December 22nd, 2006

Iranian elections: free and fair, or changing the display windows?

At the end of this week’s podcast, the Sanity Squad briefly mentioned the election results in Iran, which were being counted and reported (preliminarily) even as we spoke. First the results showed a repudiation of Ahmadinejad, then new “results” seemed to be coming in that negated that.

Now the final results are in, and it appears that they’ve favored what Iran calls “moderate conservatives” (i.e. people whose mouths are not quite as big as Ahmadinejad’s) and “reformers.”

Who are these people? They give the appearance, at least, of being an improvement on the loose cannon-esque Ahmadinejad. For example, as the AP reports (via, in this case, the New York Times–and note how, although the article is almost solely about the Iranian election results, the headline manages to be about Bush-hatred):

“We consider this government’s policy to be against Iran’s national interests and security. It is simply acting against Iran’s interests,” said Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran’s largest reformist party. His party seeks democratic changes within the ruling Islamic establishment and supports relations with the United States.

Sounds good. The AP and the Times treat the story as though this election were utterly bona fide, a slight change of power at the local level in a democracy, the people speaking out in order to effect change. This is hardly unique; much of the coverage of the Iranian election seems to resemble that of the AP and the Times, taking the whole thing at face value (see this, for example, which quotes an Iranian official who compares the Iranian election to the recent one in the US that repudiated Bush via the defeat of his fellow Republicans).

I find it odd that there’s not a hint in the Times or much of the MSM of any behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Iran, the fact that all candidates must be approved by the mullahs, ballot tampering, or even the fact that Iran is a theocracy run by a dictatorship since 1979. Do dictators ordinarily allow free and fair elections?

Sometimes it’s easy to tell–in the old Soviet days, only the Communist candidates were on the ballot, unopposed, and the results were always something like 99% in favor (surprise, surprise!). But these days tyrants have become far more sophisticated in their PR. Therefore it’s possible and commonplace to report this election as though people were merely repudiating the hardline policies of Ahmadinejad:

“The result of the elections, if there is any ear to listen or any eye to see, demands reconsideration in policies,” the [a moderate daily newspaper] said in an editorial Thursday.

Conservative lawmaker Emad Afroogh also called on Ahmadinejad to learn a lesson from the vote. ”The people’s vote means they don’t like Ahmadinejad’s populist methods,” Afroogh told The Associated Press.

Reformist Saeed Shariati also said the results of the election were a ”big no” to Ahmadinejad and his allies, who he accused of harming Iran’s interests with their hard line.

But do these people actually have any power in Iran? Or is this just a new window display in the Iranian shop, much of it for gullible Western consumption, for folks who believe an election is an election is an election (unless, of course, it was Bush’s in 2000)?

Michael Ledeen has been on Iran’s case for a long time, and he sees the Iranian elections rather differently than the AP and the Times, to say the least. In his National Review article on the subject, he (or his editor) puts the word “votes” in scare quotes, for example, demonstrating Ledeen’s profound skepticism about the whole process.

Ledeen’s contention is that the entire enterprise is a planned and orchestrated propaganda ploy executed by those who really rule Iran (and hint, it’s not Ahmadinejad): the mullahs. Common sense, and previous evidence, dictates that they would not allow a spontaneous and fair election to be held in that country; in Iran’s dictatorship, there are no accidents allowed in the elective process. Here’s the way Ledeen says it actually works:

Yes, people get mobilized and go to the polls and mark their ballots and put them in the ballot box. But then Groucho comes into play: “I’ve got ballots. And if you don’t like them, I’ve got other ballots.” So, as usual, candidates (featuring, as usual, the unfortunate Mehdi Karubi, the eternal loser who nonetheless remains at the top of the mullah’s power mountain) complain that ballot boxes disappeared, and new ones magically appeared, and numbers change, and counters are replaced. It’s all part of the ritual.

Well, who’s correct–the AP or Ledeen? I’ll go with Ledeen, myself; you, of course, may differ.

Ledeen points out that Ahmadinejad–although colorful and newsworthy–has been, like every other Iranian President, a mere figurehead, window-dressing for the real leaders of the country, the mullahs. Khatami, his predecessor, was his exact opposite–he talked the talk the West wanted to hear. But neither he nor Ahmadinejad can walk the walk without the mullahs pulling the strings.

The Iranian President plays nothing like the powerful role of the chief American executive, although the mullahs count on the West’s confusion about the title being similar to make it seem as though the Iranian President is actually a more important figure than he is. However, he’s used to send whatever message the mullahs may want to signal at any specific point in time.

Ledeen writes:

["Moderate" Khatami's tenure, Ahmadinejad's predecessor] was a period when Iran sought to lull the West into the arms of Morpheus, distracting attention from the real horrors of the regime and its preparations for war against us, including the nuclear program.

With Ahmadinejad, the mullahs bared their fangs to us. Convinced they were winning in Iraq, foreseeing the destruction of Israel, the domination of Lebanon, a jihadist reconquista in Afghanistan and the expansion of their domain into the Horn of Africa, they gave us the face of the unrepentant conqueror. He’s played his role well, and he will continue to play it.

So what’s actually going on right now in Iran, according to Ledeen? A power struggle for the succession to the real throne in the country, the one held by ailing (and probably dying) head cleric Khameini:

The war policy is not in dispute among the rulers of Iran, whether they call themselves reformers or hard-liners. Nor is the decision to use the iron fist of the regime against any and all advocates of freedom for the Iranian people. What is decidedly at the center of the current fighting within the regime — a fight that has already produced spectacular assassinations, masqueraded as airplane crashes, of a significant number of military commanders, including the commander of the ground forces of the powerful Revolutionary Guards — is the Really Big Question, indeed the only question that really matters: Who will succeed Khamenei?

Ledeen suggests that even the regime’s management of the recent student demonstrations (which were real, not staged) reflects this power struggle–they wanted the news to be publicized, and made sure it was. He also mentions that some Western news agencies, by publishing photos of the demonstrators, unmindful of the possible consequences, have forced them into hiding–nice going, guys (and gals).

[NOTE: Ledeen is considered by many to be a hothead, bent on war between the US and Iran. I wrote about Ledeen previously, here; I don't see any indication from his statements that this is what he's advocating, although he certainly is in favor of regime change there. Here is an interview with Ledeen that I recommend if you are interested in learning more about his point of view.]

[ADDENDUM: Amir Taheri, an Iranian expert whose views I respect, treats the elections with something between the total cynicism of Ledeen and the total acceptance of the AP. He acknowledges the inherent unfairness there, but still thinks they reflect trends in the thinking of the Iranian public. He reports that "the real winner" of these elections is Khameini--no surprise there, somehow. And that the results were a repudiation for Ahmadinejad in Tehran, but not in other areas of the country.]

18 Responses to “Iranian elections: free and fair, or changing the display windows?”

  1. Steve Says:

    I’m not surprised that Ahmadenijad is getting into hot water. He’s just too much of a goofball to be a representative leader of any country.

    I appreciate the acknowledgment, via Ledeen, that the Iranian Prez is just a figurehead, in other words, he has little power.

  2. Ariel Says:

    The question is what purpose did he serve for the mullahs who represent the real power?

  3. Curious Says:

    Out of curiosity, I was wondering if you or anyone on the “Sanity Squad” actually knows anything about Iran? I mean, actual knowledge, not what you read in a blog post about a blog post about an essay about an op-ed about a news story, but rather first-hand knowledge (been to Iran? Speak Farsi?) or second-hand knowledge (read an actual scholarly book, not some Ken Pollack garbage, or something along those lines – maybe an ICG report or two?). Anything?

  4. expat Says:

    I’ve read that Ahmadinejad is really hurting the economy. I have no expertise to evaluate this.

  5. PhilinFL Says:

    Hey, N-NC! Love this blog, where have you been all my life!

    I went into exile from the People’s Republic of Moscowchusetts in 1998, down to (central) Florida…We may be rednecks, but WE’RE NORMAL, knowwhuttimean?

    I grew up in PRM, so I can really empathize w/those “friendly family chats.” But I was a Repub since the Reagan days, I was mugged much younger than you!!

  6. Isaiah Hunahun Says:

    Good podcast and post — keep up the great work — and Merry Christmas :)

  7. strcpy Says:

    Amusingly enough, the same one who tend to treat Iran’s election as above the board honest are the same who think the ones in the US are totally fixed.

