How to Fix Iran’s Election

Rarely does a country have such a clear choice as Iran did on June 12. On that day, nearly 40 million people voted for a president. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pledged to continue his economic policies and his anti-Western, Holocaust-denying, nuclear-confrontational approach. His main opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, promised economic reform, increasing openness with the West, human rights, and nuclear negotiations.

While some polling stations were still open, the Interior Ministry declared Ahmadinejad the winner by a landslide. The opposition rejected it, and despite arrests and beatings, the protests have continued. Ahmadinejad’s and Mousavi’s supporters both proclaim their candidate won.

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But to all others, it is clear there were substantial irregularities. Although Ahmadinejad’s crackdown appears designed to end questions about his legitimacy, even conservative clerics are demanding answers from the state. Here is what we know happened — and a plan to prevent fraud in the next election.

Using even a minimal standard, there are good reasons for Iranians not to trust election results. The president-controlled Interior Ministry conducts elections in Iran. It denies opposition observers access to polling stations and counts the votes. Only half of Mousavi’s observers were permitted to observe polling stations in the capital city of Tehran; they had even less access in the rest of the country. None of the observers were permitted to see whether the ballot boxes were empty when the vote began. Nor were they permitted to accompany the mobile ballot boxes, which collected nearly one-third of the votes. And no Mousavi or impartial observers accompanied the ballot boxes from local wards to the provincial committees and finally to Tehran for the count.

Before the election, the reformists’ Committee for Safeguarding the Votes expressed concern that 54 million ballots were printed — millions more than for past elections and 8 million more than the number of eligible voters. Moreover, some ballots did not have serial numbers. About 40 million people voted, but no one accounted for the other 14 million ballots.

The Committee for Safeguarding the Votes also said it found a large number of Mousavi votes after the election, including some in the northern forests of Iran. It surmised that these votes were removed from the boxes and replaced with votes for Ahmadinejad. Mousavi himself claims he has evidence that the total number of votes exceeded the number of eligible voters by as much as 40 percent in more than 170 constituencies. Some of the party observers claim ballots for Ahmadinejad featured the same handwriting in the same ink.

These accusations of fraud are credible. Even the conservative Guardian Council has acknowledged that as many as 3 million votes might have been fraudulent. But, given the way the system operates, no one knows with certainty how many votes were legitimate and how much fraud occurred.

In many other countries with rigged electoral systems, opposition members boycott. That did not happen in Iran — and now, millions are risking their lives to compel the authorities to count their votes accurately. As the protest moves to its next phase, the country could stave off a crisis by agreeing to four fundamental electoral safeguards.

The single most important step is to transfer election responsibilities from the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council to a nonpartisan and independent national election commission. Iran should also create a nonpartisan elections court, composed of judges and lawyers. All the major political parties should have a veto on nominees so as to ensure that the judges are acceptable to all the parties.

Second, the Election Commission should certify the candidates according to clear and fair criteria, and they should prevent any intimidation, and guarantee access to the entire electoral process by domestic and international election observers. Domestic observers are absolutely essential to assuring a free election and detecting fraud; and international observers help the process by magnifying the voice of the domestic observers.

Third, the ballot boxes should be opened for all to see before the election begins, and observers should accompany mobile and other ballot boxes through the day.

Finally, counting should occur at every polling site. Observers should watch the count, sign the declaration of results, and keep a copy. The final announcement should publicize the results of each of the polling stations, so that people can detect any vote discrepancy.

Much else needs to be done to build confidence in the electoral process and assure votes are counted fairly. But if these four fundamental elements of electoral reform are accepted and implemented, the next election in Iran would be much freer and fairer. The reforms would also allow Iranians and the world to locate and denounce any fraud. The opposition has asked for a new election, but without these four reforms, that is unlikely to be any fairer than the previous one. Only with such reforms can Iranians know when their votes count, and when their voices are stolen.

What role should the West and the United States play at this time? It is obvious that Ahmadinejad and his allies would like to blame all of Iran’s problems on the West — especially the United States and Britain. The government’s case against the opposition is that its members are surrogates of the West. For these countries to be seen as meddling in Iran’s affairs would be counter-productive.

