Figuring Out Iran

I’ve been trying to catch up on what happened over the weekend in Iran, and is continuing to happen now.  One thing that I’ve noticed is just how little we seem to know and how much everyone seems to think they know. 

I guess that puts me firmly with Freddie and Jason Kuznicki, at least for the moment:

Let us show that we understand the power of example, and the power of restraint. Let this be the moment where our belief in democracy and liberal values is not enacted, but embodied. Please. This is the time.

But for the long haul, I’ve got no idea what should be done in response to the situation, largely because we’ve got such a limited handle on what has happened and will happen over there in the next few days, weeks, and months.

To be sure, I suspect that there was widespread fraud of some form, although the limited scientific polling data from the weeks leading up to the election would seem to suggest that Ahmadinejad was looking unbeatable all along (but see this compilation of unscientific poll data and Juan Cole’s thorough critique of the scientific polling).  The numbers just seem too suspicious and erratic, particularly when compared with data from previous elections

That said, for once I’m fully in agreement with Sonny Bunch on an international relations issue: we need to calm down a bit and stop jumping to conclusions based on every stray missive or new theory.  That’s not to say that we should stop caring about what’s going on – just that we collectively need to do a better job of putting this information into context and trying to process it more rationally.  Sonny is also correct in suggesting that, even if you are generally an interventionist, the situation as we currently know it leaves the US between a rock and a hard place – how do you support the protesters without playing right into the hands of those who argue that they’re merely pawns of the West?  The only thing that you really can or should do is nothing.

The dilemma is that this situation is fluid, and there is very little we know for certain.  As James Joyner noted in his must-read post today:

Given the dearth of Western journalists, the regime’s tight coverage of information, and the biases of those Tweeting and blogging and otherwise getting text and video out of the country, it’s impossible to accurately assess what’s going on in Iran.  Protests of some significant size are ongoing; how big, we don’t know.  The regime is cracking down; with what severity, we don’t know. 

To that we can add that we’re pretty sure that there was some kind of widespread vote-rigging, and even if there wasn’t, there are plenty of clear markers of massive voter intimidation.

But the unanswered questions are the most important, things like:

1.  Who actually won, and with how much of the vote? 

2.  Who orchestrated the fraud, and why?  Is this a coup or a power play by Ahmadinejad vis-a-vis some of the clerics, as some have pondered?  Or is it a combined attempt by both the clerics and Ahmadinejad to permanently crush the reformists?

3.  How much support do the protesters really have?

4.  What kind of assistance, if any, do the protesters want from the West?  What do the “silent majority” of Iranians think about this?

5.  Are other countries intervening on Ahmadinejad, et al’s behalf to support the crackdown?

6.  How severe is the crackdown and how much support does it have amongst the regular police and military (as opposed to the Basij and Revolutionary Guards)?

There are a few things I know for certain.  First, until proven otherwise, Obama needs to exercise extreme caution before taking any kind of an act to support the protesters – we absolutely cannot ignore that the US is still not very popular amongst Iranians, with only about 30 percent taking a positive view of the US and 38 percent declaring the US to be the biggest threat to Iran (combined with another 44 percent who name Israel the biggest threat).  If that position begins to change significantly as a result of the current events, then we can re-evaluate our involvement.  Given those numbers, we also need to recognize that, even if there was massive fraud and Mousavi was the real victor, the cause of that sentiment likely has little to do with a rejection of Ahmadinejad’s positions.

If, however, it becomes apparent that what we are dealing with is in fact a coup or a successful play for more Presidential power by Ahmadinejad, then that creates an entirely different set of problems.  At that point, the interests of various foreign governments including not only the US but more importantly most of the “pro-Western” governments of the Middle East become directly affected.  Ahmadinejad’s rants then cease to be mere attempts to get his name in the paper and become instead potential statements of official policy.  My inclination would still be against almost all possible forms of intervention, but the fact is that this would remove one of the best Iran-specific arguments against military action to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to wit that Ahmadinejad doesn’t control foreign policy.

All that said, despite my initial reactions to the contrary, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Ahmadinejad would have won by a comfortable margin even without any fraud, though I’m not sure it would have been enough to avoid a run-off…but more on that later.

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15 thoughts on “Figuring Out Iran

  1. Plus, you criticize speculation, then speculate — if we don’t know, we don’t know. Ahmadenijad could have badly beaten in the elections and the revolt could be a rejection of everything he stands for — You’re right, we don’t know.

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    • The answer lies in that scientific poll discussed in the WaPo article linked above. I initially agreed with the criticisms of that poll, but in looking at the raw numbers, I’m not so sure anymore. I still think there was plenty of fraud, but some of those criticisms don’t stand up to analysis. Even the criticisms that do stand up to analysis don’t get Ahmadinejad much under 50%. I’m working on a post discussing this in more detail, but it’s going to take a little time.

