One of the reasons I have been so concerned about Iran for such a long time is that I fear the mullahs’ cleverness, ruthlessness, and ability to mount brilliant deceptions. Moreover, while there have long been basic fault lines within the mullahcracy, I have long believed they would find ways to pull together at moments of crisis.
The electoral fiasco of June 17 has shaken both of these convictions. They couldn’t even stage a phony election without appearing inept and thuggish, which is certainly not the image they wanted to send to the world. And the spectacle of intense internal conflict among leading figures in the Islamic republic makes me wonder if the revolution is beginning to devour its own fathers and sons.
First, the numbers.
The regime had made it clear that the size of the turnout would indicate its legitimacy with the public, so they had to come up with big numbers. After hours of hilarious confusion, during which the "official" numbers oscillated wildly and different vote totals were announced by the interior ministry and the Council of Guardians, the regime finally decided to claim that something like 65 percent of eligible Iranians had voted. But most clear-eyed observers with the freedom to move around the country and actually go to polling places, found very few voters. The Mujahedin Khalq, the longtime allies of Saddam Hussein who have long been a source of information on things Iranian, estimated that the real figure was about 10 percent. If you read The Scotsman, for example, you hear things like this:
...at a polling station in...an affluent suburb of northern Tehran, only 150 voters had arrived by mid-afternoon. "We have been given 1,000 ballot papers, so it seems the turn-out has been a lot lower than expected," said Mohsen Jannati, the school’s headmaster, who supervised the voting.
The lowest participation--maybe as low as 3-5 percent--was in Khuzestan Province, where there had been bombings and protests in recent weeks. But anecdotal evidence from all over the country indicated a very low turnout, as of late afternoon. Despite this, the mullahs trotted out rosy reports of big voter turnouts, and even broadcast "live" TV coverage of voters queued up, waiting patiently to make their voices heard.
The only problem was that the pictures were from past elections. One woman called up a Tehran radio station to say that she was sitting at home watching the tube, and saw herself voting. Very droll indeed.
Realizing that a major fiasco was brewing (a source inside the interior ministry informs me that just before closing time, only seven million people had voted) the regime mobilized its forces. First they announced that the closing time would be extended by several hours. Then the Revolutionary Guards and the fanatical Basijis (the religious paramilitary force) started rounding up their followers, along with governmental employees and anyone who could be blackmailed or intimidated (students were told that they could not attend university unless they voted), and dragged them to the polls. Even so, by early morning the regime--which had millions of blank ballots in reserve, in order to produce whatever outcome they desired--was staggering about, trying to decide what it should announce. Differing results came out of different buildings, and the top candidates accused one another of fraud, and worse.
The New York Times tells it nicely:
The government announced at the close of the polls that there would probably be a runoff between two of three candidates: Mr. Rafsanjani, Dr. Mostafa Moin, a reform candidate, and a former police chief, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative. But by 7 a.m. the next day, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, which is not supposed to be involved in the vote count, announced that the mayor of Tehran was in first place.
Even before final results were announced Saturday night, Mr. Karroubi, the former speaker of Parliament, said in a news conference that the election had been rigged. He was joined later by Dr. Moin, the reform candidate who finished in fifth place, who charged interference by the military, though he did not say whom or what he was referring to.
The government continued Sunday to deny the accusations of election fraud. The Guardian Council announced Sunday night on state-run news broadcasts that no one had filed a formal complaint with the council and that unless one was presented by the end of the day Monday, the runoff would go ahead on Friday as planned.
Karroubi had the bad taste to point out that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, and an infamous former chief of the Special Unit of the Revolutionary Guards (the unit in charge of terror and assassination) had been awarded about a million votes between three and four o’clock in the morning. Indeed, Mustafa Moein, the leading "reformist" in the race, was actually winning at three, but dropped out of contention within the hour, as Rafsanjani consolidated his hold on first place. If the official results stand--as they surely will, for anyone who presents a complaint will face an exceedingly unpleasant short-term future--Rafsanjani will face Ahmadinejad next Friday. For the record, let’s file away Moein’s lament. "I declare that what happened was an extra-legal move to deprive one candidate of his right and to pull up another candidate...We must take seriously the danger of fascism..."
Actually, Moein need not worry about fascism; it’s already firmly entrenched. But his description of what happened on election night is quite accurate. Rafsanjani was the heavy favorite, and he certainly had sufficient resources to buy as many ballots as he needed (the most interesting accusation, passed on to me from a government official in Tehran, is that about two million Pakistani Shiites from Quetta were provided with Iranian passports and bused into the country to vote). But, even with the anticipated fraud, second place was closely contested between Moein and Karroubi. The "victory" of Ahmadinejad was apparently not anticipated, and decidedly not approved, by the Supreme Leader and his cronies. It amounts to a political coup by the Basij and the most fanatical elements of the Revolutionary Guards. After all, Ahmadinejad’s real status lies with them; they consider it high praise that he was accused of involvement in assassinations in both Austria and Germany.
As best I can tell, the real numbers are quite different from the official ones. Roughly seven million people voted under normal circumstances, between the opening bell and the official closing time. But there were approximately 29 million ballots, a difference of 22 million. Of these, about five million were produced by the late evening roundups (bringing the total of actual voters to twelve million), and the balance--17 million--were fraudulent, mostly blank ballots filled out by the representatives of one candidate or another. This out of an eligible pool of about 51 million (remember that the voting age in Iran is 14 years).
The "reformers" are going to back Rafsanjani, and the "hard liners" will go all out for their man Ahmadinejad. As I have said before, the presidency of the Islamic republic is a symbolic office rather than a position of real power, but the election night fiasco suggests that very powerful people are unwilling to play the old game. They could not tolerate the presence of even such dubious figures as Karroubi and Moein in a runoff, and while it is hard to imagine they have serious problems with Rafsanjani--who in his earlier term as president ordered numerous terrorist actions and supervised the vicious crackdown on rebellious students and intellectuals--who knows? Once this sort of internal fission begins, it may elude the efforts of canny politicians to contain it. Even if they are masters of deceit and manipulation. We'll know in a week. But already the Iranian people have been treated to the spectacle of a regime at once incompetent and divided. Remember that Machiavelli warned his prince that the most dangerous development for any leader is to be held in contempt by his underlings.
Meanwhile, the director of central intelligence gently reminded us--or so it appears--that we have profound problems to resolve with the mullahs. Time asked him how we were doing in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. He replied that the matter was rather more complicated than one might imagine. He was quite sure he knew where the master terrorist was located, and I think he told us that bin Laden is in Iran. Judge for yourself:
...we have some weak links...until we strengthen all the links, we're probably not going to be able to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice. We are making very good progress on it. But when you go to the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you're dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play...
Is he not saying that bin Laden is in a sanctuary in a sovereign state? And what state could that be? If bin Laden were in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it wouldn’t seem to be such a vexing problem as Goss suggests. But Iran, now that’s a problem. Indeed the biggest problem in the war against terrorism.
Which is why it would have been better to have moved faster to support the Iranian people against their terror masters. Can we do it now, please?
Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at AEI.