Ahmadinejad won. Get over it


– Flynt Leverett directs The New America Foundation’s Iran Project and teaches international affairs at Pennsylvania State university. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy. Both worked for many years on Middle East issues for the U.S. government, including as members of the National Security Council staff. The views expressed are their own. —

This article originally appeared on Politico.com.

Without any evidence, many U.S. politicians and “Iran experts” have dismissed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection Friday, with 62.6 percent of the vote, as fraud.mousavi

They ignore the fact that Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in the final count of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the “Iran experts” over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.

Although Iran’s elections are not free by Western standards, the Islamic Republic has a 30-year history of highly contested and competitive elections at the presidential, parliamentary and local levels. Manipulation has always been there, as it is in many other countries.
But upsets occur — as, most notably, with Mohammed Khatami’s surprise victory in the 1997 presidential election. Moreover, “blowouts” also occur — as in Khatami’s reelection in 2001,
Ahmadinejad’s first victory in 2005 and, we would argue, this year.

Like much of the Western media, most American “Iran experts” overstated Mirhossein Mousavi’s “surge” over the campaign’s final weeks. More important, they were oblivious — as in 2005 — to Ahmadinejad’s effectiveness as a populist politician and campaigner. American “Iran experts” missed how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having won the nationally televised debates with his three opponents — especially his debate with Mousavi.

Before the debates, both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad campaign aides indicated privately that they perceived a surge of support for Mousavi; after the debates, the same aides concluded that Ahmadinejad’s provocatively impressive performance and Mousavi’s desultory one had boosted the incumbent’s standing. Ahmadinejad’s charge that Mousavi was supported by Rafsanjani’s sons — widely perceived in Iranian society as corrupt figures — seemed to play well with voters.
Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s criticism that Mousavi’s reformist supporters, including Khatami, had been willing to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment program and had won nothing from the West for doing so tapped into popular support for the program — and had the added advantage of being true.

More fundamentally, American “Iran experts” consistently underestimated Ahmadinejad’s base of support. Polling in Iran is notoriously difficult; most polls there are less than fully professional and, hence, produce results of questionable validity. But the one poll conducted before Friday’s election by a Western organization that was transparent about its methodology — a telephone poll carried out by the Washington-based Terror-Free Tomorrow from May 11 to 20 — found Ahmadinejad running 20 points ahead of Mousavi. This poll was conducted before the televised debates in which, as noted above, Ahmadinejad was perceived to have done well while Mousavi did poorly.

American “Iran experts” assumed that “disastrous” economic conditions in Iran would undermine Ahmadinejad’s reelection prospects. But the International Monetary Fund projects that Iran’s economy will actually grow modestly this year (when the economies of most Gulf Arab states are in recession).

A significant number of Iranians — including the religiously pious, lower-income groups, civil servants and pensioners — appear to believe that Ahmadinejad’s policies have benefited them.

And, while many Iranians complain about inflation, the TFT poll found that most Iranian voters do not hold Ahmadinejad responsible. The “Iran experts” further argue that the high turnout on June 12 — 82 percent of the electorate — had to favor Mousavi. But this line of analysis reflects nothing more than assumptions.

Some “Iran experts” argue that Mousavi’s Azeri background and “Azeri accent” mean that he was guaranteed to win Iran’s Azeri-majority provinces; since Ahmadinejad did better than Mousavi in these areas, fraud is the only possible explanation.

But Ahmadinejad himself speaks Azeri quite fluently as a consequence of his eight years serving as a popular and successful official in two Azeri-majority provinces; during the campaign, he artfully quoted Azeri and Turkish poetry — in the original — in messages designed to appeal to Iran’s Azeri community. (And we should not forget that the supreme leader is Azeri.) The notion that Mousavi was somehow assured of victory in Azeri-majority provinces is simply not grounded in reality.

With regard to electoral irregularities, the specific criticisms made by Mousavi — such as running out of ballot paper in some precincts and not keeping polls open long enough (even though polls stayed open for at least three hours after the announced closing time) — could not, in themselves, have tipped the outcome so clearly in Ahmadinejad’s favor.

Moreover, these irregularities do not, in themselves, amount to electoral fraud even by American legal standards. And, compared with the U.S. presidential election in Florida in 2000, the flaws in Iran’s electoral process seem less significant.

