It is almost a commonplace, at least for the real -- as opposed to the cruise-missile -- left, that the flow of information, opinion, and moral indignation in the United States adapts well to the demands of state policy. If the state is hostile to Iran, even openly trying to engage in "regime change," and if it is supportive of the state of Israel, no matter what crimes Israel may commit, and if it doesn't like the populist president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and supports his overthrow and a follow-up "demonstration election" by the local elite, the media and many intellectuals will follow the state agenda, even if they must indulge in mental somersaults. In the case of Iran, the Israeli state and its U.S. supporters are also eager for regime change, so the somersaults on the Iran menace are wilder yet, with large injections of chutzpah.
This chutzpah is in full bloom in a full-page ad in the February 7 New York Times and February 9 International Herald Tribune addressed to Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Dimitry Medvedev, Gordon Brown, and Angela Merkel: "How Long Can We Stand Idly By and Watch the Scandal in Iran Unfold?"1 The ad was sponsored by "The Elie Wiesel Foundation For Humanity," and signed by 44 Nobel Prize laureates, 42 of them men and a substantial fraction Jewish. The ad attacks Iran's "cruel and oppressive regime" for its "shameless war against its own people" and its "irresponsible and senseless nuclear ambitions [that] threaten the entire world," and calls upon Washington, Paris, Moscow, London, and Berlin, the UN Security Council, and "important NGOs" to impose "harsher sanctions" on Iran, and adopt "concrete measures . . . to protect this new nation of dissidents. . . ." "They must know that we are on their side," the ad implores. "All of us who care must offer our full support and solidarity to the brave people of Iran."
This open letter is a shameless and demagogic call for foreign intervention in Iran, for destabilization and subversion, and, above all, for war -- although three of the signers (including Wiesel) are past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize2 -- and the text could have been written by the Foreign Office of the state of Israel. Indeed, Wiesel himself is an unabashed protagonist for Israel, having long proclaimed his unwillingness to make a public criticism of that country ("I never attack, never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel"3), so that we can rest assured that his "Foundation for Humanity" will never proclaim its solidarity with any humans living under the Israeli boot. The Wiesel Foundation did not sponsor a full-page ad in the New York Times to protest Israel's shameless and criminal onslaught against the Gaza Palestinians in early 2009, which in just three weeks killed some 340 children, a greater number than the aggregate of protester deaths in post-election Iran.4 Nor will it sponsor an ad that criticizes the irresponsible buildup of nuclear weapons that Israel has accomplished outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that pose a much clearer threat to the world than that posed by the still nuclear-weapon-free Iran, which is under steady threat of attack by Israel and by a U.S. leadership that says "all options" remain on the table. That Wiesel and his "Foundation for Humanity" could get 43 other Nobel laureates to sign this hysterical, hypocritical, and morally degraded war-call is a sad indication of the state of the reigning Western intellectual culture in 2010.
This ad also raises once again the important question of what the people of Iran really want. In the ad, and in much of the Western commentary on Iran's June 12, 2009 presidential election and the many large street demonstrations that have followed it, the protesters (the "brave people") are assumed to represent the demands of the majority of Iran's 70 million people, as well as a revolutionary "Green Movement" sweeping across Iran's national life and shaking the Islamic Republic to its very foundations.5
The June 2009 election was declared a massive fraud in the establishment Western media and even on the liberal-left, with many alleging that Iran's ruling elite had deprived Mir Hossein Mousavi of his rightful victory, and awarded it to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by electoral-numbers manipulation. "There is no transparency or accountability in Iran, so we may never know for sure what happened in the presidential election last week," the New York Times asserted in its first post-election editorial. "But given the government's even more than usually thuggish reaction, it certainly looks like fraud."6 In a frequently quoted analysis, the U.K.-based Chatham House labeled Iran's official results "problematic" and "highly implausible."7 The "Chatham House Study Definitively Shows Massive Ballot Fraud in Iran's Reported Results," the widely read blog of Middle East specialist Juan Cole duly announced.8 The Chatham House study's co-author Ali Ansari told the New York Times: "I don't think they actually counted the votes, though that's hard to prove."9 Segments of the left were even more extreme in their commitment to the stolen-election line. The U.S.-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy issued a statement in early July (which the CPD also used as part of a fundraising campaign) that claimed that "there is very powerful evidence that either no one emerged with a majority [in the first round of the election], or that Mousavi won outright."10
The problem with writing off the official results of Iran's 2009 election as a fraud or as a stolen election is that both the 2005 presidential election results and a string of opinion polls carried out before and after the 2009 election suggest quite strongly that Ahmadinejad does in fact enjoy majority support among Iranians and very well could have won outright.