On the other hand, the democratic community cannot be silent; it needs to find the most appropriate and legitimate way to express its support for democracy in Iran and elsewhere. The best way to reconcile these two somewhat conflicted messages — avoid meddling but provide more support for Iran’s democrats — is if the world’s great Muslim democracies, which have diplomatic relations with Iran — like Indonesia and Lebanon — to carry the message. Those countries should propose a resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Council, calling for an end to repression and for genuine electoral reform.

It now appears that Ahmadinejad will try to consolidate a hard-line government and will ruthlessly suppress all legitimate protest movements. If he chooses this path, he will further undermine his efforts to win legitimacy.

The battle for reform has just begun. The only question is when it will prevail. Within Iran’s regime, a group of clerics holds that the Islamic Republic should be genuinely democratic. In the end, the major hope for democracy will depend on their acknowledging the flaws in the electoral system and deciding to reform it.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of Apocalyptic Politics; on the Rationality of Iranian Policy.

Robert Pastor is a professor and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University. He developed the election-monitoring initiatives of the Carter Center in Atlanta and has organized the observation of elections in about forty countries.

This article  was first published in Foreign Policy


Iran at a Crossroads?

Mehdi Khalaji speaks in a roundtable-style special hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the political crisis in Iran, hosted by John Kerry
Watch U.S. Senate video of this event (the hearing begins at 36:30).


Khamenei’s Coup

Washington Post, June 15, 2009

Large-scale manipulation of Friday’s presidential election in Iran was to be expected, but few could have predicted that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had a military coup in mind. By declaring incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, Khamenei conveyed a clear message to the West: Iran is digging in on its nuclear program, its support to Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, and its defiant regional policies.
In the streets of Tehran and other major cities, riot police, members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basij militias are battling reformist demonstrators who are protesting the results. The government has cut Internet connections and cellphone service and jammed foreign satellite TV and radio broadcasts. Most foreign journalists in Iran to cover the election were expelled after the voting ended. More than 100 leaders of the reform movement have been detained so far, and others are under what amounts to house arrest.

Even though Khamenei asked the candidates not to dispute the results, a reformist group called the Council of Militant Clerics, led by former president Mohammad Khatami, apologized to the people for not being able to protect their votes and asked the government to overturn this result and hold new elections. In statements Sunday, two of the presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, asked people to continue their “nonviolent demonstration” throughout the country and criticized the government for using violence against demonstrators.

More than 80 percent of Iranian voters turned out primarily because Ahmadinejad’s three challengers succeeded in mobilizing Iran’s silent majority, especially in the two weeks before the election. All three warned explicitly about the risks of Ahmadinejad’s domestic and foreign policies. Although Ahmadinejad enjoys the support of Iran’s powerful supreme leader, in the final two weeks before the election all reputable polls inside and outside of Iran showed that Ahmadinejad’s popularity had decreased significantly — particularly following televised campaign debates — even in rural areas and among the urban working class.

Ahmadinejad took office four years ago through an engineered election. This time Khamenei announced — before the official Interior Ministry count had been issued — that Ahmadinejad had won more than 24 million votes, surpassing even the record set by Khatami 12 years ago.

Mousavi and Karroubi have called the announced results “ridiculous.” Mousavi said Sunday that invalidating the election is now the only way to restore the people’s trust. The Iranian supreme leader’s post-election statement, in which he described a “people’s epic” through a “completely fair and free election,” did not prevent shocked followers of reformist candidates from rioting over the weekend to chants of “down with the dictator.”

The challengers also asked people to go to the roof of their homes and shout “Allah is great,” a slogan that reminds people of the 1979 revolution. Mousavi has invited protesters to gather this afternoon on Enghelab Square in Tehran; gatherings are expected in more than 20 other cities.

The current social solidarity and political unity in Iran is unprecedented since the revolution. Banners, headbands and signs in green, the color of the anti-Ahmadinejad movement, were prominent before the election and are still on display. No one can predict where this situation will lead and whether Khamenei’s nightmare of a “velvet revolution” will come true.

Earlier this year, in his message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (Nowruz), Barack Obama became the first U.S. president since the hostage crisis to address “Iranian leaders” and the “Islamic Republic” rather than the Iranian “regime.” The Obama administration had been careful not to take any position that could be seen as supporting a particular candidate in the Iranian election. Obama’s Iran team was surely watching the decreasing support for Ahmadinejad and waiting to see what would happen. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and leaders of the Palestinian Hamas and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movements were among the first to congratulate Ahmadinejad, people everywhere, certainly including in Iran, expect the United States to speak out.

