The arguments against (and for) trusting Iran's election results

Experts line up arguments for and against the validity of Ahmadinejad's big win.

By Gabriel Winant

Published June 15, 2009 3:16PM (EDT)

It's not uncommon to hear that the controversial chief of some rogue nation has engineered his own shady reelection. The charge has been tossed at everyone from Hugo Chavez to George W. Bush. So how should you judge the case against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Well, it wouldn't be the blogosphere if there weren't arguments on both sides. It’s easy to get confused about it all, especially with the chaos ongoing in Iran. To help you out, Salon has compiled the most compelling arguments about the validity of the Iranian election results.

The election results are invalid

  • The most influential case for the stolen election has come from Salon contributor professor Juan Cole. The official results, Cole points out, have Ahmadinejad winning areas where he didn’t plausibly have majority support. It seems unlikely that he carried his rivals’ hometowns, or regions dominated by ethnic groups of which challengers Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi were members, and Ahmadinejad was not. It’s as if George W. Bush had edged out John Kerry in Massachusetts. In fact, according to the official returns, Ahmadinejad performed relatively evenly across the country. This too is implausible, at least by historical standards. “In past elections there have been substantial ethnic and provincial variations,” Cole writes. Not only are the Interior Ministry numbers suspiciously smooth, but they were produced too quickly: usually, a three-day delay.
  • If Cole’s is the most influential critique of the election results, then the most influential person to publicly voice doubts has certainly been Vice President Joe Biden. Said Biden, echoing Cole on Sunday's "Meet The Press," “Seventy percent of the vote comes out of the city, that's not Ahmadinejad's strong place," Biden said. "The idea he gets 68 or whatever percent of the vote in a circumstance like that seems unlikely.”
  • Before the election, it was thought that the only way Ahmadinejad would survive was for pro-reform voters to fail to turn out, points out the New Yorker’s Laura Secor. “If the current figures are to be believed, urban Iranians who voted for the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001 have defected to Ahmadinejad in droves.”
  • Ahmadinejad was polling in the mid-30s, notes a dubious Michael Tomasky in the Guardian. “If you've managed the economy that badly and the electorate bulges by about 28 percent (roughly speaking, 40 million to 29 million), I don't care how adept you are at religious demagoguery, you are not getting 65 percent of that 28 percent.”
  • The government “didn’t even attempt to disguise the fraud,” writes Andrew Sullivan of a graph of the seven batches of votes reported over the course of the night. The graph purports to show each wave of ballot counting breaking down nearly identically, about 2-to-1 for Ahmadinejad.
  • Hold on, writes Nate Silver. This may just be how elections look; in fact, it’s not hard to produce a similar graph of the 2008 election. “The apparently extremely strong relationship is mostly an artifact of the exceptionally simple fact that as you count more votes, both candidates' totals will tend to increase.” But don't assume the election was fair just because that graph fails to prove fraud. Sniffing around survey data, Silver's colleague Renard Sexton smells a rat. Ahmadinejad outran his numbers by too much, and the minor candidates didn't register the support we'd have expected. (Most remarkably, Mehdi Karoubi earned paltry vote totals in his native Lorestan and nearby Khuzestan -- which he won in 2005 with 55.5 percent and 36.7 percent, respectively.) "These figures would suggest that Ahmadinejad's reported 65 percent of the national vote is at minimum outside of the trend, and more likely, an exaggerated figure. Whether they overstate the will of the Iranian public by 3-5 points or say, 20-30 points, is up for interpretation."

The election results are valid

  • Americans should get their head out of the clouds, says New America Foundation fellow Flynt Leverett. We’re just ignoring inconvenient facts about the election. For example, Ahmadinejad won the televised debate. And Mousavi’s complaints --  early polling place closures, insufficient ballots -- are hardly adequate to explaining such a lopsided outcome. “There was an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking on the part of American and Western policymakers.”
  • Piling on, pollsters Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty write today in the Washington Post that their survey of Iran three weeks ago had Ahmadinejad up 2-to-1. Iranians may have conciliatory instincts toward the United States, but they want their belligerent president to represent them -- like sending Nixon to China. “The breadth of Ahmadinejad's support was apparent in our preelection survey,” they write, noting that, contra Juan Cole, the Persian Ahmadinejad was indeed beating Mousavi, an Azeri, among Azeri voters.
  • (But Juan Cole is unconvinced -- Ballen and Doherty’s Op-Ed seems to forget a crucial piece of information: the actual numbers. “The poll did not find that Ahmadinejad had majority support. It found that the level of support for the incumbent was 34 percent, with Mousavi at 14 percent.” It also found, crucially, that 60 percent of respondents favored reform. Even Doherty, at the time of the survey, didn’t expect Ahmadinejad to win in the first round.) 

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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