Judging from commentary in the blogosphere, many Americans are already convinced by suggestions that have been carried in the media that the Presidential election in Iran was stolen. [Some press reports have been a bit more careful: the lead paragraph of the front page story in Sunday's New York Times says that "it is impossible to know for sure" if the result reflects the popular will.]
But the evidence that has been presented so far that the election was stolen has not been convincing.
Iran does not allow independent international election observers, and there is a scarcity of independent, systematic data.
But shortly before the election, Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation published a poll that was financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Based on this poll, the official result - a victory for Ahmadinejad in the first round - was entirely predictable. "Ahmadinejad Front Runner in Upcoming Presidential Elections," the poll reported.
The poll was conducted between May 11 and May 20, and claimed a margin of error of 3.1%. Among its respondents, 34% said they would vote for incumbent President Ahmadinejad, 14% said they would vote for Mir Hussein Moussavi, 2% said they would vote for Mehdi Karroubi, and 1% said they would vote for Mohsen Rezai. Declared support for these four candidates represented 51% of the sample; 27% of the sample said they didn't know who they would vote for. [This accounts for 78% of the sample; the survey report doesn't explicitly characterize the other 22% of the sample, but presumably they were divided between those who did not intend to vote and those who refused to respond to the question. The survey reported that 89% of Iranians said they intended to vote.]
If one merely extrapolated from the reported results - that is, if one assumed that the people who refused to respond or who didn't know voted for the four candidates in the same proportions as their counterparts who named candidates, the following result would have occurred on June 12:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 66.7%
Mir Hussein Moussavi - 27.5%
Mehdi Karroubi - 3.9%
Mohsen Rezai - 2.0%
The Iranian Interior Ministry said Saturday afternoon that Ahmadinejad received in the actual election 62.6% of the vote, with Moussavi receiving just under 34%, the Times reported.
Now, of course it is reasonable to suppose that the opposition might well have taken a greater share of the previously undecided vote than the share of the decided vote that they already had. Indeed, the Terror Free Tomorrow poll reported:
"A close examination of our survey results reveals that the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate. More than 60 percent of those who state they don't know who they will vote for in the Presidential elections reflect individuals who favor political reform and change in the current system."
So suppose that we allocate 60% of the 27% who told pollsters they didn't know to the two "reform" candidates, Moussavi and Karroubi; and 40% of the undecided vote to the two "conservative" candidates, Ahmadinejad and Rezai. And within each camp, suppose we allocate the votes according to the proportion of reform or conservative votes they had among those in the survey who named candidates. In that case, this would have been the result on June 12:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 57%
Mir Hussein Moussavi - 36%
Mehdi Karroubi - 5%
Mohsen Rezai - 2%
When you account for the scaling up of the numbers from the poll, these numbers differ from the Interior Ministry numbers by less than the poll's margin of error.
The Terror Free Tomorrow poll had another important result. One of the arguments being made that there must certainly have been fraud is the claim that Ahmadinejad could not possibly have won the Azeri city of Tabriz, as was reported by the official results, since Mousavi, who is Azeri, is from Azerbaijan province, of which Tabriz is the capital. Juan Cole, for example, makes this argument.
Here's what the Terror Free Tomorrow poll had to say about that:
"Inside Iran, considerable attention has been given to Mr. Moussavi's Azeri background, emphasizing the appeal his Azeri identity may have for Azeri voters. The results of our survey indicate that only 16 percent of Azeri Iranians indicate they will vote for Mr. Moussavi. By contrast, 31 percent of the Azeris claim they will vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad."
Thus, according to Terror Free Tomorrow, Ahmadinejad had a 2-1 lead among Azeris over Moussavi.
It shouldn't be shocking to anyone who carefully follows U.S. news coverage of foreign countries - particularly "adversary" countries - that in the absence of good data, Western observers would come to the conclusion that Moussavi had majority support. There is an unavoidable tilt in the reporting of Western observers. The Iranians that Western observers talk to - like the Venezuelans and Bolivians that Western observers talk to - are a skewed sample of the population: disproportionately English-speaking, disproportionately well-off, disproportionately critical of their governments. That's why anecdotes and observations are no substitute for hard data.
Of course, none of this proves that the election was clean and legitimate. But it does suggest that claims that it was "impossible" for Ahmadinejad to win a fair election should be treated with extreme skepticism. On the contrary, based on the Terror Free Tomorrow poll, not only was it plausible that Ahmadinejad would win - it was extremely likely.
Certainly, Juan Cole is right when he says that regardless of the election result, the Obama Administration should press forward with its diplomatic engagement with Iran - as the Administration has promised to do.
But we ought to reserve judgment on claims that the Iranian Presidential election was stolen until such claims are substantiated.
UPDATE: Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation have an op-ed in today's (Monday's) Washington Post, making the same argument that I made here - that the official election result is consistent with their pre-election polling.