How well do we understand what is going on in Iran?
Not very well, according to a much-discussed article by Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation and Hillary Mann Leverett, formerly of the State Department and the NSC, published just after the Iranian election.
Without any evidence, many U.S. politicians and “Iran experts” have dismissed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection Friday, with 62.6 percent of the vote, as fraud.
They 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, when he trounced former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The shock of the “Iran experts” over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking.
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. Manipulation has always been there, as it is in many other countries.
But upsets occur – as, most notably, with Mohammed Khatami’s surprise victory in the 1997 presidential election. Moreover, “blowouts” also occur – as in Khatami’s reelection in 2001, Ahmadinejad’s first victory in 2005 and, we would argue, this year.
Like much of the Western media, most American “Iran experts” overstated Mir Hossein Mousavi’s “surge” over the campaign’s final weeks. More important, they were oblivious – as in 2005 – to Ahmadinejad’s effectiveness as a populist politician and campaigner. American “Iran experts” missed how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having won the nationally televised debates with his three opponents – especially his debate with Mousavi.
For this the Leveretts were roundly condemned as “apologists” for the Ahmadinejad regime, as “useful idiots“, and worse. But these attacks were not joined, and still have not been joined, so far as I can see, to an actual refutation of their points. There are strong statistical signs of manipulation and plausible allegations of rigging, but do we believe that Ahmadinejad would have lost a clean election? That is, do we believe that most Iranians want him out? The evidence is much less clear-cut (see here and here) than our conviction that Ahmadinejad is despicable. But then we knew he was despicable before the election.