This military coup is a turning point in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies that the West cannot ignore. The U.S. reaction in particular is meaningful not only for Iran’s democratic movement but for all democrats in Islamic countries who suffer under autocratic governments. In coordination with European and other nations, the United States should respond to the message being sent by Iran’s supreme leader by condemning the election and backing the Iranian people’s demand for a free and fair revote under the supervision of international observers.

Iran’s people have a living memory of U.S. involvement in the 1950s coup against the government of Mohammed Mossadegh. They expect the Obama administration not to make the same mistake at this crucial time in U.S.-Iranian relations by recognizing the coup carried out under the cover of this election.

It will be easier to bring an end to Iran’s controversial nuclear program and defiant foreign policy working with a democratic Iran rather than the military government that is in power. Iranian society will not forget this historic moment and is watching to see how the free world reacts.


Should Obama Speak Out on Iran?, June 18, 2009

The New York Times convened an online panel of four Middle East experts to discuss the Obama administration’s response to the landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 Iranian presidential elections. The following is a contribution by Washington Institute senior fellow Mehdi Khalaji, who focuses on Iranian politics and the politics of Shiite groups in the Middle East. Read the entire discussion on the Times’s website.
Let Protesters Know the U.S. Cares

Only before the June 12 elections could I have agreed with President Obama’s statement on Tuesday that “the difference between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised.”

What is happening these days in Iran has little to do with Mir Hussein Moussavi’s policies or background. What matters now for the Iranians participating in the daily demonstrations, even those who did not vote or voted for the other reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, is not Mr. Moussavi’s agenda as he expressed during his campaign but rather what he represents: the Iranian people’s resentment of the militarization of the government, the humiliation and isolation of the nation on the world stage.

Despite Ayatollah Ali Khamenei being the one who has the final say on the Islamic Republic’s foreign, nuclear and military policies, Mr. Moussavi, in his televised debates before the election, criticized the government’s economic agenda and political and cultural suppression. He also challenged Iran’s foreign polices and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory statements about the decline of the U.S. and the annihilation of Israel.


The Obama administration’s caution in passing judgment about the legitimacy of the election is wise. It will do best if it watches and waits for the final decision of the Iranian supreme leader. But President Obama should make it clear in his public statements that there is a big difference between a President Ahmadinejad and a President Moussavi because two things cannot be ignored by the U.S. administration.

First, if we assume that Ayatollah Khamenei is the real power in Iran, there should be an explanation for his persistent support of Mr. Ahmadinejad in the last four years despite strong criticism of the president’s policies from a wide spectrum of reformist and conservative Iranian politicians. There are many reasons to believe that Ayatollah Khamenei sees a fundamental difference between Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Second, had Mr. Moussavi won the election in the same way that Mohammad Khatami did 12 years ago, the supreme leader could have used all the same tools to weaken him. But in the current situation, if Mr. Moussavi comes to power out of the mass mobilization of Iranian society, it would mean the defeat of not only Ayatollah Khamenei but the institution of the “ruling jurist” and the agenda of the militarization of the government. Mr. Moussavi would be the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic who comes to power by defeating “the real power” in Iran.

What President Obama should to do now is focus more on the people in the streets rather than the election itself. He should condemn the Iranian government for using violence against the peaceful demonstrators no matter who would come to office as a president. According to several sources in Iran, more than 30 demonstrators have been killed and at least 150 leaders of the reform movement have been arrested in the last few days. President Obama’s strong statement in favor of human rights can have a significant impact on preventing further arrests and bloodshed.


The Voting Manipulation Industry in Iran

Following article is originally published in Washington Institute website on June 10, 2009
With Iran’s presidential campaign culminating on June 12, all three challengers to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad are expressing increased concern about the possibility of election fraud and manipulation of the election. Not only are there complaints about regime influence on the campaign, such as biased coverage by state-run television, the voting itself can be manipulated in numerous ways.
Voting Procedures

According to Iranian law, the Interior Ministry administers elections. In each ward or county, the ministry forms an executive committee that consists of the ward or county head, the local head of the National Organization for Civil Registration, the chief prosecutor or his representative, and eight respected local figures. The Guardian Council has the duty of supervising the electoral process at each polling station and has created observation committees with more than 130,000 members. Each candidate has the right to send an observer to each fixed polling station to observe both the voting process and the ballot count.

