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A Few Thoughts on Iran

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The evident electoral theft in Iran is obviously a bit outside the normal purview of this blog. But I feel uncomfortable ignoring it totally. This is a very big deal in very obvious ways. New Yorker writer Laura Secor's take is, I think, largely correct:

There can be no question that the June 12, 2009 Iranian presidential election was stolen. Dissident employees of the Interior Ministry, which is under the control of President Ahmadinejad and is responsible for the mechanics of the polling and counting of votes, have reportedly issued an open letter saying as much. Government polls (one conducted by the Revolutionary Guards, the other by the state broadcasting company) that were leaked to the campaigns allegedly showed ten- to twenty-point leads for Mousavi a week before the election; earlier polls had them neck and neck, with Mousavi leading by one per cent, and Karroubi just behind. Historically, low turnout has always favored conservatives in Iranian elections, while high turnout favors reformers. That’s because Iran’s most reliable voters are those who believe in the system; those who are critical tend to be reluctant to participate. For this reason, in the last three elections, sixty-five per cent of voters have come from traditional, rural villages, which house just thirty-five per cent of the populace. If the current figures are to be believed, urban Iranians who voted for the reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and 2001 have defected to Ahmadinejad in droves.

What is most shocking is not the fraud itself, but that it was brazen and entirely without pretext. The final figures put Mousavi’s vote below thirty-five per cent, and not because of a split among reformists; they have Karroubi pulling less than one per cent of the vote. To announce a result this improbable, and to do it while locking down the Interior Ministry, sending squads of Revolutionary Guards into the streets, blacking out internet and cell phone communication and shuttering the headquarters of the rival candidates, sends a chilling message to the people of Iran—not only that the Islamic Republic does not care about their votes, but that it does not fear their wrath. Iranians, including many of the original founders and staunch supporters of the revolution, are angry, and they will demonstrate. But they will be met with organized and merciless violence.

There are a couple things to say about this, all of them depressing. First, those of us who have long argued for the fundamental rationality of the Iranian regime have seen our case fundamentally weakened. A rational regime might have stolen the election. But they would not have stolen it like this, where there is no doubt of the theft. This is like robbers leaving muddy footprints and a home address. Tehran's evident vote-tampering is tempting both domestic revolution and international isolation. That they appear to fear neither says something very unsettling about the mental state of the regime.

The second is that it is likely to disrupt what was, to my mind, a very positive trend in the United States: the long-overdue effort to pressure Israel on the settlements. Among America's points of leverage was that Israel desperately needed our help to handle Iran. Among the trends freeing our hand was the apparent quieting of Iran's drumbeat of provocations. Now that Iran appears to be more of an independent problem and less likely to fall into a period of relative quiet, it's hard to imagine either Israel or America spending too much time worrying about their relationship with each other.

The third is that energy prices tend to dislike turmoil in the Middle East. The economist James Hamilton has previously argued that rocketing oil prices were the key driver behind the recession of 2008 and 2009. Conversely, some of the recent pick-up in the economy is presumably related to the fact that energy costs had fallen pretty sharply (due, in part, to the slackening demand brought about by the recession). In recent weeks, however, oil had been trending back upward, and if things devolve in Tehran, we can expect it to spike. And a spike in oil prices is exactly the sort of things that could choke off an emergent recovery.

(Photo of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi taken by AP Photo's Ben Curtis)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 15, 2009; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign Policy  
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Next: I Am an Important Fact: Predictably Irrational Edition

Comments

I think you may be speaking a bit too soon when you say the blatant fraud was an irrational move on the part of the Iranian regime. Daniel Drezner had a post this morning (http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/15/what_happens_next_in_iran) dealing with essentially the same topic, and he linked to a paper by political scientist Alberto Simpser (PDF: http://www.stanford.edu/class/polisci353/2004fall/reading/Simpser%20-%20Making%20votes%20not%20count.pdf) that answers why it might be rational for regimes to act this way.

The takeaway point in Simpser's paper is:

"An overwhelming victory today can send a powerful signal to the citizenry tomorrow – a large margin of victory can deter opposition turnout, discourage opposition coordination (e.g. when the opposition is fragmented into a number of parties), and increase the winner’s bargaining power with respect to electorally important social actors by rendering it less likely that they are pivotal in a winning coalition."

If your goal is to demoralize an opposition movement in a semi-competitive regime over the long-ish run, blatantly stealing the election may not be an irrational way to go about it.

