How to Invent Facts About the Iranian Election

Even when the evidence for something is overwhelmingly compelling, a small but noisy chunk of society will still resist it. The debate over evolution is an example of this. So is the present discussion of the Iranian election results.

The clear consensus in the West is that the fix was in—that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election landslide is a sham sloppily cooked up by the Islamic Republic’s conservative, change-resistant clerical elites. This isn’t simply because most analysts and observers wanted Ahmadinejad to lose and can’t bring themselves to believe that he might not have; it’s because there is ample evidence of serious, wide-scale chicanery.

But, just like Darwin’s dogged deniers have constructed their own fantasy world of alternative “science,”  a band of vocal skeptics is now pushing a peculiar brand of political science to challenge the conventional wisdom about Iran.

“Ahmadinejad won. Get over it,” was the headline to a Tuesday column by Flynn and Hillary Mann Leverett. But their claims, which have since been aired extensively, can mostly be dismissed with ease. Here are some of the key components of their argument, along with a logical rebuttal:

* Those who dismiss the election results mistakenly “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.”

Response: Sure, but that 61.69% he got in 2005 was in the run-off, not the preliminary election. And it came amid a voting boycott by millions of reformists, who concluded that participation would be pointless. As a result, only 29 million votes were cast in ’05. This year, the reformists participated in droves, helping to drive up turnout to around 40 million. In such an environment, it’s basically unfathomable that Ahmadinejad would somehow improve on his artificially inflated ’05 run-off total—in the preliminary round, no less.

* “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.”

Response: Exactly! That’s why hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters have taken to the streets and risked their lives to protest the official result—they actually expected, based on the past 30 years, that the vote-counting would be fair. No previous election in Iran has produced an uproar like this; even when they haven’t been pleased by the outcome, Iranians have accepted the integrity of the past presidential votes. It is because they recognize what fair elections are like that so many Iranians are objecting to this one.

* “..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.”

Response: Enough with the TFT poll already. All it showed was that, at a relatively early point in the campaign (long before hundreds of thousands of green-clad Iranians began turning up at Mousavi rallies), Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president, enjoyed a 34-14 percent advantage over his closest foe. The Leveretts suggest that this showed Ahmadinejad was roughly on course for the 63-34 percent win he was credited with. But that’s ridiculous. You don’t need to know much about Iran to appreciate why: an election that features an incumbent ultimately serves as referendum on that incumbent. After four years on the job, every Iranian knew all about Ahmadinejad and had an opinion on his stewardship. Their views of Mousavi (and the other two candidates in the race) were much less developed. So, of course Ahmadinejad had the early lead. But the key is that he was well under 50 percent. This is an awful place for an incumbent to be, leaving very little room for growth. Meanwhile, there was a ton of space for Mousavi to take off, once voters tuned in, learned about him and realized that he was the main alternative to Ahmadinejad.

* 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.”

Response: Actually, it reflects history. As the New York Times pointed out on Wednesday, there has been a clear relationship between high voter turnout and close preliminary elections in Iran over the last 30 years.

* “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.”

Response:  True, poll hours and ballot shortages wouldn’t move the overall numbers dramatically. But critics are claiming wholesale fraud; that is, that the numbers reported by Iran’s Interior Ministry were largely invented. This would explain why the figures released by the government varied little by province (despite wide cultural, demographic and ideological differences) and why the government seems to have adjusted the numbers slightly when the absurdity became clear. 

The Iranian election was a sham. Get over it. How to Invent Facts About the Iranian Election