How credible are the claims that Iran’s presidential election was rigged in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
I think there’s probably quite a bit of foundation in the claims. First of all, because Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the Iranian economy over the last four years has been so flagrant that there’s quite a bit of popular resentment on the street, so the fact that he essentially pulled out a win that is almost identical to the one he secured in 2005 doesn’t seem credible.
The second reason for being suspicious is that the poll was essentially a two-way split between Ahmadinejad and his top challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But there were in fact four candidates – including Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliament speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guard. Now Rezai was by all indications a marginal candidate, but Karoubi was not. But the way the polling broke down, both of them received less than one percent of the vote, which didn’t tally with any of the informal polling that had been taking place, and it didn’t take into account the fact that Mousavi and Karoubi have a very strong ethnic identity. Mousavi is an ethnic Azeri and Karoubi is an ethnic Lur. Yet Ahmadinejad far outpolled them in their respective ethnic areas, which just doesn’t seem credible in the grand scheme of Iran’s politics.
How easy would it be for Iranian authorities to rig an election, as has been claimed?
I think it’s very easy. Iran’s structure of power is tilted unmistakably towards the unelected, unaccountable clerical institutions that overlay the secular organisations that we all know – the executive, the legislature, the judiciary. And it is those institutions rather than the secular ones that are the driving force behind domestic and especially foreign and national security policy. So the election seemed pluralistic when voters went to the polls. But it was far more pluralistic back in May when there were more than 400 candidates. That playing field was whittled down to just four because there were the en masse disqualifications by the Guardian Council.
So this is a process that the Iranian clerical elite likes to stage manage and micromanage in a way that creates a predetermined outcome. And this is, frankly, what makes the current protests so remarkable, because it is one of the first times in the last 30 years that we see a public recognition among Iranians of just how jury-rigged their system is.
What do you make of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordering of a probe into the allegations?
It’s certainly a way of letting off some of the tension. But nobody should hope that there’s really going to be a substantively different outcome from the original result, simply because the same institutions that rigged the election the first time are going to be the same ones overseeing the recount. It’s really unfathomable to think that Iran’s clerical leaders are going to do something that will adversely affect them in the long term – the system’s simply not set up that way. If you wanted to use an analogy, the Islamic Republic is like Las Vegas, and the house always wins.
What do you think of the international response so far?
The silence so far has been deafening. There’s been strong condemnation from a few places, such as Italy and Canada, but not such a strong outpouring of any particular sentiment from Washington. And the reason for that is the Obama administration has already laid down its cards, and President Obama has made it clear that he wants to engage with the Iranian regime, rather than with the Iranian people.