It's official—after a bruising election campaign and historic voter turnout, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has secured a second term. Iran's Interior Ministry pronounced Ahmadinejad the winner with a landslide 63 percent of the vote, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and the country's real authority, congratulated the president on his epic victory.
However, the notion that nearly two-thirds of Iranians want another four years of Ahmadinejad strains any credulity. By nearly every measure, his presidency has been disastrous for most Iranians.
Whether Ahmadinejad actually won at the ballot box remains an open question, to say the very least. Polls and anecdotal evidence pointed to a late surge by former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose bid to revive Iran's reform movement had picked up steam after a rancorous series of televised debates between Ahmadinejad and his three rivals. Mousavi himself had declared victory toward the end of voting on Friday, no doubt buoyed by the long lines at the voting booths which typically benefit reformist candidates.
Iranian elections are notoriously unpredictable, and this one had already taken several surprising turns. But while past election results have surely been massaged through the regime’s many mechanisms for ensuring a result acceptable to the defenders of the current system, few suspected that the regime would engage in such heavy-handed rigging of the outcome, which is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the official tally.
The only question is how much the result was manipulated. Despite the exciting final days of large-scale public demonstrations on his behalf, Mousavi was by no means a shoo-in. In particular, it's impossible to know whether his last-minute surge extended beyond Iran's major cities. Moreover, it's not inconceivable that Ahmadinejad's base of support is broader and stronger than it appears from outside. The president’s copious spreading of Iran's oil revenue around the country, as well as his strident nationalism and indignant denunciation of corruption among the country’s longstanding power brokers, may well have earned him votes.
However, the notion that nearly two-thirds of Iranians want another four years of Ahmadinejad strains any credulity. By nearly every measure, his presidency has been disastrous for most Iranians. The economy represented Ahmadinejad’s primary vulnerability; the campaign took place in the shadow of double-digit inflation and uncertainties surrounding the whereabouts of billions of dollars in oil revenue. Participants at election rallies hurled potatoes in mocking protest of the president’s efforts to offset rising prices with free vegetables.
And beyond the pocketbook, Ahmadinejad did little to improve Iranians’ quality of life. Many of the modest gains in political and social freedoms achieved during the Khatami period were rolled back, and Ahmadinejad’s regional swagger and hateful rhetoric generate international support for the United Nations, an unprecedented dishonor for a proud country. Each of these issues emerged as key themes in reports of campaign rallies, public commentary, and the barbs exchanged by the candidates themselves. Ahmadinejad countered by stepping up his nationalist rhetoric, laced with increasingly pointed accusations of official corruption and smears against his primary opponent’s wife.
What reinforces the absurdity of the official outcome are the blatant inconsistencies in the official version of the final vote tally. Given the rumors about plans for rigging swirling around Iran in the last weeks of the campaign, a narrow margin for Ahmadinejad would have been greeted rightfully with skepticism. But it would have been plausible at least, particularly if Mousavi and the other reformist candidate, former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi, had appeared to have split their support. But a landslide for an incumbent who is manifestly detested among large swaths of the population simply defies reason.
In addition, the premise that 82 percent of the Iranian electorate participated in Friday’s ballot is at direct odds with the official result. Much of the reformists’ young, urban constituency is disillusioned with Iranian politics and has historically proven less likely to vote than the stalwart supporters of Iran’s hardliners. As a result, the record turnout on Friday should have ensured, at minimum, a very competitive showing by Mousavi and Karroubi. And history also suggests that Mousavi, who speaks Persian with a strong Azeri accent, and Karroubi, who is from Lorestan, would carry provinces dominated by Iranians of the same minority ethnic backgrounds. Not so, according to the official vote count, which shows a wide margin for Ahmadinejad in each of these ethnic provinces. None of this is even remotely credible; the election was stolen without even a pretense of plausibility.
The young people dancing all night in the streets of the capital were not a sign of hope, as they were for many Iranians and spellbound international observers. Instead, for Khamenei they represented dangerous cracks in the stability of the Islamic system.
The ball is now in the reformists’ court. Mousavi and other reformists have challenged what they describe in restrained terms as “irregularities” in the election results. Whether they dispute more forcefully or encourage their supporters to protest publicly remains highly uncertain. Since the revolution and its violent aftermath, Iranian politicians have proven reluctant to indulge in street politics, as have its citizens. And the current environment is particularly precarious: The security forces are mobilized for a fight, and the supreme leader has issued a thinly veiled warning to the public not to dispute the results. The regime is ready and capable of repressing small-scale protests, a move that is intended to forestall any large-scale popular challenge to the regime.
And that is precisely what Khamenei and some of the other hard-line leadership saw in the vibrant, jubilant scenes from the Mousavi rallies in the campaign’s final days—the young people dancing all night in the streets of the capital were not a sign of hope, as they were for many Iranians and spellbound international observers. Instead, for Khamenei they represented dangerous cracks in the stability of the Islamic system, the seeds of a "color revolution," as a Revolutionary Guard commander flatly asserted last week. Their goal in the manipulation of the election results was to eradicate the threat as quickly and definitively as possible. Subtlety was neither necessary nor desirable. Most analysts of Iran presumed that the rigging would be restrained by the need to maintain some perception of the system’s legitimacy, of which its representative institutions and popular participation are a crucial component. This assumption proved false. For Khamenei, stability does not require legitimacy, and when forced to choose the regime will sacrifice the latter for the former.
Watching coverage of the demonstrations from Iran over the past week has reminded me of what I saw back in July 1999, during the student protests that briefly rocked the capital. A movement for change takes life and briefly invigorates the nation’s imagination. The unthinkable happens—in 1999, protesters reportedly tore the Islamic republic’s insignia from police officers’ vests; last week, some of the young participants in Mousavi rallies carried mocked-up newspapers with the headline “Ahmadi raft” (“Ahmadi is gone”), an unmistakable play on the legendary headline from the Shah’s abdication in 1979. Then the crackdown comes, and a frenzied, desperate effort to rally the base and return to some more subdued version of normalcy.
For the Obama administration, the developments of the past week in Iran represent perhaps the worst possible outcome. The U.S. administration’s strategy of engagement was never predicated on the personality of the Iranian president, who after all is not even the country’s final authority. But a win for the reformists would have added real energy to the effort, both within Iran and here at home, in the excitement over shifting ideological tides in Tehran and the inclusion of Iranian leaders who were both capable of and prepared to countenance serious negotiations. A plausible Ahmadinejad victory, while unwelcome, would at least have offered Washington the prospect of dealing with a consolidated conservative government that might have felt confident enough to pursue a historic shift in its relationship with an old adversary.
Instead, Washington now faces a newly fractured Iranian polity ruled by a leadership that is willing to jettison its own institutions and legitimacy in its determination to retain absolute control. That does not bode well for Iran’s capacity to undertake serious talks and eventually engage in historic concessions on its nuclear program and support for terrorism. Obama has to be prepared to move forward with diplomacy despite the wholesale setback for Iran’s limited democracy. In the wake of this disastrous election, opportunities for progress on engagement may unexpectedly present themselves. But he should do so in full awareness of the farce that has been perpetrated with this Ahmadinejad “landslide” and of the seething frustration of so many Iranians.
Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.