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      • It’s very murky; my view has cycled all the way through the possibilities going on twice now. I was initially very skeptical of fraud charges simply because it seemed prudent to be. I wanted a more or less fine-grained account of who did what exactly. But it quickly became clear that was not going to be available. Then the circumstantial evidence appeared to mount convincingly, as laid out by Profs. Cole, Sick, and others.

        A round of commentary this morning — Dickey, the Leveretts, and the article you mention caused me to reassess again

        I didn’t think much of the WaPo Tyakedown of its own op-ed either, but I still think there are major problems. To me the problems with crediting the PFTFT poll as evidence against a stolen election are three:

        1. Most importantly, the interviews occurred weeks before the campaign was fully joined.

        2. High refusal rate + high undecided rate + likelihood of more people being unwilling to state a preference for Mousavi or other challenger due to active or latent intimidation than being unwilling to state a pref. for Ahm.

        3. Likelihood that weighting of results did not accurately take into account very high turnout. (High turnout was expected, but not at the level that came to pass at the time of the surveys.)

        That doesn’t mean the results should be dismissed entirely. But it does I think thoroughly remove it as a hurdle that must be cleared by those who allege outright. It’s just much too plausible that the survey simply didn’t represent the dynamics at play on election day for it to play that important a role in understanding what happened.

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  2. The other thing to keep in mind is that Mousavi only really started campaigning 3 or 4 weeks ago. And it only caught steam and snowballed in the last 8 days or so.

    I could imagine it having been close–or even no candidate getting 50%. But there is simply no way Ahmadinejad won by that large of margin. Especially in the places where they claim he did.

    Ahmadinejad winning Tehran and Tabriz (to name just a few of the major cities) is like if McCain had beat Obama in Chicago and D.C. by 30 points in each.

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    • It does seem curious to concede a considerable amount of centrally-directed fraud while denying that it was motivated by the clear appearance that Ahmjd was going down, doesn’t it? Isn’t it reasonable to suppose the prospect of losing is what motivated the fraud?

      On the other hand, I would concede that it is equally difficult to confirm claims of a landslide for Mousavi as it is to prove that such a result was negated by the regime.

      I suppose it is possible they simply didn’t want to even take the risk of a run-off. That would mean, however, that they either intended from the outset to ensure the result we have seen, or that they were expecting a clear Ahm. win that would alleve the need to engineer anything. Just hard to say.

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  3. If we have to guess, I think I’ll guess fraud. My theory is that there was a surprise upset and it freaked the status quo — if there had been overwhelming support for the little lovable fuzzball, there wouldn’t likely be this type of reaction. But as has been stated, the real interesting story is what happens to the Supreme God-Like Person – the Macdaddy with the control. We should find a way to pump in some good old-fashioned rock’nroll as our official statement.

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  4. last point on this, then i’ll shut up I promise. The history of Iranian pres elections works like this.

    If low turnout: conservatives (even radicals in the case of Ahmad.) win.

    If turnout is big then the Reformers win. This was the case with both of Khatami’s elections.

    There’s no way Ahmadinejad squeezes in the first time becomes a hugely polarizing and in many quarters unpopular figure, giving rise to a massive electoral outpouring (and huge political rallies for his opponents) only to crush the other side. It just doesn’t add up.

    The election interestingly had very little foreign policy in it. It was (in a sense like McCain v. Obama) just about entirely the economy. Which under Ahmadinejad has been wrecked. When the economy is bad and mass numbers show up, the bums in office are getting thrown out. They are going to get labeled–rightly or wrongly (in Ahmadinejad’s populist case rightly) for being to blame.

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  5. Chris, Mike Drew, and Mike Farmer: I should say that I don’t doubt for a second that there was fraud on some scale, just that I’m not sure Mousavi would have won without the fraud.

    To be sure, the economy was by far the biggest issue, but that’s actually why I’m so uncertain about the actual results showing a Mousavi victory. The poll shows a very divided public on the issue of the economy, particularly with respect to Ahmadinejad’s policies, with 46% considering those policies to be successful, and 42% thinking them unsuccessful. Those numbers don’t look nearly as bad for Ahmadinejad as we would expect, and I think it likely that almost all of those respondents would be Ahmadinejad supporters or at least lean his way. When you consider that about 10% of Iranians lack access to a phone line and were not surveyed, and that those 10% are likely to be the poorest Iranians, considered Ahmadinejad’s strongest demographic, he starts getting pretty close to that 50% threshold.

    Ultimately, I probably tend to come down to a position pretty close to Nate Silver’s – that the poll may have been accurate but also reflects intimidation and fear such that the election was going to be flawed no matter what. The provincial results, though, suggest that there was also some fraud on top of that intimidation.

    In the other thread on the sidebar, I hypothesized a couple of possible explanations for why there would be fraud if Ahmadinejad was going to pull out a close victory no matter what. Those hypotheses, however, are admittedly pure speculation and as such have absolutely no credibility.

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