The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.
Furthermore, this poll was conducted before Ahmadnejad’s impressive showing in widely watched televised debates against his opponents. The debates, aired live nightly between June 2nd and 8th, pitted candidates one-on-one for ninety minutes. According to news reports, the Ahmadinejad-Mousavi debate was watched by more than 40 million people. Leverett notes,
American “Iran experts” missed how Ahmadinejad was perceived by most Iranians as having won the nationally televised debates with his three opponents – especially his debate with Mousavi.
Before the debates, both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad campaign aides indicated privately that they perceived a surge of support for Mousavi; after the debates, the same aides concluded that Ahmadinejad’s provocatively impressive performance and Mousavi’s desultory one had boosted the incumbent’s standing. Ahmadinejad’s charge that Mousavi was supported by Rafsanjani’s sons – widely perceived in Iranian society as corrupt figures – seemed to play well with voters.
Similarly, Ahmadinejad’s criticism that Mousavi’s reformist supporters, including former President Khatami, had been willing to suspend Iran’s uranium enrichment program and had won nothing from the West for doing so tapped into popular support for the program – and had the added advantage of being true.
Anyone who actually watched the debates (one wonders how many Western reporters, pundits, Iran “experts,” and commentators are included in this demographic) would have known first-hand how singularly uncharismatic Mousavi was and how particularly lackluster was his debating style. Mousavi is a mumbler, a low-talker, and has about as much on-screen personality as Ben Stein on Klonopin. (How this man, absent from Iranian politics for the past twenty years, could become the leader of an energetic protest movement is anyone’s guess, but you might want to ask the CIA first.)
Conversely, Ahmadinejad – as both his supporters and detractors would readily admit – is nothing if not an engaging, animated, and impassioned speaker. His outspoken nature and refusal to be bullied by opponents is apparent to anyone who has ever heard or seen him speak, whether they agree with what he says or not. Anyone who believes Mousavi won these debates either didn’t actually watch them and/or decided to uncritically believe talking points distributed by the Mousavi campaign about their candidate’s inspired performance.
Opponents of Ahmadinejad in the Western press – or, more accurately, everyone in the Western press – consistently refer to Ahmadinejad as an entrenched, establishment politician who has the unconditional backing of Iran’s powerful theocratic hierarchy. As such, the current unrest in the nation’s capital has been described as a grassroots, largely secular movement aimed at upsetting the religious orthodoxy of the government – embodied in such reports by Ahmadinejad himself – in an effort to fight for more personal freedoms and human rights in defiance of the country’s revolutionary ideals. These reports betray the journalists’ obvious misunderstanding of Iranian politics in general, and certainly of President Ahmadinejad’s personal politics in particular.
In fact, Newsweek reported that, on Wednesday morning of last week, Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who was with her husband throughout the presidential campaign, felt the need to remind a group of students that she and her husband still believe in the ideals of the revolution and don’t regard anti-Islamic Revolution elements as their allies.
Furthermore, even though here in the US, he is variably referred to as “hardline” and a religious conservative, Ahmadinejad is far more of a populist politician, consistently favoring nationalization, the redistribution of Iran’s oil wealth, controlled prices of basic consumer goods, increased government subsidies, salaries, benefits, and insurance and continued opposition to foreign investment over his opponents’ calls for more free-market privatization of education and agriculture, as well as the promotion of neoliberal strategies. Leading up to the election, Mousavi condemned what he called Ahmadinejad’s “charity-based economic policy.” I wonder how that attack played with the middle, lower, and impoverished classes of Iran’s voting public. Oh right, Ahmadinejad got 63% of the vote, even if Juan Cole didn’t want him to.
Ahmadinejad has often drawn the ire of both Iranian clerics and legislators alike for his outspoken views. In March 2008, The Economist noted that influential conservative clerics are said to be irritated by his “folksy and superstitious brand of ostentatious piety and his favouritism to men of military rather than clerical backgrounds.” The conservative Rand Corporation even reminds us, “He is not a mullah; public frustration with rule by mullahs made this a very positive characteristic. He comes from a working-class background, which appealed to lower-income Iranians, the bulk of the electorate, yet he has a doctorate in engineering.” In the 2005 presidential election, Ahmadinejad emerged as a dark horse to challenge front-runner and assumed shoe-in, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. As the son of a blacksmith, “Ahmadinejad benefited from the contrast between his modest lifestyle and Rafsanjani’s obvious wealth, commonly known to stem from corruption.” The Rand report even reiterates that “Rafsanjani is extraordinarily corrupt.”
During both his presidential campaigns of 2005 and 2009, Ahmadinejad focused far more on “bread and butter” issues to win over his constituents, rather than on religion, saying things like this in his speeches: “People think a return to revolutionary values is only a matter of wearing the headscarf. The country’s true problem is employment and housing, not what to wear.”
In the past three months of campaigning for reelection, the incumbent made over sixty campaign trips throughout Iran, while Mousavi visited only major cities. Throughout the recent debates, Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to attack rampant corruption among high-ranking clerics within the Iranian establishment. The New York Times reported that “He accused Mr. Rafsanjani, an influential cleric, and Mr. Rafsanjani’s sons of corruption and said they were financing Mr. Mousavi’s campaign. Mr. Ahmadinejad also cited a long list of officials whom he accused of unspecified corrupt acts, including plundering billions of dollars of the country’s wealth.” The article continued,
Mr. Ahmadinejad contended that the early founders of the Iranian revolution, including Mr. Moussavi, had gradually moved away from the values of the revolution’s early days and had become “a force that considered itself as the owner of the country.”
He suggested that some leaders had indulged in an inappropriately lavish lifestyle, naming, among others, a former speaker of Parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, who has opposed some of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies. Mr. Nouri, a conservative, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1997. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks seemed to suggest a deepening divide between the president and a number of influential leaders, including some conservatives who belong to a faction that has supported Mr. Ahmadinejad.