In Iran, voting follows quite different procedures than those used in most Western countries. For instance, there is no voter registration. Instead, a person’s voting eligibility is determined by a “birth certificate” (BC). (Although Iran has recently introduced national identification cards, these are not used for voting.) The BC, issued by the National Organization for Civil Registration, looks like a passport, with pages that can be stamped. Voters can go to any of the more than 60,000 voting stations across the country or around the world, including those in thirty-five U.S. cities. Since there is no requirement to vote near one’s residence, voter turnout at a particular voting station, or even in a city, can theoretically exceed the estimated number of eligible voters in that locality. When a person receives a ballot, the BC is recorded and stamped, but there appears to be no verification, either during the voting or after, of the documentation.

Manipulation Mechanisms

Voting can be easily manipulated in several ways:

Collecting birth certificates. In previous elections, reports have surfaced that the Imam Khomeini Committee, a large state charity affiliated with the leader (or, as he insists, supreme leader), Ali Khamenei, “rent” BCs belonging to the poor. It has been alleged that after regular voting hours, those engaged in fraud fill out ballots using the rented BCs. In some elections, polls remained open for many hours after the designated closing time, feeding concern that irregular votes were being cast.

Eligible voters. Relying on birth certificates complicates the calculation of eligible voters. Different government offices give very different estimates: while the Interior Ministry puts the total number of eligible Iranian voters at 46 million, Iran’s Center for Statistics claims the number is over 51 million. Not being able to even estimate the number of eligible voters makes it difficult to judge if “ghost” votes have been cast. According to the National Organization for Civil Registration, the number of existing BCs considerably exceeds the number of Iranians. Many BCs are issued as replacements for reportedly lost BCs, and there is little to prevent people from using the duplicate BCs to vote at two different polling stations. Also, some Iranians do not invalidate their relatives’ BCs after they die. In the last presidential election, reformist sources announced that more than two million fraudulent BCs may have been used by the Basij militia and others to obtain ballots.

Illiteracy. According to official statistics, the illiteracy rate in Iran is more than 20 percent. Voters are required to write the name of their preferred candidate on the ballot; there are no pictorial symbols, and voters are not allowed to make an “X” to indicate their choice. Since many people are unable to write, the government allows volunteers, mostly affiliated with the Basij, to be inside polling stations to help voters write the name of their preferred candidate. Obviously, these Basij volunteers can easily write in any name they wish.

Mobile polling stations. According to the Ministry of Interior, there will be more than 14,000 mobile ballot boxes for people unable to vote at the nearly 47,000 fixed polling stations (for instance, the infirm, the elderly, and the military); the number of mobile boxes is more than ten times the number used in the previous election. Adequate supervision of the mobile boxes is extremely difficult, creating a situation where no one watches who casts the ballots or is present during the tally.

Counting process. The two-stage counting process presents perhaps the most troubling aspect of the elections. At each polling station, after the end of voting hours, the votes are counted and recorded on Form 22 in the presence of representatives from the candidates, the Interior Ministry, and the Guardian Council. These forms are secret however; the results are not announced to the press or released to the candidates. Instead, in the second stage of the counting process, the forms are sent to the Interior Ministry, where the votes are tallied and published on Form 28, which reports the votes by province or county. But because there is no supervision of the preparation, there is no way to compare Form 28 to Form 22. In other words, it is possible for agents from the Guardian Council or the Interior Ministry to change the vote totals before announcing them. This stage provokes suspicion among candidates as well as independent observers about the accuracy and fairness of the counting.

Validation of the election. The official validation of the election results is a two-stage process. The first stage is validation by the Guardian Council, which is a partisan body that does not bother to conceal its political preference. In the past, the Guardian Council has canceled the voting in some districts where voting problems allegedly occurred, and not surprisingly, these are often districts where reformers do well. The second stage of validation is by Khamenei, who has the constitutional authority to overrule the voters if he so chooses. In an open letter published on June 7, a group of Interior Ministry employees expressed concern about the ministry’s plans to intervene and manipulate the election by various means. They mentioned a fatwa issued by an ayatollah in Qom, which provides ministry officials with a religious justification for manipulating the election in favor of Ahmadinezhad. Some reformist sources such as believe that the fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who is known to be a fervent supporter of Ahmadinezhad and his religious worldview. The representatives of Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrobi also sent an open letter, published on June 8, to Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, warning about manipulation of the election.


