Debunking an Iran Election Fraud Skeptic

There's nothing wrong with publishing dissenting opinions. Much of the progressive blogosphere has erupted into green flames of support for Iranian presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi -- much of it under the assumption that the election in Iran was indeed stolen. In the interest of balance, it makes perfect sense for thoughtful organizations and websites to seek out views that contradict that trend and examine them in an effort to both question Mousavi as a favorite candidate and examine the virtues of incumbent Mahmood Ahmadinejad (if you can see them through his blinding flaws), as well as question the very assumption of the stolen election narrative that dominates U.S. news sources.

Mondoweiss, no stranger to dissenting opinions and questioning well-established and politically expedient narratives, did just that in good faith when it ran this post from a contributor named Mohammad from Vancouver, an apparent Iranian-Canadian. (There's also nothing wrong with publishing under a pseudonym -- it can protect oneself and one's family, which is sometimes a pressing concern for those who travel to and have family in Iran.)

The problem with Mohammad's piece is not that it's dissent; it's that its arguments are tendentious and full of holes.

To begin with, Mohammad leads off with a poll (PDF) released four days before the election by the incredibly poorly named U.S. organization Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT) and the Washington-based think-tank New America Foundation (NAF). Mohammad borrows heavily from an oped regurgitating the results published three days after the vote by TFT chief Ken Ballen and NAF's Patrick Doherty. While the oped in the Washington Post was clearly a bit hesitant (Opening line, my emphasis: "The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people."), the piece, again poorly named "The Iranian People Speak," seemed to me like a self-congratulatory 'I told you so.'

While TFT's polling is famously reliable , the application of its Iran poll to the events unfolding this week is riddled with problems. (A testament to its reliability in temporal context: my colleagues covered the poll as a curtain-raiser for the elections on the day it was published.) I won't go into all of them here, but experts way more savvy than I -- former National Security Council official Gary Sick and Michigan professor Juan Cole (and a guest post on Cole's site) -- all do a fine job picking apart the polling data as it relates to actual announced returns. But I'll just offer this tidbit from Sick:

[...D]uring the period of the phone survey, Mousavi was a newly declared candidate. His "green wave," that inspired so much excitement among Iranian voters had not even been invented.

The Iranian campaign period mercifully lasts less than a month. A poll at the beginning of that period, while no doubt accurate when taken, ignores everything that happened thereafter.

In conclusion to his extensive recap of the poll and the oped, Mohammad then offers this, based on talking with contacts in Iran and checking Facebook: "The idea that 'the results just don't make sense' is absurd." Now that's absurd to me because everyone I have spoken to who has a clue, both contacts in Iran as well as any number of the top Iran analysts in the U.S., agree that the election results were just that: Absurd. It's that absurdity that helped fuel the angry reaction to the announced result of Ahmadinejad's landslide victory. Everyone, it seems, has their own friends in Iran these days.

After harping on the poll as the exhibit A in Ahmadinejad's defense, Mohammad moves on to the real target of his post: Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former two-term president and current head of Iran's Assembly of Experts. Mohammad goes on a tirade about Rafsanjani and his political connections, and his desire to unseat Ahmadinejad. Writes Mohammad:

Rafsanjani challenged Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections and lost. Ever since then, he has been sabotaging Ahmadinejad's plans of reforming the political and economic structures in Iran.

Let's try a little Folger's switch with this: "Rafsanjani Hardline conservatives challenged Ahmadinejad Khatami in the 2005 1997 elections and lost. Ever since then, he has they have been sabotaging Ahmadinejad's Khatami's plans of reforming the political and economic structures in Iran." Well, that works nice! So what's the point?

If you look at the situation without a political bias or the conspiratorial mindset that unfortunately pervades Iranian politics, either Mohammad's situation or mine can be viewed as nothing but regular old factional politics within the Islamic Republic.

Mohammad goes on to cite Rafsanjani and his family's behind-the-scenes support for the three non-Ahmadinejad candidates -- Mousavi, reformer Mehdi Karoubi, and former Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) head Mohsen Rezaie -- parenthetically pointing to their "historical ties to Rafsanjani", which are no surprise because all four men are powerful political elites in Iran. Mohammad suggests that money has (shocker) corrupted the politics of this coalition:

The way this support was distributed among the candidates was very complicated and followed an elaborate pattern. Rezaee was asked to run in order to weaken Ahmadinejad's support among the Revolutionary Guards, since he was the head of this force during the Iran-Iraq war. The reformist coalition were divided between Karrubi and Moussavi with the former receiving the support of reformist personalities like Karbaschi, Abtahi and Abdi and the latter receiving the support of reformist organizations and political parties (Mosharekat and Mojahedine Enghelab)

Again, this idea is politics as usual and nothing new. In fact, it sounds like pretty sound strategizing to me. Money plays a regrettable role in most nations' politics -- especially big money. Indeed, the leveling of the social order is one of the great unfulfilled promises of the Islamic Revolution, and one that Ahmadinejad has campaigned heavily on. But the incumbent president has not done as much as he claims. While his crude populism -- handing out potatoes and cash, and increasing government salaries -- has indeed lifted up a relatively small cadre of allies, he has done little to unseat the new political and economic elite that filled the void of the fleeing aristocracy of the Shah's era. (The clerical set, a center of power and wealth, has been consistently strong both before and after the Revolution, and the Shah-era aristocrats have been replaced by a nouveau elite including groups like the IRGC, which holds sway over massive segments of the economy.) There's no reason that ideological allies (or even enemy-of-my-political-enemy allies) can't or shouldn't band together and organize campaigns. Those actions do not necessarily reflect some nefarious intention, unspecified beyond a desire to take political power.

