I just heard a CNN reporter in Tehran say that Ahmadinejad’s support base was rural. Is it possible that rural Iran, where less than 35 percent of the country’s population lives, provided Ahmadinejad the 63 percent of the vote he claims to have won? That would contradict my own research in Iran’s villages over the past 30 years, including just recently. I do not carry out research in Iran’s cities, as do foreign reporters who otherwise live in the metropolises of Europe and North America, and so I wonder how they can make such bold assertions about the allegedly extensive rural support for Ahmadinejad.
Take Bagh-e Iman, for example. It is a village of 850 households in the Zagros Mountains near the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz. According to longtime, close friends who live there, the village is seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
When news spread on Saturday (June 13) morning that Ahmadinejad had won more than 60 percent of the vote cast the day before, the residents were in shock. The week before the vote had witnessed the most intense campaigning in the village’s history, and it became evident that support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s candidacy was overwhelming. Supporters of Ahmadinejad were even booed and mocked when they attempted rallies and had to endure scolding lectures from relatives at family gatherings. "No one would dare vote for that hypocrite," insisted Mrs. Ehsani, an elected member of the village council.
The president was very unpopular in Bagh-e Iman and in most of the other villages around Shiraz, primarily because of his failure to deliver on the reforms he promised in his successful 2005 presidential campaign. He did have some supporters. Village elders confided, "10 to 15 percent of village men, mostly [those who were] Basijis [militia members] and those who worked for government organizations, along with their families."
Carloads of villagers actually drove to Shiraz to participate in the massive pro-Mousavi rallies that were held on the three nights prior to the balloting. And election-day itself was like a party in Bagh-e Iman. Many people openly announced their intentions to vote for Mousavi as they cheerfully stood in line chatting with neighbors, and local election monitors estimated that at least 65 percent of them actually did so. "Although some probably really voted for [Ayatollah Mehdi] Karubi, who also is a man of the people," said election monitor Jalal.
Of course, the Basijis with their mothers, wives and sisters did come out in force but were quiet, apparently timid about revealing their voting intentions "because they probably voted for Ahmadinejad," continued Jalal. But he insisted that they did not count for more than 20 or 25 percent of the vote.
By Saturday evening, the shock and disbelief had given way to anger that slowly turned into palpable moral outrage over what came to be believed as the theft of their election. The proof was right in the village: "Interior Ministry officials came from Shiraz, sealed the ballot boxes, and took then away even before the end of voting at 9 pm," said Jalal. In all previous elections, a committee comprised of representative from each political faction had counted and certified the results right in the village. The unexpected change in procedures caught village monitors off guard, as it did everywhere else in the country.
By Saturday evening, small groups of demonstrators were roaming the main commercial streets of Shiraz, a city of 1.5 million residents, and protesting the announced results as a fraud. People refused to believe that Ahmadinejad could have been re-elected. Larger demonstrations took place on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, beginning in the late afternoon and continuing long after the sun had set. These attracted carloads of supporters from Bagh-e Iman and other villages, including several that were 60 kilometers from Shiraz.
Although the crowds shouted slogans such as "Death to Dictatorship," most protestors shouted "Allah-o-akbar," the popular chant of the 1978-79 Revolution. Indeed, in Shiraz, thousands climbed unto the roofs of their homes Sunday to shout ‘Allah-o-akbar’ for several hours.
Most villagers are supporters of the Islamic Republic, but they are ready for the reforms that they say are essential so that their children will have a secure economic future. They saw hope in Mousavi’s promise to implement reforms, even though he is a part of the governing elite.
But that political elite is divided over how Iran should be governed: a transparent democracy where elected representatives enact laws to benefit the people or a ‘guided democracy’ in which a select few make all decisions because they do not trust the masses to make the right ones. This astute political insight is one that is prevalent in Iran but seems to have escaped the notice of the Western reporters who are trying to explain Iran’s political crisis with resort to simplistic stereotypes.
Eric Hooglund is professor of politics at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, and editor of the scholarly journal Middle East Critique. He is an expert on Iran, and his most recent publication is "Thirty Years of Islamic Revolution in Rural Iran" in Middle East Report, no. 250, spring 2009.