In the wake of Friday’s election, some “Iran experts” — perhaps feeling burned by their misreading of contemporary political dynamics in the Islamic Republic — argue that we are witnessing a “conservative coup d’état,” aimed at a complete takeover of the Iranian state.

But one could more plausibly suggest that if a “coup” is being attempted, it has been mounted by the losers in Friday’s election. It was Mousavi, after all, who declared victory on Friday even before Iran’s polls closed. And three days before the election, Mousavi supporter Rafsanjani published a letter criticizing the leader’s failure to rein in Ahmadinejad’s resort to “such ugly and sin-infected phenomena as insults, lies and false allegations.” Many Iranians took this letter as an indication that the Mousavi camp was concerned their candidate had fallen behind in the campaign’s closing days.

In light of these developments, many politicians and “Iran experts” argue that the Obama administration cannot now engage the “illegitimate” Ahmadinejad regime. Certainly, the administration should not appear to be trying to “play” in the current controversy in Iran about the election. In this regard, President Barack Obama’s comments on Friday, a few hours before the polls closed in Iran, that “just as has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well is that you’re seeing people looking at new possibilities” was extremely maladroit.

From Tehran’s perspective, this observation undercut the credibility of Obama’s acknowledgment, in his Cairo speech earlier this month, of U.S. complicity in overthrowing a democratically elected Iranian government and restoring the shah in 1953.

The Obama administration should vigorously rebut any argument against engaging Tehran following Friday’s vote. More broadly, Ahmadinejad’s victory may force Obama and his senior advisers to come to terms with the deficiencies and internal contradictions in their approach to Iran. Before the Iranian election, the Obama administration had fallen for the same illusion as many of its predecessors — the illusion that Iranian politics is primarily about personalities and finding the right personality to deal with. That is not how Iranian politics works.

The Islamic Republic is a system with multiple power centers; within that system, there is a strong and enduring consensus about core issues of national security and foreign policy, including Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the United States. Any of the four candidates in Friday’s election would have continued the nuclear program as Iran’s president; none would agree to its suspension.

Any of the four candidates would be interested in a diplomatic opening with the United States, but that opening would need to be comprehensive, respectful of Iran’s legitimate national security interests and regional importance, accepting of Iran’s right to develop and benefit from the full range of civil nuclear technology — including pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle — and aimed at genuine rapprochement.

Such an approach would also, in our judgment, be manifestly in the interests of the United States and its allies throughout the Middle East. It is time for the Obama administration to get serious about pursuing this approach — with an Iranian administration headed by the reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

© 2009 Capitol News Company LLC

Picture top right: A supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi holds up a photograph of him while attending a rally in Tehran June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Picture top left: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks on during his first news conference after the presidential elections in Tehran June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj


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One of the most thoughtful analyses I’ve read. Of course only time may tell what assumptions or analysis might be more prescient, but this one certainly seems unusually sophisticated and nuanced compared to so much of what I have read in the US media.

Posted by Daniel Yakoubian | Report as abusive

what a load of rubbish this article is. the interior ministry admitted the votes were rigged and the true numbers were given to mousavi.
get your facts right please before writing.

Posted by ebbi | Report as abusive

1> voter turn out supported reformis
2> declared victory while they were still counting votes
3> The protest of more than 2 million people from Enghelab to Azadi shows how many people would not have voted for him
4> If he won fair and square, why did he have to attack the opponents headquarter, arrest 100 reformists, 10 reporters are missing, 4 reporters are arrested, Tehran university student dormatory attack, Isfahan University dormatory attack, shooting quiet protestor in Azadi and killing people and injuring more

in all other countries, when one wins, the media gets a chance to interview the opponent, in Iran the winner rallies their worst monsters on hand with guns, bats and baton, knives and turns them lose on the people who supposedly voted for him. Is that a winner?

Please search youtube for videos, talk to IRANIANS and get more information before you support a dictator like Ahmadinejad.

Posted by AzadehIran | Report as abusive

wow, finally an american journalist who actually presents facts and figures against ideaologies and islamophobia. although i’m not a fan of ahmadinejad, i’m sick of the western media trying to divide the iranians over this issue. we are only getting the perspectives of a few thousand in tehran while the view of millions of iranians all over the country are ignored. Perhaps, this is being done to some how justify israel’s desire to bomb iran.

Posted by Syed | Report as abusive

If I lived in Iran I dont think I would admit to an intention of voting for the opposition either, at least not to a telephone caller who said he worked for a market research firm.

Posted by peter | Report as abusive

Sigh! At last an analysis published in the US media that has some solid logical reasoning behind it! I live in Iran and by no means do _the majority_ of the electorate favor Mousavi the way it has been recently portrayed. Lopsided analyses published in the Western press only mislead their audiences as to what the majority in rural and deprived areas in Iran think.
BTW, one interesting fact is that the supporters of Mousavi being from the elite are communication- and IT-literate, so they manage to get themselves organized and heard! The supporters of Ahmadi Nejad are less advantaged in that respect; but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t there and that they don’t form a majority!!!

Posted by camy | Report as abusive

you are missing the point, which could be intentional depending on what your motivations are …

the election results do not matter as much as this opportunity for the people to unite and oppose the government. this is opposition to the whole regime, including their islamic constitution.

the point is that the islamic regime must go all together, including khamanei, ahmadinejad, mousavi, rafsanjani, khatami, and the rest of them. they’ve leeched on this nation long enough!

there is a good chance that this movement will achieve that goal, if the world powers support the people and do not interfere in a negative way, including disillusioning press!

Posted by Pelucid2002 | Report as abusive

The author of this commentary doesn’t know anything about iran. in past election total votes were 27 million, it’s 39 millions this time. the 12 millions that vote this time are “silent votes”, majority of them don’t believe in islamic republic fundamentally and usually don’t vote in elections, to not strengthen the government. the reason they decided to participate this time was to make a change against ahmadinejad. Now official results say all the “silent votes” has gone to ahmadinejad, which nobody with the least knowledge of iran society would believe. the correct votes are between 27-29 million for reformists and between 10-12 million for ahmadinejad, according to pre-election polls and according to experts who live here and know iran society (not the ones who have read somethings about it).

Posted by Mohammad | Report as abusive

how do you see this as “unusually sophiticated” or “most thoughtful analyses”? for say, in 2005 election when Ahmadinejad won 60% of only 50% of the eligible people who voted and were mostly his hardcore fans, but this time 85% turnout from 48 million eligible people have voted. this is the crowd that Mousavi brought to election and you see all over Iran these days.

Posted by Mohamadreza | Report as abusive

Factors missed:

The last “record turnout” elected the last “reformer” candidate, whose policies were so stifled by the ruling clerics that in the last election, many sat out in disgust.

This time, a new record turnout occurred when there was renewed hope of the odd chance that a “president” could change things in spite of the system.

Vote count required that representatives from all parties could witness (according to their own election laws, and the basis of the publicly released letter to the Supreme leader, who caved in to demands for an investigation after the guardian council agreed with the argument and asked openly why the Supreme Leader was certifying an election that only the guardian council had the authority to do).

Democracy works like this: Secret ballots means I vote in private. Open election means all involved count the votes and agree upon the results.

It’s easy to cherry pick “reports” that “only come from a small group in the capital” are “causing trouble, while the internet is flooded with smuggled images and footage of events throughout the country the Iranian government is trying everything to suppress, and those risking life and limb are getting out to any who would only listen.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

How can anyone say with certainty that they know who Iranian election?

The fact that the Ahmadinejad was said to have won, a mere two hours after the polls closed, even though all ballots cast in Iranian elections are paper and have to be counted by hand, should at the least, cause the author and others to wonder about the veracity of the results.

Posted by Amy | Report as abusive

It is really refreshing, from a European standpoint, to read opinions which more reflect the status quo in a country and relates to “other countries -other cultures”. The article writers are without doubt – looking behind politically directed journalism. A lot of people in Europe will be pleased when a greater percentage of the US population have this ability – or even possibility.
Not all aspects of “the American way of life” are positive export factors. A good start with Barack Obama though !

