Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:47 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 13:47 | SYDNEY

Iran: A coup disgrace?


Anthony Bubalo

This post is part of the Iranian elections 2009 debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

15 June 2009 13:53

This post is part of the Iranian elections 2009 debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

My colleague Rodger Shanahan argues that the election result shows that observers outside Iran, and Iranians who parse the country for the outside world (few of whom would have been Ahmadinejad voters), underestimated Ahmadinejad’s support and were engaged in wishful thinking.

He points to what is often called the 'north Tehran syndrome', where Western observers extrapolate their view of the country as a whole from interviews with middle class, English-speaking inhabitants of the capital’s up-scale neighbourhoods. This was true in the 2005 election, but as this blog post from Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation makes clear, at least one Western journalist did leave north Tehran this time around, and found far from uniform support for the incumbent.

Flynt Leverett argues that the margin of victory, while surprising, makes it unlikely that the usual forms of vote tampering that often take place in Iranian elections, and which might swing at best a few million votes, had been used to rig the election result. 

True. But it does not rule out that hardliners in the regime did not so much rig the election result as ignore it altogether, announcing their own results, which were then confirmed (rather more speedily than usual) by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Gary Sick and Juan Cole have already posted circumstantial evidence for this thesis, arguing that there has been, in effect, an internal coup. Three streams of evidence are to my mind compelling in favour of this thesis:

  1. By Iranian standards, the election result was announced by the Ministry of Interior very quickly (with an few hours of polls closing, as opposed to usually about 24 hours) and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei even more quickly thereafter (about 24 hours rather than the more usual three days later). The fact that all three challengers are contesting the result, and not just the margin, is significant. Remember, these guys are not busted-arse oppositionists, they are prominent and respected members of the regime, including in Rezai’s case, from its conservative wing.
  2. The election results as officially reported by the state-controlled media and Interior Ministry, both controlled by the incumbent, gave Ahmadinejad a fairly uniform vote across Iran, despite the fact that in past elections there have been significant ethnic and regional variations. In fact, according to these figures, all three challengers, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai, lost the vote in their home towns, respectively, Shabestar, Aligoudar and Masjed-Soleiman, which is surprising by the standards of previous Iranian elections. 
  3. If Ahmadinejad won by the landslide suggested by the official figures, why the heavy and orchestrated security response as polls closed? Reports from different sources have referred to concrete barriers being thrown up around the Interior Ministry, security forces heavily deployed (we don’t know what was happening in other parts of Iran), senior reformist figures being detained, Facebook and other social messaging networks being blocked, SMS communications shut down, patchy mobile phone coverage and heavy filtering of the internet.  A number of reformist newspapers were shut down and restrictions were placed on the Western media, including foreign journalists being told that their visas would not be extended.  

As I have already implied, none of this is a smoking gun and it might still be true that the West will just have to ‘lump it’.  But if this is what the circumstantial evidence points to, then it is very significant, for Iran and for the international community’s dealings with the country. I will post on why shortly.

Photo by Flickr user Yahya Natanzi, used under a Creative Commons license.