Posted by: bjk2 | June 15, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Sorry about those ugly links. Here's Drezner:

http://tinyurl.com/lgrltw

... and the PDF from Simpser:

http://tinyurl.com/lprqfw

Posted by: bjk2 | June 15, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

And what of the figures cited by Ballen and Doherty? There seems to be enough disagreement among major news sources right now that I'm not sure "there is no doubt of the theft".

Posted by: MrGoodKnight | June 15, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Could you link me to those figures? Incidentally, I forgot who wrote this, but I don't think it's sure that Mousavi won. I just think it's sure that this election was tampered with beyond all recognition.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | June 15, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

The Ballen/Doherty study:
http://www.terrorfreetomorrow.org/upimagestft/TFT%20Iran%20Survey%20Report%200609.pdf

Gary Langer's, polling director at ABC, critique:
http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenumbers/2009/06/irans-election-the-odds-of-fraud.html

Juan Cole's critique:
http://www.juancole.com/2009/06/terror-free-tomorro-poll-did-not.html

Posted by: greg_sanders | June 15, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure it's quite accurate to say that the Iranian leadership is now shown to not be rational. Rather I think this was a panicked, heat of the moment response to a situation that they were not ready for, not too dissimilar to American response to 9/11. I think that the notion that someone else could win just did not seem plausible to them which is why their reaction has seemed so crude and ham-handed.

Posted by: CaptainNoble | June 15, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

The Lord deals with the nations as those nations dealt with the Jews--

I always attributed this bon mot to Disraeli, but in truth it is mine.

Best,

Winston

Posted by: Winston_Churchill | June 15, 2009 7:03 PM | Report abuse

"Those of us who have long argued for the fundamental rationality of the Iranian regime" have had their case "fundamentally weakened." And why? By you, only because it committed election fraud in an obvious, unsubtle way. So "rationality" wouldn't actually be any kind of assurance of moderation, or even sanity, but merely of tactical skill, eh? So why was that "rationality" worth arguing for in the first place? More to the point, why did you credit the regime of Khomeini and Ahmadinejad with "rationality" in the first place? Isn't it simply because George Bush said it was part of the axis of evil and he just couldn't have been right? To what extent did you have any independent knowledge or understanding of the Iranian regime and to what extent were you simply and foolishly reflexively defending whatever it was conservative Republicans attacked?

Posted by: ebtobiassen | June 15, 2009 11:50 PM | Report abuse

The Left just got smacked in the face by reality again. Iran's regime is not a bunch of people you can play patty-cake with, but a group of thugs.

Posted by: bug45 | June 16, 2009 1:30 AM | Report abuse

Fundamentally Rational?

A regime that makes holocaust denial an official part of state policy is not rational.

With Saddam gone, Iran has no external threats, except those created by it's nuclear weapons program. Is that rational?

Or do you think Iran is building ICBMs to generate electricity?

Posted by: FredJ | June 16, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

"First, those of us who have long argued for the fundamental rationality of the Iranian regime have seen our case fundamentally weakened. A rational regime might have stolen the election. But they would not have stolen it like this, where there is no doubt of the theft."

I disagree. The regime wanted to send a clear message to the people that they needed to knock this talk of reforming the system off. A 50 plus 1 result would have only fueled the opposition. Blantently fradlent results, the immediate violent reaction by state security, and the shutting down of internet service made it clear that Iran's rulers weren't about to allow a orange revolution happen.

Historically, it's the milder forms of authoritarian regimes (Poland in the 80s f.e.) that topple from peaceful pressure from the mass movements.

Perhaps the unintended side effect of the vote is that some young Iranians might have given up on peacefully changing their system.

Posted by: alexmhogan | June 16, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Ezra for an honest look at the Iranian problem. Re: your 3 points:

1. Can we agree now that the Iranian regime CANNOT be allowed to mount nuclear warheads on those missiles of theirs? So, how do we stop them?

2. Since I doubt Obama has the nerve to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities Israel will have to do the dirty work. If Obama can quietly bless the attack and promise to stand by Netanyahu I'd imagine he could get Bibi's promise to keep a hardline on the settlements. The Israelis are already pretty quick with a bulldozer on any unregulated additions in the settlements. It isn't really that big a step for them to take.

3. I agree. Demand will hold the price down from last year's big spike but the recovery will be hurt. It would be easily offset by lifting the ban on offshore drilling. California and the Gulf have many online wells that have been sitting capped. They could be online in weeks or a few months.

I don't expect the Democrats and Obama nor the GOP if they held the reins, to take any of these positive steps to deal with your three points.

Posted by: rufous1 | June 17, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

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