Questions over Iranian vote

 

YESTERDAY IN Tehran tens of thousands again returned to the streets in defiance of an interior ministry ban and the first deaths were reported. This was despite a call from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for acceptance of the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and for both sides to avoid “provocative words and deeds”. “There was truly a divine hand behind this election,” he says of the 85 per cent turnout figure that saw 10 million more vote than in any election since the revolution of 1979.

Clearly, however, the deeply polarised Iranian people remain to be convinced that “the hand of God” may not have been helped by some distinctly human agency. On the streets young people, infuriated by what they see as a stolen election, are being batoned and teargassed while all three defeated candidates insist that the constitutional watchdog, the clerical Guardian Council, rescind the election.

Hussain Mousavi, who officially took 33.7per cent to Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 per cent, has denounced the result as simply not credible and a spokesman for him in exile has described it as a coup d’etat. Even Mohsen Rezai, one of the four officially sanctioned candidates, and a conservative cut from a similar cloth to Ahmadinejad, has written to the council questioning the result.

The outgoing president undoubtedly enjoys widespread support, not least among the country’s poorest and most conservative strata, and one early pre-election poll conducted by a US company put him ahead by two to one. But the result strains credibility in the wake of the campaign’s mass mobilisation of support for his rival. With a full breakdown still not available, there are serious doubts about what has been revealed by the authorities: Ahmadinejad allegedly won more than his rivals in their own hometowns – he took 90 per cent in his own and over 70 per cent in Mousavi’s, even beating him in his native Azeri-speaking community.

The scale of the movement on the streets, the largest since 1979, reflects the depth of divisions in Iran and the growing, subterranean challenge to the country’s all-powerful clerical authorities’ hegemony. The ideas of Mousavi, a former prime minister and no liberal, have found an important echo among students, women, and the middle classes, and even in the more pragmatic ranks of the clerics, for a toning down of the internationally bellicose rhetoric of Ahmadinejad.

They may well have been encouraged by the more conciliatory approach of President Barack Obama. And there is no doubt that the result is a disappointment both in the West and the Middle East, although the US has rightly made clear it still desires to press ahead with a policy of engagement. Iran should understand, however, that far from strengthening its hand in any talks, the elections and specifically the questions raised about Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy, will make dialogue more difficult. It can and should show its good intentions by heeding international calls to end the crackdown and open the electoral process to scrutiny. If his mandate is genuine Ahmadinejad should have nothing to fear from a blast of transparency.