The Iranian Election Appears to Be Over: What Next for U.S. Policy?

Stephen Zunes feels that the Iranian election was stolen. Robert Naiman feels there is evidence that it was actually not stolen. But they both say the U.S. should not get involved, but should leave it to the Iranian people.
Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival, reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former Iranian Prime Minister (on the right).

See Stephen Zunes' article: Iran's Stolen Election Has Sparked an Uprising -- What Should the U.S. Do?

Judging from commentary in the blogosphere, many Americans are already convinced by suggestions that have been carried in the media that the Presidential election in Iran was stolen. [Some press reports have been a bit more careful: the lead paragraph of the front page story in Sunday’s New York Times says that “it is impossible to know for sure” if the result reflects the popular will.]

But the evidence that has been presented so far that the election was stolen is not convincing.

Iran does not allow independent international election observers, and there is a scarcity of independent, systematic data.

But in the weeks before the election, Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation published a poll that was financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Based on this poll, the official result – a victory for Ahmadinejad in the first round – was entirely plausible. “Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections,” the poll reported.

The poll was conducted between May 11 and May 20, and claimed a margin of error of 3.1%. Among its respondents:

  • 34% said they would vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad,
  • 14% said they would vote for Mir Hussein Moussavi,
  • 2% said they would vote for Mehdi Karroubi,
  • 1% said they would vote for Mohsen Rezai.

Declared support for these four candidates represented 51% of the sample; 27% of the sample said they didn’t know who they would vote for. [This accounts for 78% of the sample; the survey report doesn’t explicitly characterize the other 22% of the sample, but presumably they were divided between those who did not intend to vote and those who refused to respond to the question. The survey reported that 89% of Iranians said they intended to vote; the official turnout figure was 85%.]

If one did a simple-minded extrapolation from the reported results – that is, if one simply assumed that the people who refused to respond or who didn’t know voted in the same proportions as their counterparts who named candidates, the following result would have occurred on June 12:

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 66.7%
  • Mir Hussein Moussavi - 27.5%
  • Mehdi Karroubi - 3.9%
  • Mohsen Rezai - 2.0%

The Iranian Interior Ministry said Saturday afternoon that Ahmadinejad received in the actual election 62.6% of the vote, with Moussavi receiving just under 34%.

Of course it’s not reasonable to do a simple-minded extrapolation from the results, when we have a bit more information. It is quite reasonable to suppose that the opposition might well have taken a greater share of the previously undecided vote than the share of the decided vote that they already had; in U.S. elections, there is a tendency for undecideds to break against the incumbent. Indeed, the Terror Free Tomorrow poll reported:

“A close examination of our survey results reveals that the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate. More than 60 percent of those who state they don’t know who they will vote for in the Presidential elections reflect individuals who favor political reform and change in the current system.”

So suppose that we allocate 60% of the 27% who told pollsters they didn’t know to the two “reform” candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi; and 40% of the undecided vote to the two “conservative” candidates, Ahmadinejad and Rezai. And within each camp, suppose we allocate the votes according to the proportion of reform or conservative votes they had among those in the survey who named candidates. In that case, this would have been the result on June 12:

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 57%
  • Mir Hussein Moussavi - 36%
  • Mehdi Karroubi - 5%
  • Mohsen Rezai - 2%

When you account for the scaling up of the numbers from the poll, these numbers differ from the Interior Ministry numbers by less than the poll’s margin of error.

This analysis leaves out the fact that some people who didn’t respond in the poll turned out to be voters, some 7% of the sample. But even if we also allocate these 60-40 to the opposition, the result would be 55.5% Ahmadinejad, 37.5% Moussavi.

The Terror Free Tomorrow poll had another important result. One of the arguments being made that there must certainly have been fraud is the claim that Ahmadinejad could not possibly have won the Azeri city of Tabriz, as was reported by the official results, since Mousavi, who is Azeri, is from Azerbaijan province, of which Tabriz is the capital. Juan Cole, for example, makes this argument "just as a first reaction, this post-election situation looks to me like a crime scene." see http://www.juancole.com/2009/06/stealing-iranian-election.html.

Here’s what the Terror Free Tomorrow poll had to say about that:

“Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Mr. Moussavi’s Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity may have for Azeri voters. The results of our survey indicate that only 16 percent of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Mr. Moussavi. By contrast, 31 percent of the Azeris claim they will vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad.”

Thus, according to Terror Free Tomorrow, Ahmadinejad had a 2-1 lead among Azeris over Moussavi.

None of this proves that the election was clean and legitimate. But it does suggest that claims that it was “impossible” for Ahmadinejad to win a clean election should be treated with great skepticism. On the contrary, based on the Terror Free Tomorrow poll, not only was it plausible that Ahmadinejad would win – it was quite likely.

Of course, even if we knew it to be true that Ahmadinejad was legitimately the winner of the election, and that the opposition claims that the election was stolen were false, that would not justify repressive acts by the Iranian government now being reported. But it would certainly put them in a different light. There is clearly a belief among some in the government that parts of the opposition are looking for an opportunity to stage a “color revolution,” and some reports seem to suggest that this fear is not entirely without foundation; and it is certainly to be expected that the government will try to prevent that from taking place. And if false claims of election theft are playing a role in some people’s plans for an insurrection, it’s even less surprising that the government would be reacting against such plans.

Judging from the commentaries I am reading on some of the blogs, the Obama Administration is actually being more reasonable than some people who are usually to be found criticizing it from the left. Administration spokesman have not accepted the official results of the election, but neither have they accepted the opposition claims; they say, at this writing, that they are still gathering facts. Meanwhile the Administration is affirming that its efforts to engage Iran diplomatically will go forward, regardless of the election results. Obama’s supporters would do well to show the same prudence that the Administration has.


Robert Naiman wrote this article for YES! as part of our ongoing coverage of A Just Foreign Policy. Robert is national coordinator at Just Foreign Policy, which supports a multilateral approach to foreign affairs.

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:: In Iran with Rick Steves
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