|The Iranian Election and the Revolution Test
By George Friedman
SUCCESSFUL REVOLUTIONS HAVE three phases. First, a strategically
located single or limited segment of society begins vocally to express
resentment, asserting itself in the streets of a major city, usually
the capital. This segment is joined by other segments in the city and
by segments elsewhere as the demonstration spreads to other cities and
becomes more assertive, disruptive and potentially violent. As
resistance to the regime spreads, the regime deploys its military and
security forces. These forces, drawn from resisting social segments
and isolated from the rest of society, turn on the regime, and stop
following the regimeís orders. This is what happened to the Shah of
Iran in 1979; it is also what happened in Russia in 1917 or in Romania
Revolutions fail when no one joins the initial segment, meaning the
initial demonstrators are the ones who find themselves socially
isolated. When the demonstrations do not spread to other cities, the
demonstrations either peter out or the regime brings in the security
and military forces ó who remain loyal to the regime and frequently
personally hostile to the demonstrators ó and use force to suppress
the rising to the extent necessary. This is what happened in Tiananmen
Square in China: The students who rose up were not joined by others.
Military forces who were not only loyal to the regime but hostile to
the students were brought in, and the students were crushed.
A Question of Support
This is also what happened in Iran this week. The global media,
obsessively focused on the initial demonstrators ó who were supporters
of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís opponents ó failed to
notice that while large, the demonstrations primarily consisted of the
same type of people demonstrating. Amid the breathless reporting on
the demonstrations, reporters failed to notice that the uprising was
not spreading to other classes and to other areas. In constantly
interviewing English-speaking demonstrators, they failed to note just
how many of the demonstrators spoke English and had smartphones. The
media thus did not recognize these as the signs of a failing
Later, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke Friday and called out the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they failed to understand that the
troops ó definitely not drawn from what we might call the ďTwittering
classes,Ē would remain loyal to the regime for ideological and social
reasons. The troops had about as much sympathy for the demonstrators
as a small-town boy from Alabama might have for a Harvard postdoc.
Failing to understand the social tensions in Iran, the reporters
deluded themselves into thinking they were witnessing a general
uprising. But this was not St. Petersburg in 1917 or Bucharest in 1989
ó it was Tiananmen Square.
In the global discussion last week outside Iran, there was a great
deal of confusion about basic facts. For example, it is said that the
urban-rural distinction in Iran is not critical any longer because
according to the United Nations, 68 percent of Iranians are urbanized.
This is an important point because it implies Iran is homogeneous and
the demonstrators representative of the country. The problem is the
Iranian definition of urban ó and this is quite common around the
world ó includes very small communities (some with only a few thousand
people) as ďurban.Ē But the social difference between someone living
in a town with 10,000 people and someone living in Tehran is the
difference between someone living in Bastrop, Texas and someone living
in New York. We can assure you that that difference is not only vast,
but that most of the good people of Bastrop and the fine people of New
York would probably not see the world the same way. The failure to
understand the dramatic diversity of Iranian society led observers to
assume that students at Iranís elite university somehow spoke for the
rest of the country.
Tehran proper has about 8 million inhabitants; its suburbs bring it to
about 13 million people out of Iranís total population of 70.5
million. Tehran accounts for about 20 percent of Iran, but as we know,
the cab driver and the construction worker are not socially linked to
students at elite universities. There are six cities with populations
between 1 million and 2.4 million people and 11 with populations of
about 500,000. Including Tehran proper, 15.5 million people live in
cities with more than 1 million and 19.7 million in cities greater
than 500,000. Iran has 80 cities with more than 100,000. But given
that Waco, Texas, has more than 100,000 people, inferences of social
similarities between cities with 100,000 and 5 million are tenuous.
And with metro Oklahoma City having more than a million people, it
becomes plain that urbanization has many faces.
Winning the Election With or Without Fraud
We continue to believe two things: that vote fraud occurred, and that
Ahmadinejad likely would have won without it. Very little direct
evidence has emerged to establish vote fraud, but several things seem
For example, the speed of the vote count has been taken as a sign of
fraud, as it should have been impossible to count votes that fast. The
polls originally were to have closed at 7 p.m. local time, but voting
hours were extended until 10 p.m. because of the number of voters in
line. By 11:45 p.m. about 20 percent of the vote had been counted. By
5:20 a.m. the next day, with almost all votes counted, the election
commission declared Ahmadinejad the winner. The vote count thus took
about seven hours. (Remember there were no senators, congressmen, city
council members or school board members being counted ó just the
presidential race.) Intriguingly, this is about the same time in took
in 2005, though reformists that claimed fraud back then did not stress
the counting time in their allegations.
The counting mechanism is simple: Iran has 47,000 voting stations,
plus 14,000 roaming stations that travel from tiny village to tiny
village, staying there for a short time before moving on. That creates
61,000 ballot boxes designed to receive roughly the same number of
votes. That would mean that each station would have been counting
about 500 ballots, or about 70 votes per hour. With counting beginning
at 10 p.m., concluding seven hours later does not necessarily indicate
fraud or anything else. The Iranian presidential election system is
designed for simplicity: one race to count in one time zone, and all
counting beginning at the same time in all regions, we would expect
the numbers to come in a somewhat linear fashion as rural and urban
voting patterns would balance each other out ó explaining why voting
percentages didnít change much during the night.
It has been pointed out that some of the candidates didnít even carry
their own provinces or districts. We remember that Al Gore didnít
carry Tennessee in 2000. We also remember Ralph Nader, who also didnít
carry his home precinct in part because people didnít want to spend
their vote on someone unlikely to win ó an effect probably felt by the
two smaller candidates in the Iranian election.
