'Crisis of Legitimacy’ in Iran

Arang Keshavarzian, an expert on Iranian politics at New York University, says the decision by the Iranian leadership to peremptorily announce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election victory has alienated many Iranians and will greatly complicate U.S. plans to engage the Iranian government.

June 17, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Arang Keshavarzian, an Iranian-born professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University, was in Iran for the immediate aftermath of the presidential election turmoil. He says Iranians feel alienated by the way their government handled the voting, and even those who cast ballots for the declared winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, feel slighted. But with opposition protests continuing, Keshavarzian says it would be best for the United States to wait to respond. He says events are unfolding so quickly inside Iran that it’s difficult to tell who is calling the shots. "One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei is following him, and how much it’s the other way around," he says. "Some of these events in the past few days suggest that it may in fact be Khamenei who is reluctantly following Ahmadinejad’s lead, rather than the other way around."


You’ve just come back from Iran, where you participated in and witnessed the initial reaction to the presidential election. Were you there to observe the elections in an official capacity?

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Not per se. I went partly for some other research related to political economy issues, as well as to visit family. But of course I was perfectly aware that I would be there during the election. This is the fourth presidential election that I’ve witnessed in Iran, so I have somewhat of a comparative perspective on how these election campaigns and results play out.

What struck you about this campaign?

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Elections and Voting

This is quite important, and from what I’ve seen, much of the international media has missed this point: The actual campaign itself had at least two components that were quite unique. One was the televised debates between all of the candidates. This was unprecedented. I have the feeling that most Iranians watched most if not all of them. The next morning after each debate, everywhere I’d go people would be discussing and debating them. Most importantly, these debates exposed heated differences amongst the candidates over issues such as the economy, international policies, and more generally President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s record. All three of his opponents--Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohsen Rezaei--strongly criticized his record over the past four years in areas of policy as well as his demeanor, actions, and the language he used, while Ahmadinejad vehemently defended his policies by arguing that the past four years were the four best years of the entire post-revolutionary era.

When people went to vote on Friday, what were you expecting?

Timeline: U.S.-Iran RelationsI have to say that up until three or four days before election day, many witnesses, including those who supported Mousavi, felt that it was going to be a very close race, but ultimately Ahmadinejad would win given his ability to mobilize his core constituents. However, in that last week before the election the Mousavi campaign really illustrated that they were well organized and able to organize this "Green Wave" [the official color of the campaign], which brought out a large number of Iranians, both men and women, from many different classes and different age groups. [They] created a chain of people from northern Tehran to southern Tehran. And with that event, it really illustrated to many Iranians that in fact the Mousavi campaign was powerful and had its own mobilizing capacity. On the day of the election, given the extremely high turnout that was quite obvious to everyone, including myself who voted, everyone thought that the election would be close and many began to imagine that Mousavi could win.

Were you awake when they announced the results? How did that affect you?

One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and Khamenei is following him, and how much it’s the other way around.

Polling stations were kept open quite late at night--10 p.m. in most cases--and it is still unclear whether some of the polling stations were kept open until midnight or not. I was awake until about 1 a.m., at which point I went to bed like many others while assuming that the election results would start to trickle in after 7 a.m. This is how it would work in past elections: The tallying of results would be released in the morning hours and often not until the early afternoon. However, by around 2 a.m. the Ministry of Interior--which is mandated to supervise and tally the votes--began releasing the results. When I woke up in the morning, I realized the initial results came out with Ahmadinejad leading with roughly 65 percent of the vote, and Mousavi carrying roughly 33 percent. It was shocking to many Iranians that such a large number of the votes were already counted. What became clear is that this ratio of 65 percent to 33 percent stayed stable throughout the morning hours as more and more of the vote tally came in. It didn’t go up and down like many would expect, with varying support across Iran. In past elections, the incoming results would fluctuate a little bit. This was not the case in this election. In the course of the morning hours, it became clear to me and many others in Tehran that one of the campaign headquarters of Mousavi had been attacked late Friday. It became clear that Mousavi had declared victory, or at least expected that he would be victorious, at roughly midnight. Quickly around town people began to talk amongst themselves about how peculiar these elections results were, and then Mousavi’s campaign released information about how their election monitors were not allowed in the rooms involved in tallying the votes.

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And in the past they were?

Yes, in the past they were. And they were legally entitled to this time around. All candidates are allowed to have two sets of election monitors. They’re allowed to be at the polling booth, and from what I read Mousavi had roughly fifty thousand election monitors in the actual polling booths. In those polling booths the votes are tallied, and this is why Mousavi had reason to believe that he was well on his way to winning the election. Once these individual polling booth votes are tallied, they are sent to the Ministry of Interior in Tehran where they are added up. It is at this point that the Mousavi and Karroubi election monitors were not allowed to be involved in the tallying. It was at the second level, Mousavi supporters argue, that the election rigging and violations took place.

What is important to note is that this opposition is occurring both on the streets and among the elite.

By late morning on Saturday, people in Tehran began to feel that the election was stolen?

