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"THE BIG LIE" no one questions?

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How Iran’s Big Lie betrays the pledge of its revolution

By Hooman Majd

Published: June 17 2009 19:25 | Last updated: June 17 2009 19:25

In Mein Kampf, Hitler observed: “. . . and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.”

So it has proved with Iran’s presidential elections, which have defied expectations of a close race or a defeat for President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. It is tempting to think the results are merely indicative of the voter unpredictability seen since the surprise landslide victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, but this time elements in Iran may have planned the first truly organised election theft in the Islamic Republic’s brief history.

There was never any doubt that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad enjoyed support, particularly in the provinces and smaller towns outside Tehran. In late April and early May, when I was in Iran, there was little reason for the opposition to be hopeful. As the campaigns began, I saw the mood shift dramatically and it appeared that Mir-Hossein Moussavi was gaining ground so fast he might win an outright majority in the first round. This support grew in Tehran and in cities such as Esfahan and Tabriz, suggesting that defeat for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was probable if the mood translated into high turnout.

The election results came as a shock to almost everyone in Iran. That Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was declared the winner only hours after the polls closed, and with such a huge margin, was instantly suspect but since elections had been generally fair and the count reasonably accurate, even by western standards, the shock was acute. A cousin of mine sat at home all next day watching the news; all he could say was: “I don’t understand.”

How could the officials, after all, have altered the hand-written ballots of more than 40m citizens or counted enough ballots in such a short time? It has dawned on many Iranians there might never have been any intention to count the ballots. The Big Lie?

Convenient as it is to view Tehran as representative of Iran, few friends were fooled as they were in 2005 when they underestimated Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s appeal in the poorer south of the city and provinces. I travelled to South Tehran and other cities, stopping in small towns. If anything, the anti-Ahmadi-Nejad sentiment was stronger outside north Tehran. Any suggestion western media ignored provincial support and were tricked by images of young Iranians draped in green (the colour of Mr Moussavi’s campaign) in Tehran is not only preposterous but a distraction: another part of this clumsy Big Lie.

There is little question that Mr Ahmadi-Nejad enjoys the support of perhaps as many as 15m Iranians, but the results adding another 10m votes to his hardcore base beggar belief. Shock and awe? You bet. Except it is not working, now that the awe is only at the shameless arrogance of a president. This is not a “velvet” or “colour” revolution, nor is it an uprising that seeks to destroy the regime. It is a true outcry, supported by some clerics and even the old guard of the Islamic leadership, such as Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, who protest that the one democratic aspect of the political system, the people’s voice, is in danger of being snuffed out.

Mr Rafsanjani, often referred to as the second most powerful man in Iran after Mr Khamenei, has been publicly silent but active behind the scenes in his support for Mr Moussavi. Without his help, Mr Moussavi would find it hard to continue his protest. Mr Rafsanjani is chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with electing and supervising the Supreme Leader, and has the power to impeach him. That is a reality the Supreme Leader cannot ignore, as is Mr Rafsanjani’s ability to win over many of the clerical elite, who since Khomeini’s death have shown loyalty to the system rather than to an individual.

Iran’s opposition leaders continue to argue not that the system is corrupt, but that the Islamic constitution and the revolution they all fought for should be honoured. Unlike smaller uprisings in the past, there is great significance to events in Iran that will determine whether it will be for ever lost to democracy. Some hardliners still see a nefarious foreign hand, often British or American, in this outpouring of emotion for a candidate who dares to believe the promise of the revolution is still alive. What they fail to acknowledge is that the only thing foreign in Iran is the Big Lie.

 

The writer is author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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