Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | June 16, 2009

Iran, and the Overton Window

Out of the 20-plus articles and editorials I’ve read regarding Iran’s election results, only The Iranian People Speak (Washington Post, June 15, 2009) has said the results might actually be legitimate.  Despite its loneliness on that issue, it contains some insights that are worth considering.  This article was based on the results of this opinion poll, conducted by the organizations Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion (“TFT”), the New America Foundation, and KA Europe SPRL (“KA”) from May 11-20, 2009.  The poll follows up on two similar polls that were conducted in March 2008 and June 2007.  These polls show many things that are critically important to how we in the US view Iran, and conduct our diplomatic relations with them.

Before I go on, it is important to keep in mind that in Iran, the President is not the highest authority in the government.  The Supreme Leader, an unelected position currently held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the also-unelected 12-member Guardian Council hold ultimate power over the elected governmental positions of President and Parliament.  (For more information on the Guardian Council, click here.)

Now, despite TFT/KA’s finding that Ahmadinejad had sufficient support to be legitimately elected,

Iranians also continue overwhelmingly to favor better relations with the United States and would like to directly elect their Supreme Leader in a free vote. The desire for improved American relations and a more open and democratic system in Iran have been consistent findings in all our surveys of Iran over the past two years.

As also reported here (New York Times, June 15, 2009), as hundreds of thousands of people protested the election result by marching silently and peacefully through the center of Tehran on Monday,

“These people are not seeking a revolution,” said Ali Reza, a young actor in a brown T-shirt who stood for a moment watching on the rally’s sidelines. “We don’t want this regime to fall. We want our votes to be counted, because we want reforms, we want kindness, we want friendship with the world.”

How is it that people could both want change, and reelect Ahmadinejad?  The first article I mentioned, The Iranian People Speak, explains it this way:

Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal — rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.

They want to be a part of the regular world community of nations, but remain fearful as to what they would have to give up in order to do so.  If they have re-elected this extreme representative of their nation, it seems to be in hopes of achieving a more favorable, but moderate, result than they feel a more mainstream representative would be able to accomplish. 

I’ve recently learned of a name for this phenomenon: the Overton Window.  Essentially, it says, “argue for something that is so extreme, that what you actually want appears much more reasonable by comparison.”  This, to me, is a really silly way of going about things, for its dishonesty. 

Whether or not this occurred in Iran, it certainly appears to be popular in the US.  What is so troubling about it is that even if it does achieve its aim of establishing a more moderate position, it also results in or provides justification to people who actually believe in the artificially extreme position – and who end up murdering people such as Dr. George Tiller, Stephen T. Jones, and Private William Long.  This is a dangerous tactic that will polarize people far more radically than we already are and make it much more difficult, maybe even impossible, for us all to come to rational solutions to our differences.  As these three recent killings show, it endangers ordinary people who are just going about their jobs, and is therefore of concern to all of us.  It must be abandoned immediately, by all who influence public opinion: in governments and in all news and entertainment media.


The Washington Post blog Behind the Numbers has posted a counterargument to The Iranian People Speak:

Methodologically, this survey passes muster as it’s relatively straightforward to pull a good sample of the Iranian population, using the country’s publicly available population counts and listed telephone exchanges. But the poll was conducted from May 11 to 20, well before the spike in support for Mousavi his supporters claim.

(See here for a summary of available Iran polls that finds some evidence for Mousavi momentum late in the campaign.)

More to the point, however, the poll that appears in today’s op-ed shows a 2 to 1 lead in the thinnest sense: 34 percent of those polled said they’d vote for Ahmadinejad, 14 percent for Mousavi. That leaves 52 percent unaccounted for. In all, 27 percent expressed no opinion in the election, and another 15 percent refused to answer the question at all. Six Eight percent said they’d vote for none of the listed candidates; the rest for minor candidates.

One should be enormously wary of the current value of a poll taken so far before such a heated contest, particularly one where more than half of voters did not express an opinion.

Another rebuttal can be found here.  A comment to this one said:

I am an Iranian and I think the results were accurate at the time but it has missed some critical facts which led to the wrong conclusion.
the poll has not any information from may 20th until the election date ( july 12th). this 22 day period is extermly important.

here are a few facts:
1- For the first time ,only 3 months befor election date, Mossavi’s name appeared as a potential candidate .Mossavi was totally absent during the last 20 years. No picture, no idea presentation in T.V. or any other media. Only old enogugh people could recall him and those mostly remembered him as a fanatic person with socialistic views. 3 months ago almost nobody viewed him as a serious and powerful opponent to Ahmadinejad.

2- Offical election campaigning started on May 20th, interestingly enough the same date this poll finished gathering information.

3-On May 22th for the first time Mossavi appeared in T.V (after 20 years).

4- July 3rd (9 days before the election date) was a turning point. It is the date Mossavi and Ahmadinejad had a debate in national T.V. The majority found him more tolerable than Ahmadinejad and weighed Mossavi as the only candidate who could prevent Ahmadinejad from re-election.

Posted by: persian2500 | Jun 16, 2009 3:22:50 AM

(“July” clearly is meant to be “June” there.)

It seems that either Ahmadinejad was actually elected (which certainly seems dubious) even though the people don’t care for his extremism, or he was actually not elected – because the people don’t care for his extremism.  Either way, he does not truly represent them.


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