Ahmadinezhad’s rivals have no faith that the Interior Ministry will respect the law and conduct a fair election. Mehdi Karrobi and Mir Hossein Moussavi suggested that a “committee for safeguarding the fairness of vote” supervise the election on behalf of the candidates, but the Interior Ministry and the Guardian Council rejected the idea. It is not clear how much voting manipulation will occur on June 12, but it is abundantly clear that Iran’s election procedures leave ample opportunity for massive voter fraud.


A Futile Quest for Power

 This article originally published in Guardian newspaper in March 17, 2009

The decision of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami not to seek the presidency again has revealed how muddled Iranian presidential politics now is. In trying to sort out this muddle, the most important thing to keep in mind is not so much who will be elected, but what that choice will reveal about the intentions of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Unfortunately, the most likely outcome will be continuing transformation of the Islamic Republic from a civil government into a garrison state in which the military plays a major role in determining political and economic matters.

Who will actually win the vote is unpredictable, but not because Iran is democratic. Ayatollah Khamenei, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, oversees the agencies that will run the election: the guardian council and the ministry of interior, which supervise the electoral process, and the Basij militia and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), which unofficially control the ballot-boxes and the vote-counting process.

Recent surveys show that the increasing unpopularity of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stems primarily from his economic policies. Although oil prices reached an all-time high in 2008, unemployment and inflation (now 31%) are out of control and the government is facing a $44bn budget deficit. The public sector accounts for roughly 80% of the economy, and relies mostly on now-plummeting oil revenue, while Iranian banks face a credit crisis, with Mahmoud Bahmani, the governor of the Iran Central Bank, estimating total delinquent payments to be $38 billion.

But Ahmadinejad’s unpopularity does not necessarily weaken his chances of being re-elected. A few months before the election, neither of the two main political currents, conservative and reformist, has settled on its candidate. Among the reformists now in the race, Mehdi Karroubi, the former speaker of the Majlis, is a declared reformist candidate. Mir Hossein Moussavi, a former prime minister, and Abdullah Nouri, a former interior minister, are also expected to enter the race.

On the conservative side, Ahmadinejad so far stands alone. But many conservatives also oppose his economic policies, as well as his management style. Conservative voices have repeatedly argued that supporting Ahmadinejad will cost them votes and reinforce the economic crisis.

Conservative disenchantment with Ahmadinejad is apparent in the current Majlis, which is predominantly conservative. The Majlis has rejected the government’s economic bills, and has repeatedly impeached or challenged Ahmadinejad’s cabinet ministers.

Iran’s main diplomatic challenge will centre on its nuclear program and relations with the United States. Since the president has no authority over these issues, any disagreement between the supreme leader and the next president will place the president in a difficult position with no real power.

In terms of domestic policy, the major challenge for the next president will be the economy. Over-reliance on oil revenues, the effect of longstanding international sanctions, and the reluctance of foreign companies to invest in Iran have exacerbated the economy’s structural problems.

Perhaps one of the most significant elements in Iran’s stagnation is that the Revolutionary Guards control a large portion of the economy, and are beyond the reach of government regulation. In order to manage the economic crisis successfully, any president must not only shift economic policy, but also amass enough political power to be able to thwart the intervention of the Revolutionary Guards and other organisations in economic policymaking.

Former President Khatami’s initial decision to run for the post again grabbed the international community’s attention. Yet a Khatami victory would not have guaranteed change. As president, he faced criticism from reformists for his failure to resist a range of powerful groups that sabotaged economic reform and improvement in Iran’s relations with the west.

Khatami’s organisational savvy had not improved much since then. So far, he lacks even a media platform for his faction. Reformist critics believe that in order to mobilise people it will not be enough just to campaign against Ahmadinejad. If a reformer is to win he must prove that he will be able to sway Iran’s political structures toward a reform agenda.

But reformists ask: if the supreme leader does not even permit the Khatami faction to have a newspaper, would he really have allowed Khatami to become president? Even if any reformer does become president, will he be able to overcome his differences with the supreme leader?

Speculation about the outcome of the election is an interesting parlour game. But it should not distract us from the fundamentals of Iranian politics. The next president may have room to adjust economic or social policies. But, on the big issues of foreign policy, relations with the west, and the nuclear program, the identity of the president is not important. These issues will be decided by a man who is not running for office in June, but whose power is secure: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.