There are lots of good reasons for wishing that the bombastic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be toppled by the political struggle playing out on the streets of Tehran, but there is still that troubling question of whether he actually won the election.
Many in the Western news media clearly have taken sides, favoring the more urbane Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the green-clad demonstrators protesting the official election results that show Mousavi losing to Ahmadinejad by a 2-to-1 margin.
The media's distaste for Ahmadinejad is palpable. A "news analysis" coauthored by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller opened up with an old joke about Ahmadinejad looking into a mirror and saying "male lice to the right, female lice to the left," a reference to his rise from the street rather than from a prestigious university.
Now, the Times editors and other Western commentators are adopting the position of Mousavi in rejecting the notion of a vote recount by Iran's Guardian Council, which oversees elections. The Mousavi camp is demanding instead an entirely new election.
"Even a full recount would be suspect," the Times wrote in an editorial. "How could anyone be sure that the ballots were valid?"
But the resistance of Mousavi and his backers to a partial or complete recount suggests something else, that they may fear that the recounted results would show Ahmadinejad winning. Mousavi may hope for a better outcome in a new election, especially if Iran's powerful clerics tilt their allegiance toward him.
Despite the vehemence of Mousavi's supporters regarding what they say is his rightful victory, they have reason to doubt their certainty. Some of the complaints about the Iranian election have become legend, but crack under objective scrutiny.
The complaint, for instance, about the hasty claim of an Ahmadinejad victory ignores the fact that Mousavi was out with a declaration of his own victory shortly after the polls closed. The partial results showing Ahmadinejad in the lead followed hours later.
Another favorite notion – that Ahmadinejad could not have carried Azeri-dominated districts because Mousavi was an Azeri – was countered by the findings of an extensive nationwide poll conducted by U.S. experts in mid-May showing Azeris favoring Ahmadinejad by about 2-to-1.
The poll – described in a Washington Post op-ed by two of its administrators, Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty – also noted that some of the high-tech methods of communication that have been central to the Mousavi demonstrations in Tehran are not widespread throughout the country, with only 1 in 3 Iranians having access to the Internet.
Ballen and Doherty also discovered that – contrary to widespread Western impressions – Iranian youth overwhelmingly favored Ahmadinejad, that the "18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups."
Generally speaking, Mousavi's support was concentrated among the urban middle class and the well-educated while Ahmadinejad was more the candidate of the poor – of which there are many in Iran. They have benefited from government largesse in food and other programs, and they tend to listen to the conservative clerics in the mosques.
Ahmadinejad also is viewed as less corrupt than many of his political rivals, the likes of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who has parlayed his political/religious standing into a vast personal fortune.
Indeed, Ahmadinejad may have scored some important political points in the closing days of the campaign by tying Mousavi to Rafsanjani, whose wealth and power make him a figure of disdain and distrust among many of Iran's working-class and poor.
Without doubt, Ahmadinejad is an abrasive figure who has damaged Iran's international standing with intemperate denunciations of Israel and the West. But that doesn't always look the same inside a country as it does from outside.
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