Many Signs of Fraud, but No Hard Evidence, in Iranian Election

By Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Millions of handwritten paper ballots were counted within hours. The challenger riding a surge of momentum and popular enthusiasm lost in a landslide. Other opposition candidates did poorly even in their home provinces.

There are many signs of manipulation or outright fraud in Iran's disputed election results, according to pollsters and election experts, but the case for a rigged outcome is far from ironclad, making it difficult for the United States and other Western powers to denounce the results as unacceptable. Indeed, there is also evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the incumbent president deeply disliked in the West for his promotion of Iran's nuclear program and his anti-Israeli rhetoric, simply won a commanding victory.

Some analysts have suggested that the attention given the protests and anger in Tehran -- where Western media outlets are concentrated -- gives a misleading picture of the Iranian electorate. The official results show that the leading challenger, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, was competitive in Tehran, losing by 52 percent to 46 percent, while trailing badly outside the capital. "You could get more of an impression of a horse race in Tehran," said Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation, who said Ahmadinejad is a "really good campaigner" who blunted Mousavi's momentum in their final debate.

"There are suspicious elements here, but there's no solid evidence of fraud," said Walter R. Mebane Jr., a University of Michigan professor of political science and statistics and an expert on detecting electoral fraud.

The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the unfolding events, expressing concern about violence and "possible voting irregularities," but at the same time saying it wants to continue efforts to reach out to the government and restrain its nuclear ambitions. The ultimate power in Iran rests with its unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and U.S. officials have repeatedly said that he, not the president, is key to resolving the impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us," Obama told reporters yesterday. "I can't state definitively one way or another what happened."

The government announced that Ahmadinejad won more than 62 percent of the vote, compared with 34 percent for Mousavi, his closest challenger in a four-person race. Ahmadinejad won virtually the same percentage of the vote four years ago in a two-person race, but that result came in a runoff election. Seven major candidates participated in the first round of voting in 2005 -- when no incumbent was running -- and Ahmadinejad got 19 percent.

There were few independent polls taken before the election and no exit polls afterward, making it extremely difficult to assess the accuracy of the vote counts announced by the government.

A telephone poll co-sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation, conducted May 11-20, showed Ahmadinejad with a 2 to 1 lead over Mousavi, but 52 percent of those surveyed either had no opinion or refused to answer, making many analysts wary of the results, especially because it was taken more than three weeks before the heated contest. When the poll was released, it predicted the vote would be "closer . . . than the numbers would indicate" and that no candidate would get the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Meanwhile, other pre-election polling seemed to indicate some momentum for Mousavi, but these polls may be of limited usefulness. Polling in Iran is generally of questionable quality, and little is known about the details of those polls. One, for instance, appeared to survey only those who worked in government ministries.

Friday, on election night, Mousavi claimed victory even before the polls closed. But then the Interior Ministry, headed by an official appointed by Ahmadinejad, quickly declared that preliminary results showed that the incumbent won by a huge margin -- which was relatively consistent throughout the night.

One of the most suspicious indicators is that so many ballots were said to have been counted so quickly. The votes are recorded on paper, with each voter required to write the name of the preferred candidate on the ballot.

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