The discussion was that the election was stolen or highly irregular. I don’t know if we’ll ever find out what the exact election results were. I don’t want to necessarily say that Mousavi won the election. It’s still unclear. There was reasonable expectation that he did extremely well, and one can also imagine a scenario where Ahmadinejad won by 51 percent to 49 percent. The election rigging, if it did happen, was designed to give him a clear mandate with a significant margin of victory--63 percent, or around 24 million votes. He won more votes [24 million] than [former President] Mohammed Khatami did when he was first elected in 1997 and reelected in 2001. This is quite interesting. The other point I should stress is about the irregularities and the uniqueness of how these election results were released. In the past, it was customary for the interior minister to release the final results and only then the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would in a sense sanction them by sending his congratulations to the elected president. In this case, Khamenei released his statement, read on state radio and television, before the Interior Ministry released its final results. This is, as far as I know, unprecedented.

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Elections and Voting

How did these big demonstrations that took place over the weekend get organized? Was it all ad hoc?

Unlike the 1997 and 2001 elections when Khatami won with a large number of votes with a fairly large turnout, the campaign headquarters of Mousavi had a large number of committed young men and women organizing for this election. The Green Wave that I mentioned earlier was a very peaceful, well organized, well crafted political event. Much of the protests after the election, for me, are an outcome of this earlier organization in the weeks before. Unfortunately, I left Tehran very early Monday morning, so I missed the large rally from Revolution Square to Freedom Square on Monday. But from reports and from discussions with friends that attended the rally, it seems these protests were very well organized, peaceful, and unified. I suspect that this is an outcome of the mobilization and organization prior to the election.

The rally yesterday got tremendous publicity outside of Iran. Today, all foreign press has been banned from leaving their offices. We really are lacking much information on developments. We get some information out of Twitter. Do you get the impression that there’s a crackdown occurring?

It’s quite clear, even as early as Saturday afternoon, that the intelligence and military apparatus is organized to clamp down on the street protests and clamp down on journalists and bloggers from getting information out. Some of this crackdown affects not only international journalists, but also the coordination of Iranian journalists and bloggers. The phone SMS messaging services were shut down at various points. Various web pages that were previously not blocked were blocked. It should be noted that the BBC Persian satellite TV station, which is extremely popular in Iran and played a very important role in the buildup to the elections, was jammed Saturday and Sunday. From what I understand, today it is completely jammed.

What do you think will happen with Mousavi now?

As with many political events in Iran, you really have to wait and see what happens. To me, I find it hard to imagine that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would compromise and offer a new election or a complete recount of the votes. But this is exactly what Mousavi and Karroubi are requesting, and even Rezaei, who is a former head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, has sent a letter calling for a systematic reappraisal of the election. So far, the Mousavi camp is sticking to its guns and it not accepting a partial recount, which the Guardian Council has offered.

What is important to note is that this opposition is occurring both on the streets and among the elite. Ahmadinejad basically has distanced himself and even threatened a large spectrum of the Iranian political establishment, from former president Hashemi Rafsanjani to [Ali Akbar] Nateq-Nouri, the former head of the parliament and a very prominent clerical figure. Ahmadinejad has accused these figures as corrupt individuals who have stolen funds from the public realm.

Why do you think that the supreme leader was so strong on behalf of Ahmadinejad? Would it have hurt him to accept Mousavi? Are the two old enemies?

That’s the question that many Iranians have been asking. It’s been quite clear that throughout these past four years, Khamenei has been supporting Ahmadinejad. But it’s quite shocking that he’s willing to do it at such a high price. There’s a little too much made of this rivalry in the 1980s between Mousavi and Khamenei. There was some of that, but nonetheless both of them were committed revolutionary leaders and members of the Islamic Republic. Mousavi is not a radical figure. Many Iranians are surprised at how strongly he’s spoken out in the past week or so. He’s not known as being a fiery speaker. He’s considered a conciliatory moderate. He’s not as much a threat to Khamenei as, for instance, Khatami was.

Why Khamenei is taking this position is quite hard to tell. Some have suggested that it’s because he’s under threats and under pressure by Ahmadinejad and his military-intelligence circle that have, in a sense, imposed this upon the leader. One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and Khamenei is following him, and how much it’s the other way around. Some of these events in the past few days suggest that it may in fact be Khamenei who is reluctantly following Ahmadinejad’s lead, rather than the other way around. However, this is difficult to tell.

What does this mean for U.S. efforts in getting into a direct dialogue with Iran? Should that continue? Is that harder to do now?

It would be very difficult to do in this current context. It should be noted by U.S. foreign policymakers that at least in this moment, President-elect Ahmadinejad is truly suffering from a crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians. He’s not viewed as the legitimate president. The election is still highly suspect. [On] Saturday I talked to a couple of people who told me they voted for Ahmadinejad and yet were sympathetic toward the protesters and appalled by the way the election was handled. This crisis in Iran is not simply between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad. It’s basically over how election laws are followed or not followed, and as the days have gone on, over the way the Basij [Iranian paramilitary force] and the military wing have violently treated the protests in the street.


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