Monday, June 15, 2009


I'm a bit perplexed by the reactions from a lot of people whose blogs I read, or on my Facebook friends page. They seem utterly, absolutely convinced that the Iranian election was stolen, and as far as I can tell, based on absolutely zero knowledge. Yes, the guy everyone wanted to win is alleging irregularities, and sure the Ayatollah is acting defensive. Ahmadinejad is certainly following the first rule of avoiding a coup detat (To wit, "Don't leave the country")

But let's look at this clear-eyed here. Sometimes the good guys (or less-bad) really do lose fairly. Is there really much evidence that Ahmadinejad doesn't have the support of 63% of the population? Mousavi's a good guy, and it sounds like he ran a very smart, very technically sophisticated campaign - just like Howard Dean. And it's the technical sophistication that makes me suspicious: Iran is not a technically sophisticated country, much of it is dirt-poor. It's not unreasonable to think that he simply didn't have access to large swathes of the population, swathes that Ahmadinejad spent the last four years busily bribing and pandering to with his "death to Israel" crap: and don't think for a minute that that doesn't play well back home. The English-speaking blogging Iranians may not like it, but they're a teeny, tiny minority in that country - and reading what they say, I get the feeling that it's more embarrassment over delivery than content.

Meanwhile, believing that this 63% win is a deliberate move requires one to simultaneously believe that Ahmadinejad is simultaneously a political genius and a dribbling moron. (Wile E. Coyote: Super Genius) Seriously: you're positing that he has the brass balls and political skill to manage a freaking 13+% cheat AND be dumb enough to think that that would fly? But more than that, this isn't Diebold bit-flipping here, this is pretty low-tech voting: you know, secure. You need organization to cheat a vote like that, boots on the ground and a lot of people willing (or eager) to look the other way. In order to believe that he could do such a thing, you have to believe that a large part of the country is too backwater and uneducated to prevent it... and yet not backwater and uneducated enough to actually vote for him in the first place? I don't buy it.

The way I see it, most of the country is poor and uneducated, which is exactly the way the Ayatollah likes them. They've been bribed and pandered to for years, came to identify with the guy. On top of that, it looks like Mousavi pulled an Al Gore: he let it be clear that he considers Ahmadinejad to be a stupid hick, and that just didn't play well with all the folks who thought he was just plain old folk.

Now, I'm not saying that old Ahmadinejad didn't try to pad the numbers. But given all this, what's more likely: that he padded and cheated 5-6% extra and got surprised by doing better than he expected, or knew he was going down, and bilked em for more than 13%, probably much more?

Nah. As far as I can tell, the primary basis that we Americans have for decrying this election as a sham is the refusal to believe that Ahmadinejad can win a fair election. It reflects well on you all to think that highly of humanity, but you've seen the kind of assholes who can win legitimate votes even in Western countries.

Now, that's not to say that I wouldn't like to see how far Mousavi can run with this, maybe even bring down Khameini. But let's not kid ourselves that he's a virtuous aggrieved party: plenty of good has been done by sore losers, after all.

I should admit that there are (at least) two scenarios that brush aside my objections:
First, if Khameini set up the vote-rigging but handed over the operation to Ahmadinejad, that would be a whole new ballgame. In that case, he doesn't have to be brilliant to have the machine, and he can easily be dumb enough to misuse it, thinking that 63% is totally reasonable. That would explain Khameini's performance: first seizing the moment so as to try to bulldoze his way through it and treat it as a fait accompli, then (potentially) stepping back and realizing that Ahmadinejad had either a) been a total idiot in a way that did not bode well, or (more intriguingly) b) been more reckless than stupid and had double-crossed him and grabbed for power. After all, Khameini can't just admit to being party to this and so HAS to do everything he can to make it stick, but at the same time a 63% majority gives Ahmadinejad unprecedented clout in his new government. It's an interesting idea, and I admit that I'm fascinated by the possibility that Ahmadinejad may have just made Khameini his bitch, but I still don't think it likely, and that level of recklessness really doesn't square with Ahmadinejad working alone.

Second, this could be a combination of multiple attempts to rig the vote such that the right hand didn't know what the left was doing, and possibly also combined with an unexpectedly strong showing in the vote. End result: a series of supposedly easily-covered boosts (possibly intended just to force a runoff) turns into an obvious error. Occam is shaking his head gravely as I type this.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (Fixing a typo that inverted the meaning of the sentence)
    To address a comment I got by IM:
    Sure, there were plenty of irregularities and plainly some dirty pool. There are a few suspicious acts that do make me wonder whether my analysis might be wrong. First and foremost: the partial communications blackout, and the fact that it wasn't lifted when the polls closed. The prior blackout was just dirty pool - it plainly impacted Mousavi's technically adept supporters more than Ahmadinejad's poorer and more old-fashioned boosters. But keeping them closed after the polls closed suggests advance planning, and altogether is indicative of the kind of organization and high-level support that would be required for a massive vote swindle. It's not proof, but it's certainly not counter-proof.

    The bit that has been more seized-on has been the early announcement, compared to the last election where they were announced the next day by a different committee. I'm skeptical of this. I strongly suspect that the Ayatollah specifically intended to be kept abreast of results. And come on, it's been four years since the last election. Surely they've made some progress in getting returns in faster? And it's a lot easier to call a huge win like this than a nail-biter that might or might not go to runoff. The US news called North Carolina for Obama faster than the Ayatollah called the Iranian countryside for Ahmadinejad, after all.

