Iran: Background

Brief history of the 2009 Iran election

On June 12, 2009, Iranians voted in a presidential election.

Iran, which is estimated to have a population of more than 70 million mostly Shi’ia Muslims (the remainder, mostly Kurds and Arabs, are Sunnis), has approximately 46 million eligible voters—all those over 18. On June 12, voter turnout was extremely high; polling stations, which had been scheduled to close at 6 pm, remained open to allow the long lines of voters to cast their ballots. Turnout across the country was estimated to be more than 80 percent, although later in week, after charges of voter fraud, an Iranian news website identified at least 30 polling sites with turnout more than 100 percent and 200 sites with turnout more than 95 percent.

Walt Handelsman / Newsday

At around 11 p.m. on election evening, candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi held a press conference to claim victory “by a very large margin.” An hour later, the state news agency declared incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, with 69 percent of the vote and Moussavi with only 28 percent.

The next day, violent protests broke out in Tehran. Riot police wielding tear gas and batons, shot and killed at least one person in the clashes. The following day, on June 14, thousands of supporters of Ahmadinejad held a rally in central Tehran at which Ahmadinejad dismissed charges of massive voter fraud. But protests continued on this second day in the capital—even on the fringes of the pro-Ahmadinejad rally—and began to breakout elsewhere around the country, as news spread that authorities had detained over 100 prominent opposition figures. Expatriate Iranians demonstrated against the government in the United States and in capitals across Europe.

On June 15, three days after the election, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Tehran to march silently through the central part of the city. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for a formal review of the election results that he had certified on June 13, and the following day the Guardian Council agreed to a partial recount. As protests continued, the government cracked down on the ability of international reporters to cover the protests in the streets; credentials of those temporarily in Iran were revoked, and those with long-term visas were limited to reporting from their offices.

As protests continued in the country and with many demonstrators mourning those killed in the week’s protests, the outside world became increasingly aware of the crisis through social networking and citizen journalism outlets.

Even in the sports world the election was top news. Four members of Iran’s national soccer team wore green armbands in solidarity with the opposition protesters during a World Cup qualifying match in South Korea. Those players later received a lifetime ban from the national team.

The authorities’ reconsideration of the election results came to an end on June 19, when Supreme Leader Khamenei delivered a sermon declaring the election valid and warned of bloodshed in the streets if the protests didn’t halt. As the protests continued the next day, violence did erupt, with demonstrators fighting back by throwing rocks and setting fires. More than a dozen were killed, and the death of one young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was captured on video. Those images ricocheted around the world making her a martyr for the cause. To contain the story, Iranian officials blocked Facebook and Twitter, but people around the world changed their usernames to “Irani” or “Neda” to show support for the demonstrations in Tehran.

Over the next days, more arrests occurred, including of relatives of leading figures who supported Moussavi’s election, alongside more protests, some called to mourn the death of Neda and other victims. Even after Iranian authorities admitted that the number of votes counted exceeded the number of voters, the Guardian Council announced on June 23 its intention to certify Ahmadinejad’s re-election, which it did formally on June 29. The Council also noted that a special court to process the hundreds of opposition members, activists and journalists who had been detained would be set up, and over the next several days—despite significant international outrage and condemnation by world leaders of Iran’s “iron fist” handling of the crisis—senior clerics called for the protesters to be punished “ruthlessly and savagely.”

On July 2, Iranian authorities announced that opposition leaders in detention had confessed to a plot to bring down the government with a “velvet revolution.” Two days later, the political battles escalated. The Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qum, an important group of religious leaders, called the election and the new government “illegitimate,” signaling to the Iranian public that there were significant dissensions within the country’s clerical establishment, while an associate of the Supreme Leader spoke out saying that Moussavi and former president Mohammad Khatami were “foreign agents” who should be treated as criminals. Moussavi, in his turn, charged the government with fraud, asserting on his website that supporters of Ahmadinejad had printed out more than 20 million extra ballots and had handed out cash bonuses to voters.

Protests in the streets resumed on July 9, after 11 days of quiet, and over the next weeks, more signs emerged that not all of the religious authorities sided with the supreme leader. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, issued a religious decree calling the country’s rulers “usurpers and transgressors” for their treatment of Ahmadinejad’s opponents. As July wore on, the challenges to the supreme leader continued: former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called for the release of those imprisoned and former President Khatami called for a public referendum on the government’s legitimacy.

Friday prayers and funerals for those killed by government security forces and plainclothes Basiji militiamen turned into opportunities for protestors to rally and carry on their calls for reform. A Friday rally on July 17, for example, in which Hashemi Rafsanjani gave the sermon was called by Deutsche Welle as the most critical and turbulent Friday prayer in the history of contemporary Iran.

Beginning on August 1, a series of trials of over 140 defendants arrested during the protests began. Among those before the court were former government officials and legislators (including former Vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh and former Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and Industry Minister Behzad Nabavi); journalists for news outlets both in Iran and for the international press (including Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari); employees of the French and British embassies, and prominent intellectuals, including French academic Clotilde Reiss. World leaders condemned the trials, charging Iranians authorities with producing coerced confessions.

On August 5, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was inaugurated as president of Iran in a formal ceremony that was boycotted by the former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, and all three of the other presidential candidates: Mousavi, Karroubi and Rezaei. Low levels of protests continued through the month, including daily vigils outside the court by family members of those on trial. On August 28, President Ahmadinejad called on the judges to “mercilessly” prosecute those “who organized, incited and pursued the plans of the enemies.”

The government of Iran

Iran has had a quasi-theocracy since the ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The supreme leader, who effectively serves as the chief of state, is appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member chamber that monitors the supreme leader’s performance. The supreme leader appoints the chiefs of posts such as the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the regular forces, chief judges, prosecutors as well as six of the Islamic jurists who sit on the 12-member Guardian Council. He also appoints the heads of the state-run broadcasting services.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has held the position of supreme leader since 1989, when he was selected by the Assembly of Experts, following the death of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the figurehead of the 1979 Revolution.

The Guardian Council is an unelected group of a dozen clerics and jurists, half of whom are appointed by the Supreme Leader. Its role is to screen all candidates (on four-year terms) for the Majlis (parliament) and the presidency for their adherence to the values of the Islamic revolution of 1979. In the 2009 elections it barred one-third of the possible candidates for seats in the 290-member parliament. Although parliament can draft legislation, ratify international treaties and approve budgets, the Guardian Council must approve all actions.

The supreme leader has a quasi-cabinet called the Expediency Council that has 28 members who act as an advisory board; it is charged with mediating conflicts between the Guardian Council and the parliament.

The president is elected by the people, although his candidacy is vetted by the Guardian Council for a maximum of two four-year terms. In the 2009 elections, the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ran for his second term of four years. The president is subordinate to the appointed supreme leader who controls the running of the armed forces, foreign policy.and such security matters as nuclear policy. The president oversees economic policy and the management of national affairs, but he can has some roles in foreign policy: he can sign agreements with foreign governments and approve ambassadorial appointments, and he chairs the Supreme National Security Council, which co-ordinates defense policy.

Candidates for the 2009 presidential election

For the 2009 elections, the Guardian Council approved three candidates plus the incumbent Ahmadinejad, out of the almost 500 people who put themselves forward for the presidency. (They blocked all women candidates.)

The first of the four candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was supported by Khamenei, who charged voters in advance of the polls to choose an anti-Western leader. Known in the West for his aggressive pursuit of a nuclear energy and weapons program (following his second term inauguration, 0n Feb. 11, 2010, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, President Admadinejad declared that Iran was a “nuclear state”) and for his denial of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad was regarded inside the country, especially by many young Iranians, as a poor manager of the nation’s economy. His first term in office was noted as an era of rising prices and high unemployment, despite record oil profits.

The second candidate selected by the Council was Mir Hossein Mousavi, known more as a moderate than a reformist candidate. Mousavi had been prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, from 1981 until 1989 when that office was abolished. Mousavi had left politics following his years as PM. As a painter and architect by training, he was president of the Iranian Academy of Arts at the time of the elections.

Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and speaker of parliament from 1989-92 and 2000-04, was the third presidential candidate selected by the Guardian Council. Known as a critic of Ahmadinejad and as a reformist who favored stronger ties with the US, Karroubi, who was oldest of the four candidates at 72, was considered out of touch by the young.

The fourth presidential candidate selected by the Guardian Council, Mohsen Rezaei, a conservative who commanded the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war, was secretary of the Expediency Council at the time of the 2009 elections. Rezaei was known for supporting a more moderate foreign policy platform than Ahmadinejad, and his interest in privatizing certain sectors of the economy.

Resources on the Iran elections

Wikipedia entry on the election, the protests, a timeline of the protests & the role of the Internet