revealed by the Iranian football players who wore green armbands (the colour of Moussavi's campaign) in the first half of their match in South Korea on 17 June. The "day of mourning" for the victims of the first big-post election demonstration called by Mir-Hossein Moussavi for 18 June underlines his supporters' determination to continue their struggle.  

The events since the election, as much as the highly dubious and still to be investigated circumstances of the election itself, demand that the official results are declared null. If they

are allowed to stand, it would constitute a great injustice against the Iranian nation and their democratic aspirations. But it is not enough either to tinker with the results, partially review certain ballots, or even hold a recount. The way forward rests on understanding that what has happened is in effect a military coup. This in turn demands that new elections are held under independent supervision, as the only way to resolve what might otherwise become an even more dangerous crisis.

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