Twitter, the blogosphere and the print media (but not, for a variety of reasons, the 24 hour cable news stations) have been abuzz with the Iranian election results, including allegations of fraud and the resulting mass demonstrations and police crackdown. We have more questions than answers at the moment.

What Do We Know?

The short answer, alas, is Not much.  The expectations going in were that, with four candidates running, no one would receive the necessary 50 percent plus one of the vote and a run-off would be required.  Most presumed that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be a finalist along with former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.  Instead, Ahmadinejad has been declared the winner by a 65 percent landslide.

A Sham Election Even if Count Was Right

First, before even considering whether that vote count corresponds with the reality of the votes cast, it’s important to heed Dave Schuler‘s warning:

The election was illegitimate from the get-go. The “irregularities” didn’t begin [Friday]. The Iranian system is one in which the elected officials have little or no real power, only candidates that have been approved by Iran’s actual rulers appear on ballots, and the mullahs, Iran’s real rulers, control the election process and the media from stem to stern.

Oddly, this point has been largely absent from the discussion.  Ahmadinejad’s original election was a farce and the NYT had an editorial at the time on “Iran’s Sham Democracy.” Why we’re suddenly pretending that Iran holds legitimate elections and shocked that the people’s will might not be properly expressed is beyond me.

To be sure, the editorials had the appropriate outrage.  NYT declared the elections “Neither Real Nor Free” and WaPo weighed in with “Neither Free Nor Fair.”  But both read as if they were talking about the Iowa Caucuses, not a sham election of candidates hand-chosen by unelected theocrats.  (And we won’t even talk about the various blog posts comparing the results to the U.S presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. . . .)

A Stolen Election?

With that major caveat out of the way, it’s not uninteresting that Iranians are taking to the streets in protest of what many perceive to be a stolen election.  After all, they didn’t do that four years ago when Ahmadinejad, who only made it to the run-off by the late disqualification of the favorite, somehow won.

University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, one of the foremost experts on Iran in the United States, offers a compelling list of reasons to believe the results were rigged.  Read the essay — and its Salon magazine follow-up — for yourself but, in a nutshell, the ethnic and geographic alignments simply don’t match previous Iranian elections.  Ahmadinejad won overwhelmingly even in Mousavi’s home town and among the clannish Azeris, of which Mousavi is a member.

Conversely, in today’s WaPo, pollsters Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty defend the outcome as plausible.

The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin — greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday’s election.


The breadth of Ahmadinejad’s support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.


The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

New America Foundation Iran expert Flynt Leverett tells Der Spiegel that the West had the wrong idea going in.

I would have been surprised if he had lost. The Western media overstated the surge of his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi over the last couple of weeks. They missed almost entirely how Ahmadinejad was perceived to have won the television debate, for instance. There was an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking on the part of American and Western policymakers. Unfortunately, that had a strong impact on the media coverage over the past few weeks.

There are dozens of other reports out there rehashing the results.  See, in particular, statistician extraordinairre Nate Silver and Newsweek‘s Christopher Dickey.  Alas, while interesting, they’re exercises in futility for Western analysts without access to the raw data.

Legitimacy Permanently Dashed

Those who believe it at least within the realm of possibility that Ahmadinejad won fairly represent a decidedly minority viewpoint in the West at the moment.  Most Western analysts simply take as a given that the election was stolen and it’s highly unlikely that that opinion will be changed at this point. American bloggers and journalists, especially, have made common cause with the English speaking elites in Iran who are protesting the results and broadcasting their message effectively. The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan has been a one-man clearing house for Twitter posts, photographs, videos, and the like.

This has been compounded by the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters.  As Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshel observes, the  ” If Ahmadinejad were really the victor, why would he be detaining the opposition? Why kick out foreign journalists?”

Western leaders are mostly keeping their powder dry.  But many, including the leaders of the EU and the United States, have expressed grave concern about the outcome.

It’s Ugly.  It Could Get Uglier.

Steve Clemons, who runs the American Strategy Program at New America Foundation, observes that “Iran is a tinderbox” and passes on the fears of “a well-connected Iranian who knows many of the power figures in the Tehran” of a full-blown revolution arising out of this.

Given the dearth of Western journalists, the regime’s tight coverage of information, and the biases of those Tweeting and blogging and otherwise getting text and video out of the country, it’s impossible to accurately assess what’s going on in Iran.  Protests of some significant size are ongoing; how big, we don’t know.  The regime is cracking down; with what severity, we don’t know. 

Robert Worth and Nazila Fathi begin their NYT report thusly:

Violence and acrimony over Iran’s disputed election intensified on Sunday, with word spreading that more than 100 prominent opposition members had been detained, riots erupting in Tehran and other cities, and the triumphant incumbent hinting that his top challenger risks punishment for questioning the result.

Various reports have Mousavi and top supporters in custody; others dispute this.  There are accounts of numerous people seriously injured, even killed, as a result of the crackdown.  The veracity of these reports are unverifiable as of this writing but the very fact that so many are getting out from a highly controlled environment lends them substantial credibility.

Columbia Middle East scholar Gary Sick, who has served on the National Security Council of several presidents of both political parties, argues that “Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history” that repudiates the rules by which the ayatollahs have run things since 1979. 

1. The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.

2. The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.

Those answers, of course, create far more questions of their own.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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