When it comes to understanding last Friday's presidential election in Iran, one should not do as many Western media have done, which is to take it at face value. Many interpretations are available and we may never know which one is correct. What we do know for certain is that it was a sham.
Like the Wizard of Oz, the mullahs who control the levers in Iran set out to create an illusion: an illusion of moderation, fairness, modernity, and the idea that the votes of the people counted for something. As in The Wizard of Oz, however, the mullahs are saying "Don't pay any attention to that man behind the curtain." Ah, but we must, for he and his allies are manipulating the process and creating these illusions in order to dull Western -- especially American -- interest in helping Iran's democratic movement and the desire to curb Iran's efforts to produce nuclear weapons.
From the beginning, campaign polling, controlled by the government, gave the lead to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. As wily a politician as has ever walked the planet, Rafsanjani has consorted with the mullahs before and will again. Meanwhile, in his campaign he emphasized the need for better relations with the United States, realizing that most of the 70 percent of Iran's population under 30 years of age likes America.
The polls had in second place Mostafa Moin, a "reform" candidate associated with outgoing President Mohammed Khatami. The democratic student movement supported Khatami and his allies in 1997 and 2001, but they proved ineffectual as reformers and the students no longer support them.
By election day, the Wizard of Oz effect was in full view. Rafsanjani led, with 21 percent. Former Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line one-time student radical whose name hardly figured in the polls, came in second with 19.48 percent. Third was former speaker of parliament Mahdi Karroubi, with 19.3 percent. Moin was in fifth place. Because no candidate received 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad.
Karroubi immediately cried "foul." He said that the hard-liners had rigged the election and demanded a full investigation or he would call for street demonstrations. This sets up the good cop-bad cop situation. Ahmadinejad has no sympathy with reformers, let alone democrats, and he hates the U.S. Rafsanjani, with his soft-soap oratory, will seem to be the "moderate" alternative.
Was it rigged? Ahmadinejad announced publicly that he would be in the runoff hours before the Ministry of the Interior, which runs elections, had announced the results.
The mullahs' Guardian Council, which has the last word in all matters, will probably initiate an "investigation" that will find that there was nothing amiss, thus positioning Rafasanjani for the runoff outcome the mullahs wanted all along.
Voter turnout was important, too. The Interior Ministry said it was 55 percent. This was later amended to 62 percent. When the Guardian Council weighed in, the total was 72 percent. In reality, it was probably no more than 50 percent. The Guardian Council wanted as high a figure as possible to "prove" that the election was "popular."
Why these two finalists? The new Iranian president will lead the country's delegation in upcoming negotiations with the European nations and the U.S. over the nuclear issue. The mullahs do not want to risk having a "reformer" or moderate in that position. With, say, Rafsanjani as president, and Ahmadinejad a close second, and thus influential, they can be sure Iran's government will stick to the script they prepare. They may, for example, appear to have it give ground on nuclear development (actually just a postponement) in exchange for tacit U.S. agreement to stop supporting the democracy movement in Iran. The purpose would be to wait out the Bush presidency. This is a pattern they have used before, and it has worked for them.
Where in this election were the famous international monitors such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and former President Jimmy Carter? They weren't invited. Nevertheless, the mullahs, for whom a seemingly-legitimate election is all important, put on a good show: campaigns by several candidates, a dark horse photo-finish, charges of rigging, an investigation, a runoff.
There is much at stake. The mullahs and their military allies (especially the Revolutionary Guard) have, since the 1979 revolution, enriched themselves and enjoyed the fruits of power. They do not want to lose it. Using ruse and illusion costs almost nothing as a means of maintaining the status quo. The Wizard of Oz would have been proud of their performance.
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