Thus in the June 24, 2005 presidential runoff between Ahmadinejad and the former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Ahmadinejad won by roughly a 2-to-1 margin, receiving 62% of the vote, compared to Rafsanjani's 32% (see Table 1).11 At the time, no one seriously contended that this result was based on electoral fraud.12
Then, during the run-up to the 2009 election, an opinion poll completed by three U.S. groups just three weeks before the vote found that, for those Iranians willing to commit themselves, Ahmadinejad would beat Mousavi by better than a 2-to-1 margin (34% - 14%),13 a slightly higher ratio of victory than the official election results as reported by the Interior Ministry on June 13 (63% - 34%).14
Table 1: Iranian Public Opinion Through June 12, 2009
Ever since Ahmadinejad's first-round victory was announced, those claiming fraud have argued that this pre-election poll by the U.S. groups was conducted too early, so that it failed to take into account the effects of the televised presidential debates in early June, an energetic campaign by Mousavi, and a surge of anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment among Iran's younger voters and its largely youth-based protest movement. But beyond the lack of strong evidence for these claims, two post-election surveys by the University of Tehran, a third by the Canadian GlobeScan firm, and a fourth jointly by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and WorldPublicOpinion.org, have asked Iranian respondents whom they had actually voted for.15 Significantly, each of these four surveys found that Ahmadinejad received more than half of the ballots cast (see Table 2).
Table 2: Iranian Public Opinion After June 12, 2009
In the most careful of these surveys, carried out by PIPA-WPO from August 27 through September 10, researchers asked this additional question: "If the same election were to be repeated tomorrow, who would you vote for?" This time, 49% of the respondents named Ahmadinejad, compared to only 8% Mousavi.20 Notice that in contrast to how the beliefs and attitudes of Iran's 70 million citizens tend to be depicted in the establishment Western media, with their saturation focus on "opposition" street demonstrators and repression by the Iranian state, none of the responses to these (and many other) questions suggest a badly delegitimized government in the eyes of Iran's citizens. As we wrote last October, the "combined results of the Terror Free Tomorrow poll in May, Iran's official election results in June, and the results of the PIPA-WPO poll in September, clearly reinforce each other, just as they reinforce the conclusion that Ahmadinejad was the actual winner in Iran's 2009 presidential election, independently of whether some vote fraud did occur."21 Indeed, PIPA now draws the same conclusion: That "even if some fraud did occur, it is not clear that the outcome would have been fundamentally different."22 Nor is it clear that, in terms of violating the basic democratic rights of its citizens, Iran's 2009 presidential election was worse than U.S. presidential elections have been for many years. In 2000, for example, would the official result have been the same in the United States in the absence of the racial gerrymandering caused by felony-disenfranchisement laws23 and, ultimately, the fiat of the Republican majority on the Supreme Court, which ordered a stay of the vote recount in Florida that had been permitted by the Florida Supreme Court and was then underway, on grounds that this recount "threaten[ed] irreparable harm to petitioner [George Bush], and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election"?24
The late June 2009 Chatham House analysis, which cast doubts on Iran's official election result and thus helped to delegitimize the Iranian government in the eyes of the great Western metropolitan centers, was quoted frequently in the Western media, and its authors were sometimes used as expert sources. But the original September 2009 survey of Iranian opinion by PIPA-WPO was virtually ignored by the Western media; and PIPA's subsequent analysis of no fewer than 12 different opinion surveys, released on February 3, remained unreported anywhere in the establishment media through February 17.25 We believe that this differential treatment follows from the now well-established party-line in the West that has demonized Iran's leaders and that processes and manages news-interest and news-flow accordingly. The Western media and intellectuals gravitated to Chatham House's analysis while ignoring PIPA's for the simple reason that Chatham House (like so many other commentators) served up the requisite damning view of the official result -- and PIPA did not. Hence, the newsworthiness of the "stolen election" line, and the lack of attention paid to serious empirical challenges to it.
Overall, the 12 opinion surveys analyzed by PIPA do show that as levels of education, Internet use, reliance on non-Iranian media for news, and the youthfulness of respondents increases, so does support for Mousavi, just as Mousavi retained an edge over Ahmadinejad in Tehran City and even Tehran Province.26 Nevertheless, these clear trends were not sufficient to produce majorities in favor of Mousavi (even in Tehran City), Iran's non-Internet-using and rural voting populations are larger in number, and Ahmadinejad has apparently enjoyed majority support among all age groups (even youth), among women as well as men (though less among men than women), among urban as well as rural voters (though less among the urban than the rural), and among the two largest ethnic minorities (the Azeris and Turkmen).27 As we have noted, opinion surveys both before and after the election gave Ahmadinejad these same majorities, and all of them are consistent with the official result.