  3. It still took 3 days for NC to be called for Obama, and 2 weeks to be verified.

    There's some number crunching on, and one of the zillion articles/posts I read today seems to back it up. Mousavi is an Azeri, and he LOST by wide margins in his home region. Azeris are reportedly very close-knit, so they'd vote for one of their own over an outsider (I think it was an article at AsiaTimes that for some reason I can't copy-paste into here.) To make an analogy, it was like Pat Buchanan winning in Miami Beach a few years ago.

  4. Sorry to make a second comment. I got pasting to work.

  5. I could have sworn that the news station I was watching called NC for Obama while I was still eating dinner, but then you'd remember better than me. Virginia, then. It doesn't matter - for an election win that size, a few hours is a reasonable time in which to know it. Any comparisons are merely to underscore the point: while unusually quick to announce it (and possibly a violation of Iranian procedure/law) it's not unreasonable to expect them to know the results that quickly if the results were not close.

    My problem with most of the Western media coverage that they are still Western journalists talking primarily to English-speaking Iranians, who are a minority and who are pretty widely anti-Ahmadinajed. The Azeri thing could be true, who am I to know? Do we *know* that it's unusual for Azeris to vote against their own? Maybe they hate this guy. Maybe they've been bribed by Ahmadinejad every day for the past four years with free candy. But I do remember folks here in New Hampshire being stunned that Howard Dean lost the primary here, despite being considered much more "one of us" than that Masshole Kerry. And that was with modern polling with a pretty modern population. We listened to the echo chamber, while people were voting for their own reasons, and we got blindsided. Gore lost his home state, and I've never heard that touted as proof of vote tampering, even among thousands of other allegations.

    Most of the sources I'm seeing that I trust are being vague; the sources that are die-hard certain are coming out of nowhere. The Asia Times isn't exactly on my daily reading list - are you actually a regular reader, or did you get the link from someone else? I'm perfectly willing to believe that there was foul play involved, and the 538 link carries weight with me, sure, but the majority of the parties I've heard from are just not known to me - and I doubt that they're known to the people posting the links. It's dead easy to surf the web and find news organizations writing compelling pieces arguing exactly your point of view.

    The results are bizarre. And I want to believe that this was blatant fraud, and that Ahmadinejad will be run out of power as a result - that would be GREAT, it would literally make the Middle East a better place overnight. But there's a lot of "fog of war" right now, and the prevailing theories have major logical holes. For example, the only mechanism I've heard is simply, "They didn't count the votes, they just made them up." But that rings false - I can see why they might make up results, sure, but why on earth would they make up *these* results? These are smart, crafty people who presumably know the Azeris a hell of a lot better than either of us do. They know how likely it is that these people would lose their own home regions and hometowns. And you're telling me that they care enough to fake individual vote counts by city, but not enough to fake realistic vote counts? It just doesn't make sense. Which is more likely to be true, that they faked ridiculous results, or that we don't know what realistic results look like? Real fraud doesn't usually look like this. More often it looks like little improbable bumps where it counts, just enough to put your guy over the top, or it looks like Saddam Hussein getting 90-something percent of the vote.

    As it stands, people who know Iran better than I do -- Iranians -- are still arguing about the subject. Sure, groups I've never heard of are condemning the election results. And groups I've never heard of are affirming them. The fieriest quotes are from groups like the National Iranian American Council or the Basij: hardly non-partisan. I'm waiting to hear someone make a cohesive rational argument that explains the major doubts, or provide proof, or at least acknowledge that in the absence of neither, there remains doubt.

  6. (I had to seriously cut that post to fit in the alloted space; my apologies if it doesn't make sense as a result, but I'm up past my bedtime)

  7. I think I got the Asia Times link via Andrew Sullivan. Major US media outlets weren't particularly informative, and I don't get cable anymore.

    The graphs at 538 I think are telling: comparing the regions that voted for the reform candidate 4 years ago and now show an unlikely massive reversal of preference on home turf.

    I'm not an expert in Middle Eastern or Central Asian politics by any means; I can only take all the information out there and sift through it, giving more credence to some sources than others.

    I've read that Ahmadinejad has taken their economy into a massive downturn, with high unemployment. I've read that that's a big factor in the sentiment against him.

    I've read that the vote totals were announced within hours of the polls closing - not the statistical probabilities like we use here, based on exit polls and precincts reporting, but a full tally of 18 million votes that were cast by hand, without optical scanning devices. That seems pretty damned unlikely, and based on what I've read about historical elections, the results aren't published for a day or so.

    Nothing about it makes sense. I don't trust the Guardian Council under Khamenei to provide an impartial review of the results. I'd rather see an impartial body (the UN? Jimmy Carter?) oversee it, and a re-vote.

    And the IRG and Basiji are killing people in their homes as well as in the streets. That makes me a little suspicious.

  8. On further thought, we oughtn't overlay our own electoral culture on the people of Iran. They've got a different baseline culture than we do in the US, so we oughtn't make the assumptions that what applies here (Dean not taking NH, for example) applies there.

    It's easy to interpret the reactions of the IRG and those who support the mullahs as being out of fear: they fear that the people will rise up and boot them out of power. It's one possible interpretation, and I'm sure there are others, and it's entirely possible (quite likely?) that it's not the case at all.

    But oppressive regimes rule through fear, and there's no doubt that they fear insurrection and do all they can to silence voices of dissent. It's a cycle that feeds itself and feeds on itself.

    Sullivan linked to this piece: I don't know anything about Ledeen's cred.