Benjamin Joffe-Walt - Did Ahmadinejad win?
This seemingly simple question, discussed in coffee shops, hair dressers and public buses all over the world, goes to the core of the predicament faced by various world governments in figuring out how to respond to the unprecedented recent civilian unrest in Iran.
But despite widespread suggestions that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 'stole' the election from his principal challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi, Iranian experts suggest it would be impossible to commit vote fraud on such a wide scale.
"It is hard for many Westerners to believe that Ahmadinejad could win," Dr. Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line. "I did not vote for him but I think it's quite clear that he's immensely popular and more and more are beginning to think that there were no major voting irregularities."
"He's a very polarizing figure; people either love him or hate him and the vote in Tehran is very divided," Dr Marandi continued. "But it would be almost impossible to rig an election on that level... Among people that I know on both sides of the political equation, few believe that it's possible to rig 11 million votes. Even my friends in the Moussavi camp don't believe that."
"The electoral system is computerized, each voter's identification is in a computerized database and their fingerprints are on the stubs of the ballots," Dr Marandi added. "Even independent Western-based polls prior to the elections put Ahmadinejad well ahead."
Kourosh Ziabari, a political correspondent with the Foreign Policy Journal, agreed. "Even if we take into account the possibility of electoral fraud, which I categorically think should be investigated, it is still realistic to believe that Ahmadinejad was the winner," he told The Media Line.
"As a self proclaimed reformist journalist I am trying to be unbiased and objective, and whether the elections have been rigged or not, Mr. Ahmadinejad enjoys high popularity, especially in the countryside and among low income city dwellers. His victory was not such a surprise, even to reformists."
Iran's Guardian Council said Tuesday that there was "no major fraud" in the disputed June 12 elections and ruled out setting aside the results - less than 24 hours after conceding that there had been voting irregularities in 50 Iranian cities.
The council, Iran's highest legislative body responsible for overseeing controversial elections, rejected calls to annul and repeat the elections despite over a week of the worst protests Iran has seen in decades.
“If a major breach occurs in an election, the Guardian Council may annul the votes that come out of a particular affected ballot box, polling station, district, or city,” Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesperson for the Guardian Council, said. "Fortunately, in the recent presidential election we found no witness of major fraud or breach in the election. Therefore, there is no possibility of an annulment taking place.”
The statement came one day after the body had acknowledged voting irregularities in 50 Iranian districts, most notably that the number of votes collected was more than the number of eligible voters.
"Statistics provided by the candidates, who claim more than 100% of those eligible have cast their ballot in 80-170 cities are not accurate," the spokesperson told a state broadcaster. "The incident has happened in only 50 cities."
The Guardian Council depicted the questionable votes as a run-of-the-mill irregularity resulting from the lack of a legal prohibition on voters casting a ballot twice in two different districts. While the phenomenon may have affected three million votes, the council maintained that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have won by a landslide in any case.
Official results place Ahmadinejad at 63% of the vote, almost double that of Mir Hossein Moussavi, his principal challenger.
The Guardian Council is an appointed body of 12 clerics and Islamic law experts close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many opposition leaders and senior Iranian clerics have claimed the council is ‘cherry-picked’ by Khamenei loyalists and have called for an independent probe.
Protests continued in the streets of Tehran on Tuesday despite warnings from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an elite armed force, and the Basij volunteer militia. At least 19 people have been killed in daily protests since the elections.
"The real question is whether the security forces that are loyal to the regime will have the stomach to do what it takes to repress protests," Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi, Executive Director of the Transatlantic Institute and author of Under a Mushroom Cloud - Europe, Iran and the Bomb, told The Media Line.
The size of street demonstrations has slowly dwindled since a climax last week, but as the government cracks down, protests have become more confrontational and violent. Police in Tehran have utilized tear gas, live ammunition and helicopters to break up small groups from gathering in the streets.
Independent verification of protests and casualties has been almost impossible due to severe government restrictions on media over the past week. Even the number of reporters detained, said by Reporters Without Borders to be 34, has been difficult to verify.
The Iranian government, and even some reformists, have said the upheaval is largely a result of Western meddling.
"A majority of people are dissatisfied with the current situation, with President Ahmadinejad and his policies, and a number of other issues," Ziabari said. "But at the same time, we believe faithfully that our domestic problems are 'none of their business', and even if we hold rallies and massive protests, we want the domestic authorities to hear our call."
"The West is just inflaming the unrest with outrageous media coverage and political comments," the reformist correspondent continued. "Democracy is not an absolute concept, it's relative and Iran is moving towards democracy."
"If Western governments and western media really care about democracy in our region, why don't they take steps to democratize Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Pakistan - all their staunch allies? The way that the West - both governments and media - approach Iran is not about promoting democracy, it's about Iran not being an ally of the West."