  8. Sergey Says:

    The question in headline of this post is not a real question for me. Who in his true senses can believe in honest elections under totalitarian regime? I also “voted” in Soviet Union, and nobody except a handful of crazy “real believers” took this ritual as a real thing.

  9. dacher Says:

    And what exactly would regime change in Iran accomplish? Iran’s current form of government already sounds suspiciously like Iraq’s post-Saadam government – an Islamic Democracy based on Sharia. Iraqi politicians are “blessed” by the religious leaders of Iraq before running for office. Clerics like Al Sistani and Al Sadr are most powerful than the “elected” civilian leadership. Study history, that’s just how the Muslim Mideast worked. All secular leaders are dictators. The democracies all become theocracies (Yeman as an example). Ironically, burying the hatchet, making peace with Saadam would have been the strongest counter to Islamicism and Iran.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    Everything, it would accomplish everything, in relation to the Shias.

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    Amanie is the propaganda head and the controller of the mob in Iran. The clerics were losing popular support, so they needed a “new face”. We have clerical power, secret police power, military power, and propaganda/political/people power. based upon how the clerics set up their military, they may have 1 or 2 or 3 of the above. But they don’t have all the trappings under their thumb.

  12. Ariel Says:


    That was a very good summation. And it depends on how the powers align as to whether the regime continues.

  13. dacher Says:

    Sounds just like how Iraq operates right now. You know if al-Maliki is replaced as PM it will be someone hand picked by the Shia clerics of Iraq. In Muslim democracies there is no distinction between religion and state. The mob will just vote for whomever their clerics tells them to vote for.

    I don’t disagree with you on Iran. I’m just pointing out how the US created democracy in Iraq is looking very much like democracy in Iran.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    Every non-transparent nation operates in such a secretive and factionalistic fashion. Saddam had the police and military under him, but his tyrann was de-centralized. The people power were amongst the tribal and Sunni chiefs, mostly. Not in Saddam. Oh he liked attention, but that wasn’t really people power. If he was out on the street alone, powerless, he couldn’t count on any help from the “people”, you know.

    If you saw the funeral for Khomeini in Iran, you would have been amazed at the fanaticism shown. Khomenini had definite “people” power. But if so, why the hell did the clerics believe that they needed an election? Eh? Tyrants only give elections if they believe it might benefit them.

    A lot of nations like NOrth Korea and China, are opaque. Meaning, I do not have the data necessary to analyze how their politics and factions work out. Not as I do with Britain. Mostly because there are no insider information specialists, because of restrictions on speech. But also mostly because China and NK and Iran have a HUGE propaganda and misinformation apparatus. You don’t know what is true, or whether there are 1 or 2 or 3 layers to the data, all of a different sort and color. It takes time and effort to puzzle out what is true, what the Chinese believe to be true, and what is false. A job that is for intel agencies, not decentralized analysis.

    The internet is very good when the data is free and open and plentiful. In Iran and such, it is very hard to get information.

  15. grackle Says:

    … the US created democracy in Iraq is looking very much like democracy in Iran.

    Only if you are not looking very hard. The elections in Iraq are monitored and fair; the elections in Iran are a farce. Another way the governments of the two countries differ is that the Iraqis are a government that no longer wages war against the US; the Iranians have yet to be stopped. And so far the Iraqis, unlike the Iranians, are not interfering in the internal affairs of neighboring countries. It seems these distinctions are missed by some.

  16. Michael Brazier Says:

    Dacher, the constitution of Iran defines a body called the “Guardian Council of the Constitution”. One of its powers is to vet candidates for all elective offices in Iran — anyone whose politics are “unconstitutional”, as interpreted by the Guardian Council, is not allowed to hold elective office in Iran. And the constitution says explicitly that shari’a is its basis. (The Guardian Council’s members are not elected, by the way.) The effect of this is that only Shi’a, and Khomeinist Shi’a at that, can ever hope to be elected to any office.

    The new Iraqi constitution doesn’t contain anything like this. Ali Sistani is, as it happens, opposed to things like this — he has said in so many words that mullahs should not have direct political power, and points to Iran as a horrible example. So no, Iraq’s new government is not like Iran’s, and if Sistani has his way it never will be.

  17. Ymarsakar Says:

    If Sadr kills Sistani and the Democrats allow this to happen, then it will become like Iran’s.

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    They did it in Vietnam, not so hard to visualize the Democrats doing it again in Iraq.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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