Monday, June 15, 2009

An Election Night That Shocks the World -- and Plunges Iran Into its Worst Crisis in 30 Years

Re-Election of Ahmadinejad -- Openly Challenged by the Opposition as Fraudulent -- May Have Been Iranian Voters' Rejection of Western Expectations of an Iranian Replay of Obama's Election Victory in the U.S. and a Direct Snub of His Conciliatory Speech to the Muslim World in Cairo

These two men on a motorcycle speed past a burning bus in Tehran Sunday, as protests against the hotly-disputed re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued into a second day. While the results stunned the world -- and prompted opposition charges that the election was so fraught with irregularities that Ahmadinejad's victory is tainted -- they might reflect a direct rejection by Iranians of U.S. Western hopes for a detente between Tehran and Washington. (Photo: Shahram Sharif/Inter-Press Service)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, June 15, 2009)
(Updated 6:30 a.m. EDT Monday, June 15, 2009)



TEHRAN -- By 3 a.m. local time on Saturday (6:30 p.m. Friday EDT), it was clear that the hopes of Iran's "green army" -- and the anticipation of the international media -- had been thoroughly dashed.

What was not clear was quite what had happened in those few hours between the close of voting and the announcement of the initial results, how an enormous wave of sentiment had vanished so completely when faced with the ballot box.

Was it just the failing of the world's press, allowing themselves to become unwitting victim to a clever marketing campaign or allowing itself to be ruled by its own prejudices and preferences?

Or was something else at work?

A walk through the timeline of events might shed some light.



Associated Press

TEHRAN -- Iran's state television says the supreme leader has ordered an investigation into claims of fraud in last week's presidential election.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ordering the powerful Guardian Council to examine the allegations by pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims widespread vote rigging in Friday's election. The government declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner in a landslide victory.

It is a stunning turnaround for Iran's most powerful figure, who previously welcomed the results.

Mousavi wrote an appeal Sunday to the Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member body that's a pillar of Iran's theocracy. Mousavi also met Sunday with Khamenei.

Mousavi's backers have waged three days of street protests in Tehran.



From the opening of the polling stations on Friday morning, the length of the queues suggested something unusual was under way.

By the time the Guardian Council began speaking in the early evening of a turnout approaching 70 per cent, most people had concluded even this was a low-ball estimate.

Opinions having long gelled around the proposition that high turnout equals reformist victory, the mood among journalists gathering at the interior ministry -- roads blocked, access restricted, riot police in evidence -- was of anticipation and bemusement.

Could it be that, yet again, an outside candidate had come from behind to win in the first round?

Word was circulating that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist challenger, would be giving a press conference late on Friday night when, at 11 p.m. (2:30 p.m. EDT), the ministry press room was told to expect Kamran Daneshjou, the elections chief.

Few people anticipated much more than general background information, and perhaps some hints as to the progress of the count; it was assumed to be far too early for any definitive results.


Daneshjou failed to appear. Instead, a buzz spread around the room. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) had a new lead story: Ahmadinejad was streaking ahead in the vote in the countryside.

IRNA is a government-controlled agency, and some of the local media were openly skeptical of the story.

But the pro-Ahmadinejad camp was lifted in particular by the claim that the city of Rafsanjan -- hometown of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- had voted 90 percent in favor of Ahmadinejad.

They were relishing the symbolism of such a heavy rejection of Ahmadinejad's arch-foe.

Moments later, word came through that Mousavi had held a news conference to declare outright victory. A senior member of Mousavi's campaign told al-Jazeera that their election monitors at polling stations were certain that the trend strongly favored their candidate.

Moments later, at 11.50 p.m. (3:20 p.m. EDT), Daneshjou appeared.

We were told there would be no questions. The counting so far, he said, involved 8,000 ballot boxes, some five million votes, and the returns showed Ahmadinejad with 69 per cent of the vote and challenger Mousavi with less than 30 per cent.


The pattern had been established. As in presidential elections in the United States, it would be the television stations and news wires that led with figures that would only later be confirmed by the interior ministry.

The state-run TV station is regarded as a reliable reflection of official numbers, and the news from sources inside was that they were close to declaring outright victory for Ahmadinejad.

At 12.20 a.m. Saturday (4:50 p.m. Friday EDT), Daneshjou had an update.

A further 8,000 boxes had been counted in the past 30 minutes, and the president was still leading with almost 69 per cent of the vote.

At this point, one of the more alert journalists pointed out that the initial announcement had spoken of baazshomari -- the Farsi word for recounting.

The numbers we were hearing were not a running tally, but a reconfirmation of what was an already established result.

