One thought on the Iranian election

Yesterday and today, a plethora of U.S. editorials and articles and blog posts have forcefully debated whether incumbent conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or challenging reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi won the Iranian election.

"The shock of the 'Iran experts' over Friday’s results is entirely self-generated, based on their preferred assumptions and wishful thinking," Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett wrote in Politico, in an article titled "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it."  

The word most commonly used elsewhere, though, is "theft." Senator John McCain, for one, called for Obama to "condemn the sham, corrupt election" to "make sure that the world knows that America leads."

Certainly, the evidence of tampering is everywhere. Millions of paper ballots were counted in just two hours. Mousavi lost his home district. (Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight has excellent empirical posts on the subject.)

But we have no smoking gun and no decisive determination of what happened -- no sure way of knowing if Ahmadinejad stole the election from Mousavi, or the election was fair, or Ahmadinejad stole an election he won.

And, in some way, I find the uncertainty of what happened in Iran a bigger concern than obvious fraud. We know how to respond to election-thieves. But how do you react to a question mark?

France and Britain have come out against the results. The Obama White House, characteristically, has responded with a light touch, little more than prudent-seeming and non-speculative statements -- condemning the violence and offering respect for Iranian self-determination.

But with no sense of what really happened in Tehran, it's hard to assess the policy responses as well. If Ahmadinejad tamps down rebellion and continues on the same path, what would be the best response, then? 


Xinhua: Expect "mass incidents" in 2009

Coming from China's state news agency, this prediction of social turmoil seems significant. Translation by China Digital Times:

Without question, we’ve already entered a period of highly concentrated . Furthermore, 2009 may also be the year that Chinese society will face many contradictions and conflicts in a way that will test the governance at every level of Party government.

At the moment, the most sensitive problem is that of working to stop the financial tsunami’s metamorphosis from economic pressure to a social crisis. The focus has been on maintaining economic growth, guaranteeing employment, protecting the people’s livelihood and maintaining stability....

 The common characteristics of current can be summarized as follows: social contradictions have already formed certain foundations of society and the masses, creating a powder keg ready to explode at the first hint of a flame. Conflicts escalate extremely rapidly; confrontation is intense; the destruction to society is sizable; appropriate management is difficult. At the same time, behind the seemingly random “sparks,” there is always a pile of “tinder.” This causes small incidents to escalate quickly, evolving into a large-scale, intense conflict. This shows that in a period of constant change in greater social interest and personal interests, a social crisis can be instigated by a contagion of dissatisfaction among the people. Even a street brawl could turn into an irrational mass venting that engulfs the whole city.