George Friedman of Stratfor offers an interesting dissection of the election outcome in Iran, allegations of vote fraud, and the impact of Ahmadinejad’s re-election on U.S.-Iran relations. In a more general sense, Friedman’s analysis is a powerful lesson in thinking more critically about what we don’t know – in this case, failing to assess the quality of information emanating from Iran has led westerners to draw unsound conclusions and make poor predictions – garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes.
Americans and Europeans have been misreading Iran for 30 years. Even after the shah fell, the myth has survived that a mass movement of people exists demanding liberalization — a movement that if encouraged by the West eventually would form a majority and rule the country. We call this outlook “iPod liberalism,” the idea that anyone who listens to rock ‘n’ roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism. Even more significantly, this outlook fails to recognize that iPod owners represent a small minority in Iran — a country that is poor, pious and content on the whole with the revolution forged 30 years ago…
Last Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected with about two-thirds of the vote. Supporters of his opponent, both inside and outside Iran, were stunned. A poll revealed that former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi was beating Ahmadinejad. It is, of course, interesting to meditate on how you could conduct a poll in a country where phones are not universal, and making a call once you have found a phone can be a trial. A poll therefore would probably reach people who had phones and lived in Tehran and other urban areas. Among those, Mousavi probably did win. But outside Tehran, and beyond persons easy to poll, the numbers turned out quite different.
Some still charge that Ahmadinejad cheated. That is certainly a possibility, but it is difficult to see how he could have stolen the election by such a large margin. Doing so would have required the involvement of an incredible number of people, and would have risked creating numbers that quite plainly did not jibe with sentiment in each precinct. Widespread fraud would mean that Ahmadinejad manufactured numbers in Tehran without any regard for the vote. But he has many powerful enemies who would quickly have spotted this and would have called him on it. Mousavi still insists he was robbed, and we must remain open to the possibility that he was, although it is hard to see the mechanics of this.
It also misses a crucial point: Ahmadinejad enjoys widespread popularity. He doesn’t speak to the issues that matter to the urban professionals, namely, the economy and liberalization. But Ahmadinejad speaks to three fundamental issues that accord with the rest of the country [which are piety, corruption, and national security]…
Perhaps the greatest factor in Ahmadinejad’s favor is that Mousavi spoke for the better districts of Tehran — something akin to running a U.S. presidential election as a spokesman for Georgetown and the Lower East Side. Such a base will get you hammered, and Mousavi got hammered…That [Ahmadinejad] won is not the mystery; the mystery is why others thought he wouldn’t win…
This is a very different view of things then we’re used to hearing in the media, but the logic is compelling. And there’s some recent and interesting evidence in a new documentary of the relationship between Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s citizens, including those who are not typically accessible to the west, called Letters to the President (the website images seem to suggest that it’s a propaganda film, but it’s not – it’s a very good piece of documentary journalism).
Friedman then looks ahead:
The question now is what will happen next. Internally, we can expect Ahmadinejad to consolidate his position under the cover of anti-corruption. He wants to clean up the ayatollahs, many of whom are his enemies. He will need the support of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This election has made Ahmadinejad a powerful president, perhaps the most powerful in Iran since the revolution. Ahmadinejad does not want to challenge Khamenei, and we suspect that Khamenei will not want to challenge Ahmadinejad. A forced marriage is emerging, one which may place many other religious leaders in a difficult position…
[Regarding relations with the U.S.] What we have now are two presidents in a politically secure position, something that normally forms a basis for negotiations. The problem is that it is not clear what the Iranians are prepared to negotiate on, nor is it clear what the Americans are prepared to give the Iranians to induce them to negotiate. Iran wants greater influence in Iraq and its role as a regional leader acknowledged, something the United States doesn’t want to give them. The United States wants an end to the Iranian nuclear program, which Iran doesn’t want to give.
On the surface, this would seem to open the door for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Former U.S. President George W. Bush did not — and Obama does not — have any appetite for such an attack. Both presidents blocked the Israelis from attacking, assuming the Israelis ever actually wanted to attack.
For the moment, the election appears to have frozen the status quo in place. Neither the United States nor Iran seem prepared to move significantly, and there are no third parties that want to get involved in the issue beyond the occasional European diplomatic mission or Russian threat to sell something to Iran. In the end, this shows what we have long known: This game is locked in place, and goes on.
From an investment standpoint, this would suggest that there’s a relatively low probability of Iranian politics imposing any significant shocks on markets, for the time being.
UPDATE 2009.06.19 There’s been a fairly powerful “iPod uprising” in Iran since the election, which appears to be composed primarily of young people and centered in Tehran. That doesn’t undermine Friedman’s analysis above – but iPod liberalism is apparently a powerful political force, perhaps stronger than he seemed to imply. As for vote fraud, various experts are all over the map, while an allegedly leaked letter from the Interior Ministry to the Ayatollah – which plays like a Cold War spook novel, and a bad one – is supposedly stoking resentment. The transcript, according to The Independent:
Interior Ministry’s letter to the Supreme Leader
Regarding your concerns for the 10th presidential elections and due to your orders for Mr Ahmedinejad to be elected President, in this sensitive time, all matters have been organised in such a way that the results of the election will be in line with the revolution and the Islamic system. The following result will be declared to the people and all planning should be put in force to prevent any possible action from the opposition, and all party leaders and election candidates are under intense surveillance. Therefore, for your information only, I am telling you the actual results as follows:
Mirhossein Mousavi: 19,075,623
Mehdi Karroubi: 13,387,104
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 5,698,417
Mohsen Rezai: 38,716
(signed on behalf of the minister)
Color us skeptical. A couple of aspects of The United article are more interesting. First, government paramilitary and police forces are reportedly protecting the mostly pro-Mousavi protesters against pro-Ahmadinejad militias, or at least standing aside for the most part (though we’d note that there are conflicting reports circulating the blogosphere). This would support Friedman’s analysis, insofar as it confirms Ahmadinejad’s popularity with the country’s poor, and his arm’s length standing from the ruling Islamic Council. Second, the reported green wrist band protest by Iran’s soccer team at a World Cup match in Korea involved only five players, which supports the idea that this is not a majority movement. But that said, it clearly appears to have some mass behind it.