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Persistent (and Game-Changing) Myths: Iran’s 2009 Presidential Elections, One Year Later

Since manufactured claims about Iraqi WMD led the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, no analytic line about developments in the Middle East has had a bigger impact on American foreign policy than the assertion that the outcome of Iran’s June 12, 2009 presidential election — held one year ago tomorrow — was a fraud.  Since shortly after the election, we have been subjected to a great deal of criticism (a disappointingly high percentage of it personal in nature) for arguing that no hard evidence of electoral fraud has been produced, and that Ahmadinejad’s re-election was, in fact, quite plausible as an outcome.  Of course, these are arguments that went against the conventional wisdom that took root among most Western Iran “experts” literally on the morning after the election.

We stand by these judgments today.  We are certainly not in a position to vouch personally for the physical handling of ballots, the counting process, etc. — in other words, we are not in a position to conclude definitively that there was no fraud in Iran’s 2009 presidential election.  However, we continue to hold that no evidence of fraud has been produced, and that Ahmadinejad’s re-election, without fraud, was eminently plausible.

We also believe that it should be incumbent on those who continue to assert that there was decisive fraud in the election to come up with hard evidence to support their claim — and not rely solely on “must have been” conjecture.  In 2003, the United States invaded another Middle Eastern country on the basis of “must have been” conjecture and fabricated tales by Iraqi “defectors” and expatriates.  That misadventure has cost well over 100,000 innocent Iraqis their lives, spent vast amounts of American blood and treasure, and severely damaged America’s strategic position.

Today, the “social fact” that the 2009 Iranian presidential election must surely have been fraudulent is intensifying political pressure in the United States to adopt “regime change” as the explicit goal of America’s Iran policy.  Just read these words, from President Barack Obama, in his statement following the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 1929 earlier this week — a resolution ostensibly about Iran’s nuclear program:

Saturday will mark one year from the day that an election captivated the attention of the world — an event that should have been remembered for how the Iranian people participated with remarkable enthusiasm, but will instead be remembered for how the Iranian government brutally suppressed dissent and murdered the innocent, including a young woman left to die in the street.

Actions do have consequences, and today the Iranian government will face some of those consequences.  Because whether it is threatening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, or the human rights of its own citizens, or the stability of its own neighbors by supporting terrorism, the Iranian government continues to demonstrate that its own unjust actions are a threat to justice everywhere.

Before the United States moves too far down the path of supporting coercive regime change in Iran — and, make no mistake, adopting regime change as the goal of America’s Iran policy will ultimately lead to a U.S.-initiated war against the Islamic Republic — it is incumbent on every American who cares about his or her country to ask the question that should have been asked before the Iraq invasion:  what, exactly, is the case for going to war, and what is the evidentiary base supporting that case.

In that spirit, we want to highlight two pieces of analysis on the Islamic Republic’s presidential election that have informed our own thinking about this critically important event.

The first of these pieces is by Reza Esfandiari and Yousef Bozorgmehr, entitled “A Rejoinder to the Chatham House Report on Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election Offering a New Analysis on the Results”: <www.raceforiran.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Iranian-election.pdf>.  The second is by Eric Brill, entitled “Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Steal the 2009 Iran Election?”: <iran2009presidentialelection.blogspot.com/>.

The Esfandiari-Bozorgmehr piece is a sharp and, we believe, persuasive critique of a monograph published by Ali Ansari, Iranian studies professor at the University of St. Andrews, and two collaborators through the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London.  Ansari’s monograph, entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election” and published on June 21, 2009 (literally nine days after the Iranian election), epitomizes, for us, a highly conjectural, “had to have been fraud” approach to studying the election results.  (Ansari has not yet produced a “final” version of his analysis.)

In their paper, Reza Esfandiari and Yousef Bozorgmerhr systematically go through all of the various points adduced by Ansari and his collaborators — e.g., alleged irregularities and anomalies in the voter turnout, the sourcing of Ahmadinejad’s votes, the alleged underperformance of Mousavi (an ethnic Azeri) in Azeri-majority provinces and of Mehdi Karroubi in his home province, perceptions of statistical anomalies in the official results — and offer devastatingly persuasive rejoinders on every point.  Here are just some of the highlights from their paper:

  • On page 8, there is a graphic depiction of the “swings,” for and against Ahmadinejad, in 25 major Iranian cities, comparing the official results from 2009 with the results from the second-round runoff in 2005, when Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory over former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  One of the biggest flaws in Ansari’s analysis is his insistence on comparing the results from 2009 with results from first round balloting in 2005 — when there was no incumbent president on the ballot and a number of the candidates on the ballot were considered plausible as potential victors.  In 2009, Ahmadinejad was running as an incumbent president seeking re-election (no incumbent president in the Islamic Republic’s history has failed to win re-election) and Mousavi was widely seen as his main challenger; neither Mehdi Karroubi nor Mohsen Rezae was seen by most Iranians as having a serious chance to win.  This means that it is far more appropriate to compare the 2009 results to the second-round results from 2005 (as Esafandiari and Bozorgmehr do), not the first-round results from 2005 (as Ansari does).
  • On page 14, there is a detailed breakdown of official results in the 46 districts won by Mousavi, with the margin of victory and the ethnic classification of the people in these areas.  These data decisively reveal the gross inaccuracy of Western media reports claiming that the official results show (incredibly) Ahmadinejad winning everywhere in Iran, including among ethnic minorities.
  • On page 22, there is an enlightening analysis of the “overseas” vote — that is, votes cast outside of Iran by expatriates or citizens normally resident in the Islamic Republic who were traveling abroad on election day.  Among Iranians living in the West, the official results show that support for Mousavi was overwhelming.  However, among those Iranians who cast their ballots in Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — where many Iranians normally resident in the Islamic Republic routinely visit for religious, business, or family reasons — the level of support for Ahmadinejad was the same as that among those who voted inside Iran.

The paper deserves careful reading, in its entirety.  On the basis of their analysis, Reza and Yousef draw the following conclusion, which should be pondered by American policymakers dealing with Iranian issues and any Western pundit who comments on the Islamic Republic’s internal affairs:

The Chatham House report, although a “preliminary one”, clearly set out to cast doubt on the Iranian election without offering anything other than a superficial analysis. . . .  The distribution of votes across the provinces and districts does conform to general trends and comports to a natural outcome.  Statistical studies have proved inexact and inconclusive as far as detecting any real evidence of fraudulent manipulation.  If cheating did occur, it must have been localized and generally restricted to remote parts of the country where the population levels would not have been significant enough to sway the overall result.  We thus conclude that the 10th Iranian presidential election is a genuine reflection of the will of the Iranian people and that Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the duly elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It is hoped that policy makers acknowledge this fact.

It is, indeed, imperative that policymakers in the United States and other Western countries approach the Iranian challenge on the basis of facts.  In this regard, Eric Brill’s piece identifies the potential dangers of getting analysis of Iran’s 2009 presidential election wrong, in terms we wholeheartedly endorse:

Ever since the disputed 2009 Iran election and the protests that followed, loud voices have insisted that the pieces are once again in place — an illegitimate jackboot regime, courageous cries for help, a whiff of WMD.  Though it seems unlikely now, the United States could be back in the saddle some day, galloping off to liberate yet another nation of Muslims from Muslim oppression, rescuing a myopic and predictably ungrateful world from yet another existential threat.  Just as those who questioned WMD claims before the 2003 Iraq invasion were shouted down as unpatriotic, those who question the “stolen election” claim today are dismissed as democracy-hating boosters of a thuggish theocracy.  [Note from Flynt and Hillary: That has certainly been our experience.]

Eric clearly specifies the focus of his analysis:

The question considered here . . . is not whether the government mistreated those who protested the election result, nor whether Iran’s government ought to be run by different people with different policies.  Nor is the question whether more candidates ought to have been declared eligible to run — a complaint not made by Mousavi until after the election.  Obviously he made the list, and the exclusion of other candidates probably improved his chances.  The question here is simply whether Ahmadinejad won the election, fair and square.

Eric then proceeds to review, with impressive meticulousness, the various complaints about the electoral process and the official results that were lodged by Mousavi with the Islamic Republic’s Guardian Council, Ansari’s “preliminary analysis” of the results, and claims of irregularities and fraud advanced by other analysts.

Like Esfandiari and Bozorgmehr, Eric makes a powerful argument that what many critics of the 2009 Iranian election have described as “excess voting” merely reflects Iran’s long-standing rule that an eligible voter may vote at any polling station anywhere in the world.  But he goes on to assess the other allegations of irregularities in the conduct of the election put forward by Mousavi and his supporters — registered observers turned away or later ordered to leave, Mousavi votes thrown away, ballot boxes stuffed with Ahmadinejad votes, pens with disappearing ink, and vote counts either misreported from the field or altered once they reached the Interior Ministry in Tehran.  Eric points out that, to this day, neither Mousavi nor anyone else has identified a single polling station where any of this occurred:

At polling stations all across Iran, observers for Mousavi monitored the voting all day long and closely watched the vote counting after the polls closed.  Not one of Mousavi’s 40,676 registered observers claimed on election day that he had been turned away or prevented from observing.  Not one disputed the vote count at his polling station, or later claimed that he had been deceived or had lacked an adequate basis for approving.  Not one alleged that the Interior Ministry reported a different vote count for his polling station. . . .

