Fiddling While It Burns

Electoral fraud in Iran | 15/06/2009

Extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gained a second term in a rigged election in Iran.


Iranians protest the faked election result in Sydney. A woman conceals her face; Iranians worldwide still fear potential reprisals from the Iranian secret service. Photo: Salar Niknafs

Why am I so confident it was a rigged election? There are some basic signs. Ahmadinejad was unpopular, particularly overseas, and a large Persian diaspora vote in Iranian elections. His core audience are the hardcore conservatives, who vote in all the elections, so high turnouts should run against him, yet after a record turnout he won. It was no narrow win, which I might have believed – it was landslide territory. Finally, we know it is possible for a reformer to win a large proportion of votes in an Iranian election – in 1997 former Iranian President Khatami gained 70% of the vote, and in 2001 he gained 78% of the vote, with a similar profile to Mousavi’s. For Mousavi to receive less than 40% of the vote is ridiculous. Here is Juan Cole, Middle East expert and columnist with some more technical reasoning.

What happens in Iran is of great concern to the rest of the world. The Islamic Republic underwrites and influences both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. It is believed to have a large number of sleeper agents throughout the world, providing a second-strike option in the event of a military intervention in its affairs.  (The loyalty of long-term sleeper agents is questionable, but we’ll take that on face value.) It would be a wonderful thing for world  progress if Iran was allowed to liberalise; it would be a wonderful thing for spirituality if the Islamic Republic realised religion should be chosen, not enforced.

It is unlikely, however, that the election of any reformer could have achieved these things. The elected government in Iran has little power – real power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the councils of clerics and judges. The former president Khatami came to office with enormous fanfare and hope for the future, yet after two terms had achieved nothing, resulting in the hopelessness and disillusionment which allowed the conservative rural population to elect the disastrous Ahmadinejad.

This is a tragedy. A new President Mousavi could have dealt with a new President Obama. Both nations, and the world, can only benefit from normalised relations. At the present rate of progress, Israel will attack Iran unilaterally within the year, provoking a regional conflagration that could well end in a nuclear exchange. This is a real setback on the road to Fukuyama’s world order.

What’s surprising to me is that this was allowed. I had assumed Mousavi would win, not out of any faith in the Iranian system, but because the regime understood the true value of democracy to ruling elites: as a release valve for popular ill-feeling, a way to avoid social unrest while not allowing the plebeians any real ability to change things. Look at Australia or Britain – the supposedly social democratic Labor parties have been in power on and off since the 19th century, but they in no way change the fact that those nations are ruled by a plutocracy built on inherited wealth. Democracy is not a cession of power to the people; it is a minor inconvenience that avoids major inconveniences, like revolutions and anarchy in the streets. The very nature of Iranian democracy implies an understanding of this; it seems it’s a machine more complex than the mind of its operators.

I don’t mean to sound like a revolutionary – better to be ruled and live than free and dead. The violence in the streets of Iran should be a lesson, however: let the people rule themselves – if only a little bit.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

And remember – reform is coming eventually. Better to be a De Klerk than a Mussolini. (Content warning – dead Fascist)

UPDATE: A BBC report and footage of the street demonstrations in Tehran.

Also: I just finished a detailed research essay on the Australian print media’s coverage of refugees arriving by boat in the three months to 9 June 2009, which of course encompasses the SIEV 36 explosion off Ashmore Reef. I’m very happy with how it turned out, I’ll be deciding what to do with it over the next few weeks.



  1. I’d say you are almost certainly right about the rigged election. We can expect more turmoil in Iran before it dies down. As for religion, I think that ALL religion should be taken out of ALL schools, and secular schooling should be compulsory. This would reduce Islamist radicals, eliminate the problem of tiny cult schools of any religion, producing their own brain-washed graduates, and maybe even make it so that Catholic priests are not so revered as to make it possible for them to molest students for decades with scarcely a complaint.

    Comment by Marj — 16/06/2009 @ 3:27 pm

  2. Marj, I have to disagree with you there. In the historical context, most education throughout the world has depended on religious organisations, and in many areas that continues today. The Catholic Church were the stewards of knowledge throughout the Dark Ages; we would never have kept the knowledge of ancient civilisation if not for their efforts, and therefore there would have been no Renaissance, Enlightenment or industrial revolution.

    The Catholic system may have had its problems, but remember a century ago even most Western nations did not have comprehensive public schooling systems, and in much of the world that continues today. In Pakistan, the reason parents send their children to Taliban madrassas is because the secular government has provided no other form of education, and the same in Palestine; Israel destroys any public services the Palestinian territories provide for themselves, so Hamas gets a monopoly on educating children.

    The religious component to state schooling in Australia is the only character education in the curriculum; the debate around teaching “civics” and citizenship in schools aims primarily to create good little patriots, whereas education about sex and drug use concentrates entirely on fear rather than morality. Many parents make no effort to teach their children morals or form their characters – remember 5 000 Cronulla rioters and God knows how many thieves and gangsters are out there madly procreating.

    No one is proposing nuns with straps forcing rote learning of the catechism, but there should be some moral component to public education. At least some scintilla of religious education is telling these children that they are more than a machine designed for their own gratification; at least we know that children cannot reach the age of maturity without hearing the word ‘compassion’.

    Comment by andrewriddle — 16/06/2009 @ 6:45 pm

  3. Are you sure you know your history? It seems to me that the Catholic church managed to delay Reformation & Renaissance by centuries!

    Comment by Marj — 16/06/2009 @ 8:23 pm

  4. Well, it’s not like there was an 11th century Galileo – mostly the church repressed things like the Cathar heresy, which was a pretty ignorant belief system based on asceticism. The Dark Ages were going to happen anyway, created by population pressure and the Scandinavians burning and looting anything more permanent than a lean-to, at least the Church kept literacy alive and preserved classical literature, along with keeping Latin from becoming a dead language so people could still read them. Remember, before the Romans Europe was nothing but blue-painted howling savages.

    Comment by andrewriddle — 16/06/2009 @ 8:35 pm

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