The recent surge in popular enthusiasm for Ahmadinejad's main rival, Mir Hussein Mousavi, has increased the likelihood that the president's neo-conservative backers will resort to rigging the election results. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some public opinion surveys released before the last day of campaigning on June 10 showed that Mousavi is near, or perhaps has even surpassed, the incumbent.
Under Iran's tangled, quasi-democratic system, however, voters do not have the final say in elections. The ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of elections falls to two unelected entities -- The Guardian Council and the Interior Ministry -- that are not directly responsible to the Iranian people. Both institutions are packed with Ahmadinejad partisans. Both also have a track record of meddling in elections.
In the 1999 parliamentary elections, for example, the Guardian Council annulled about 700,000 votes cast by Tehran residents in order to ensure the election of a favored hardliner candidate. And in the 2005 presidential election, the council, acting in tandem with the Revolutionary Guards Corps, reportedly engineered irregularities -- including voter-intimidation and ballot-stuffing -- that enabled a then-obscure hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to win the presidency.
After four years in office, Ahmadinejad has filled the Interior Ministry with cronies, many of whom have connections to the Revolutionary Guards. A source who participated in closed Interior Ministry planning sessions, speaking on condition of anonymity to EurasiaNet, says top ministry personnel openly stated during one session that a repeat of the 1997 election, in which the reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, scored an upset victory, would not be tolerated on June 12.
Meanwhile, Ahamad Janati, the head of the Guardian Council, has voiced support for Ahmadinejad and condemned the reformists who have flocked to Mousavi's campaign banner.
By the numbers, it would seem that the country's vast election apparatus has the ability to guarantee a favorable outcome for Ahmadinejad. According to Kamran Daneshjoo, the Interior Ministry official responsible for overseeing the voting, there are 385,000 citizens who will be administering voting precincts. The Guardian Council is expected to deploy another 340,000 people to monitor the balloting. In addition, there will be hundreds of thousands of security personnel deployed on election day. Overall, the country has about 57 million citizens of voting age, meaning that roughly 1 in 60 Iranians of voting age will be involved in some aspect of conducting the election.
Mousavi, backed by a broad spectrum of political forces that are opposed to Ahmadinejad's attempted power-grab, is working fervently to prevent vote-rigging. Reformists have created an entity called the Committee for the Protection of the Votes (CPV), which will deploy 50,000 local activists in an attempt to foil Ahmadinejad's plans.
CPV representatives point to several indicators of an Iranian neo-conservative plot to steal the election. For one, they note that over 59 million ballots have been printed, far more than the number of registered voters. They also have evidence that a substantial, though undetermined, number of soldiers has been ordered to hand over their national identity cards to officers. Most importantly, according to another CPV report, up to a third of voting booths in Iran will be protected by the Revolutionary Guards, and not the regular Law Enforcement Agency personnel.
To lend vote-rigging an air of religious legitimacy, a prominent hardline cleric has reportedly issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that would condone fraud in the name of supposedly defending the spirit of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Both sides, ironically, have in recent days accused the other of acting to undermine the Islamic Revolution. In an open letter issued on June 9, former president Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani accused Ahmadinejad of treason and warned that if the incumbent tried to fix the election, it would lead to "social upheavals of volcanic proportions."
Rafsanjani has publicly called on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to take action that would guarantee a free-and-fair election. Ayatollah Khamenei, who appears to be a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad, has so far not responded publicly to Rafsanjani's appeal. But given Iran's opaque political system, as well as the fact that behind-the-scenes maneuvering is reaching unprecedented levels, the lack of any public statements does not necessarily mean that the Supreme Leader will go along with a blatantly fraudulent election.
The fervor displayed by the pro-Mousavi coalition could potentially force Ayatollah Khamenei to act, albeit in a quiet manner, to rein in vote-rigging attempts. Ultimately, the possibility that rigging could spark widespread upheaval in Iran could trump Ayatollah Khamenei's clear preference to see Ahmadinejad win the vote.
The Supreme Leader, for example, could hypothetically issue a quiet order for the Revolutionary Guards and Basij Militia to remain neutral during the voting. Such a development would strike a severe blow against Ahmadinejad's reelection chances.
One hint that the Supreme Leader may indeed be having second thoughts about placing all his chips on Ahmadinejad came on June 10, when several well-connected websites posted stories that asserted Ayatollah Khamenei had named one of his closest advisors, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, as his personal representative for election oversight. Nategh-Nouri is a known opponent of Ahmadinejad. Indeed, the incumbent president publicly accused Nategh-Nouri of corruption on June 3, providing the Supreme Leader advisor with a strong incentive to work for Ahmadinejad's defeat.
One factor that may be too large for the Supreme Leader and others to ignore is the fact that Mousavi's campaign appears to have tapped into the energy of Iran's under-30 demographic segment. Given that a majority of the country's population is under 30, any decision that disregarded the hopes and opinions of this segment of the electorate, especially now that it has become politically awakened, would risk severely undermining the foundation on which the Islamic Republic stands. Those hoping to regenerate the spirit of the revolution could possibly cause its destruction.
How young people would respond to vote-rigging is unpredictable at this point. There is a very real possibility that Rafsanjani is right, and that a fixed election could trigger an eruption that could bury the Islamic Republic. Thus, key elements, from the Supreme Leader on down, may shy away from backing Ahmadinejad to the hilt.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.