Posted by G. Garrett | Report as abusive

As an Iranian with an insight of Iran’s culture and demographic facts, I did not find the article accurate and factful. This article would be regarded as a thoughtful one in the minds of people completely unaware of the realities of today’s Iran. The article concludes based on phrases such as “Iraniens believe…” or “Iraniens did…” which ignores the fact that Iran nowadays is a highly polarized society. The surges are indeed the rightful needs of a large group of people ignored for a long time in the expense of accepting other groups’ needs and emotions.
Iran has one of the youngest populations. The needs and emotions of young and educated people are much different from those of conservative ruling minority. In your articles, please do not go so far away to dismiss this fact of life. The population is also one of the most politically active populations in the middle east. These people have made two revolutions in the past 100 years in search for democracy and are in their way to the third.

Posted by Babak | Report as abusive

Suggesting that the election results were fair and true simply does not make much sense. The hundreds of thousands demonstrating were obviously Mousavi supporters. The hundred thousand demonstrating in support of Ahmadi were bussed into the capital or forced to show up or were part of the Sepah or the militias supporting the Mullahs.

Why is Reuter publishing such article is a puzzle. Maybe the West prefers that Iran would remain in grip of dictatorship.

Posted by Frank Halary | Report as abusive

In typical “western” manners, all eyes of the world are now turned to Iran. Left and right we are seeing flurries of opinions, analysis, advice and other thoughts on who’s to blame, who’s right, who wrong and more importantly what everyone should do/say/feel.

Iran, much like China and any other countries in the hot spot these days, does not need the condescending approval of any other nations. Their people control their own destiny. We cannot be characters for each of history’s chapters.

The voting process in Iran is not my business, China’s human rights isn’t my business, Vanuatu’s policy on dry figs isn’t my business. I may have opinions and deep thoughts on the matter but it is not my place to lecture anyone on the matter, especially when my words only engage me to the slightest while safely hiding thousand of miles away from any implications. If my expertise is required, I’ll be more than happy to pitch in, if not, I will keep to myself.

That’s the problem of the modern wolrd. Those who see themselves as ‘successful’ civilizations wish to spread their ideals onto others. While the principle starts from a good intention, it is inappropriate and feels invasive to the receiving parties.

If Iran is on the mist of a civil war, so be it. If the government is about to be toppled by mobs of disgruntled citizens, so be it. If the opposition is about to be crushed in a bloodshed by the government, so be it.

We are only spectator to these historical events and as such, we shall keep our commentary within our circles rather than preaching to those see as less fortunate than us simply because they haven’t adopted our ideals.

Posted by Outsider | Report as abusive


thank you for offering a platform to the article by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett. I would like to draw the attention of the reader to the one fact / circumstance that they did not mention: the position of so-called color revolutions is the strategic plan Strategic Plan – Fiscal Years 2007-2012″ of the State Department as made public on April 14th, 2007. What we witness in Iran is just another color revolution, this time in the color green. The scenario is a copy of the previous ones: the opposition leader loses the elections, calls “FRAUD” even before the polling stations close, and declares himself the winner. The network for mobilising his (paid or unpaid) followers to the street has been created and put in place even before the elections. The network organises mass demonstrations, organises support by all the western news agencies and mass media, and makes the world believe that something is terribly wrong, only to be redressed by calling the loser the winner.
We have seen this many times these last years. How many time will follow?

Posted by Ida Koutstaal | Report as abusive

By the looks of it this gentleman seems to me as an Iranian (and incidently from Azari ethnic background) doesn’t have faintest idea what he is talking about. Ahmadinejad speaking Azari fluently! Are you joking? Do you even know what “Mir” in Mousavi’s name means? That three letters name would gaurantee him victory let alone being from Azari ethnic group. I have reports from my family members that the ratio of the votes was somthing like 6 to 1 in favour of Mousavi.

Posted by Mo | Report as abusive

Seems the disbelief in the west at the possibility of Ahadinejad being reelected mirrors the disbelief in Europe that George W could be reelected.

Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to rural people and to the poor. People on the internet and those that can speak English are liberal and middle class.

It seems at least possible, if not probable, that Mr Ahmadinejad really was relected.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

I didn’t know the U.S. media could be sophisticated or nuanced?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Interesting, those people who misread this election also apparently fooled the Iranian people as well. Seems that the largest post revolution protest must be a creation of those misinformed Americans hmm? I know it’s cool to be the one who goes against the popular sentiment, so I give kudos for going against the grain, but I wonder who is really misinformed in this case. I guess those 7 people who died are also just figments of Western imagination and the fact that the Iranian government is considering a recount also argue that this whole movement was overblown.

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive