(The cartoon above was typical of the misleading coverage of Iran’s 2009 election. In fact, ballots in Iranian elections are neither physically transported to nor counted at the Interior Ministry in Tehran. Ballots are counted in each polling station, by election officials and candidate observers. The counts are transmitted physically and electronically to the Ministry which aggregates national results. It is the electronic transmission of counts from polling stations that allowed the Ministry to announce results as they came in from the field after polls closed on June 12, 2009. It was compelled to do this by Mir Hossein Mousavi’s public claim he had been informed by the Ministry that he had won—a statement made while polls were still open, Iranians were still voting and not a single ballot had been counted.)
The Arab awakening has revived Western speculation about “what could have been” in the Islamic Republic of Iran if only the United States had provided more tangible support for Mir Hussein Mousavi and the Green Movement in the wake of Iran’s June 12, 2009 presidential election. Central to that speculation is an account of Iran’s election as one of the great frauds in modern political history. This account has been promulgated by agenda-driven Iran “experts” in the West, expatriate Iranians with an animus against the Islamic Republic, and major media outlets. Some of us have gone to considerable lengths to point out that the narrative does not have a single piece of hard evidence supporting it. But the myth of Iran’s “stolen” election maintains its hold over a significant percentage of American and other Western elites.
Now, the myth’s champions are claiming that their preferred narrative has gotten a new lease on life with the release, via Wikileaks, of Dubai 0249, a cable from the State Department’s “Iran Regional Presence Office (IRPO)” dated June 15, 2009 (three days after the election) and classified SECRET NOFORN (meaning it was considered so sensitive that it should not be shared with foreign governments). In this cable, which appears over the name of IRPO’s director, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers opine that “the allegations of widespread fraud [about the Iranian election] have merit”. This has been heralded by Foreign Policy as “conclusive evidence” that “the Green Movement was right: Iran’s election was fraudulent”; it has been similarly feted by other pro-Green partisans in the West as providing “sharp, valuable insight into the assessments of America’s best-trained observers of Iran”.
But the cable does nothing of the sort. In fact, reading it makes one wonder whether “America’s best-trained observers of Iran” are even minimally competent in basic statistics or their knowledge of the Islamic Republic’s political history.
The cable starts off with the bold assertion that “the numbers released by the Ministry of Interior, for all four candidates, contravene known voting patterns in Iran’s recent history”. Really? What patterns are those? The State Department’s top Iran-watchers identify three; all, as stated in the cable, are either factually incorrect or grossly misconstrued.
First, the cable misleadingly compares the 2009 election results with those from the 2005 presidential election. More specifically, the cable emphasizes the first round of the 2005 election, when former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then-Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outpolled five other candidates to move into a runoff, over Ahmadinejad’s landslide second-round run-off victory over Rafsanjani. The cable’s authors posit that “Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, primarily on the back of a strong rural turnout and a significant popular backlash to his principal opponent” [Rafsanjani]. Fair enough, as a description of the second round. But the authors then claim that only the roughly 20 percent of the vote that Ahmadinejad won in the first round in 2005 should be considered as “his base of support”; from this premise, for the 2009 results to be plausible requires “that Ahmadinejad’s base roughly quadrupled”.
This analysis is structurally flawed, to a point of outright incompetence. Viewed through the prism of the first round in 2005, Ahmadinejad’s 2009 tally is bound to seem grossly inflated. But relying on that comparison is tantamount to arguing that, because Barack Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in a competitive, multicandidate caucus in Iowa in January 2008, he could not possibly have won 54 percent of the state’s vote in the two-man general election against John McCain 10 months later. Methodologically-sound polls conducted by both Western and Iranian polling organizations make clear that, from the outset, Iran’s 2009 presidential election was effectively a two-man contest, between the incumbent Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The much more appropriate and informative point of comparison for the 2009 outcome is with the second round in 2005; putting those two sets of results side by side, one sees that Ahmadinejad’s share of the vote in 2009 (62.5 percent) is virtually identical to the share he took in his 2005 landslide victory over Rafsanjani (61.7 percent).
Second, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers claim that the 2009 results departed implausibly from various ethnic groups’ previous voting behavior. They deem it incredible that, while the ethnically Lori former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi “gained 10 percent of the vote in 2005 and swept his home province of Lorestan”, in 2009 “he captured less than one percent of the vote nationwide and just 4 percent in Lorestan”.
But, as noted, the 2009 race was, in contrast to the first round in 2005, effectively a two-man contest. In particular, the relevant methodologically-sound polling data showed Karroubi’s support in low single digits throughout the campaign, up until the eve of election day. Just as, on a nationwide basis, many Iranians decided in 2009 not to “waste” their votes on a candidate they did not believe could win, a significant portion of Iran’s Lori community made the same calculation. A painstakingly thorough analysis of the official results shows that Karroubi, in fact, benefited from an ethnic “bump”, doing five times better in Lorestan than nationally (nearly 25 times better in his native district of Aligodarz). The bump, though, was not enough to offset diminished support for his candidacy from voters judging that he was going to lose.
There is also no historical basis to assume that Lori voters “defecting” from Karroubi would automatically turn to Mousavi. Lorestan is one of Iran’s more deeply traditional and socially conservative provinces; a majority of its voters supported the conservative Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in the 1997 presidential election, bucking a strong national trend for the reformist Mohammad Khatami.
Similarly, America’s Dubai-based Iran watchers are incredulous that, in Iran’s three Azeri-majority provinces, the ethnically-Azeri Mousavi “lost two to Ahmadinejad and barely won a third; historically even minor presidential candidates with an Azerbaijani background win these provinces. It is worth noting that Mousavi lost his home province, East Azerbaijan, despite his candidacy’s significant resonance amongst his fellow Azeri Iranians.”
The level of factual inaccuracy and unsubstantiated analysis reflected in the quoted passage is impressive. In fact, there is no clear history of Azeris voting on ethnic lines in Iranian presidential elections. There have been relatively few candidates of Azeri origin, and they have not always fared well among their ethnic kinsmen (e.g., Mohsen Mehralizadeh only carried 29 percent of the Azeri vote in 2005). The Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri; there is no reason to think that Azeris were looking to cast ballots against “the system”. (By contrast, this was almost certainly a key factor driving electoral behavior in Sistan-Balochistan, Iran’s only Sunni-majority province, where Mousavi carried a majority of the vote.) Like Karroubi in Lorestan, Mousavi did better in Azeri-majority areas than nationally, but not enough to offset weak performance elsewhere.
One wonders on what the assertion that Mousavi’s candidacy had “significant resonance amongst his fellow Azeri Iranians” was based. We can be sure it was not based on the authors of Dubai 0249 having spent time on the ground in Iran’s Azeri-majority areas taking the pulse of local populations. We can also determine that it was not based on methodologically-sound polling data, which showed basically what the official results showed: Mousavi got a bump among ethnic Azeris, but not enough to give him huge super-majorities among Azeri voters.
Against the Iran watchers’ bald and unsubstantiated assertion, it is important to note that Ahmadinejad had real sources of strength in Azeri-majority areas. Before entering electoral politics, Ahmadinejad had been a district governor in East Azerbaijan and a populist governor general in Ardabil. In the second round of the 2005 presidential election, against Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad won substantial majorities of the votes cast in all three Azeri-majority provinces. In 2009, his margin of victory in Ardabil and East Azerbaijan was smaller than in 2005, and he narrowly lost in West Azerbaijan (where his percentage of the vote was roughly 47 percent). The notion that Mousavi was assured of victory in all three Azeri-majority provinces was never more than an assumption; it was certainly never grounded in either history or current reality.
Third, the authors of the cable claim that, given the spike in turnout for the 2009 election, to have won, Ahmadinejad would have to have “captured a significant share of the urban vote and the silent majority—the exact people who stayed home in the past few elections rather than vote for Ahmadinejad or his political allies”. One cannot be sure what the authors mean by “significant share of the urban vote”. The official results show that Mousavi, in fact, won the majority of votes in the city of Tehran, far and away Iran’s biggest city (though the results also show he narrowly lost Tehran province, which encompasses less prosperous and more conservative areas outside Tehran’s city limits). But Ahmadinejad did not have to sweep the urban vote to be re-elected. He had to maintain the same coalition of the religiously devout, the less prosperous, and those living in smaller cities and rural areas that drove his decisive victory over Rafsanjani in 2005. The official results show that he was able to do this in 2009, against an opponent who was portrayed, and may actually have been seen in many quarters as representing a moneyed and corrupt north Tehran elite resented by much of the rest of society.
