Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Wrong Remains The Same:
Poorly Predicting Presidential Politics in Iran


"Conventional wisdom has a pretty lousy track record of predicting Iranian politics."
- Suzanne Maloney, Saban Center senior fellow, May 29, 2013

"The graveyard of Middle East analysis is littered with the bones of those who tried to predict Iranian presidential election outcomes."
- Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment senior associate, June 13, 2013

The politicians and pundits prophesied. The script had already been written, the narrative well established.

Iranian presidential elections, we've been told incessantly by mavens of the Iran Expertician™ community in the United States and Europe, are an exercise in absurdity; a false choice, engineered, manipulated, carefully managed and, ultimately, fraudulent and illegitimate. Unless, of course, the candidate most to our liking wins.

Three weeks prior to the vote, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry - on the eve of yet another jaunt to Israel - declared, in all his Kreskin-esque wisdom, that the upcoming Iranian contest "is hardly an election by standards which most people in most countries judge free, fair, open, accessible, accountable elections."

The "most countries" Kerry referred to probably didn't include American-backed dictatorships like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, the Sultanate of Oman, the hereditary monarchy of Kuwait, or the emirate of Qatar.

"Ultimately the Iranian people [will] be prevented not only from choosing someone who might have reflected their point of view," Kerry said, "but also taking part in a way that is essential to any kind of legitimate democracy."

Kerry's deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell expressed a similar view last month, telling reporters that the United States government thought it "unlikely that the slate of candidates represents the will of the Iranian people."

Such dire descriptions and predictions were echoed across Western media over the past few weeks.

Israeli writer Meir Javedanfar, whose penchant for faulty analysis has never impacted his ubiquity in mainstream commentary on Iran, prognosticated in a June 6 post on the website of Britain's conservative Jewish Chronicle that "it is safe to say that moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani has no chance of success," because - despite his potential popularity with the Iranian electorate - "the supreme leader would not allow votes in [his] favour to be counted."

Javedanfar was certainly not alone in this assessment. Commentators from across the political spectrum sang the same tune.

On May 22, National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi wrote, "Even when the reformists and centrists swallow their pride and abide by the increasingly restrictive rules of the Islamic theocracy, they will not be permitted to vie for leadership," concluding that "this is not so much an election by the people as it is a selection by Ayatollah Khamenei."

Canadian professor Peter Jones described the election merely as the latest manifestation of a "slow-motion power grab by the conservative religious elites and their backers," in which an engineered outcome will anoint "a president who will do as he is told." The centrist candidate with "links to the reformist faction, Hassan Rouhani...isn’t seen as having much chance."

Writing in Foreign Affairs on June 5, Obama's former chief Iran adviser Dennis Ross announced that, due mainly to the disqualification of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the list of approved candidates, Iran's leader had already decided the outcome of the upcoming June 14 vote. "So now Ayatollah Khamenei has decided not to leave anything to chance," declared Ross, whose hawkish views and close ties to Israel doomed any chance at successful diplomacy with Iran during his tenure in the Obama administration. "If there had been any hope that Iran's presidential election might offer a pathway to different policy approaches on dealing with the United States, he has now made it clear that will not be the case... The next president of Iran will be obedient to him, and preferably act as his administrative deputy."

Ross, who has long considered the optics of half-hearted American diplomacy as merely a required precursor to military action, insisted that Saeed Jalili, Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, "is Khamenei's preference" and whose "slavish devotion to the Supreme Leader makes him the ideal candidate." Ross added, "If Jalili does end up becoming the Iranian president, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that the Supreme Leader has little interest in reaching an understanding with the United States on the Iranian nuclear program." The article made only passing reference to the other presidential candidates, including Hassan Rouhani. At no point did Ross even mention the Iranian voters themselves or suggest that the election results might reflect public opinion rather than the singular whim of Khamenei.

Three days before the vote, Ray Takeyh, a neoconservative senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and longtime Ross associate, opined that "the winning presidential candidate will likely be drawn from the conservative/revolutionary wing of this particular slate of candidates," suggesting that the Iranian leadership was "quite afraid" of any excitement generated by Rouhani's candidacy and "has done everything it can to lower voter participation." Takeyh concluded: "[T]he possibility of him being the next president of Iran is quite limited."

The neoconservative opinion editors of the Washington Post were even more direct. In a pre-election editorial penned by hawkish hysteric Jackson Diehl, it was determined that "the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ensured that only conservative regime loyalists were allowed to enter Friday's first round of elections." In a dazzling display of definitive certitude, the Post declared, "Mr. Rouhani, who has emerged as the default candidate of Iran’s reformists, will not be allowed to win."

Ali Afshari, a Washington-based Iranian activist, agreed. Afshari, who is a former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and once appeared at Capitol Hill panel co-sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and organized by Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman, told U.S. government's Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that, if there is a high turnout at the polls, "Rohani has the chance to be the first," but doubted whether the candidate would "ultimately be allowed to win."

For his part, just one day before the vote, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put Rouhani's chances of winning lower that the rest of the field. Still, mindful that "predicting anything about Iran's opaque politics is a fool's errand," Sadjadpour hedged his bets. "Those who trust the integrity of the electoral process -- an increasingly small group -- foresee a run-off between Rowhani and Ghalibaf," he wrote in Foreign Policy, adding, "Those who believe that Khamenei's decision is paramount project Jalili as the obvious winner."

These expert predictions were all wrong, of course. Rouhani won a resounding victory. Voter turnout was massive, at 73%. Yet no admission of error, no acknowledge of bad analysis, was to follow from the Western pundit class, many of whom are closely connected to pro-Israel institutions and think tanks.

Overnight, Rouhani morphed from the candidate most worrisome to the Iranian establishment into the president anointed by Khamenei himself, a career insider who represented no change, no progress, no will of the Iranian electorate. In short, after wrongly claiming a Rouhani victory was impossible, the pundits now dismissed his win as inconsequential.

Suddenly, Rouhani's win proved sanctions on Iran's nuclear program were "working." Despite all prior predictions, commentators now insisted that Rouhani had merely been "allowed to win" by the regime.

In a post-election editorial, The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl - who before the vote assured readers Rouhani would "not be allowed to win" - unapologetically wrote that "Hassan Rouhani will be Iran's next president not only because he was picked by a majority of Iranian voters but also because the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chose to accept his victory," adding that "Mr. Rouhani was in the presidential race because he had been judged to be a reliable follower of the supreme leader, unlike other moderate and reformist candidates who were banned from the ballot."

Ten days after the vote, Dennis Ross was back, spit-balling a bunch of random theories in The New York Times as to why Khamenei "allowed Mr. Rowhani to win the election," none of which - predictably - entertain the notion that a majority the Iranian voting public cast enough ballots for their preferred candidate to beat the others. No, the answer must be the effect of - what else? - sanctions. Ross explains that "the outside world's pressure on Iran to change course on its nuclear program may well have produced his election" and that, consequently, "it would be foolish to think that lifting the pressure now" by "backing off sanctions as a gesture to Mr. Rowhani" could result in renewed diplomacy and a chance to "produce a deal the supreme leader would accept." His op-ed doesn't even mention Jalili, whom Ross had tagged twenty days earlier as the clear frontrunner.

Similarly, Meir Javedanfar, who previously predicted Rouhani had "no chance of success," wrote a post-election brief - described as an "Expert View" - for the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), the leading Israel lobby group in the UK. In it, he attributed Rouhani's win to everything except the will of Iranian voters:
The fact that the Supreme Leader allowed Rowhani's victory to stand may reflect the extent of the economic pressure created due to sanctions, and an acceptance in the regime of the need to address internal concerns and reduce tensions with the West, with a less confrontational nuclear policy.
The narrative always trumps reality. Or even an attempt at humility or honesty.

After election results were in, The Economist published a lengthy article rehashing tried and true hysteria about Iranian nuclear intentions and progress, and resurrecting the analyses of David Albright and Greg Jones, two favorites of the nuclear alarmist community. The piece reintroduced a number of well-worn bromides into the conversation:
Nevertheless, the change in Iran's top civilian office is unlikely to bring an end to the interminable Iranian nuclear crisis.
Even if Mr Rohani wanted to do the kind of deal that would be acceptable to the West (and there is nothing in his past to suggest that he might), the guiding hand behind Iran's nuclear policy will remain that of the supreme leader, whose introspective, suspicious view of the world outside Iran has not changed. The die is already cast: nothing is likely to stop Iran getting the bomb if and when it decides it wants one.
Whether or not Rouhani's electoral win signals a change in Iranian government policies - or, more importantly, a shift in how Iran is treated by the United States - remains to be seen. What is already crystal clear, however, is that mainstream talking points about Iran are here to stay.


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