Indeed, not long after, the Ahmadinejad camp not only declared outright victory, but framed its claims in historic terms: this victory erased the record turnout that had swept Mohammad Khatami, the previous reformer, to power in 1997, and confirmed Ahmadinejad, a conservative, as the most popular leader in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic.


Breakdown of the vote in individual districts was still patchy, but there were a few results that raised eyebrows. Ahmadinejad had apparently taken the northwestern city of Tabriz with some ease.

Tabriz is the heart of East Azerbaijan, which borders the former Soviet republic, and Azeris are among the tightest ethnic groups in the country, unfailingly voting along ethnic lines.

In the 2005 presidential election, Mohsen Mehralizadeh was a largely unknown and wholly unsuccessful candidate. He came in seventh and last nationwide, yet he still won the Azeri vote in the Azerbaijani provinces.

Mousavi is an Azeri from Tabriz, making Ahmadinejad's apparent victory in the opposition leader's hometown a severe blow.

Elsewhere, reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi failed to take his home state of Lorestan; in Khuzestan, Mohsen Rezai, a local scion, was expecting at least two million votes. His total for the entire country has failed to breach one million.

And with each updated count, Ahmadinjad's lead did not waver from a very stable range of 66-69 per cent, irrespective of which districts were reporting.

After 3 a.m. Saturday (6:30 p.m. Friday EDT), the Interior Ministry went quiet for the night. Out on the streets, some groups of youths were driving the streets in celebration. But not 69 per cent of them.


Ahmadinejad's victory is likely to be a blow to hopes for A U.S. rapprochement with Iran.

Washington has had no official ties with Tehran since shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979, but Barack Obama, the American president, has expressed his openness to dialogue since coming to power in January.

Analysts said on Saturday that victory for Ahmadinejad, who has crossed swords repeatedly with the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions and his criticism of Israel, could stall any attempts at improving relations.

"In Washington there was a severe wish to make sure Mousavi [Ahmadinejad's reformist rival] would be the winner because of the atmospherics and the comfort level in not dealing with Ahmadinejad and dealing with him," Trita Parsi, the president of National American Iranian Council, told al-Jazeera.

Before the results started to come out, Obama said that he was excited about the debate taking place in Iran and he hoped it would help the two countries to engage in new ways. "Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways," he said.


However, Rami Khoury, the editor-at-large of Lebanon's English-language Daily Star newspaper, told al-Jazeera that Ahmadinejad's decisive victory could have been a reaction to widely-stated Western hopes for a reformist win.

"They probably didn't like the fact that this was being portrayed in the international press . . . as though Obama's speeches were changing the Middle East," he said.

"This tells us that Tehran is not Tennessee, there is a difference in how things happen," Khoury said. "The U.S. doesn't know what is going on in Iran because it doesn't have anybody there. It has no officials, it has had no contact with Iran officially for 30 years, so there is a huge gap in knowledge of the basic sentiments of the Iranian people or the leadership."

Ahmadinejad has previously said that Iran would welcome talks with the U.S., but only if there was mutual respect between the two nations. Officials in Tehran have said that means the accusations that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons and supports terrorism must stop.

In March, Obama made a speech to mark Nowruz, the start of the Persian New Year, in which he called for a "new beginning" to relations and stressed his respect for the Iranian people. But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, dismissed the message, saying that the U.S. still had to show it had changed its attitude towards the country.

Hady Amr, a political analyst at the Brookings Institute, told al-Jazeera that he expected the Obama administration to give Ahmadinejad's second-term government another chance to respond to such overtures.

"If they don't respond, the policy could change around the new year," he said.


Meanwhile, Washington's main ally in the region, Israel, said that the re-election of Ahmadinejad underlined the fact that the international community must act to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

"If there was a shadow of hope for a change in Iran, the renewed choice of Ahmadinejad expresses more than anything the growing Iranian threat," Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, said in a statement.

Yigal Palmor, a spokesperson for the Israeli foreign ministry, told al-Jazeera: "The challenge that Iran poses to the international community does not rest on personality.

"It stems from its policies. A policy of obtaining at all costs nuclear weapons, a policy of promoting violence and terrorism throughout the region... This is something that should stop. It really doesn't matter who the president is.

"All the international community should concentrate on making Iran a friendly country ... to its neighbors and the region."

However, Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation think tank told al-Jazeera that there were many in the Israeli government who might welcome the outcome. "In many ways, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for many folks in Tel Aviv who would like to see a serious confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, is a gift because of his outlandish statements about the Holocaust," he said.

"I would imagine that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not unhappy with these results."

Israeli officials have repeatedly stressed the need for the U.S. and its allies to act to prevent Iran from building atomic weapons. Tehran says that its nuclear program is purely to meet civilian energy needs.

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Volume IV, Number 47
Special Report Copyright 2009, al-Jazeera.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Saners. All rights reserved.


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