Ahmadinejad's 2-to-1 victory over Rafsanjani in 2005 surprised many foreign pundits, but it was not met by street demonstrations inside Iran. Four years later, however, his 2-to-1 victory over Mousavi was met instantly by the most massive and sustained demonstrations since 1979, with shows of support staged in many other countries as well, and lesser demonstration continuing into this year. This undoubtedly shows significant opposition within Iran to the ruling regime, even though the June 12 vote and multiple opinion surveys raise questions about the nature and depth of this opposition. It is important to keep in mind, however, that economic sanctions, U.S. and NATO-bloc wars in countries to Iran's east and west, ongoing U.S. and Israeli military threats against Iran, and foreign-organized terrorism and subversion inside Iran, all have proven costly and painful to Iran's citizens, and had feedback effects on their attitudes towards their government (as was true in Nicaragua while it was under attack by the United States during the Sandinista years, 1979-1990). There have also been significant Western (though mainly U.S.) attempts to "educate" Iranians, including programs that subsidize dissent and "democracy promotion." The so-called "Green Movement" is particularly notable for its links to foreign support groups and media, and its high degree of orientation towards Western audiences. The "Green Movement" is well-geared to the regime-change program of Western powers, even though PIPA-WPO found that "there are far more similarities than differences between Mousavi supporters' worldview and that of Iranians at large," and on questions pertaining to Iran's nuclear program, the "general public was statistically the same as Mousavi supporters," with virtually the same percentages wanting Iran to pursue only nuclear power (55% - 57%), a nuclear weapons program as well as nuclear power (37% - 38%), and no nuclear program of any kind at all (3% - 6%).28
By now, the standard claims about Iran's "stolen election" have been repeated so many times by the establishment Western media, as well as by those on the left who took the bait, that almost everybody is hooked on it and unable to wiggle free. 29 Undoubtedly, many foreign activists sincerely believe that they are supporting democracy inside Iran, and large numbers of Iranian dissidents truly are struggling for a more open and decent society and political order. But if Iran's 2009 official election result is valid, and if there is strong majority support among Iran's citizens for the structure and general character of its Islamic Republic,30 then these foreign activists, including the collection of Nobel laureates gathered around Wiesel, and those on the left who like to invoke "solidarity with the anti-Ahmadinejad movement," clearly are not aligned with majority opinion inside Iran. We are not quite sure what to call this toxic mix of opposing the majority will of a foreign country's citizens and doing so in the name of "democracy," while feeding into the regime-change program of the United States and Israel. But strong currents of Orientalism as well as imperialism are clearly running through it.
The huge attention given to Iran's 2009 election and its aftermath,31 and the indignation vented over its "stolen" character, can only be explained by the convergence between this focus and the long-term U.S.-Israeli hostility towards Iran -- their demonization of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, and their steady efforts to destabilize Iran and force it to change in a manner to their liking. It is also of interest that less democratic elections in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the August and October 2009 "demonstration elections" in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan, and even the coup in Honduras in late June and the subsequent terror-laced "demonstration election" there in late November were treated in the West with nowhere near the same level of attention or indignation. The focus on Iran is thus a remarkable case of channeled benevolence, but one that, from the standpoint of genuine peace and democracy-promotion objectives, we believe to be seriously mis-channeled.
1 See "How Long Can We Stand Idly By and Watch This Scandal in Iran Unfold?" The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, as published in the New York Times, February 7, 2010, and in the International Herald Tribune, February 9, 2010; posted here to the website of the Wiesel Foundation.
2 Besides Elie Wiesel (1986), the other two Nobel Peace Prize recipients who signed the Foundation's call for war against Iran were Betty Williams (1976) and Jody Williams (1997).
3 Wiesel, in an interview with the Jewish Post & Opinion, November 19, 1982, quoted in Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, Updated Ed. (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), p. 16. The full quote reads: "I support Israel -- period. I identify with Israel -- period. I never attack, never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel." Notice that Wiesel spoke these words in late 1982 -- five months into the Israel Defense Force's brutal invasion of Lebanon, killing perhaps as many as 20,000, and two months after the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut. As Chomsky explained later in the book, when Wiesel did react to these Beirut massacres, it amounted to an expression of "sadness on his part, [but] the sadness was 'with Israel, and not against Israel' -- surely not 'with the Palestinians' who had been massacred, or with the remnants who escaped" (p. 386). Such are the actual beliefs held by this particular Nobel Peace Prize laureate and force behind the recent open letter against Iran.
