US Electoral Meddling ­ Soft Coups & Regime Changes
By Terrell E. Arnold

June 22, 2009

Rense News

In the midst of mainly US, Israeli and their mainstream media moaning about Iran's election outcome, it has become increasingly clear that both countries were engaged in covert efforts to change the regime in Tehran. And they lost, but they are not graceful losers. The sheer diversity of those efforts-costing in some reports hundreds of millions of dollars-obviously was known to Iran clerical leadership and to Ahmadinejad's lieutenants and counselors. Therefore, the decision to proceed with a national election, knowing that major efforts were underway by outsiders to influence if not subvert it, was pretty bold. However, the mood of the country, as measured in an independent survey three weeks before the polls opened, suggested that proceeding with the balloting was low risk for the party in power.

The Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardian Council and Ahmadinejad apparently had not counted on such a tumultuous election followup. Indications are that the "green" revolutionary heir expectant, Mir Hossein Mousavi, did well among university students, the English-speaking elites, exporter/importer businesses, and political devotees in his home Azeri district. However, there are far more ordinary Iranian folk than the academic, intellectual and business elites, and judging simply from the voting numbers (a reported 82% of the electorate), far more ordinary people voted in this election than the elites could muster. It appears that the bulk of Iranians, the people of the countryside and poor urban districts, including Azeris, went heavily for Ahmadinejad. Good reasons for that are he was born poor and he has not lost his link to the poor, while as a politician he has helped them in many ways. That includes Azeris, whose language he speaks after several years service in that region of Iran.

The principal claim cited by Iran's external critics that the election was rigged is the fact that Mousavi resoundingly lost. While outside observers, to the extent that they actually observed part of the election, were pretty much in and around the capital, no ballot box tampering cases or voter intimidation cases have been cited by critics. Some have cited the rapid release of results as evidence of tampering, but the argument can be made that rapid reporting from polling places is one of the ways to avoid or reduce rigging, or charges thereof. The longer ballots hang around a polling place without being counted and placed under lock and key, the easier it is to tinker with outcomes. Thus, polling places were probably instructed to work quickly and report promptly. The quick count is not per se evidence of anything but a quick count. On that point, Mousavi jumped the gun himself and declared victory well before the polls closed.

Was the election rigged? We may never know for sure, just as we are unlikely to know exactly how the US presidential election of 2000 should have turned out. However, the sweep of outsider opinion is extreme. Professor Juan Cole is cited on (see "The arguments against (and for) trusting Iran's election results" by Gabriel Winant) as having made the "most influential case" that the election was stolen, but Cole himself has said that his judgment was based on "speculation and informed guesses". In a world of political turmoil, including cheating at times virtually everywhere elections are held, one cannot dismiss such judgments, but they are not useable as evidence in a court of law. They specifically do not provide a basis for challenging the reported outcome of the Iranian elections.

On the other side, Professor James Petras notes (see "Iranian Elections: The 'Stolen Elections' Hoax" at "that not a single shred of evidence in either written or observational form has been presented either before or a week after the vote count" to show that the elections were interfered with or rigged. Petras points out that there were competing demonstrations during the runup to the elections and pro-Ahmadinejad crowds were as large as (perhaps larger than) pro-Mousavi crowds were, but outsiders were interested in watching and reporting on only the opposition demonstrations. Petras credits the large recorded Azeri vote for Ahmadinejad to the amount of help he has given to the Azeri working class, and he sees Ahmadinejad's identification with the poor and working people as a key factor in the countrywide outcome. This fits a model in which the vote was divided essentially along class lines, and in that sort of contest the relatively small Iranian elites would have lost.

It appears that the amount of fuss, both international and internal opposition, requires that Khamenei and the Guardian Council conduct a review to determine whether actual tampering occurred. However, not just a little tampering would have to be shown to justify overturning the results. An official Iranian source reportedly has said that 11 million of the recorded votes would have to be shown to be fraudulent to switch the outcome toward Mousavi. Judging from Mousavi's own political history, the risks are substantial that tampering, if it occurred, also happened on the part of his supporters. But two facts stand out in this turbulent landscape: First, a two to one majority vote was predicted by reputable outside pollsters for Ahmadinejad three weeks before the elections (see "The Iranian People Speak" by polltakers Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty in the Washington Post, 15 June), and second, no charges of tampering were made until after the results had been announced. As Petras points out, no evidence has been presented to date. That puts the situation more in the realm of sour grapes than electoral misfeasance.

