Taking Sides in Iran
There are lots of good reasons for wishing that the bombastic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be toppled by the political struggle playing out on the streets of Tehran, but there is still that troubling question of whether he actually won the election.
Many in the Western news media clearly have taken sides, favoring the more urbane Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the green-clad demonstrators protesting the official election results that show Mousavi losing to Ahmadinejad by a 2-to-1 margin.
The media’s distaste for Ahmadinejad is palpable. A “news analysis” coauthored by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller opened up with an old joke about Ahmadinejad looking into a mirror and saying “male lice to the right, female lice to the left,” a reference to his rise from the street rather than from a prestigious university.
Now, the Times editors and other Western commentators are adopting the position of Mousavi in rejecting the notion of a vote recount by Iran’s Guardian Council, which oversees elections. The Mousavi camp is demanding instead an entirely new election.
“Even a full recount would be suspect,” the Times wrote in an editorial. “How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?”
But the resistance of Mousavi and his backers to a partial or complete recount suggests something else, that they may fear that the recounted results would show Ahmadinejad winning. Mousavi may hope for a better outcome in a new election, especially if Iran’s powerful clerics tilt their allegiance toward him.
Despite the vehemence of Mousavi’s supporters regarding what they say is his rightful victory, they have reason to doubt their certainty. Some of the complaints about the Iranian election have become legend, but crack under objective scrutiny.
The complaint, for instance, about the hasty claim of an Ahmadinejad victory ignores the fact that Mousavi was out with a declaration of his own victory shortly after the polls closed. The partial results showing Ahmadinejad in the lead followed hours later.
Another favorite notion – that Ahmadinejad could not have carried Azeri-dominated districts because Mousavi was an Azeri – was countered by the findings of an extensive nationwide poll conducted by U.S. experts in mid-May showing Azeris favoring Ahmadinejad by about 2-to-1.
The poll – described in a Washington Post op-ed by two of its administrators, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty – also noted that some of the high-tech methods of communication that have been central to the Mousavi demonstrations in Tehran are not widespread throughout the country, with only 1 in 3 Iranians having access to the Internet.
Ballen and Doherty also discovered that – contrary to widespread Western impressions – Iranian youth overwhelmingly favored Ahmadinejad, that the “18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.”
Generally speaking, Mousavi’s support was concentrated among the urban middle class and the well-educated while Ahmadinejad was more the candidate of the poor – of which there are many in Iran. They have benefited from government largesse in food and other programs, and they tend to listen to the conservative clerics in the mosques.
Ahmadinejad also is viewed as less corrupt than many of his political rivals, the likes of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who has parlayed his political/religious standing into a vast personal fortune.
Indeed, Ahmadinejad may have scored some important political points in the closing days of the campaign by tying Mousavi to Rafsanjani, whose wealth and power make him a figure of disdain and distrust among many of Iran’s working-class and poor.
Without doubt, Ahmadinejad is an abrasive figure who has damaged Iran’s international standing with intemperate denunciations of Israel and the West. But that doesn’t always look the same inside a country as it does from outside.
The United States experienced a similar phenomenon in 2004 when John Kerry took the so-called “coastal states” whose better-educated voters reflected the widespread international disapproval of the cowboyish George W. Bush, but many conservative Christians and less-educated voters in “flyover America” went for Bush in defiance of world opinion.
So, despite the hopeful conventional wisdom in the West about Mousavi’s victory, the truth may be that Ahmadinejad won by getting heavy votes from Iran’s poor and its religious traditionalists over Mousavi’s votes from the more sophisticated, reform-minded middle class.
And one of the problems facing President Barack Obama as he tries to figure out the best way to respond to Iran’s unrest is that U.S. intelligence agencies tend to believe Ahmadinejad won even if there were some irregularities.
That is one reason why even a partial recount might be helpful. Access by investigators to the ballots could help gauge how serious and widespread the election irregularities were.
By rejecting the opportunity of a recount, Mousavi – and his supporters including the New York Times editorial board – look like they’re afraid of the truth, that they would rather lay their bets on a new election than on a fair recount of the June 12 election.
From a policy standpoint, easing Ahmadinejad into retirement may make sense for the overall future of the region. His blunderbuss rhetoric has increased fears and sharpened divisions, making him a perfect foil for hardliners in Israel and neoconservatives in the United States who are itching to use force against Iran’s nuclear program and still fantasize about violent “regime change.”
But belief in democracy – the will of the people – is another value. So is honest, unbiased journalism that seeks the truth, rather than politically convenient results.
If the Iranian people really did vote for Ahmadinejad – and Mousavi’s demonstrators are seeking to overturn the will of the majority – shouldn’t the New York Times and the Western news media be supporting efforts to get at the facts, rather than picking favorites and rooting for one side?
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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