- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
Leading Iranian opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi issued a statement warning of “tyranny” Saturday after a tense night in Iran in which state organs proclaimed that incumbent hardline Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a “landslide” victory by a two-to-one margin, a statistic that defied the belief of many analysts. Voter turnout was an unprecedented 84%.
Meantime, reports from western-based Iranians late Saturday said that several people had been arrested in Iran, including the campaign manager for another reformist presidential candidate Mehdi Karoubi, and the brother of former reformist Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, Reza Khatami.
Mousavi’s Twitter account said he had been put under house arrest overnight Sunday: “Dear Iranian People, Mousavi has not left you alone, he has been put under house arrest by Ministry of Intelligence,” it posted at 740pm EST Saturday. A Los Angeles-based Iranian pro-democracy activist, Pooya Dayanim, said the measure was justified as being for Mousavi’s “own safety,” but it didn’t seem to be in effect Sunday.
Iranian access to Facebook, Iranian cell phones and mobile text messaging have been shut down, Iranians said, and Internet was limited, while international cell phones still worked in Iran. The person coordinating the blackout, Iranians report, is the son of the Supreme Leader, Mojtaba Khamenei. Several newspapers had also been shut down, along with the Tehran offices of Al Arabiya.
“I would like to inform you that in spite of wide-ranging fraud and problem-making, according to the documents and reports we have received, the majority of your votes have been cast in favor of your servant,” Mousavi’s statement said. “I will use all legal facilities and methods to restore the rights of the Iranian people.”
Mousavi wrote a second letter to the clerics in Qom Saturday. The implication, says Iran analyst Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council, is that the fight may escalate and the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may increasingly come into question.
The White House issued a cautious statement Saturday: “Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement. “We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. government, which had refrained from commenting much during the election campaign, was closely watching the situation — and would take its cues from the Iranian people. “We watched closely the enthusiasm and the very vigorous debate and dialogue that occurred in the lead-up to the Iranian elections,” Clinton said in a press availability with the Canadian foreign minister from Niagra Falls, Canada Saturday. “We are monitoring the situation as it unfolds in Iran. But we, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide. … We obviously hope that the outcome reflects the genuine will and desire of the Iranian people.”
“I don’t think anyone anticipated this level of fraudulence,” Reuters cited the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Karim Sadjadpour on Friday. “This was a selection, not an election. At least authoritarian regimes like Syria and Egypt have no democratic pretences. In retrospect it appears this entire campaign was a show: Ayatollah Khamenei wasn’t ever going to let Ahmadinejad lose.”
“I’m in disbelief that this could be the case,” Reuters cited Parsi. “It’s one thing if Ahmadinejad had won the first round with 51 or 55 per cent. But this number … just sounds tremendously strange in a way that doesn’t add up.”
(University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole compiled numerous signs of vote fraud here. Former Iranian foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi detailed more signs of fraud in an interview Saturday with The Nation.)
Police attacks on demonstrators were reported, and fears of a larger police crackdown on opposition leaders and their supporters have been heightened. Several protests and clashes have been uploaded to Youtube. The Huffington Post, news site Tehranbureau and the National Iranian American Council are live-blogging developments in Iran.
NIAC’s Parsi said that rumors that key figures had been arrested often preceded them actually being arrested. Currently circulating Saturday night he said was an as yet unconfirmed report that former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a backer of Mousavi, had been surrounded and resigned as head of the Assembly of Experts, Parsi said, although that didn’t yet appear to be the case.
The Hague-based human rights NGO, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, issued a statement Saturday calling on the international community to withhold recognition of Iran’s elections, “which gives all signs of having been manipulated by government authorities to produce a massive victory for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
“It’s a disaster of course,” an American reporter in Tehran told The Cable Saturday. “A few violent clashes in distant towns. People are angry, devastated. Crying. Streets in Tehran mostly quiet. Heavy security presence. Street in front of Interior ministry blocked off. People tell me Mousavi and Karrubi will join together to fight this. Rafanjani is really angry, so it’s said. Big clampdown expected. I’m afraid people’s hopes will be crushed.”
Ahmadinejad is expected to hold a press conference and victory rally Sunday. Afterwards, the foreign press may be kicked out, Dayanim relayed; the Associated Press later said foreign press on visas to cover the elections were being told to prepare to depart.
Mousavi was also due to meet with his supporters Sunday 2:30pm Tehran time (8 1/2 hours ahead of EST), Dayanim said.
“The disapointment and disorientation of people in Iran that I’ve spoken to is unmistakable,” said Parsi. “Khamenei, most experts agree, is addicted to the perception of legitimacy for himself and the system. But this coup does away with any chances for such legitimacy.
“Which then raises the question,” Parsi continued, “Is he too under pressure from circles in the [Revolutionary] Guard?”
Former State Department Iran hand Suzanne Maloney, who had cautioned in advance that Iranian elections were entirely unpredictable, weighed in Saturday to say the official Iranian vote verdict was patently absurd. “For the Obama administration, the developments of the past week in Iran represent perhaps the worst possible outcome,” she wrote.
“Washington now faces a newly fractured Iranian polity ruled by a leadership that is willing to jettison its own institutions and legitimacy in its determination to retain absolute control,” she continued. “That does not bode well for Iran’s capacity to undertake serious talks and eventually engage in historic concessions on its nuclear program and support for terrorism.”
Nevertheless, she said, “Obama has to be prepared to move forward with diplomacy despite the wholesale setback for Iran’s limited democracy. But he should do so in full awareness of the farce that has been perpetrated with this Ahmadinejad ‘landslide’ and of the seething frustration of so many Iranians.”
“If the reports coming out of Tehran about an electoral coup are sustained, then Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history,” veteran NSC Iran hand Gary Sick wrote. “The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make.
“If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even
their most devoted followers,” Sick continued. “But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy, but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.”
(Version updated at 11pm EST Saturday.)