Opinion polls before the Iranian election gave Mir Hussein Moussavi a clear lead over incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, putting Ahmadinejad on the defensive and fueling speculation that Moussavi might win outright in the first round. But, when they conducted the election, Ahmadinejad won in the first round, by an astounding 30 points. Moussavi even lost in his own home town.
Iranian polling is hardly reliable. If Ahmedinejad had squeeked by, no one could have said for certain that the election was a fraud. So why give him such an implausible margin of victory?
In truth, this matters only as a signal. The Iranian president has only the power that is permitted him by the mullahs and the “supreme guide.” A reformer (if indeed Moussavi is one, which is hardly clear) as president could not have undermined the mullahs’ agenda in any meaningful way. I think the mullahs are sending a signal that they like the job Ahmadinejad is doing and they don’t care what their people or the world think.
UPDATE: Daniel Pipes makes the case that this is actually for the best:
While my heart goes out to the many Iranians who desperately want the vile Ahmadinejad out of power, my head tells me it’s best that he remain in office. When Mohammed Khatami was president, his sweet words lulled many people into complacency, even as the nuclear weapons program developed on his watch. If the patterns remain unchanged, better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep, even as thousands of centrifuges whir away.
(Via the Corner.)
UPDATE: Rich Lowry coins a useful phrase to describe what we’ve seen: the mullahs over-stole the election. Sounds about right.