It was not just reformist city dwellers who came to the polling stations in record numbers in 2009; turnout was up in much of the country. And it would be fallacious to assume that those who came for the first time (or came back) to polling stations voted uniformly for Mousavi. If one spends time in Iran, it is not hard to find people (even in Tehran) who voted for Khatami in 1997 and/or 2001 but, by 2009, opted for Ahmadinejad; the best polling data available suggest that Ahmadinejad may even have carried a majority of women’s votes.
The authors of Dubai 0249 point to the “2007 municipal elections”, when an Ahmadinejad-supported slate of candidates failed to win control of the Tehran city council, as “a snapshot of Ahmadinejad’s urban support”. This, too, is a grossly misleading piece of pseudo-analysis.
The municipal elections (which were actually conducted in 2006) indicate next to nothing about Ahmadinejad’s standing as a national candidate in 2009. Rather, they speak to the tensions generated among high-level players on the conservative side of Iranian politics during Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term, including his successor as Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the current parliament speaker, Ali Larijani. In 2006, Ahmadinejad’s slate did not lose to reformists. They lost to another principlist slate, linked to Qalibaf. In 2009, though, neither Larijani nor Qalibaf opted to challenge Ahmadinejad’s re-election; the incumbent went into the campaign with essentially undiluted principlist support.
Overall, Dubai 0249 presents the same set of flawed assumptions, factual inaccuracies, and agenda-driven analysis that characterized other Western assessments of the 2009 election. Like these other sources of misunderstanding, Dubai 0249 does not contain any actual evidence of electoral fraud.
On this point, it is useful to recall the following empirically-grounded, incontrovertible facts: Following the election (actually he started the day before), Mousavi advanced a wide array of allegations about the electoral process which, he claimed, had produced a fraudulent result. But Mousavi never documented a single one of these allegations.
He never identified a single one of his registered observers who had been turned away from a polling station (as he claimed “many” of them had been) or not allowed to witness the placing of ballot boxes to certify that they were empty before voting started (as he claimed had happened at “most” polling stations). Contrary to widespread Western misconceptions, ballots were counted at polling stations, not in Tehran; in 2009, for the first time, the Interior Ministry published the results from all 45,696 polling stations online. Mousavi never identified a single polling station for which the vote totals published by the Interior Ministry differed from the results attested by his observers on official forms (copies of which were kept by all observers).
Mousavi’s allegations implied at least two alternative theories of how electoral fraud had been perpetrated: either massive numbers of fraudulent ballots had been placed in ballot boxes (before the boxes’ placement in polling stations and/or when they were allegedly not being properly observed), or the real votes were never counted but replaced by “pre-cooked” results manufactured at the Interior Ministry in Tehran. If Mousavi’s real aim had been to demonstrate, with actual evidence, whatever evidence he had would have led him to emphasize one theory or the other.
But Mousavi never had any evidence to substantiate either of his theories. And, one suspects, his game plan all along was to throw out multiple accusations to discredit the election in public perceptions and marshal sufficient public pressure on Khamenei and the Guardian Council to compel them to annul the results and hold a new election, in a manner that would discredit Ahmadinejad. That is why Mousavi started alleging fraud even before the polls opened. And, contrary to Dubai 0249, it was Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad, who first declared victory on election day, while polls were still open, Iranians were still voting, and not a single ballot had actually been counted. If anyone was out to steal the election, it was Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad.
Mousavi failed in this enterprise. But he seems to have made a lasting impression on the thinking of those Westerners who are perpetually on the look-out for a Yeltsin-like figure who will catalyze the Islamic Republic’s transformation into a pro-Western, Israel-friendly secular democracy. Continued attachment to the myth of the stolen 2009 election matters, because it continues to keep the United States from coming to terms with the Islamic Republic as it is, not as so many Westerners fantasize it might be.
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett