15 June 2009
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


A week is a long time in politics and never more so than in the Middle East. Barely two weeks before Iran's elections of 12 June, the three rivals for the Iranian presidency appeared to have made little headway in denting popular support for the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Only a week later, the mood had changed in two critical ways. First, the unprecedented television debates ahead of the election saw President Ahmedinejad accusing the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family of involvement in high level corruption. This prompted equally vocal refutations and counter-accusations by Rafsanjani that Ahmedinejad was engaging in a level of slander that required both an official response and redress. The washing of dirty linen in public to this degree is new in Iranian electoral campaigns.

The second change came in more visible support on the streets for the 'reformist' camp of the main opposition front-runner, Mir Hossein Musavi. Popular mobilisation in the capital Tehran above all stemmed partly from the heated deterioration of the public debate and partly in response to the new phenomenon of Musavi's wife and academic, Zahra Rahnavard, campaigning alongside her husband. Suddenly, the election appeared to be both for, and about, the 75% of the Iranian population under the age of 30, and women's rights.

Against this background, the contested election results announced early on 13 June unleashed a series of questions over how things will now be resolved. An officially reported 85% of 46 million voters turned out for the polls, but it was the almost two-thirds majority declared for Ahmedinejad that provoked the most immediate popular reactions. The subsequent daily demonstrations and protests have accentuated the formation of two different camps: one in support of the victory declared for Ahmedinejad, and one against the credibility and legality of the results. This may harden into a deeper set of political divisions if not well-managed over coming days, and even weeks.

The violence used to disperse crowds by the range of security forces at the government's disposal - the police, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Basij militias - have also raised deeper suspicions about the real message of these elections. If the doubts raised by the results are not assuaged by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei's decision to authorise an investigation and partial recounting of the votes, the repression of public dissent may continue to undermine the consent on which the political establishment as a whole depends. The Guardian Council has ten days to deliver its verdict, and they may equally decide that the results were only partially rigged or falsified, and that the overall majority of Iranian votes were indeed cast for Ahmedinejad. The problem lies with the credibility of this outcome, with as many as 12 million votes at stake.

Official complaints have arisen after Iranian elections before, but there has at least been a broad consensus over the process of elections themselves and the legitimacy of the broader political system. Without this, internal divisions over the balance to be struck between the different elements of Iran's uniquely revolutionary, republican and Islamic ethos could fester long enough to undermine the unity of the state.

This is not necessarily good news for the outside world. The prospects for engaging with Iran have already been hampered by the multi-faceted internal dynamics of the Iranian political elite. If Iran's leaders remain at loggerheads, competing for the allegiances of a disgruntled and divided public, or worse, stifling the debate that many clearly wish to have about Iran's future, then any outside engagement with the Islamic Republic will risk becoming ensnared in Iran's domestic politics.

Best then for the international community to continue to observe, but cast no judgement on the full outcome of these elections until the Guardian Council has declared its verdict and Iranians' reactions to it known.

Read Iran: Election or Coup? by Sir Richard Dalton>>