Mohammad then goes on to decry a series of "suspicious move(s)" with "no explanation" by Mousavi and his allies and supporters in the immediate run-up to, during, and after the elections. He sums up his article by raising a series of questions regarding these moves.

Mohammad: "1- What is the real material evidence of voter fraud?"

There is some, but it's admittedly not overwhelming. Juan Cole lays out some of it here, with this comment on the analysis of the statistician Nate Silver at 538, who proved his mettle by basically calling everything in the 2008 U.S. elections. Lots of the allegations of fraud, though not all, are anecdotal.

But the point is that this is not voter fraud we're talking about here -- not vote rigging. Many suspect outright election fraud. They allege that returns were completely fabricated, with insinuations that ballot boxes were never opened. Again, this perception is one of the sources of anger that sparked the ongoing protests. It's difficult to prove because so very few of us have access to the inside machinations of the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Ahmadinejad's government. So I ask Mohammad: Where is the real material evidence of legitimate returns? Why has the Interior Ministry not proffered representative samples of actual ballots from various provinces? Or for that matter released any evidence refuting allegations against the results?

Mohammad: "2- Why did Moussavi and his friends begin to doubt the results a few weeks before the vote? [...] What is Moussavi's pre-election evidence for fraud"

Again, much of the warning of fraud before the vote are admittedly anecdotal and, because of limited access to offices of the Ahmadinejad-controlled government, not heavily substantiated. But some does exist. My colleague at IPS, Omid Memarian, lays out one example here:

On Sunday, a group of employees in the Interior Ministry, which oversees the polls, and top officials from the campaigns of the two reformist candidates, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, sent a letter to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chair of the country's powerful Guardian Council, citing discrepancies in the run-up to the election.

According to the letter, the actual number of ballots printed for the first round of voting is 59.6 million, but the Interior Ministry officially says the number is 56 million.

Mohammad: "3- Why Did Moussavi change the time of his post-election press conference abruptly?"

It has been widely reported that the early returns and reports from poll observers were pointing to a Mousavi victory. Radio Farda, which I am inherently suspicious of because it is a U.S. government-sponsored Farsi outlet on Iran (propaganda?), reported that before the first returns were announced, the Interior Ministry contacted the Mousavi campaign to inform them of their impending victory.

Mohammad: "4- Why did Rafsanjani and Moussavi's wives speak out about fraud right after casting their votes?"

See my above response to number 2. What, were those concerns supposed to evaporate as soon as they folded their ballots and dropped them in the box? 'Oh, I've voted now. My vote clearly will be counted fairly, and because I was unimpeded and will be counted, the same must apply to the other 32 million voters. So, ciao!'

Mohammad: "5-Why did the Western media, who are normally against Iran and pro Israel (CNN, Fox, Voice of America, BBC, Huffington Post, Roozonline, Radio Zamaneh and Radio Farda), describe Moussavi the frontrunner as soon as Moussavi's camp began to cast doubt on the elections, weeks before the vote? What degree of coordination was there between Moussavi's campaign and the western media about this message?"

This again delves into conspiracy about Western involvement, an understandable and historically-motivated paranoia in Iranian culture. But one can't argue one point on mere innuendo alone (without even anecdotal evidence), and then demand hard evidence of one's ideological or political opponents. Pots and kettles and so on.

Mohammad: "6-Why was the Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored survey, done by a credible team of investigators (Terror Free Tomorrow), not highlighted in the coverage of the election in the West?"

Not highlighted? What about a little influential newspaper called the Washington Post? Or any of the numerous blogs that have picked up on the poll, including the blogging giant Huffington Post? The reason it didn't get wider coverage is, I must assume, because of the points I've laid out above, which I believe show it is irrelevant for discussing last Friday's results.

By countering many of Mohammad's arguments, I don't mean to cast doubt on the fact that Ahmadinejad has a large following in Iran. He certainly does. But that doesn't mean he won these elections or he didn't. Mousavi also has an undeniably large following, no?

Something appears to be amiss, and I would contend that it's not just "warm ears" or wishful thinking that leads most independent news sources in the world to at least question the election results. Drawing conclusions without evidence -- demanding proof of the contrary view and offering none -- is no way to construct an argument otherwise. But more importantly than the Western media or their audience, the people who are owed an honest explanation -- yes, with clear evidence -- are the people of Iran. No one can doubt that many of them, even if not a majority of citizens, are having a rather large gripe with their government at the moment. That is unless, of course, one wants to simply dismiss them as "dirt and dust."

This post originally appeared here at Mondoweiss. (Thanks to Jamie D. for the strikes.)