Monday, June 22, 2009


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 regime's orders. This is what happened to the Shah of Iran in 1979; it is
also what happened in Russia in 1917 or in Romania in 1989.

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 -- who remain loyal
to the regime and frequently personally hostile to the demonstrators -- 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 -- who were supporters of Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's opponents -- 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 revolution.

Later, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke Friday and called out the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps, they failed to understand that the troops --
definitely not drawn from what we might call the "Twittering classes," 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
-- 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 -- and this is quite
common around the world -- includes very small communities (some with only a few
thousand people) as "urban." 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 Iran's 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 Iran's 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 suspect.

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 -- 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 -- explaining why voting percentages didn't change much during
the night.

It has been pointed out that some of the candidates didn't even carry their own
provinces or districts. We remember that Al Gore didn't carry Tennessee in 2000.
We also remember Ralph Nader, who also didn't carry his home precinct in part
because people didn't want to spend their vote on someone unlikely to win -- an
effect probably felt by the two smaller candidates in the Iranian election.

That Mousavi didn't 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

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 shah's 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 Ahmadinejad's vote in 2009 was extremely close to his
victory percentage in 2005. And while the Western media portrayed Ahmadinejad's
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 -- including some of the most hardcore Mousavi supporters
-- 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 didn't, they assumed they were robbed and took to the

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 Mousavi's 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 didn't. 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 isn't 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 Iran's religious leaders
see Ahmadinejad as hostile to their interests, as threatening their financial
prerogatives, and as taking international risks they don't want to take.
Ahmadinejad's 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 supporters' demonstrations would have been nothing
compared to the firestorm among Ahmadinejad supporters -- both voters and the
security forces -- had their candidate been denied. Khamenei wasn't going to
flirt with disaster, so he endorsed the outcome.

The Western media misunderstood this because they didn't 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 country's security apparatus. The reason Western media missed this is
because they bought into the concept of the stolen election, therefore failing
to see Ahmadinejad's support and the widespread dissatisfaction with the old
clerical elite. The Western media simply didn't 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 -- 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 -- but Ahmadinejad is well-positioned to win this battle.

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