14 June 2009
Richard Dalton
Sir Richard Dalton
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Iran's election was most likely a power grab coordinated by Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ahmadinejad's close colleagues, and IRGC leaders designed to extirpate the memory of reformist victories in 1997 and 2001 and establish the supremacy of the religious/nationalist trend of the Principle-ists. But it has backfired. Khamenei can't go back on his order to acknowledge the victory of Ahmadinejad, he has already lost some authority as well as some legitimacy. The Guardian Council which has 7-10 days to consider the complaints, may come up with a sop to Musavi, Kharrubi and Rezaie, say a partial re-count* or criticism of some of the actions of the Ministry of the Interior. Meanwhile the demonstrations are being tolerated in the hope that allowing people to blow off steam will also help calm the situation after a period. Musavi, Kharrubi and Khatami after all are not after changing the system, but running it better, legally and more humanely.

Predictions are for the birds. Of the four broad options now - progressive meltdown of the system, rerun or recount of the elections, some adjustment of some results but Ahmadinejad stays in power, or the system clamming up, suppressing dissent and doing nothing new - the most probable is the third one, or, less likely, the last. Either would be followed by somewhat uneasy consolidation of power by Khamenei and the military with Ahmadinejad as their CEO. I cannot entirely rule out a re-run especially if government soundings make them think the high turn-out would not be repeated and thus that Ahmadinejad might even win cleanly.

Were predictions all wrong - the informal tests of opinion, the figures favouring Musavi produced during the polling by his team, the alleged steer given by the Ministry of the Interior during the count to Musavi's team that they had won, the received view of experts that a high turnout would favour the challenger, another received view that 'electoral irregularities' on an ordinary scale could not by themselves deliver a landslide, the rumours of official polling a week ago showing that the incumbent was going down?

Probably not wrong. It is hard to believe that such numbers of voters changed their minds about Ahmadinejad after the last four years. So although Ahmadinejad had a large following reinforced by his provincial visits and free-spending, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard can deliver several million votes to a candidate designated by the leadership, the best working hypothesis available on 13 June to explain the result is that it was a stolen election. In effect, it was a coup using electoral machinery against not just the Reformists but also the conservative and centrist factions and powerful individuals, clerical and non-clerical, who opposed Ahmadinejad.

If so, why? For an answer one should start with the general truth that power in Iran is dual - with democratic and religious revolutionary elements. In a crisis the religious will trump the democratic. So in 2001, after President Khatami's second landslide victory, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, seems to have decided that he could not tolerate the risks to the system represented by Khatami succeeding in his main aims, or future elections that might set in stone reformist dominance of Iran's civil power structure. Khatami was duly neutered and his measures blocked by the unelected centres of power.

In 2004, over 2000 reformists were disqualified from standing in the majlis (Assembly) elections, which - together with disillusion with the performance of the reformists when in power - handed lawmaking over to the conservatives.

In 2005, the Leader appeared to have decided that Ahmadinejad, a candidate who followed his lead and who was backed by both the military and a section of the clerics, was a better bet for him and for the system than the redoubtable former President Rafsanjani.

The Iran of 2009 is no different. And there is more to say. Ahmadinejad is right (at least in the short term) that a tough stance has brought dividends: US acceptance of the existence of the Islamic Republic, and of negotiations without preconditions on Iran's role in the region as well as on the nuclear dispute, mastery of more of the nuclear fuel cycle with no new sanctions. The Leader cares more for this than for long-term economics or standing better with foreigners.

And the current and former military men with whom he is allied have benefited enormously from Ahmadinejad's rule. They will have been most unwilling to see their privileges diluted, which would have been the inevitable consequence of a return to the less populist, more market-oriented, more orthodox economic decision-making that all the challengers promised and that Musavi could have delivered.

Moreover, hardliners saw a possible future in Musavi's 'green wave', the popular appeal of a pragmatic approach to change, responding to many ordinary people's yearning for more freedom, a better-managed economy and better links with the world, and they did not like it. As in 2001, it could gather speed and generate a different Iran by degrees: hence the warning by the Revolutionary Guard on 11 June that they would not tolerate disorder leading to a velvet revolution.

In 2005, Kharubi and Rafsanjani were persuaded not to press their complaints of malpractice in the election, so the nature of Ahmadinejad's victory then has not been nailed down. The unelected power centres are likely to do the same this time: using a mixture of intimidation and appeals to loyalty to suppress dissent. It is unlikely that Iranians will get to know any time soon how it was done. The Interior Ministry, however, is split between political factions and just before the election some of its members revealed decisions and plans to falsify results if necessary, including an alleged fatwa by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi that justified rigging if not to do so would jeopardise the spread of Iranian influence.

It is too soon to say whether the authorities will succeed in achieving calm acceptance of the result. They have powerful tools - including a statute book that allows the sternest penalties for acting against their assertion of God's will: the strength and security of the Islamic Republic.

The sequence of events this week? I suspect that they hoped to win through Plan A - a straightforward electoral contest, in which the pro-reform vote would be split. But when that appeared unlikely to deliver the right result, they moved to Plan B. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini exploited the crisis over the US Embassy hostage-taking to move decisively against the more liberal elements in the post-revolutionary government. In 2009, the dominant faction have moved against not only resurgent reformists, but against centrists and Rafsanjani. Maybe Ahmadinejad already knew that Plan B would make him safe when he lumped Rafsanjani and Musavi together in the televised debate with Musavi. When, after that, Rafsanjani made a strong complaint to the leader warning of treason against the Revolution, Rafsanjani obviously suspected what was coming. Pointedly, Khamenei ignored the letter.

Does this make Khamenei the master-mind, or is he constrained by the conservative faction that supports Ahmadinejad? Who gave the orders? There is too little evidence to be sure.

For many Iranians, the result is a major setback to hopes for better things. If it was achieved fraudulently, it stores up trouble for the regime leaving it temporarily stronger but weaker long-term as it has lost another opportunity to evolve peacefully.

For Britain and its partners, the result is not surprising. It is a disappointment but not a fatal setback. They should make clear their doubts about the election and support impartial investigation and correction of abuses, as they would do for any other country. The EU should warn Iran that much as it may want respect, it has to earn it. There are limits to what they can do, however, in response to the election, out of concern for appearing to favour certain candidates, thus making those candidates more vulnerable to repression.

The P5 and Germany, and the US, are not going to withdraw their negotiating initiatives because there is doubt about the legitimacy of the election of the Iranian President, nor should they. It is likely that Khamenei will authorise exploration of the new US position towards Iran in due course and talks may get under way in the autumn to explore whether there is sufficient common ground on anything for confidence to be created and progress made. With a President Musavi on the scene, negotiations would have been long, hard and possibly abortive. With Ahmadinejad in the picture they will be harder still.

The Iranian political world after these elections will be edgier, as well as less sustainable in the long run. The horizon for fundamental change in Iran has been brought closer. Change will not be linear and smooth, of course, it will be jerky, uncertain and potentially violent.

* A partial recount was announced on 16 June

This text is based on an article for MEC Analytical Group.

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