The Woodrow Wilson Center
The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Do They Tell Us?
On Tuesday June 30th, the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion entitled “The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Do They Tell Us?” The speakers included renowned journalist and WWC policy scholar, Robin Wright; independent scholar, Farideh Farhi; senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Fariborz Ghadar; and political editor for The National in Abu Dhabi, Emile El-Hokayem. WWC’s own Sam Wells moderated the discussion.
Mr. Wells prompted the speakers with a series of important questions regarding the accuracy of the media's presentation of recent events in Iran. Robin Wright spoke first about what is clear and what is still unknown.
Wright started by pointing out that the election itself and the peaceful protests following it were a “political showdown.” However, the following violence represented a “physical showdown” that elevated the stakes of the conflict from a disputed election to the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader. Wright noted the use of Twitter and Facebook by opposition members. Wright also pointed out that even before the elections, the internet had connected Iranians to the rest of the world and filled them with growing desire to be more economically prosperous and socially free. Wright argued that today’s opposition movement is “very distinct” from the student movements of the late 90’s. Wright asserted that the opposition has a broad base that cuts across class and age. Maybe most significantly, the opposition also has the support of many powerful clergy members. Despite this, Wright warned that the regime has an equally potent coalition and controls the para-military forces that are at their most powerful since the revolution. Wright went on to explain the vulnerability of both sides. The opposition is vulnerable because of its lack of leadership. Mousavi has always been an accidental leader and may lack the charisma to lead such the opposition. If Mousavi proves ineffective at capturing momentum, the opposition may have to look elsewhere for leadership. The regime's vulnerability is a lack of unity. Wright illustrated that there are fissures within the highest levels of clergy, and the revolutionary guard may also be split on which side to support. Wright summed up her assessment by noting that however long the regime can succeed in suppressing the opposition, “the genie is out of the bottle.”
Farideh Farhi began her analysis by saying that the events following the election have been “the most significant” in Iran since the revolution, surpassing the rise of reformist policies and even the Iran-Iraq war. Farhi stated very clearly her belief that the election was not merely manipulated, but “completely cooked.” In her view, the regime predicted a typical turnout of 60% of the Iranian electorate, with better turnout among conservatives. In this scenario, a 2/3 majority for Ahmadinejad might make sense. However, Farhi explained that when a much greater number of Iranians showed up to vote, mobilized by opposition rallies, the regime failed to adjust their numbers to account for such broad participation. Farhi noted key miscalculations on the part of both the regime and the opposition. The opposition miscalculated by believing that although there would be vote manipulation of a few million votes, a more massive manipulation would not occur. The regime miscalculated by believing that a cynical electorate would not show up and vote for a reform candidate. Farhi also stated that Khamenei’s Friday prayer speech was not consistent with his supposed tendency to stay out of politics. Khamenei’s endorsement of both Ahmadinejad and the use of violence against protesters has shaken the legitimacy of his leadership. Farhi argued that Khamenei’s legacy will no longer be about standing up to the United States, but instead about suppressing his own people.
In addition to his post at CSIS, Foriborz Ghadar is the founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Business Studies. Ghadar shed some light on the role of the economy fomenting discontent in Iran. Ghadar illustrated that crude oil production has increased in recent years, but not as quickly as domestic consumption has grown. As a result, much of the oil is not exported, and GDP growth has been “erratic.” Ghadar also argued that some widely reported statistics about Iran’s economy seem implausible. For example, unemployment has been reported somewhere in the teens, but Ghadar believes it really lies in the twenties. Coupled with 20% inflation this gives Iran a misery index somewhere in the forties, higher than it ever was in the United States during the Great Depression. Ghadar also explained that although the government directly accounts for about 35% of Iran’s economy, the government indirectly controls another 30% through patronage. Ahmadinejad has garnered some popular support by dolling out oil money to the poor, and reformers would like to distribute government revenue in other ways. Ghadar seemed to be saying that one of the things reformers are fighting for is the ability to get control of the government purse, and invest the money with their own allies and patrons. Ghadar suggested that control of this money is a crucial element of the current conflict in Iran.
Emile El-Hokayem was able to offer the perspective of the Arab states on Iran. El-Hokayem claimed that many Arab states have always considered Iran a military dictatorship, and recent events have simply “lifted the veil of Iranian democracy.” Gulf leaders had been disappointed in the past by Iran’s reformers, such as former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. El-Hokayem shared that many gulf leaders are wary of Mousavi, or any reform candidate that may improve relations with the United States. The American alignment with Sunni power structures and Israel has worked for many gulf-states, and a shift in this relationship may threaten their interests.
The speakers also addressed the nuclear issue and seemed to have some degree of consensus. Robin Wright argued that before the election, Khamenei had several “trump cards” to play against the United States in negotiations over the nuclear program. The speakers seemed to agree that Iran is already enriching uranium, and the United States would likely have to acquiesce to at least accepting nuclear energy in Iran. Wright also pointed out that Ahmadinejad might prompt negotiation with the Obama administration, putting the new American government in the excruciating position of choosing between progress on the nuclear issue and support of democratic reformers.