That Mousavi didnít carry his own province is more interesting. Flynt
Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett writing in Politico make some
interesting points on this. As an ethnic Azeri, it was assumed that
Mousavi would carry his Azeri-named and -dominated home province. But
they also point out that Ahmadinejad also speaks Azeri, and made
multiple campaign appearances in the district. They also point out
that Khamenei is Azeri. In sum, winning that district was by no means
certain for Mousavi, so losing it does not automatically signal fraud.
It raised suspicions, but by no means was a smoking gun.
We do not doubt that fraud occurred during Iranian election. For
example, 99.4 percent of potential voters voted in Mazandaran
province, a mostly secular area home to the shahís family. Ahmadinejad
carried the province by a 2.2 to 1 ratio. That is one heck of a
turnout and level of support for a province that lost everything when
the mullahs took over 30 years ago. But even if you take all of the
suspect cases and added them together, it would not have changed the
outcome. The fact is that Ahmadinejadís vote in 2009 was extremely
close to his victory percentage in 2005. And while the Western media
portrayed Ahmadinejadís performance in the presidential debates ahead
of the election as dismal, embarrassing and indicative of an imminent
electoral defeat, many Iranians who viewed those debates ó including
some of the most hardcore Mousavi supporters ó acknowledge that
Ahmadinejad outperformed his opponents by a landslide.
Mousavi persuasively detailed his fraud claims Sunday, and they have
yet to be rebutted. But if his claims of the extent of fraud were
true, the protests should have spread rapidly by social segment and
geography to the millions of people who even the central government
asserts voted for him. Certainly, Mousavi supporters believed they
would win the election based in part on highly flawed polls, and when
they didnít, they assumed they were robbed and took to the streets.
But critically, the protesters were not joined by any of the millions
whose votes the protesters alleged were stolen. In a complete
hijacking of the election by some 13 million votes by an extremely
unpopular candidate, we would have expected to see the core of
Mousaviís supporters joined by others who had been disenfranchised. On
last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when the demonstrations were at
their height, the millions of Mousavi voters should have made their
appearance. They didnít. We might assume that the security apparatus
intimidated some, but surely more than just the Tehran professional
and student classes posses civic courage. While appearing large, the
demonstrations actually comprised a small fraction of society.
Tensions Among the Political Elite
All of this not to say there are not tremendous tensions within the
Iranian political elite. That no revolution broke out does not mean
there isnít a crisis in the political elite, particularly among the
clerics. But that crisis does not cut the way Western common sense
would have it. Many of Iranís religious leaders see Ahmadinejad as
hostile to their interests, as threatening their financial
prerogatives, and as taking international risks they donít want to
take. Ahmadinejadís political popularity in fact rests on his populist
hostility to what he sees as the corruption of the clerics and their
families and his strong stand on Iranian national security issues.
The clerics are divided among themselves, but many wanted to see
Ahmadinejad lose to protect their own interests. Khamenei, the supreme
leader, faced a difficult choice last Friday. He could demand a major
recount or even new elections, or he could validate what happened.
Khamenei speaks for a sizable chunk of the ruling elite, but also has
had to rule by consensus among both clerical and non-clerical forces.
Many powerful clerics like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wanted
Khamenei to reverse the election, and we suspect Khamenei wished he
could have found a way to do it. But as the defender of the regime, he
was afraid to. Mousavi supportersí demonstrations would have been
nothing compared to the firestorm among Ahmadinejad supporters ó both
voters and the security forces ó had their candidate been denied.
Khamenei wasnít going to flirt with disaster, so he endorsed the
The Western media misunderstood this because they didnít understand
that Ahmadinejad does not speak for the clerics but against them, that
many of the clerics were working for his defeat, and that Ahmadinejad
has enormous pull in the countryís security apparatus. The reason
Western media missed this is because they bought into the concept of
the stolen election, therefore failing to see Ahmadinejadís support
and the widespread dissatisfaction with the old clerical elite. The
Western media simply didnít understand that the most traditional and
pious segments of Iranian society support Ahmadinejad because he
opposes the old ruling elite. Instead, they assumed this was like
Prague or Budapest in 1989, with a broad-based uprising in favor of
liberalism against an unpopular regime.
Tehran in 2009, however, was a struggle between two main factions,
both of which supported the Islamic republic as it was. There were the
clerics, who have dominated the regime since 1979 and had grown
wealthy in the process. And there was Ahmadinejad, who felt the ruling
clerical elite had betrayed the revolution with their personal
excesses. And there also was the small faction the BBC and CNN kept
focusing on ó the demonstrators in the streets who want to
dramatically liberalize the Islamic republic. This faction never stood
a chance of taking power, whether by election or revolution. The two
main factions used the third smaller faction in various ways, however.
Ahmadinejad used it to make his case that the clerics who supported
them, like Rafsanjani, would risk the revolution and play into the
hands of the Americans and British to protect their own wealth.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani argued behind the scenes that the unrest was the
tip of the iceberg, and that Ahmadinejad had to be replaced. Khamenei,
an astute politician, examined the data and supported Ahmadinejad.
Now, as we saw after Tiananmen Square, we will see a reshuffling among
the elite. Those who backed Mousavi will be on the defensive. By
contrast, those who supported Ahmadinejad are in a powerful position.
There is a massive crisis in the elite, but this crisis has nothing to
do with liberalization: It has to do with power and prerogatives among
the elite. Having been forced by the election and Khamenei to live
with Ahmadinejad, some will make deals while some will fight ó but
Ahmadinejad is well-positioned to win this battle.