4 See Richard Goldstone et al., Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories, Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (A/HRC/12/48), UN Human Rights Council, September 15, 2009, para. 30, which estimates that the "overall number of [Palestinians] killed [were] between 1,387 and 1,417," as well as three Israeli civilians inside Israel, and 10 Israeli soldiers (para. 31); estimates of Palestinian children killed can be found at para. 354 - 358. See esp. "Data on casualties during the Israeli military operations in Gaza from 28 December 2008 to 17 January 2009," Part Two, Section A, para. 352 - 364.
5 See, e.g., Barbara Slavin, "Iran Regime Likely Shaken for Good," Washington Times, June 16, 2009; Yigal Schleifer, "Why Iran's Twitter Revolution Is Unique," Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 2009; Stephen Zunes, "The Iranian Uprising Is Homegrown, and Must Stay that Way," ZNet, June 19, 2009; Reese Erlich, "Iran and Leftist Confusion," CommonDreams, June 28, 2009; Stephen Zunes, "Iran's Do-It-Yourself Revolution," Foreign Policy In Focus, June 29, 2009; Stephen R. Shalom et al., "Question & Answer on the Iran Crisis," Campaign for Peace and Democracy, July 7, 2009; Saeed Rahnema, "The Tragedy of the Left's Discourse on Iran," ZNet, July 9, 2009; Mehrdad Samadzadeh, "Iran's Revolution," ZNet, July 9, 2009; and Farooq Sulehria, "Ahmadinajad and the Anti-Imperialism of Fools," ZNet, July 9, 2009.
7 See Ali Ansari et al.,Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran's 2009 Presidential Election, Chatham House (U.K.), June 21, 2009, p. 3, p. 10. For a critique of the Chatham House study, see Reza Esfandiari and Yousef Bozorgmehr, A Rejoinder to the Chatham House Report on Iran's 2009 Presidential Election Offering a New Analysis on the Results (Self-Published PDF), Summer, 2009.
8 Juan Cole, "Chatham House Study Definitively Shows Massive Ballot Fraud in Iran's Reported Results," Informed Comment, June 22, 2009.
12 For some analysis of Iran's June 2005 presidential election results, see Ali Akbar Dareni, "Analysts: Rafsanjani Turned Off the Poor," Associated Press, June 27, 2005; Gordon Robison, "The Loser in Iran Was the Western Media," Daily Star, June 28, 2005; Christian Oliver, "Iran Election Result a Shock due to Flawed Analysis," Reuters, June 28, 2005; and Michael Slackman, "Iran's Reformists Link Defeat to a Split From the Poor," New York Times, July 7, 2005.
13 See Results of a New Nationwide Public Opinion Survey of Iran before the June 12, 2009 Presidential Elections, (May 11 - 20), Terror Free Tomorrow, Center for Public Opinion, and New America Foundation, Q27, p. 52. Also see Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, "The Iranian People Speak," Washington Post, June 15, 2009.
14 As reported by Iran's Interior Ministry, the official June 12, 2009 presidential election results were: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (24,525,209 - 63%); Mir Hossein Mousavi (13,225,330 - 34%); Mohsen Rezai (659,281 - 2%); and Mehdi Karroubi (328,979 - 1%). See Ansari et al.,Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran's 2009 Presidential Election, Appendix, "By Province Results for the 2009 Iranian Presidential Election," pp. 12-13.
15 See Steven Kull et al., An Analysis of Multiple Polls of the Iranian Public, PIPA-WPO, February 3, 2010; Steven Kull et al., Iranian Public on Current Issues: Questionnaires, PIPA-WPO, February 3, 2010; and the accompanying Press Release.
16 See the "University of Tehran Surveys," in Iranian Public on Current Issues: Questionnaires, PIPA-WPO, February 3, 2010, pp. 25-36; here Q18a, p. 30. Note that we have omitted eight other University of Tehran opinion surveys carried out in 2009 and included in the PIPA analysis. Anyone who wants to check their results can turn to p. 30.
