by Robert Naiman, ADS
Judging from commentary in the blogosphere, many Americans are already
convinced by suggestions that have been carried in the media that the
Presidential election in Iran was stolen. [Some press reports have
been a bit more careful: the lead paragraph of the front page story in
Sunday's New York Times says that "it is impossible to know for sure"
if the result reflects the popular will.]
But the evidence that has been presented so far that the election was
stolen has not been convincing.
Iran does not allow independent international election observers, and
there is a scarcity of independent, systematic data.
But shortly before the election, Terror Free Tomorrow and the New
America Foundation published a poll that was financed by the
Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Based on this poll, the official
result – a victory for Ahmadinejad in the first round – was entirely
predictable. “Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential
Elections,” the poll reported.
The poll was conducted between May 11 and May 20, and claimed a margin
of error of 3.1%. Among its respondents, 34% said they would vote for
incumbent President Ahmadinejad, 14% said they would vote for Mir
Hussein Moussavi, 2% said they would vote for Mehdi Karroubi, and 1%
said they would vote for Mohsen Rezai. Declared support for these four
candidates represented 51% of the sample; 27% of the sample said they
didn’t know who they would vote for. [This accounts for 78% of the
sample; the survey report doesn't explicitly characterize the other
22% of the sample, but presumably they were divided between those who
did not intend to vote and those who refused to respond to the
question. The survey reported that 89% of Iranians said they intended
If one merely extrapolated from the reported results – that is, if one
assumed that the people who refused to respond or who didn’t know
voted for the four candidates in the same proportions as their
counterparts who named candidates, the following result would have
occurred on June 12:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – 66.7%
Mir Hussein Moussavi – 27.5%
Mehdi Karroubi – 3.9%
Mohsen Rezai – 2.0%
The Iranian Interior Ministry said Saturday afternoon that Ahmadinejad
received in the actual election 62.6% of the vote, with Moussavi
receiving just under 34%, the Times reported.
Now, of course it is reasonable to suppose that the opposition might
well have taken a greater share of the previously undecided vote than
the share of the decided vote that they already had. Indeed, the
Terror Free Tomorrow poll reported:
“A close examination of our survey results reveals that the race
may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would
indicate. More than 60 percent of those who state they don’t know who
they will vote for in the Presidential elections reflect individuals
who favor political reform and change in the current system.”
So suppose that we allocate 60% of the 27% who told pollsters they
didn’t know to the two “reform” candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi; and
40% of the undecided vote to the two “conservative” candidates,
Ahmadinejad and Rezai. And within each camp, suppose we allocate the
votes according to the proportion of reform or conservative votes they
had among those in the survey who named candidates. In that case, this
would have been the result on June 12:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – 57%
Mir Hussein Moussavi – 36%
Mehdi Karroubi – 5%
Mohsen Rezai – 2%
When you account for the scaling up of the numbers from the poll,
these numbers differ from the Interior Ministry numbers by less than
the poll’s margin of error.
The Terror Free Tomorrow poll had another important result. One of the
arguments being made that there must certainly have been fraud is the
claim that Ahmadinejad could not possibly have won the Azeri city of
Tabriz, as was reported by the official results, since Mousavi, who is
Azeri, is from Azerbaijan province, of which Tabriz is the capital.
Juan Cole, for example, makes this argument.
Here’s what the Terror Free Tomorrow poll had to say about that:
“Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Mr.
Moussavi’s Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity
may have for Azeri voters. The results of our survey indicate that
only 16 percent of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Mr.
Moussavi. By contrast, 31 percent of the Azeris claim they will vote
for Mr. Ahmadinejad.”
Thus, according to Terror Free Tomorrow, Ahmadinejad had a 2-1 lead
among Azeris over Moussavi.
It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone who carefully follows U.S. news
coverage of foreign countries – particularly “adversary” countries -
that in the absence of good data, Western observers would come to the
conclusion that Moussavi had majority support. There is an unavoidable
tilt in the reporting of Western observers. The Iranians that Western
observers talk to – like the Venezuelans and Bolivians that Western
observers talk to – are a skewed sample of the population:
disproportionately English-speaking, disproportionately well-off,
disproportionately critical of their governments. That’s why anecdotes
and observations are no substitute for hard data.
Of course, none of this proves that the election was clean and
legitimate. But it does suggest that claims that it was “impossible”
for Ahmadinejad to win a fair election should be treated with extreme
skepticism. On the contrary, based on the Terror Free Tomorrow poll,
not only was it plausible that Ahmadinejad would win – it was
Certainly, Juan Cole is right when he says that regardless of the
election result, the Obama Administration should press forward with
its diplomatic engagement with Iran – as the Administration has
promised to do.
But we ought to reserve judgment on claims that the Iranian
Presidential election was stolen until such claims are substantiated.