By James PhillipsSenior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, The Heritage Foundation

Iran has been convulsed by the strong reaction of disbelief expressed by many voters following the news of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's alleged landslide re-election victory. Challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi's supported have taken to the streets and clashed with police. Mousavi has complained bitterly of vote tampering and widespread irregularities in ballot counting.

Indeed, all of the challengers expressed strong concern, even before the election, that Ahmadinejad's supporters would rig the vote.


Last Monday, a group of Interior Ministry employees released an open letter charging that Ahmadinejad loyalists within the ministry, which supervises the voting, were preparing to fix the results.

That same day Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, another presidential candidate, sent an open letter to the Guardian Council warning about the manipulation of election results. They had no faith in the fairness of the vote-counting process. And they have good reason for their concern, based on their long experience with Iranian elections, which are neither free nor fair.

Iran's political system is not a true democracy but a theocratic dictatorship that cloaks the rule of the ayatollahs with a facade of representative government. The clerical regime hand-picked the four contending candidates from a pool of 475 who initially sought to run for the presidency. The senior clerics on the Guardian Council, which vets the candidates, severely narrowed the choices to less than 1 percent of the original field of challengers. The four that were permitted to run for the presidency share a deep commitment to the extremist Islamist ideology that sparked Iran's 1979 revolution.

The elections also are not fair because the state-controlled media spoon-fed Iranians a steady diet of slanted information, misinformation and disinformation that favored Ahmadinejad, a favorite of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who is called "Supreme Leader" for a reason. He succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini, the radical Islamist leader of Iran's 1979 revolution, and has final say about all important policy matters.

Ahmadinejad may not have needed to manipulate the ballot counting much. As the incumbent president, he enjoys other built-in advantages. He's backed by hard-line supporters entrenched in many state bureaucracies and the parallel revolutionary organs that make up Iran's complex political system. His henchmen have closed his political rivals' Web sites, intimidated journalists and shut down newspapers, arrested bloggers, and disrupted communication networks to prevent rival campaigns from organizing rallies through text-messaging or social-networking sites.

The populist Iranian president also has sought to buy votes with pork-barrel spending, heavy subsidies, state-provided loans, and favors, particularly to poor rural areas. In recent months, his government has distributed 400,000 tons of free potatoes to the poor in blatant effort to bribe voters. This led supporters of rival candidates to chant "death to potatoes!" at their campaign rallies.

Ahmadinejad has tried to divert attention from Iran's hobbled economy to its accelerating nuclear program and growing military strength, a source of pride for many Iranians. He also has sought to dodge responsibility for Iran's mismanaged economy by pointing a finger at corrupt leaders who preceded him, particularly former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Rafsanjani throws his considerable weight behind Mousavi's irate supporters, then Iran may face an extended period of intense political turbulence.

Mousavi, who charged during the campaign that President Ahmadinejad was leading Iran toward dictatorship, has signaled that he will not back down on his charges that the election was stolen from him. He stated: "I personally strongly protest the many obvious violations and I'm warning I will not surrender to this dangerous charade." He proclaimed that Iran "belongs to the people and not cheaters."

In reality Iran belongs to the ayatollahs, specifically the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who casts the ultimate vote on all important matters. Iran's revolutionary constitution is based not on the will of the people but on the will of God, as interpreted by the Supreme Leader through the harsh lens of Khomeini's revolutionary Islamist ideology.

Iranian presidents come and go, but the Supreme Leader controls the armed forces, security services, intelligence agencies, judiciary, state-controlled media, Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij (the paramilitary thugs who rough up people at opposition rallies and intimidate the enemies of the revolution). The Basij likely will be active in the coming days, physically reinforcing the lessons of the election and repressing Iranian activists who dared to hope that they could peacefully change Iran's radical Islamist system.

So in the words of Pete Townsend: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." That's the Supreme Leader -- not Ahmadinejad.

For more on Iran from the Heritage Foundation, go to: The Iran Briefing Room.