The US and supporting outsider roles in this situation are awkward but explicable. For years, US and Israeli groups, notably the Zionists and their neocons supporters, have taken the position that the way to deal with Iran is to promote an Iranian leadership that accepts US and Israeli ambitions for the region, whether or not those ambitions are consistent with Iranian interests. This notion plays to a basic flaw in American diplomacy that grew substantially during the Bush years, although it was not invented by Bush: If you are having trouble with another government, the best way to deal with the situation is to arrange the change of that government. The Bush front for this ploy was "we do not talk to our enemies."

There is a low regard for diplomacy at work here. The highest diplomatic art often has been proven to involve conduct of relations with known enemies. Normal diplomatic relations typically mean that the parties will endeavor to work out areas of conflict or concern by dealing with them in their own frames of reference. That is sometimes hard work, and as once seen with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, your opposite number can be a shoe banger. However, the diplomatic necessity was not to change the Soviet Union but to work with it while it either changed itself or simply backed away from its sometimes confrontational style. Since the stakes were potentially earth shaking, patience and sensitivity were the orders of the day. However, after we had spent more than 40 years searching for ways to get beyond the Soviet Union, it managed to disassemble itself. Given its working out in the era of nuclear weapons, that may have been the most important world power stand-down in history.

In those terms, the Iran case is a crude example of diplomacy at work. For more than 30 years the US and Iran have been at odds, with neither actively seeking a diplomatic approachment. However, the US has drifted toward more and more warlike approaches. Israel has pursued similarly obtuse courses. Seeking to secure its regional nuclear monopoly, Israel has sought to prevent any regional power from succeeding in weapons development. At the same time, Israel has sought to break the link between Iran and two regional insurgencies, Hamas (Israel's own creation) in Palestine and Hezbollah (a backlash to Israel's invasion) in Lebanon. With US aid and abettance, Israel has sought to break the Iran connection without doing anything to reduce Israeli repression of the Palestinian people, the principal reason why such groups exist and why Iran supports them.

Both the US and Israel have been playing their own games in Iranian politics. The Israelis have carried out trans-border raids into Iran from Kurdish territory in northern Iraq; the US has conducted covert operations along the frontier with Iraq and has aided Iranian dissidents such as MEK, a group on the US State Department list of international terrorists. Those efforts are directed at promoting regime change or a soft coup that does not seem likely. Backing Mousavi on the theory that he would be more amenable to US and Israeli activities in the area is only part of the program to bring about regime change. Referring to him as a "reformist" or "moderate" is the sweet language of color revolutions that sometimes succeed elsewhere, but the term "reformist" has little or nothing to do with Mousavi's political history.

The fact is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a tough-minded defender of Iranian interests. He is actively and, unfortunately, sensibly arming Iran against the prospect of a US/Israeli attack. While both US and Israeli interests appear served by an Iranian decision in 2003, as reported by the CIA, to stop work on a bomb, US and Israeli threats could well have the effect of restoring nuclear weapons to Iran's center stage, where they seem to have been before the Shah was overthrown. However, the actual scope and character of Iran's nuclear program is controlled by the Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council of clerics, not by Ahmadinejad. If, by whatever means, Mousavi might become President, Iran's nuclear program would be unlikely to change, because the clerical leadership of the country-along with most Iranians-would insist on continuing it.

Both the enduring Iranian realities and the results of the June 12 elections suggest it is time for more traditional diplomacy. If the US, Israel and the West want Iran to stay out of the weapons business, the first step is to stop threatening the country. The second is to stop meddling in Iranian selection of its leadership. The third step is to then sit down with whoever is in charge in Tehran and work out an accommodation that recognizes Iran's (a) intrinsic importance as a nation of 80 million people, (b) role as one of the world's principal energy producers, (c) legitimate interest (under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty) in harnessing nuclear power as a long term domestic energy source, and (d) its spiritual role in the life of the Shia Islamic community of which Iran is the largest and most influential member.

All of that requires western acceptance of the fact that Islam does not recognize any requirement to separate church and state, even though various countries move slowly toward secular governance. In the end, as Iranian clerics appear to understand all too well, the basic processes of governance require pragmatic decision making, and the rest of the world would do well to encourage those processes toward the peaceful end of the spectrum. Interfering in Iranian elections or attempting to arrange soft coups are not the ways to get there. The most critical move is for outsiders to leave the Iranian people alone.


The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose overseas service included tours in Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Brazil. His immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at