Iran’s Disputed Election

By: 
Dan Brumberg, Steve Heydemann, Sheldon Himelfarb, Asieh Mir

Posted: June 22, 2009

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on June 19 called for an end to the political demonstrations that have engulfed Tehran – and riveted the world -- for the past week.

In his first public response to the political unrest, Khamenei warned those participating in the protests to stay off the streets, blaming foreign leaders and the media for exploiting differences within Iran’s political sphere to destabilize the country.  He furthermore warned protesters they will face the consequences if they continue their civil disobedience. 

Opposition supporters in Tehran marched through the streets every day last week, starting on June 13 when the Interior Ministry declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of Iran’s presidential election.

USIP presents various perspectives from several of the Institute’s specialists on these historic developments.

Dan Brumberg, acting director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, provides background and analysis.

Sheldon Himelfarb, associate vice president of USIP’s Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Center of Innovation, also weighs in on the role of media in Iran over the last week.

Then, Steve Heydemann, vice president of USIP’s Grant and Fellowships Program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative, joins Dan Brumberg to assess the U.S.’s response to the developments in Iran.

USIP’s Asieh Mir on June 15 provided her analysis of the Iranian election.

Have questions about these historic developments?  Asieh Mir and Soolmaz Abooali are ready to respond on USIP’s Facebook discussion board!

On June 25, USIP’s Dan Brumberg  and Asieh Mir and other specialists will talk about the election and its implications for U.S.-Iranian relations.

This fall, USIP will also release John Limbert’s new book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling with Ghosts of History.

What do you make of the developments in Iran over the last week? How significant are these protests?

Dan Brumberg: If the protests are sustained at this level and number, it will be very hard for the regime to repress the opposition.

The strategy of the protestors is to raise the cost of repression to such a level that the regime will not be able to use violence without completely losing legitimacy, or without risking a split within the security apparatus, perhaps pitting the Revolutionary Guards against elements of the army, or within the Guard itself.

In short, the regime would like to make sure that this is not 1979 all over again, i.e. when the Shah used intermittent force in such a way as to cause a defection of part of the security apparatus to the opposition.

My sense is that the regime is just improvising, trying to avoid precisely the scenario I outlined.

Which side succeeds -- it's too early to tell. 

Who are these protesters and what do they want? Could the protests have an influence on the Iranian government?

Dan Brumberg: Actually, despite what I said above, the protestors do not want a revolution, or a change of the system.

They want a change WITHIN the system, i.e. a return to a system where the vote for the president is real and genuine. That will require a recount, or perhaps a new election.

Unfortunately, I think that neither of these demands will be met.

How is information getting out about what’s going on inside Iran? How reliable is that information?

Dan Brumberg: There is a ton of info. Much of it is first-hand accounts of what’s happening.

The whole world IS watching!  Even if CNN and other Western news outlets are not allowed to cover the protests, cell phone video is more than adequate in getting the message out.

Sheldon Himelfarb, associate vice president of USIP’s Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Center of Innovation: First, let’s be clear about how the information has been getting out of Iran.

Although the new social media technologies are getting all the attention – Twitter, blogging, the SMS texting – it is the combination of new technologies with traditional media that creates a powerful mix to reach us and inform our debate.

If you read the social media, you’ll also see lots of chatter about Voice of America Persian, BBC, CNN and other news coverage of events.  Mainstream networks are taking the tweets, the text messages, cell phone calls and photos, and other video sent to them over the network and weaving them into stories about what’s happening in the streets. We saw something similar by the way in the coverage of the Gaza conflict – a powerful mix of online and offline media that shapes the public debate.

At the same time, we are undoubtedly seeing a depth and breadth of how Iranians are leveraging the new media that exceeds what we’ve seen elsewhere.

I saw one commentator call it “the social media election” -- which is probably overstating the case -- but the extent of online activism has been incredible.

On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised, given what we already knew about the way Iranians, secular as well as religious, had taken to the Internet as a means of expressing themselves in the face of government control.

Almost 18 months ago the Iranian blogosphere, for example, was estimated at well over 60,000 blogs, and I’ve seen experts describe it as the third or fourth largest national blogospheres in the world. And what is also remarkable has been the extent to which Iranians have been blogging and chatting and active online using their own names – which addresses to some extent your question about the reliability of the information.

The Iranian government, like most governments, has made efforts at disinformation as well as intimidation, but it’s miniscule compared to the deluge of authentic first-hand accounts we’ve been seeing – and from a demographic by the way that reflects the youth of the country itself.

At the same time, we also need to acknowledge that the cyber accounts are being generated far more by Mousavi supporters and factor that into our interpretation. 

Is there actual evidence that the election was rigged?

Dan Brumberg: The evidence is overwhelming: they didn't even take time to count the vote.

Some analysts say that Ahmadinejad stole the election. Do you agree? Is that fair to say?

Dan Brumberg: Yes, he stole it. The regime was not willing to abide by any other outcome other than a "victory" for the president. This is a kind of electoral coup.

What kind of regional and domestic support does Ahmadinejad have?

Dan Brumberg: Unfortunately, if understandably, most of the regimes in the region are effectively supporting him. The Turkish government was quick to congratulate him. Arab nations figure he will prevail and that they will have to deal with him, so they do not want to antagonize him. The Russian government loves autocracy, and has much in common with the Iranian president. For all kinds of reasons of self interest, he has effective support.

