Rodger Shanahan argues that the weekend’s election result shows that observers outside Iran, and Iranians who parse the country for the outside world (few of whom would have been Ahmadinejad voters), underestimated Ahmadinejad’s support and were engaged in wishful thinking.

He points to what is often called the “north Tehran syndrome”, where Western observers extrapolate their view of the country as a whole from interviews with middle class, English-speaking inhabitants of the capital’s up-scale neighbourhoods. This was true in the 2005 election, but as this blog post from Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation makes clear, at least one Western journalist did leave north Tehran this time around and found far from uniform support for the incumbent.

Flynt Leverett argues that the margin of victory, while surprising, makes it unlikely that the usual forms of vote tampering that often take place in Iranian elections, which might swing at best a few million votes, had been used to rig the election result.

True. But you can’t rule out the possibility that hardliners in the regime announcing their own results, which were then confirmed (rather more speedily than usual) by Supreme Leader Khameneidid — not so much rigging the election result as ignoring it altogether. Gary Sick and Juan Cole have already posted circumstantial evidence for this thesis, arguing that there has been, in effect, an internal coup. Three streams of evidence are to my mind compelling in favour of this thesis:

  1. By Iranian standards, the election result was announced by the Ministry of Interior very quickly (with an few hours of polls closing, as opposed to usually about 24 hours) and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei even more quickly thereafter (about 24 hours rather than the more usual three days later). The fact that all three challengers are contesting the result, not just the margin, is significant. Remember, these guys are not busted-a-se oppositionists, they are prominent and respected members of the regime, including in Rezai’s case, from its conservative wing.
  2. The election results as officially reported by the state-controlled media and Interior Ministry, both controlled by the incumbent, gave Ahmadinejad a fairly uniform vote across Iran, despite the fact that in past elections there have been significant ethnic and regional variations. In fact, according to these figures, all three challengers, Musavi, Karrubi and Rezai, lost the vote in their home towns, respectively, Shabestar, Aligoudar and Masjed-Soleiman, which is surprising by the standards of previous Iranian elections.
  3. If Ahmadinejad won by the landslide suggested by the official figures, why the heavy and orchestrated security response as polls closed? Reports from different sources have referred to concrete barriers being thrown up around the Interior Ministry, security forces heavily deployed (we don’t know what was happening in other parts of Iran), senior reformist figures being detained, Facebook and other social messaging networks being blocked, SMS communications shut down, patchy mobile phone coverage and heavy filtering of the internet. A number of reformist newspapers were shut down and restrictions were placed on the Western media, including foreign journalists being told that their visas would not be extended.

None of this is a smoking gun and it might still be true that the West will just have to lump it. But if this is what the circumstantial evidence points to, then it is very significant, for Iran and for the international community’s dealings with the country.

We may never know for sure what happened, though what transpires over coming days and weeks, especially what occurs to key figures like former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani as well as the candidates from this election, will give greater or lesser credence to the theory of a coup.

Since the revolution, the regime has relied on imperfect, unfair but reasonably competitive elections to demonstrate its popular legitimacy. If hardliners have carried out a coup, then someone has decided they no longer need legitimacy and can rely on coercion. They may well be right, at least in the short term.

As has been widely reported, there have been outbreaks of mass protest in Tehran, with a few reports of demonstration elsewhere as well. Some of these protests seem quite large, though on its own this is probably not going to trouble the regime security forces much.

More interesting is what happens inside the regime. To understand this we need to understand who has undertaken the coup (again, if that is what has occurred). To my mind there are two possibilities, with some variations between them:

  1. Ahmadinejad, his supporters in the regime and the Revolutionary Guard preempted the election result, presenting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with a fait accompli that he was not prepared to countermand. This theory rests on the assumption that Khamenei is not as strong as people assume. Faced with a choice between backing the military and a younger generation of revolutionaries around Ahmadinejad (that would keep Khamenei around as a figurehead), versus the old guard around his some-time rival, former President Rafsanjani, Khamenei chose the former.
  2. The other possibility is that this has been instigated by the Supreme Leader himself or someone close to him. This theory rests on the thesis that the Leader is using this opportunity to purge the regime of old guard figures like Rafsanjani, as well as regime reformists, perhaps fearful the election was going to once again strengthen their hand. The Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani are the direct heirs of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. Although Rafsanjani’s power has been slipping in recent years, he is the one figure in the regime who could potentially take on the Supreme Leader in the right circumstances.

If it is the first scenario, then there may be a way back for Rafsanjani and Musavi, if the former can convince the Supreme Leader to change his mind in some face-saving way. If it is the second scenario, then Rafsanjani, Musavi and those aligned with them in the regime may have no way back, at least using the avenues available to them within the regime. This leaves the intriguing, but much less likely possibility of Musavi and possibly Rafsanjani going outside the system and placing themselves at the head of some form of popular movement against the regime — so far, all Musavi has called for is continued peaceful protests against the result.

If there has been a coup, and if it does succeed in purging the regime of more pragmatic and reformist figures, then predicting decision-making within the regime will suddenly get a lot more straight-forward. After Khomeini’s death, the regime developed a number of power centres, whose competition for influence often paralysed decision-making — including on issues such as relations with the US. The regime may now become a lot more internally cohesive, which will make Obama’s efforts at diplomacy with Iran a lot harder.