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IRAN: Ahmadinejad Victory Sparks Protests and Claims of Fraud

Omid Memarian

SAN FRANCISCO, Jun 13 2009 (IPS) - Just a few months after a right-wing government gained power in Israel, Iran’s hardliner president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner in Friday’s election, although his main rival has not accepted defeat and reformist supporters were skirmishing with security forces in the capital Tehran Saturday.

Protests by opposition supporters raged in the streets of Tehran Saturday. Credit: Shahram Sharif

Protests by opposition supporters raged in the streets of Tehran Saturday. Credit: Shahram Sharif

According to Iran’s Interior Ministry, Ahmadinejad took 62.6 percent of the vote, with leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi receiving 33.7 percent – thus averting a widely anticipated run-off. The ministry says turnout was a record 85 percent of eligible voters.

The weekend before the elections, Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate cleric who also ran in the polls, sent a letter to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chair of the country’s powerful Guardian Council, citing large discrepancies in the number of printed ballots, among other issues.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a well-known Iranian film director currently living in Paris, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that security forces had attacked and shut down the press offices of Moussavi’s campaign in Gheitarieh Friday, and that he was asked to act as the spokesperson for the campaign abroad.

“Last night, Interior Ministry officials told Moussavi and his staff that he has won the elections but they should not make it public yet. Moussavi’s campaign, accordingly, began preparations for a public celebration on Sunday,” Makhmalbaf said, according to activists at the campaign, a New York-based NGO.

At around 1 p.m. Saturday Tehran time, Moussavi, a former prime minister, issued a statement to the Iranian people.

“The officially announced results of the tenth presidential elections are shocking. People who waited in long lines and witnessed the voting process, and know who they voted for, are watching in complete disbelief the unfolding of magic tricks by election officials and the state radio and television,” he said.

“I register my strongest protest to the present process and to the obvious and widespread irregularities on election day. I warn that I will not surrender to this dangerous stagecraft. I recommend to the authorities to immediately put an end to this process before it is too late,” he continued.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that thousands of riot police had been deployed in the capital and were” charging straight into the biggest concentrations of protesters”.

Gholam-Hussein Karbaschi, Karrubi’s campaign manager, asked supporters via the social networking site Twitter to remain calm, saying that, “We should wait. We are trying to contact the Supreme Leader’s office”.

After casting his vote, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Friday morning that there might be unrest.

“Some ill wishers might wish to create tension in polling stations; all tension will work against the voting process,” he said, asking Iranians to show “patience and grace”.

Khamenei praised the candidates’ supporters for avoiding confrontations on the streets over the previous nights.

“The shutdown of the reformist websites, limitations imposed on text messaging, ballot shortages in many polling stations, and obstacles for extending the time on voting (contrary to prior elections) are some of the issues these three candidates have identified,” he said. “The three candidates are currently in negotiations with authorities to solve these issues and to avoid violence.”

However, not every politician and cleric agreed with this stance.

“If people see that [the government] has cheated, they should protest in the streets,” said Effat Marashi, the wife of Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and the head of Assembly of Experts, which officially monitors the Supreme Leader’s performance.

“The way the results have been announced shows that the people’s votes have been managed and engineered in their [Ahmadinejad’s] favour,” wrote Ataollah Mohajerani, a Karrubi supporter and minister of culture in Khatami’s cabinet, on his blog.

Under Iranian election law, every candidate is entitled to a representative at each polling station. According to the two reformist candidates, Moussavi and Karrubi, only a small number of their representatives were permitted to supervise the process.

“Supporters of reform candidates were stunned by the announcement that President Ahmadinejad is winning by roughly two-thirds of the votes,” Reese Erlich, a freelance journalist and author of “The Iran Agenda: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis” (Polipoint Press) told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran.

“Many suspect vote manipulation, but so far specific details are lacking,” he said.

Twenty-four hours before Election Day, the communications ministry cut off the SMS system, barring text messaging throughout the country. Many young Iranians had relied on cell phones to coordinate and send campaign messages.

Additionally, security forces closed down websites belonging to reformist supporters, including Moussavi and Karroubi, on the day of the polls.

Reformists’ representatives stationed at various polling places were simultaneously totaling the results along with the formal official counts conducted by the Ministry of Interior (MOI).

They were to send these results via SMS to cross-check the official results. The MOI, for the first time, announced the final count of all votes without having received the figures from each polling place, making it impossible for accurate totals to be confirmed.

“As a result of this election, we should say goodbye to democracy and human rights,” Asieh Amini, a human rights activist in Tehran, told IPS.

“I don’t believe a president is strong enough to stop Iran’s vibrant civil society and women’s rights movement, but I’m sure that the situation will be harder for us,” she added.

Experts here say that the concrete policy impact of the elections may not be particularly great from a U.S. perspective. Both leading candidates support a civilian nuclear programme, and the president’s influence on foreign policy in general – although a matter of some debate – is relatively small compared to that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Nevertheless, the overall tone of the U.S.-Iran relationship is likely to be affected by the reelection of Ahmadinejad, whose confrontational style has helped stoke tensions and made him a favourite target for hawks in the U.S.

Mehrdad, a university student in Tehran who asked that only his first name be used, told IPS, “When I went to cast my vote, it was apparent that the ballot was problematic in nature.”

“Each of the four candidates was listed numerically along with a specific numeric code next to their name. Voters were subsequently instructed to handwrite in the name of their chosen candidate on their blank ballots and to also write the corresponding candidate-code number next to the candidate’s name.”

“The code for Ahmadinejad was 44, yet he was listed as number one. Moussavi was listed as number four. Thus, the possibility and probability of the number four ending up in the code box on the ballots could have easily, in the haste of counting ballots, been misconstrued as a vote cast for candidate-coded as 44 (Ahmadinejad) and double as a happy accident for the now president re-elect Ahmadinajad.”

Ayatollah Montazeri, a former deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini who was removed from his position 20 years ago and had not participated in elections since, reportedly voted Friday. Abdollah Nouri, a former interior minister in the reformist cabinet of Mohammad Khatami, known as a serious critic of the regime, cast his vote after 10 years.

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