Iran's Voter Revolt
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|Joseph K. Grieboski||June 15th 2009|
Cutting Edge Foreign Desk
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad claimed a 60 percent victory in this week’s elections, bit the people of Iran refuse to believe he was the real victor.
The Iranian people took the streets this weekend in protest of what many called a stolen election, while Iran's leading opposition candidate, Hossein Mousavi, called the election a "coup" and demanded the international community not recognize the official results.
According to Iranian bloggers, so convinced is the population that the election results are a fraud that they have been making the joke that “George Orwell has requested to change his book's name from 1984 to 1388." This is the year 1388 according to the Iranian calendar.
Mousavi asserts that he had been informed of his victory by the interior ministry on Friday night. That claim was first published on the website of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a celebrated Iranian film director based in Paris and influential Mousavi supporter asked to speak on behalf of the candidate because of the clampdown on his organization in Iran. Authorities detained top Mousavi aides, including the head of his webcampaign, but many were released Sunday after being held overnight. Makhmalbaf’s website was subsequently closed down by a cyber attack.
"This semi-democratic country has taken an important step towards dictatorship," Makhmalbaf said.
Mousavi has also challenged the decision by Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to endorse the official results giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory in the Friday poll. He is reported to have met Khamenei, asked him to reconsider that decision, and to have written to the guardian council, saying "fraud is evident and review and nullification is requested".
Just after sundown Sunday, cries of "death to the dictator" echoed through Tehran as thousands of backers of Mousavi heeded a call to yell from the roofs and balconies. The historical connection of the act was hugely significant for Iranians. It was how the leader of the Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, united the country in protest against the Shah and was used later to mark its anniversary.
In one neighborhood, anti-riot police tried to disperse people joining in the cries from a street corner, but the crowds threw rocks at the officers and they withdrew.
Mousavi's newspaper, Kalemeh Sabz (Green Word), did not appear on newsstands Sunday. An editor, who spoke to USA Today on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the paper never left the printing house because authorities were upset with Mousavi's statements. The paper's website reported that more than 10 million votes in Friday's election were missing national identification numbers similar to U.S. Social Security numbers, which make the votes "untraceable." It did not say how it knew that information.
The struggle Sunday was on the streets in the worst unrest in Tehran since student-led protests 10 years ago. Demonstrators on the streets torched bank facades and trash bins, smashed store windows and hurled rocks at anti-riots squads in Tehran. Police responded with baton-wielding sweeps — sometimes targeting bystanders — and the regime shut down text messaging systems and pro-reform Internet sites.
Iranians have not been able to send text messages from their mobile phones since the election began, and the government increased its Internet filtering in an apparent attempt to undercut opposition voices. Social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter were also not working. Iran's government has not commented on the restrictions but has accused international media of exaggerating the extent of the street protests in Tehran and of trying to destabilize the government.
Iranian authorities vehemently criticized international media reports and tightened controls on the flow of information from non-governmental news sources as anti-government protests raged in the country.
The BBC reported that its news reports were electronically jammed since election day Friday, and that the jamming had worsened by Sunday. It said it had traced the jamming of the satellite signal broadcasting its Farsi-language service to a spot inside Iran.
President Ahmadinejad lashed out at the media shortly after he claimed victory in the election. At a news conference Sunday, he accused international media of launching a "psychological war" against the country.
However, Ahmadinejad's position was undermined when it emerged that all three of the presidential candidates had questioned the result. Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who had campaigned as a conservative, wrote to the guardian council questioning his official total of less than a million votes. "According to my election headquarters and my experts, in a worst-case scenario I should have had between 3.5 million and 7 million votes," he said in a letter posted on his official website.
"This is enormous. Rezai is still very influential in the IRGC," said Ali Ansari, an Iranian expert at St Andrews University. "The elite are very divided over this. They have been publicly dishonored [by the alleged vote-rigging." Reports indicate that many influential figures in the ruling circles were biding their time and waiting to see how events played out on the streets.
International reaction has not been overly supportive of the results, but politics has trumped reality in many reactions. The European Union voiced concerns about Iran's crackdown on demonstrators protesting the re-election of Ahmadinejad. A statement Sunday from the Czech EU presidency expressed hope that the outcome will not hinder dialogue on Iran's nuclear program, saying that the EU expects the new Iranian government to respect its international obligations.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister, called the crackdown on Iranian protesters unacceptable and stated that the landslide victory raises questions of irregularities that require "a comprehensive explanation."
France also voiced concern, with a close advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy – Henri Guaino – saying "what is happening in Iran is not good news for anyone." French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country is "very worried" about the situation in Iran and criticized the "somewhat brutal reaction" to the election protests.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated that Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory means the international community must act in an uncompromising way to prevent a nuclear Iran, to stop its support for terror groups, and to halt its undermining of Middle East stability. Israel is a frequent target of Mr. Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric. The Iranian president has called for an end to Israel's very existence and has described the Holocaust as a myth.
The Arab League congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad for his election win and expressed hope for improved relations with the Arab world, while Iran's state news agency said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad also congratulated President Ahmadinejad. Iran is a staunch supporter of Hamas.
Both U.S.-backed governments flanking Iran — Afghanistan and Iraq — issued congratulations.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's office said he sent a congratulatory telegram to Ahmadinejad. The victory shows support for Ahmadinejad personally as well as "the approach taken by the Islamic Republic" under Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Talabani said, according to a statement posted on his Web site. Talabani, a Kurd, also expressed confidence "that the friendly and neighborly relations" will improve in the coming years. Iraq faces a delicate balance in its relations with the United States and Iran. Many Shiite leaders in Iraq have close ties with Iran, which is also predominantly Shiite.
The head of one of the most influential Shiite parties, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, also sent a congratulatory telegram to Iran, but he praised Khamenei for successful elections instead of mentioning Ahmadinejad.
In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised Iran's large voter turnout and said he hopes that ties between Tehran and Kabul will continue to improve.
The crackdown on dissent following the disputed elections in Iran puts the Obama administration in a tougher spot, as it sticks with diplomacy as the best way to end that country's nuclear weapons program.
Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that efforts to engage Tehran, with the fundamental goal of halting its nuclear program, will continue. But the charges of vote fraud and the battles between police and opposition protesters appear to be major setbacks for the new U.S. administration's policy. On NBC television's Meet the Press, Biden said: "Is this the result of the Iranian people's wishes? The hope is that the Iranian people, all their votes have been counted, they've been counted fairly. But look, we just don't know enough" since Friday's vote.
President Barack Obama already is under renewed political pressure at home to get tough with Iran. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) said Sunday that the Iranian rulers had stolen the election and made a mockery of democracy. He urged Obama to speak out in defense of silenced Iranian demonstrators, but he offered no concrete steps to strengthen the U.S. case.
Cutting Edge Foreign writer Joseph Grieboski is President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and Secretary General, Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.