20 Ibid, Q23, p. 11. Other revealing questions included: Q18. "In general, how satisfied are you with the process by which the authorities are elected in this country?" (pp. 9-10). In February 2008, 62% responded either "very" or "somewhat" satisfied; 28% responded either "not very" or "not at all" satisfied. In September 2009, 81% responded either "very" or "somewhat" satisfied; 16% responded either "not very" or "not at all" satisfied. Q21. "How free and fair do you think this election was?" (p. 9). 83% responded either "completely" or "somewhat"; 10% responded either "not very free and fair" or "not free and fair at all." Q22. "How much confidence do you have in the declared election results?" (p. 11). 83% responded either "a lot" or "some"; 13% responded either "not much" or "no confidence at all." Q24. "Considering everything that has occurred before, during, and after the election, do you consider Ahmadinejad to be the legitimate President of Iran?" (p. 11). 81% responded "Yes"; 10% responded "No."
22 Steven Kull et al., An Analysis of Multiple Polls of the Iranian Public, PIPA-WPO, February 3, 2010, p. 2. As PIPA quite plausibly adds: "The margin of error in polling is generally not small enough to rule out the possibility of any fraud. It is possible that some fraud occurred and that Ahmadinejad would have won if fraud had not occurred" (p. 5).
23 See Jamie Fellner and Marc Mauer, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, October, 1998; and Ryan S. King, Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008, The Sentencing Project, September, 2008. When the first of these two reports was published, some two years prior to the November 2000 U.S. presidential election, the state of Florida was one of ten U.S. states that disenfranchised even ex-felons for life (along with Alabama, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming) (p. 5). The 1998 report added that, at the time, "Florida and Texas each disenfranchise[d] more than 600,000 people" (p. 7); "One-third of all disenfranchised ex-felons (436,900) [were] in Florida" (p. 8); and that in both "Alabama and Florida, 31 percent of all black men [were] permanently disenfranchised" (p. 8). (See esp. Table 2, "Disenfranchised Felons by State," p. 9.)
25 Factiva database searches carried out on February 18, 2010, using the following parameters: (a) For the Chatham House analysis: rst=(twir or tnwp) and Iran and Chatham House for the period June 21, 2009 - February 14, 2010; and (b) for the PIPA-WPO survey and subsequent analysis: rst=(twir or tnwp) and Iran and (program on international policy attitudes or worldpublicopinion) for the period September 19, 2009 - February 14, 2010. We found two substantive reports and one mentions-in-passing of the PIPA-WPO survey released on September 19, 2009. (See "Most Iranians Favor Ties with US But Distrust Obama: Poll," Agence France Presse, September 19, 2009; Jim Lobe, "Iran: New Poll Finds Strong Domestic Support for Regime," Inter Press Service, September 19, 2009; Tara Mahtafar, "Why Iran's Missile Tests May Not Play Well in Tehran," Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2009.) We found zero mentions of the later PIPA-WPO analysis.
26 Kull et al., An Analysis of Multiple Polls of the Iranian Public, Appendix II, "Demographic Variations in Voting Preferences," p. 30, p. 28.
28 Ibid, "The Nature of the Opposition," pp. 17-22; here p. 17, p. 20. Of course, it would be wrong to equate Mousavi supporters as a group with the so-called "Green Movement" as a group. But as we know of no opinion survey of the "Green Movement" as such, we are forced to adopt Mousavi supporters as a proxy for the opposition.
29 For a critique of this phenomenon, see Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Riding the 'Green Wave' at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond," MRZine, July 24, 2009.
30 See Steven Kull et al., Iranian Public on Current Issues, PIPA-WPO, September 19, 2009, esp. "Views of Iran's Government and Society," pp. 8-12; Steven Kull et al., Questionnaire, August 27 - September 10, 2009, esp. Q18 - Q29; and the accompanying Press Release. The relevant data from this opinion survey were repeated in PIPA's comprehensive February 3, 2010 analysis.
31 According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Iran coverage in the 48 news media that the PEJ monitors increased by 317% in the first 10 months of 2009 from the prior year, Iran being the second-most-frequently reported foreign story for the period, after Afghanistan. "Due primarily to the disputed June 12 elections and the subsequent protests and unrest," the PEJ explains, "attention to Iran in 2009 has jumped to 2.5% [of the Newshole], up dramatically from only .6% in 2008" ("A Bull Market for Overseas News," Project for Excellence in Journalism, November 4, 2009). For trends in Iran coverage, also see the PEJ's breakdowns for the weeks June 15-21, 2009; June 22-28, 2009; September 21-27, 2009; and September 28-October 4, 2009.
First published in MRzine (Monthly Review)
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has written extensively on economics, political economy and the media. Among his books are The Real Terror Network, Triumph of the Market, and Manufacturing Consent(with Noam Chomsky).
David Peterson is is an independent journalist and researcher based in the Chicago area of the United States.
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