Gary Sick on “Iran’s Political Coup”

Columbia University Prof. Gary Sick, who runs Gulf2000 and served as a top Iran policy expert on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, posted his analysis of what has taken place in Iran and its possible implications for U.S. policy on his new blog, “Gary’s Choices,” earlier this evening. This is it:

Iran’s political coup

If the reports coming out of Tehran about an electoral coup are sustained, then Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history. One characteristic that has always distinguished Iran from the crude dictators in much of the rest of the Middle East was its respect for the voice of the people, even when that voice was saying things that much of the leadership did not want to hear.

In 1997, Iran’s hard line leadership was stunned by the landslide election of Mohammed Khatami, a reformer who promised to bring rule of law and a more human face to the harsh visage of the Iranian revolution. It took the authorities almost a year to recover their composure and to reassert their control through naked force and cynical manipulation of the constitution and legal system. The authorities did not, however, falsify the election results and even permitted a resounding reelection four years later. Instead, they preferred to prevent the president from implementing his reform program.

In 2005, when it appeared that no hard line conservative might survive the first round of the presidential election, there were credible reports of ballot manipulation to insure that Mr Ahmadinejad could run (and win) against former president Rafsanjani in the second round. The lesson seemed to be that the authorities might shift the results in a close election but they would not reverse a landslide vote.

The current election appears to repudiate both of those rules. The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a “velvet revolution,” this may have been too much.

On the basis of what we know so far, here is the sequence of events starting on the afternoon of election day, Friday, June 12.

* Near closing time of the polls, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide
* Security forces poured out into the streets in large numbers
* The Ministry of Interior (election headquarters) was surrounded by concrete barriers and armed men
* National television began broadcasting pre-recorded messages calling for everyone to unite behind the winner
* The Mousavi campaign was informed officially that they had won the election, which perhaps served to temporarily lull them into complacency
* But then the Ministry of Interior announced a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad
* Unlike previous elections, there was no breakdown of the vote by province, which would have provided a way of judging its credibility
* The voting patterns announced by the government were identical in all parts of the country, an impossibility (also see the comments of Juan Cole at the title link)
* Less than 24 hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene`i publicly announced his congratulations to the winner, apparently confirming that the process was complete and irrevocable, contrary to constitutional requirements
* Shortly thereafter, all mobile phones, Facebook, and other social networks were blocked, as well as major foreign news sources.

All of this had the appearance of a well orchestrated strike intended to take its opponents by surprise – the classic definition of a coup.
Curiously, this was not a coup of an outside group against the ruling elite; it was a coup of the ruling elite against its own people.

It is still too early for anything like a comprehensive analysis of implications, but here are some initial thoughts:

1. The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.

2. The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.

3. With regard to the United States and the West, nothing would prevent them in principle from dealing with an illegitimate authoritarian government. We do it every day, and have done so for years (the Soviet Union comes to mind). But this election is an extraordinary gift to those who have been most skeptical about President Obama’s plan to conduct negotiations with Iran. Former Bush official Elliott Abrams was quick off the mark, commenting that it is “likely that the engagement strategy has been dealt a very heavy blow.” Two senior Israeli officials quickly urged the world not to engage in negotiations with Iran. Neoconservatives who had already expressed their support for an Ahmadinejad victory now have
every reason to be satisfied. Opposition forces, previously on the
defensive, now have a perfect opportunity to mount a political attack that will make it even more difficult for President Obama to proceed with his plan.

In their own paranoia and hunger for power, the leaders of Iran have insulted their own fellow revolutionaries who have come to have second thoughts about absolute rule and the costs of repression, and they may have alienated an entire generation of future Iranian leaders. At the same time, they have provided an invaluable gift to their worst enemies abroad.

However this turns out, it is a historic turning point in the 30-year history of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Iranians have never forgotten the external political intervention that thwarted their democratic aspirations in 1953. How will they remember this day?

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So it doesn’t ocurr to you, even for a moment, that this seems an awful lot like one of the Color Revolutions which the US has been involved in in recent years, in other words, that Mousavi’s Green Revolution, like the Orange and Rose revolutions before it, was supported and manipulated (perhaps with some of Sy Hersh’s reported covert ops money), and that Mousavi himself is attempting a coup of his own? In other words, that the situation could be more complicated, with perhaps something like a coup/counter coup going on? I would think that that would be quite an obvious possibility.

    You know the old saying – ‘just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after me’? Just because Ahmadinejad’s win may be fishy, in some ways, doesn’t mean he didn’t win and it also doesn’t mean that Mousavi’s claims are not also fishy. In fact, I suspect that Ahmadinejad did win, but perhaps it looked close and a decision was made to widen the gap, in part because Mousavi had suggested earlier in the week that he would claim a thrown election in any case if he didn’t win. Mousavi’s own claims seem quite startling – eg. that he was really the won who had the big victory – I’m not sure I understand how that is a more credible claim. Well, I don’t think it is. I think we get a skewed sense of things from the US, kindof like seeing Cuban politics through the lens provided by Miami emigres and US affiliated folks.

    And here’s a question that might be worth considering: should we really believe that blatant US bullying, like Dennis Ross’ book published this week in whch he calls for a blockade to stop 80% of Iran’s exports, should we really believe that that goes down well in Iran – even with western-affiliated folks?
    How would we feel here in the US about such threats? Do we like it when Bin Laden puts out an election eve harangue?

    The election was surely much closer. Perhaps there will have to be a runoff after all. But here’s another question: since we are in the mood to get worked up about Stolen Elections in Iran, how about other sketchy elections, such as Mexico in 2006? I think it’s about time the world paid more attention to the issue of Stolen Elections broadly speaking, and that means here in the US too, where there are well founded controverseys about past elections.

    It almost seems like a situation where people are just very eager to see Ahmadinejad lose, because they associate Mousavi with Obama. The Obama fascination continues to work its magic

  2. Much as I would have liked to see Musavi win, and much as I love a good conspiracy theory, this one is rather silly. Sillier even than Juan Cole’s speculations. All they needed to do in order to realize just how out of touch they are was to watch Ahmadinejad’s victory rally today. The crowd was massive. Far bigger than anything the opposition had managed. It is easy to underestimate MA’s enduring popularity, since all Western journalists go and seek out interlocutors in their own image: english-speaking, westernized, liberal. No wonder they always get it wrong.

    Here’s a good reality check:

  3. Here we go again. The US and West’s definition of democracy is that it is “working” only when the electorates vote for the candidate of our choice. Gary Sick’s expectation of Mousavi winning the Iranian election must have been strengthened by the post-Obama election result in Lebanon. On top of that, how can somebody whose wife is compared with Michelle Obama can lose? So the question is what the West will do now? Talk to somebody like an Iranian Abbas shunning Ahmadinejad as they are doing in Palestine?

  4. The Iranian election clearly was stolen. This will strengthen the hand of those who oppose a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Additionally, it throws new light on the utter failure of the Clinton and Bush administrations to seriously pursue talks with Iran during the period 1997-2005, talks which could have led to a settlement of outstanding differences and a strengthening of the American position in the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Events seem to be conspiring to prevent anything but the worst outcome in the region.

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