Muted Response from Obama Administration to Iran’s Post-Election Ferment

By Patrick Goodenough | June 15, 2009 | 4:35 AM EDT

Supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gather for a victory rally attended by the president in Tehran on Sunday, June 14, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – The Obama administration has taken a cautious, “wait and see” approach to the turmoil surrounding Iran’s presidential election, amid continuing protests, a media clampdown, and claims by the opposition that a “coup” has taken place.

A spokesman for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, speaking to an independent Persian news service, charged that Friday’s election – which Tehran says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won in a first round landslide – was brazenly rigged.

Mousavi’s campaign announced he had formally requested that the country’s Guardian Council annul the election. The council is a legal-religious body appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier gave the outcome his blessing.

The authorities Monday turned down a request by Mousavi to hold protest rallies, Iranian media reported. Mousavi in a statement urged supporters to continue “lawful” demonstrations and appealed to police not to use violence against protestors.

On Saturday, the Interior Ministry announced that Ahmadinejad had won 62.6 percent (24.52 million votes) and Mousavi 33.7 percent (13.21 million votes), with the remaining two permitted candidates garnering less than two percent each. Observers noted glaring anomalies, including Ahmadinejad taking Mousavi’s hometown and home province.

Khamenei then quickly endorsed Ahmadinejad’s supposed victory, dedicating it to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and to the Mahdi – the 12th or “hidden” imam in Shi’ite Islam, believed to have disappeared more than a thousand years ago but to have been miraculously kept alive, pending his emergence at a time of global chaos and war.

Khamenei warned against “provocative behavior and words” by the candidates’ supporters.

But protests erupted, with Mousavi supporters setting up barricades, chanting “give us our votes back” and “death to the dictator” and clashing with police in various parts of the capital, including public squares, outside the candidate’s office and near the Interior Ministry and the University of Tehran.

At one point Mousavi and another losing candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, were rumored to have been placed under house arrest, although the ISNA news agency quoted acting police chief Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan as denying this. Radan did confirm more than 160 arrests of participants in unauthorized gatherings as well as protest “plotters,” most of whom he said were linked to the presidential candidates’ campaigns.

In contrast to the protests, tens of thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters took part in a victory rally on Sunday in Tehran, where they heard the president dismiss the complaints, saying elections in Iran had never been healthier.

The media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers reported the periodic interruption of popular social networking Web sites, the blocking of some international news sites, and some jamming of broadcasts into Iran. The BBC confirmed its Persian language signals were being jammed.

A supporter of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is beaten by government security members as fellow supporters come to his aid during unrest in Tehran on Sunday, June 14, 2009. (AP Photo)

‘A political coup has taken place’

When the polls closed late Friday, after voting hours were extended due to a high turnout, Mousavi claimed victory: “In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin,” he said.

The independent, reformist Rooz news agency, quoted Mousavi spokesman Mohsen Makhbalbaf, a leading Iranian movie director, as giving a startling account of turn of events over the ensuing hours.

Makhbalbaf told Rooz that after the voting had ended, the Interior Ministry had called Mousavi campaign headquarters and announced that he would be declared the winner, advising him to prepare a statement designed not to antagonize Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

According to Makhbalbaf, Khamenei was informed of the development and he too recommended a non-boastful victory statement, in the interests of stability, Rooz reported.

Just hours later, however, a center set up by the Mousavi campaign in northern Tehran to monitor vote counting had been raided by armed security men who ransacked the place and destroyed computers. Mousavi supporters had apprehended eight of the attackers and turned them over to the police, who promptly released them, Makhbalbaf said. (There are no independent election observers in Iran.)

“According to Mr. Makhbalbaf, the central headquarters of Mr. Mousavi’s campaign was also surrounded by security forces, as was the Interior Ministry building. Then, new data began to be released by the ministry, indicating that Mr. Ahmadinejad had won the elections decisively,” Rooz said.

Makhbalbaf told the news service that he had been authorized by the campaign “to officially declare that a political coup has taken place.”

Rooz, citing unnamed “reliable sources,” claimed the actual outcome was that 42.02 million had voted – rather than 39.16 million as announced – and that 45.3 percent (19.07 million) had supported Mousavi while 13.5 percent (5.69 million) voted for Ahmadinejad.

It did not elaborate further on the source of the curiously specific figures, and attempts to reach the author and editor for clarification on Monday were not successful.

On the social networking Web site Facebook, Iranians and others are rallying around the slogan “Where’s my vote?” and adopting this icon in the green of Mir Hossein Mousavi campaign.

Speak out, Obama urged
Vice President Joe Biden told NBC News on Sunday that there were “real doubts” about the announced results, but said the administration would “withhold comment until we have a thorough review of the whole process and how they react in the aftermath.”

Noting that Tehran had declared Ahmadinejad the winner, Biden said “we have to accept that for the time being,” adding that the U.S. government did not have “enough facts to make a firm judgment.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney challenged President Obama, who has yet to comment on the result, to speak out.

“What has occurred is that the election is a fraud, the results are inaccurate, and you’re seeing a brutal repression of the people as they protest,” he told ABC News. “The president ought to come out and state exactly those words – indicate that this has been a terribly managed decision by the autocratic regime in Iran.”

Romney took a dig at Obama’s foreign policy, a centerpiece of which includes attempts to engage Tehran.

“It’s very clear that the president’s policies of going around the world and apologizing for America aren’t working.”

While the re-election of the combative Ahmadinejad may hamper attempts to improve bilateral relations, the outcome could, ironically, help to strengthen a unified U.S.-led effort to isolate Tehran over its nuclear activities – a drive that would have been made more difficult by the presence of a more amenable president, but one still committed to the nuclear program.

When Iran last elected a president, in 2005, President Bush hours before the polls opened issued a statement critical of both the regime and the election process.

“Today Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world,” he said. “Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy.”

Bush said the U.S. believed in the right of Iranians to make their own decisions and determine their own future. But, he added, echoing a remark made in his State of the Union earlier that year: “As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you.”

That election – amid claims of poll-rigging – went into a second round, and ended in victory for Ahmadinejad.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow