Issue 8, March 2009
|Update: Iran, August 2009|
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:
Mir Hossein Moussavi:
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani:
On June 12, Iran held Presidential elections, pitting the hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against reformist candidate and former Prime Minister, Mir Hossein Moussavi. Just two hours after polls closed, the Iranian state news agency announced that Ahmadinejad had swept the elections in a landslide victory, taking 62.6% of the vote. The Iranian Interior Ministry reported that Moussavi received 33.8% of the vote, while the two other challengers, Mohsen Rezai and Mehdi Kourabi received 1.7% and 0.9%, respectively. Voter turnout was reported to be a record 85%.
Following the announcement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei commended Iranians on the high voter turnout, congratulated Ahmadinejad on his win, and urged opposition leaders to support Ahmadinejad, in a move that many analysts interpreted as a sign of Khamenei’s support of Ahmadinejad.
However, Moussavi and his supporters have vehemently disputed the results, and in the days following the election, protests were widespread, often turning violent at nightfall. Pre-election polling by opposition organizations had Moussavi winning by a significant margin and in the weeks leading up to the election, Moussavi’s support had seemed to swell as supporters staged huge rallies. The opposition candidates have filed hundreds complaints of misconduct with the Guardian Council, which is responsible for approving all candidates elected to office.
Issues of concern regarding the authenticity of the vote include:
In a preliminary analysis of the election results released on June 21, 2009, Catham House, an independent research organization, pointed to key areas of inconsistency, using province by province election data from the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections and 2006 census information released by the official Statistical Centre of Iran. The report highlights a voter turnout of greater than 100% in two provinces, a lack of correlation between increased voter turnout and increased support for Ahmadinejad, and unlikely and significant shifts in voter preferences in many provinces. See the full report here.
Ayatollah Khamenei agreed to a review of election results by the Guardian Council and to a meeting with the opposition candidates (a meeting which neither reformist candidate Moussavi nor Kourabi attended). Despite these concessions, Khamenei has indicated that Ahmadinejad’s victory was by so great a margin (11 million votes) that even if there were some instance of fraud, these could not have realistically reversed the result. This refrain was repeated by the Guardian Council, who conceded on Monday, June 22 that the number of ballots cast in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters, but maintained that this did not have an effect on overall results. The Guardian Council followed this announcement the next day with a statement that it had found “no major fraud” and that there was “no possibility of an annulment taking place. ” The Supreme Leader Khamenei has continued to stand behind the results and has urged the country to unify going forward.
In the days following the June 12 election, opposition protests were widespread, with Moussavi supporters taking the streets dressed in Moussavi green. On the Monday following the election, hundreds of thousands of protesters (some estimates are as high as 3 million) marched in silence, many holding signs reading “Where is my vote?” in what was reported to be the largest protests since the 1979 revolution that forced the Shah from power and eventually led to the establishment of the current political system.
Protests became increasingly violent with the involvement of basij members. The basij is a paramilitary organization nominally affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard and which has its origins as civilian volunteers who fought on the frontlines of the Iraq war in 1980s; the term now refers to a loose confederation of organizations, often used by the government as a lower-profile means of controlling the streets (the basij do not wear uniforms). Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad banned unofficial protests and threatened that if illegal gatherings occur, violence will likely follow. Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert, has predicted that the protest movement is unlikely to die down, though its strategies may change to avoid violent confrontations with security forces and there has been much talk of a nation-wide strike on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. After a large rally on July 9, physical protests were more scattered throughout the month.
Although the open violence largely ceased as massive protest rallies became less common, attention has remained focused on counting the dead from the earlier riots. As of late July, the Iranian government claims no more than 20 people have been killed; opposition elements place that figure upwards of 100, with revelations surfacing daily about names and details of the dead – some of whom have died in recent weeks while in imprisoned for their actions in June. Funerals and mourning ceremonies for victims of the post-election violence have become highly charged events, with the government placing prohibitions on such gatherings in an attempt to prevent spontaneous rallies from developing.
In addition to attempts to control the protest movement, those in power have censored internet access, shut down mobile phone and SMS services in certain areas, and severely limited journalists’ access to protests. The BBC’s permanent correspondent in Tehran has been expelled, Newsweek’s correspondent has been detained, and most foreign journalists’ visas expired soon after the elections. Furthermore, journalists have been banned from attending illegal gatherings.
The result has been an explosion in citizen reporting and the use of social networking sites to convey information to the outside world. Mainstream news organizations have increasingly relied upon YouTube videos and citizen accounts of events inside Iran. The social networking site Twitter has been heavily used to spread information, with tweets (the name given to a message sent via Twitter) ranging from tips on contending with tear gas to the movements of protesters to links to news stories related to events in Iran. For example, Tweets referencing “iranelection” over a period of just one hour numbered 13,000. Sites such as Facebook have also been used by Moussavi and his supporters to spread information (See the Facebook pages for Moussavi here and for his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, here).
Because sites such as Twitter and Facebook (along with many more) have been blocked by the Iranian government, many in the West have joined movements to allow Iranians to access these sites by proxy (the Iranian computer connects to the IP address of a computer outside of Iran, which then connects to the intended site). In fact, a war of sorts has exploded between computer experts (and hackers) around the world and Iranian government internet censors who are seeking to control the flow of information. See programs such as Proxy Heap and Haystack for more information on this online movement to support the Iranian opposition.
The official US reaction to developments in Iran has been measured and cautious. In the days following the election and ensuing unrest, the Obama administration resisted Republican pressure to toughen its stance on Iran and largely shied away from commenting on the legitimacy of the election results, instead focusing on encouraging an end to the suppression of speech and assembly. In a speech on Saturday, June 21, Obama issued his strongest statement, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and issuing a warning to Iranian officials: “If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.”
It is thought that Obama is attempting to strike a delicate balance between appearing to condone the election results and providing opportunities for Ahmadinejad and his supporters to cite Western meddling in Iranian affairs. Furthermore, the Obama administration has made clear its hopes for engaging Iran in nuclear proliferation negotiations, something that could be made much more difficult, if not impossible, were the US to come out in support of the “wrong” side (“wrong” in this instance referring to the side that does not emerge victorious from the protests).
On the whole, European officials have taken a stronger stance on Iran. On the weekend of June 21, the heads of 27 EU states joined together in issuing a statement that called for Iranian officials to respect Iranians’ rights to assemble and speak freely and peacefully. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a recount and French President Nicolas Sarkozy labeled the elections as fraudulent, saying, “The extent of the fraud is proportional to the violent reaction.”
Despite the relatively restrained response of most Western nations, Iranian officials have accused the West, particularly Great Britain and the United States, of meddling in its affairs. Iranian Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi declared that the BBC and Voice of America were essentially “mouthpieces” of their respective governments, comparing them to “war headquarters” and accusing them of “blatantly commanding riots.” Qashqavi went on to say, “Any contact with these channels, under any pretext or in any form, means contacting the enemy of the Iranian nation.”
Russia, a longstanding ally of Iran, announced its support of Ahmadinejad on Tuesday, June 22, with an online statement released by the Foreign Ministry stating that it respected the election results. Other nations that have maintained better relations with Iran in recent decades, including China, Venezuela and many developing nations, have also been supportive of the Ahmadinejad regime.
As this update goes to press, the turmoil in Iran is far from being resolved. Ayatollah Khamenei has taken a strong stance against protesters, and Moussavi has refused to back down, saying he is prepared for martyrdom and asking supporters to go on strike if he is arrested. Moussavi, Rafsanjani, and Khatami have all issued statements condemning the government’s crackdown on protests and urging the release of political prisoners. Moussavi made his most forceful condemnation of the protest-related arrests and killings on July 27, going as far as to say “these things are blackening our country, blackening all our hearts. If we remain silent, it will destroy us all and take us to hell.”