Shortly after the election, Mousavi claimed in his newspaper (Kaleme) that 10 million people had voted without showing proper identification, but his complaint to the Guardian Council mentioned only 31 such voters.  Widespread ballot-box stuffing was alleged, but not a single stuffed ballot box has been identified.  Wholesale buying and selling of votes was alleged, but Mousavi has identified only four instances, in each case without any evidence.  Thousands or millions of Mousavi votes were said to have been thrown away, replaced by thousands or millions of Ahmadinejad votes, but no one has identified any of the perpetrators, nor mentioned exactly where or how this was accomplished.  Vote counts from the field, approved by tens of thousands of Mousavi’s observers, were said to have been altered by the Interior Ministry in Tehran, but no one has identified a single ballot box where this occurred — even though the data have long been available to compare the counts for all 45,692 ballot boxes.  The silence of Mousavi’s polling station observers is especially deafening.  Most or all of them may believe that electoral fraud occurred all over Iran, but apparently each is equally adamant that it did not occur where he spent election day.

Eric’s work should make it clear to those who have not examined the 2009 election closely — and even some who have — that all of this can be established without any difficulty.  The facts that he marshals seem very persuasive and should be impossible to ignore — although any number of purported Iran “experts” have managed to do so over the last year.  It is also striking that Mousavi has chosen not to focus on these facts, but insisted instead that the election simply be tossed out and done over.  Eric concludes his analysis with a number of trenchant observations:

No credible evidence published so far indicates that Ahmadinejad stole Iran’s 2009 presidential election — or, for that matter, that any fraud at all occurred.  The second point is important because many commentators have grudgingly accepted Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy only because his margin was large enough that they believe he would have won even without cheating.  Nearly as telling, there appears to have been no serious effort by Mousavi or his supporters to find such evidence. . . .  Nor have independent critics maintained their initial enthusiasm.  The Chatham House Preliminary Analysis never advanced beyond its self-described “preliminary” stage, despite the author’s own suggestion that his brief analysis “be followed up should the fully disaggregated ‘by polling station’ data be released during the ongoing dispute.”  Precisely that data was released just days later, but no “follow up” has appeared.  The response of nearly all pro-Mousavi analysts to the published ballot-box data has been largely the same:  silence.  Statisticians such as Roukema, Beber and Scacco appear to have ignored it entirely.  Even the few who have examined ballot-box-level data — Professor Mebane, for example — have overlooked or ignored its real significance.  For the first time ever in an Iranian presidential election, it was a simple matter to find evidence of vote-count fraud: just compare the Interior Ministry count with the field count approved by a Mousavi observer, for any ballot box or for all of them.  It is fair to ask why no one has done this, or why they have not published their findings if they have.

Despite the absence of evidence — or perhaps because of it — Mousavi’s demand has never changed: Don’t investigate the election; just toss it out and do it over.  One wonders how Americans would have reacted if Al Gore had demanded this in 2000.  Mousavi has never explained what would happen if a second election were held and it yielded the same result.  Would he demand another do-over, and then another, until Iran’s voters get it right?  Even his most ardent supporters eventually would insist on evidence.  If eventually, why not now?  It is not fair to the 24 million Iranians who appear to have voted for Ahmadinejad — nor is it democratic — for a government to “compromise” with a defeated candidate by nullifying an election without a sound basis for doing so.  The loser has a right to complain about an unfair election, but the winner, and those who voted for him, have an equal right to insist that a valid election be respected.  One side will always be disappointed with an election result — but that is democracy, not fraud.  Fraud requires evidence, not merely surprise, disappointment and suspicion.

All of this matters outside Iran as well.  One suspects that Western leaders acknowledge Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy when they talk privately with their foreign counterparts, but many of them posture in public.  Even those officials who have been comparatively restrained in their public statements on the election . . . welcome support from election-doubters for confrontational stances they take toward Iran on other grounds.  Most Western media outlets routinely refer to the election as tainted, and many writers insist that policy toward Iran must reflect this.  Those who disagree are often described as regime apologists, or naïve at best.  But they are merely accepting the election results.  It is time others did too.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 11 June 2010 under a Creative Commons license.



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