How much influence does Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have over what happens?

Dan Brumberg:  Strangely, not as much as we might assume for a "Supreme Leader." He is dependent on the president and his forces in the security apparatus, and on the support of certain high ranking hardline clerics. He is constrained.

How much influence does he have over the government and policy-making – no matter who becomes president?

Dan Brumberg:  If Mousavi wins, the supreme leader will basically call the shots.  But the climate might change, creating space for compromises on, say, the nuclear enrichment question that would probably not otherwise be on the table if it were a partnership beween Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.

BUT, it’s is also possible that a Mousavi-Khamenei partnership would create something of a divided government once again, and thereby hindering a deal. Some argue that an Ahmadinejad-Khamenei partnership would be able to make compromises that a Mousavi-Khamenei duo couldn't or wouldn't.

I am far from convinced about this argument, but it is out there and worth debating.

What are some possible scenarios of how this can unfold?

Dan Brumberg: One possibility is that the opposition forces the regime to announce a different set of poll results, one, for example, that might set the stage for a runoff. I would say the odds of this are five percent...but they could grow, depending on the capacity of opposition to sustain its public demonstrations.

Another possibility is, as I suggested above, there is a bloody confrontation that would lead to a split in the regime and the security apparatus, either with the hard-liners taking over in a decisive way -- an overt coup -- or the  opposition prevailing, with the support fo the clerics and Khamenei for a new poll. The odds of a hardline coup right now seem to me not great -- five percent maybe; the odds of a victory by the moderate opposition, two percent.

The most likely scenario: the regime wears the opposition down, making tactical retreats (yes, they will say, the results show that the gap between the two sides was much smaller, but still Ahmadinejad wins).

I think the prospects for this outcome -- which would still be a victory for Ahmadinejad -- are right now about 55 percent, but they could go up or down depending on the course of the mass protests, and the response of the security forces.

You just returned from Lebanon and as you are acting director of USIP’s Muslim World Initiative in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention -- How is this playing out in the Middle East? What is your sense of the regional reaction? 

Dan Brumberg: The regional reaction is muted. Autocracies in the region which use elections to maintain power are not happy to see a similar strategy fail in Iran, where elections were even more important to the system than in the Arab countries. So, despite the concerns of Sunni government’s about Iran’s influence in the region, these Sunni Arab regimes are not likely to criticize Iran’s government.

In Lebanon, the split is very much along sectarian lines, with the March 14 coalition pretty pleased to see the Iranian opposition trying to give the regime a run for its money. Hezbollah, meanwhile, is pretty muted, as far as I have seen.

The movement has good relations with many reformists, but its leadership has pledged itself loyal to Khamenei. So it's a tricky situation.

As for Israel, the predominant view is that the regime will prevail, and will be even more dangerous. But there is some sentiment in Israel that a regime more dangerous will also make Israel's diplomatic life easier. For many Israelis, a win for Mousavi would have given the regime a prettier face, which would have been problematic for Jerusalem.

What do you think about the U.S.’s response to the events in Iran so far?

Dan Brumberg: I think President Obama has a tricky challenge. He doesn't want the U.S. to seen as interfering in Iran's domestic politics; he knows that that perception would UNDERMINE Mousavi and the opposition.

On the other hand, Obama must speak up and defend human rights, defend the principle of a free election; the idea that the people's voice must be heeded. I think so far he has struck a pretty good balance. We need the support of our Western European allies to make it clear that it is not the U.S. that is making the case for human rights alone, but the entire Western community -- this would help to dampen Tehran's assertion of U.S. interference and bullying.

Steve Heydemann, Vice President, Grant and Fellowships Program and Special Adviser, Muslim World Initiative:  This is a very difficult situation for the U.S. My sense is that the response has been measured and appropriate, after an initial stumble – with our observations on our intent to sustain our policy of engagement with Iran in the face of very serious questions that surfaced over the integrity of the election.  And it was only later that the administration found its footing and shifted to focus an emphasis on the electoral  process, and to express the American government’s hope that the Iranian government would do everything to ensure the integrity of the process.

That shift is very important because President Obama expressed his hope for democracy in his June 4 speech in Cairo. Secondly, it’s important that the administration can uphold a single standard for recognizing regimes – and show that it’s not something we’re just imposing on Iran, but a generic standard we can apply all over the world.  This shift also avoids explicitly taking sides in the Iranian election, but makes clear our expectation that we will be evaluating the behavior of the Iranian government in terms of how they ensure the integrity of the electoral process.

What advice would you give to the Obama administration?

Dan Brumberg: I think we should not be afraid of offering more public support for the democratic process in Iran, and for Tehran's adherence to international human rights principles. It is a signatory to the UN Charter on Human Rights. There is no reason why we cannot make this argument more forcefully, while reiterating that the solution is up to the Iranian people.

Steve Heydemann: Now that the administration has found the right tone, it needs to reiterate that message. For our long term relationship with Iran, it’s important that we don’t do anything that could be seen as foreclosing or as contributing to a premature closure of the political space that has opened in the last week.

How does USIP’s expertise help in this situation? 

Steve Heydemann: USIP has a lot of in-house expertise, but also has very strong connections to scholars and officials based in the region. And, we’re in a strong position to serve as a facilitator for exchange and ideas on the ground there and in this country, for those who want to understand the situation better.

June 22, 2009
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