There are only a handful of political moves that could transform the Middle Eastern landscape, and one of the biggest would be a counter-revolution in Iran. That seems to be a growing meme among Western media voices, even as others suggest that the West got a bit ahead of itself with its hopes that a moderate would pull out a win in Friday's elections.
And while the truth of the matter -- as is always the case in the murky world of Southwest Asian politics -- will be slow to sort itself out, there is one distinct truth: The Iranian body politic just went through a three-day roller coaster ride, and there's no clear end in sight.
For a visual perspective on what's happening in Iran, a good stopping point might be Talking Point Memo's slideshow of events on the ground. It's a melange of images from a variety of sources. (A selection of which you see here.)
And while there are strong indications that the election was stolen (Or is it so clear, asks Newsweek's Christopher Dickey. More on that later.), what is less clear is whether the protests erupting in Tehran will have equally strong legs among Tehran's rural population. But that's usually the problem with populist moments.
One reporter with a strong sense of Iran and an academic who has spent most of the past decade hyper-analyzing the Middle East present some compelling evidence that the Interior Ministry has played fast and loose with the numbers.
Juan Cole, the academic, provides his case point-by-point by looking at polling data, regional and ethnic trends and the actual results. He also suggests that the Interior Ministry was so unprepared for a Mousavi win that they simply sent a blanket mandate out to individual polling centers to fix the final count -- which is why the imbalance is so strong. If the final polls showed Ahmadinejad winning with 54% or 56% of the vote, this might have slipped past with a disappointed sigh.
The reporter, the New Yorker's Laura Secor, was in Tehran covering the elections over the weekend, and paints a picture of the mood-shifting first reports:
But then the first ominous Facebook update came in. The Ministry of Interior had announced that of twenty-five million votes counted thus far, sixteen million were for Ahmadinejad. The time, in Tehran, was just past midnight. The polls in the cities had just closed. It was not time to panic yet; maybe this was just the rural vote. But the mood in our little circle darkened. It wasn’t true, came another update; only five million had been counted, and of them, both candidates were claiming sixty per cent. Then the tally reached ten million, with sixty-seven per cent for Ahmadinejad. And then the most sinister news of all: the public had been told that if anyone approached the Interior Ministry, which would be the obvious site for a protest of the vote count, the police had orders to shoot.
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...
Like Cole, Secor says the blatantness of the official tally is what sent people into the streets:
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.
Secor's entire post is well worth a read.
Newsweek's Dickey, often a bit out-of-step with his reporting from the region (and not always in a bad way), moves past the story of the moment and straight into analysis -- What does this mean for the rest of us? But his starting point -- that the election is over -- is a departure from the rest of the media:
What happened to all those charming, articulate young men and women in North Tehran, interviewed again and again on Western television? They were so enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's main opponent, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. They were excited about the prospect of more freedoms. They thought Ahmadinejad was a failure and an embarrassment, and they really seemed to like us Americans. Indeed, they seemed almost to be like us Americans. Didn't they speak for the real Iran?
Actually, no. It appears that the working classes and the rural poor—the people who do not much look or act or talk like us—voted overwhelmingly for the scruffy, scrappy president who looks and acts and talks more or less like them. And while Mousavi and his supporters are protesting and even scuffling with police, they are just as likely to be overwhelmed in the streets as they were at the polls.
Except for that last line. Pretty much everyone agrees that the populist moment in Iran will be brief. Which is why this is not a game changing moment in the Middle East, but only another move in a very long game of three-dimensional chess.