Hassan Rowhani’s surprise win on Friday in the first round of the presidential elections in Iran is further evidence of the limitations of voting forecasts. This is certainly true when it comes to trying to predict the behavior of a large group of people; even more so when this group of people lives in a country that has a rare blend of systematic oppression by the regime alongside elections that are conducted with a certain degree of freedom to vote.
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Before the Arab Spring, the election results in Syria and Egypt were very easy to predict, and the only question that accompanied the elections was whether the ruling powers would set the level of support for the president at 98 or 99 percent. Iran was always more complex: in 2005, then-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised the experts when he made it to the second round of voting and went on to win. In 2009 he beat his reformist rivals, thanks to what seems to be massive vote-rigging on the part of the regime. But the most astonishing surprise came at the end of last week with Rowhani’s win – which did away with the need for a second round: he won just over 50 percent of the vote in contrast to the leading conservative candidate, Mohammed Qalibaf, who got 16 percent.
The outline the intelligence community (Military Intelligence and the Mossad) provided to the political leadership in Israel over the past few weeks didn’t even have a hint of this overwhelming defeat – and we can quite confidently say that the predictions of the intelligence services in other Western countries weren’t any more accurate. Members of the intelligence services spoke of the chances of a close race and of the improvement in Rowhani’s standing in the run-up to elections; the Israeli politicians – some of whom repeated this assertion after the election – said that there was no real difference between Rowhani and his competitors, since they all hate us in equal measure. It was actually the Israeli media (especially Ehud Yaari on Channel 2) which took a risk this time and gambled on the moderate candidate.
The discussion over just how moderate Rowhani is is still open. On Sunday, the United States received him with cautious optimism; Israel is putting on a sour face. The winner of the Iranian election isn’t exactly a reformist, even if he received the last-minute backing of the moderate camp after their candidates were disqualified. There might even be something in the hypothesis that under the circumstances of the election night – given the Iranian public’s anger at the economic situation, the regime preferred the election of a relatively moderate candidate that would calm the domestic political anger and the external economic pressure (and therefore left seven conservative candidates in the running, who offset each other and diverted more than half of the votes to Rowhani).
Still, one can’t ignore the fact that most of the experts – in the media, academia and most importantly, in the intelligence services (where infinitely large sums are invested) – didn’t predict it in the slightest. Iran is not the US, and no one could have hoped that a statistician like Nate Silver, who accurately predicted the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012, would suddenly appear there. But if such a surprise occurred in the Israeli elections, pollster Dr. Mina Zemach would have to declare professional harakiri before the nation.
This isn’t the first time the intelligence services have got this sort of thing wrong. They were surprised by Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections at the start of 2006, and didn’t predict that the Arab Spring would break out at the end of 2010 (although they did recognize general trends that preceded it in previous years). The head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, had an unpleasant experience at the start of his tenure – during a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he predicted that Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt would remain stable, just two weeks before the Egyptian revolution was complete. It is possible that this embarrassment encouraged MI – under Kochavi – to deepen its involvement in operational intelligence, somewhat at the expense of strategic forecasting.
The intelligence services are a convenient target for below the belt blows, especially for politicians (then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ attack on MI for not recognizing the Oslo process comes to mind). But nevertheless, it seems that the results in Iran can be seen as a reminder of their limitations. It’s easier – and still, not completely easy – to count underground centrifuges than it is to predict mass voting patterns. In the future, when the Israeli leadership may be required to decide whether to attack Iranian nuclear sites – and to take the likely consequences of such an attack into account – the cabinet ministers would do well to remember June 2013, when it became clear just how complicated it is to predict the way things will turn out.