The re-election of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who defeated his chief opponent, the ex-Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was not entirely unpredictable. Iran's ultimate decision-maker and power-broker, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had endorsed him several times. He controlled state media and the Interior Ministry. The Revolutionary Guards had expressed their support for him. Why then had the Western media and governments put so much hope on an upset, aside from their mere wish to see him lose? Why did they assume that his reformist challenger, the ex-PM Mir-Hossein Mousavi, would bring the kind of change we can all believe in?
Not that Mousavi was not a real challenger. He might have won the popular vote — though this regime has fixed elections in the past and there was absolutely no reason to believe that this time it would be different. But most Western journalists invariably reported from Tehran and Isfahan, home to the young and the educated whom they constantly spoke to and quoted. Rarely did they venture to Yazd, Qom, Khorramshar and Bandar Abbas, or anywhere else in Iran, a vast, diverse and robustly traditional country. This could again have been a case of the media creating a reality to fit its mindset, rather than observing a reality that could go terribly wrong from their point of view.
Even if one accepts that the regime indulged in result-fixing, why is this so shocking? Probably because much misguided punditry suggest that Iran is a democracy. Hence, by speaking to like-minded Iranians, journalists must have concluded that this was a real contest, where an Iranian Barack Obama was about to steal the show from the Ayatollahs. In fact, Iran is not a democracy. Freedom House places Iran in the company of China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Libya when it comes to political freedoms and civil liberties. Women still count for half a man in an Iranian court of law. "There are no gays in Iran," declared Ahmadinejad, at a public lecture at Columbia University two years ago. This is true, in a sense, because gays, once discovered, are either executed or forced to undergo a sex change. Candidates for public office must first be vetted by the Guardians' Council, a body of clerics that ensures that none may contravene the tenets of the Revolution.