Domestically, the election could be a vital turning point for Iran. The disputed elections seem to have created a significant rift in the clerical leadership of Iran, pitting the powerful Rafsanjani (along with Moussavi and Khatami) against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The fact that protests have continued in direct opposition to Khamenei’s calls for protests to cease and threats of violence at the hands of Iranian security forces points suggests he may be losing influence in the eyes of many Iranians. By late July, Rafsanjani was even positioning himself as an interpreter of the future of the Islamic Revolution, opening up debate over the future direction of the Iranian republic. Khatami was calling for a referendum on the disputed elections results.
However, it bears remembering that reform movements have had little success in Iran in the past, and there is no guarantee that they will be successful now. The regime remains powerful and very much in control, supported by the well-entrenched Revolutionary Guard. Some worry that if the door to reform begins to close again, there is a very real possibility that the Iranian people will disengage politically.
The outcome of the present turmoil in Iran will also have lasting ramifications beyond its borders. Iran’s nuclear aspirations (see below) have long been a key concern for the rest of the world, and particularly the West. Though Moussavi is adamant in his assertions that Iran is justified in obtaining nuclear technology, he has stressed the importance of distinguishing between nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, possibly leaving more room for compromise with Western powers. On the whole, Moussavi is generally seen to be more open to negotiating with the West than Ahmadinejad. Taking into consideration Iran’s extraordinary geopolitical importance (it borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq), the West has a strong interest in increased cooperation with Iran.
The Iranian exile community around the world continues to be active in supporting the efforts of dissidents and opposition forces in Iran. In July, in addition to a rally at the UN and several high profile hunger strikes, members of the Iranian diaspora and human rights activists organized a United 4 Iran Global Day of Action comprising rallies in cities around the world. Internet campaigns work to put pressure on world leaders to intervene and to facilitate citizen journalists’ attempts to subvert Iranian government censors on the Web.
Watch for further developments as Ahmadinejad is scheduled to be inaugurated in early August.
Photostreams Documenting the Election Aftermath:
In Other News...
Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was jailed for four months in Iran on charges of spying. Saberi’s imprisonment became a top international news story and many speculated that Ahmadinejad hoped to use her imprisonment as a political bargaining chip in the run-up to presidential elections.
Saberi, a freelance journalist who worked for both the BBC and NPR, was originally arrested on charges buying alcohol; those charges were then revised to include working without a valid press card and finally, to include charges of espionage. Saberi was tried and sentenced in a closed trial. Her original sentence of eight years of imprisonment was revised to a two-year suspended sentence after much outcry from the international community.
Over the past months, there have been several key developments related to Iran’s nuclear program. In late February, Iran began a test run of its first nuclear power plant, entered into a joint venture with Russia, and, on April 9, 2009, inaugurated its first nuclear fuel manufacturing plant. May 20 saw a successful test launch of a mid-range surface-to-surface missile that could have the capability to carry a nuclear warhead. The United States released a statement in early February that it believes Iran has enough nuclear material to build a bomb. In late May, a secret Israeli report was obtained by the Associated Press, revealing that Venezuela and Bolivia are supplying Iran with uranium to be used in its nuclear program.
Despite Iran’s demonstrated determination to continue to develop its nuclear capabilities, important steps were made toward opening negotiations between Iranian officials and the West. President Barack Obama made opening a dialogue with Iran a priority and in April, the Obama administration announced that it would join other major powers in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran later accepted the invitation from the group of six world powers (United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Russia, and China) to discuss its nuclear program. Despite promises to give the US and other nations a response that includes a new package or proposals in regard to its nuclear program, Iran has not done so thus far. It is likely that the current post-election turmoil will delay any developments even further. The Obama Administration has indicated that the offer for negotiations is not open-ended and ideally a commitment would be made by Iran to participate by the time the UN General Assembly convenes in the fall. Most expect Iran will be given until the end of 2009 to signal its intentions to return to the table.
Debate continues within the US over whether Iran can be “contained” once it has nuclear weapons, or if all measures should be on the table to prevent it from realizing its nuclear ambitions, ranging from sanctions to negotiations to possible military action by Israel and/or others. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also raised the possibility of extending the US missile defense “umbrella” to cover US allies in the Middle East, particularly those in the Persian Gulf region.