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Iran's Contested Revolution

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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Given the pointed attacks traded over the past weeks between Iranian presidential candidates Mir-Hussein Moussavi, Mohsen Rezae, Mehdi Karroubi, and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the enthusiasm of their respective supporters, many had predicted that Iran's presidential election on Friday -- its eighth since the 1979 revolution and the creation of the Iranian Islamic Republic -- would be close. But no one predicted that it would result in the sort of crisis that has unfolded over the weekend. The dispute began "even before polls closed Friday night." Before the first vote counts were released, leading challenger Moussavi held a news conference to declare himself "definitely the winner" based on "all indications from all over Iran." Soon after Moussavi spoke, Iran's state news agency reported that Ahmadinejad had won, but did not cite official figures. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then announced (even before the official Interior Ministry count had been issued) that Ahmadinejad had won more than 24 million votes. Moussavi remained defiant, and thousands of his supporters flooded the streets of Tehran to protest what they saw as a stolen election, "pelting [police] with rocks and setting fires in the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade." In statements Sunday, Moussavi and Karroubi "asked people to continue their 'nonviolent demonstration' throughout the country and criticized the government for using violence against demonstrators." Asked about the demonstrations at a Sunday press conference, Ahmadinejad said that they "would disappear after a while, just like those angry fans following a defeated football match." But today, in a sign that Iran's ruling elites have grasped the seriousness of the situation, Ayatollah Khamenei "ordered an investigation into claims of vote rigging...a surprising turnaround for Khamenei, who had previously welcomed the [election] results."

A FIGHT FOR IRAN'S FUTURE: A former prime minister of Iran, Moussavi has sterling revolutionary credentials. He was a member of the founding generation of the Islamic Republic, and helped guide Iran through its painful and destructive eight-year war with Iraq. He was considered "a hard-liner closely allied with then-president Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, and a 'firm radical,' as The Economist described him in 1988." After a twenty year absence from politics, he was embraced by Iran's young reform movement, and endorsed by reformist leader Mohammed Khatami, who pulled out of the presidential race in March in order to support Moussavi. Though he is cast in the West as a moderate because of his support for greater social freedom and for warmer relations with the United States, like all of Iran's leaders he strongly maintains Iran's right to a nuclear program. It's believed that Moussavi and his ally former president Hashemi Rafsanjani are perceived as dangerous competitors by Ayatollah Khamenei and his inner circle. Unlike Ahmadinejad and his cohort, Moussavi and Rafsanjani have political power and legitimacy derived from the revolution, and not primarily from their proximity to Khamenei and ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

AN ELECTORAL COUP?: Numerous observers and analysts noted signs of "major improprieties." Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told CNN that "there were were 40 million votes cast and just two hours after the polls had closed they announced Ahmadinejad's victory: and these votes are hand counted in Iran." Sadjapour also noted that Moussavi, who is an ethnic Azeri Turk, "lost the province of Iranian Azerbaijan. This is the equivalent of Barack Obama losing the African American vote to John McCain in 2008." Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, however, wrote that a "nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election." But Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that "in the final two weeks before the election all reputable polls inside and outside of Iran showed that Ahmadinejad's popularity had decreased significantly." Khalaji suggested that Ayatollah Khamenei had engineered a "military coup." Writing on his blog, former National Security Council official Gary Sick suggested that "if the reports coming out of Tehran about an electoral coup are sustained, then Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history."

OBAMA'S OUTREACH: The Obama administration has "insisted that it would not interfere with the struggle for power" between Iran's factions, drawing some criticism from those who feel that the United States should weigh in more strongly on behalf of the anti-Ahmadinejad forces. Asked about the election on Friday, President Obama said, "Ultimately the election is for the Iranians to decide. ...[But] whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways." Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council, told journalist Spencer Ackerman that the Obama administration "is doing exactly the right thing. They're not rushing in and they're not playing favorites. They might prefer the democratic process to be respected, but that's different than [supporting a] specific faction." Iranian state television said earlier today that in a private meeting, "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has told defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi to pursue his complaints over the election through legal means," indicating that this election may not be over yet. Iran's Guardian Council, said "it had received two official complaints from defeated presidential candidates and would issue its ruling within 10 days."