The propaganda campaign to paint the victory of the incumbent candidate in Iran’s June presidential election as having been a stolen one began early. Even before the election, the seed was being planted that the election would be stolen to give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a win. This narrative played nicely into the hands of the reformist opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who cried foul following the favorable results for the incumbent. But what evidence is there to support this narrative?
In one prominent example, on June 7, five days before Iran’s presidential election, the website Tehran Bureau reported:
In an open letter, a group of employees of Iran’s Interior Ministry (which supervises the elections) warned the nation that a hard-line ayatollah, who supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has issued a Fatwa authorizing changing votes in the incumbent’s favor.
According to Tehran Bureau, the letter stated:
After several polls taken by the government in May that indicated a rapid loss of support for the President, an ayatollah, who used to speak about political philosophy in Tehran’s public Friday prayers, held a confidential meeting with the elections’ supervisors. Quoting the Bagharah Soureh, verse 249, of the holy Quran, to justify vote fraud, he stated that,
“If someone is elected the president and hurts the Islamic values that have been spread [by Mr. Ahmadinejad] to Lebanon, Palestine, Venezuela, and other places, it is against Islam to vote for that person. We should not vote for that person, and also warn people about that person. It is your religious duty as the supervisors of the elections to do so.”
According to Tehran Bureau’s translation, the letter said,
“After the meeting the elections supervisors, who had become happy and energetic for having obtained the religious fatwa to use any trick for changing the votes, began immediately to develop plans for it.”
Tehran Bureau adds that despite this alleged plot,
The letter ends by saying that a huge turnout by the people will nullify these unlawful attempts to rig the elections, and will save the nation from another four years of Mr. Ahmadinejad governance.
No author attribution is given for this article at Tehran Bureau. The site provided the text of the letter in Persian. But they offer nothing in the way of verification of its authenticity, and the letter itself is preceded by a brief introductory note. Similarly, no author for this introduction is given.
Did someone at Tehran Bureau write the introduction in Farsi? Or did they merely pass along the introductory note along with the text of the letter from another source? Why is the author’s name not given? Why is no source given? They offer not even the slightest hint of how they came by this letter. They say this is an “open letter”, so what, then, would be the problem with naming the source? Did these employees of the Interior Ministry who allegedly wrote the letter post it on a website somewhere? Did they publish it in a newspaper? Did they e-mail it directly to Tehran Bureau? Or did it perhaps originate from an opposition group, such as, perhaps, the campaign office of Mir Hossein Mousavi?
What’s more, if an ayatollah issued a “fatwa”, an opinion on matters relating to Islamic law, ordering the election to be rigged to result in a win for Ahmadinejad, why haven’t we heard about this elsewhere? While the claim has been widely circulated in alternative media and on blogs, the mainstream media has been silent on this one.
So who issued this “fatwa”? The letter as presented by Tehran Bureau simply says that it was “an ayatollah, who used to speak about political philosophy in Tehran’s public Friday prayers”. Tehran Bureau inserts its own speculation as to who this “ayatollah” is:
The reference to the “political philosophy preaching” person is clearly pointing to Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who used to do the preaching in Tehran’s Friday prayers. He is a reactionary cleric and the spiritual leader of the President and the hard-liners in the Basij militia and the armed forces.
From this report, the claim that Ayatollah Yazdi issued a fatwa commanding that the election be rigged to give Ahmadinejad a win would be circulated around the internet, asserted as fact, despite the total lack of verification or corroboration.
Who is Tehran Bureau? Originally, it was a blog hosted by Blogspot.com. Tehran Bureau was announced in a press release on February 26 – little more four months prior to the election. The press release stated:
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad, M.S. ’05, M.A. ’06, has launched Tehran Bureau, an online news magazine. The blog-style site aims to separate fact from misinformation about Iran by having specialized, bilingual journalists from around the world report on the country.
There’s a little more about others involved:
At present, Niknejad divides her time between New York City and Boston. Fariba Pajooh is the chief correspondent in Tehran, while Jason Rezaian will cover the Iranian presidential campaign from the capital city. Leila Darabi ‘06 will contribute reporting from New York City. Other reporters are based in Isfahan in Iran, Dubai, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Florence and Berlin. Thor Neureiter will develop video for the Web site. Most of Tehran Bureau’s staff is bilingual.
And a little more about Niknejad:
Niknejad, who was born in Iran and lived there until age 17, is a lawyer-turned-journalist. As an M.S. student at the Journalism School, she specialized in newspaper reporting. The following year, Niknejad earned an M.A. in journalism with a focus on politics.
She has reported for the Los Angeles Times, TIME Magazine, California Lawyer and PBS/Frontline. Most recently, she was a staff reporter for the new English-language newspaper The National in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Niknejad is a syndicated columnist with Agence Global and a freelance producer and consultant on Iran to ABC News.
The press release concludes with this interesting statement (emphasis added):
A recurrent theme in Tehran Bureau’s coverage this year will be revolution and exile.
The blog still exists in part. But the only content remaining there is the text of the “fatwa” letter.
Curiously, the domain TehranBureau.com is owned not by Niknejad, but by Jason Rezaian. Even more curiously, that domain name was created on June 12, 2008 – exactly one year to the day before Iran’s presidential election, and months before Niknejad says she set up Tehran Bureau in 2008, which was several months before she actually announced the launch of Tehran Bureau on Blogspot, which was prior to its actual move to TehranBureau.com.
And yet, despite having had the name registered for a year before the election, there’s no indication the domain was actually in use before Niknejad’s Tehran Bureau came along. The site is new enough that it doesn’t show up in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and Alexa shows little to no traffic to that domain until April, with a sharp spike in June as a result of their coverage of the election.
“Not an opposition news organization”
Tehran Bureau’s About page states:
Tehran Bureau is an independent news organization. It is not affiliated with or funded by any government, religious organization, political party, lobby or interest group.
Yet it’s reporting has been most favorable to Mousavi. A prominent theme is that the election was stolen; a theme of which the alleged “fatwa” letter is but one example.
Either in spite or because of this, Niknejad and Tehran Bureau have gotten some prominent and positive media attention.
In a June 17 op-ed in the Guardian entitled “Diaspora Iranians spreading the message”, David Mattin speaks of “the ‘green wave’ that was sweeping” Iran, which, the author and his friends “thought” would “install Mir Hossein Mousavi as president”. He adds towards the end:
For diaspora Iranians, then, the answer may lie in projects such as the brilliant Tehran Bureau, a news website that connects journalists, bloggers and photographers in Iran with those in the diaspora, set up by American-Iranian journalist Kelly Golnoush Niknejad.
So Tehran Bureau is considered an “answer” for Iranians who support Mousavi and the “green” revolution, the color Mousavi chose to represent his reformist party for the campaign.
The Associated Press called Tehran bureau “a must-read for many who closely followed the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
NPR called Tehran Bureau “one of the most reliable sources for news” on Iran while “the government of Iran cracks down on journalists there”. Noting the site’s success, NPR notes, “Tehran Bureau gets quoted now in the New York Times and has become well-known and respected.”
In an interview with NPR, Niknejad explained that she “just started posting” information “as fast as I could.” “The information was raw,” she said, and she “didn’t have time to sculpt it into stories”, so she would “just copy and paste to put out information.”
This method of copying and pasting information was similarly used by prominent commentators Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic’s “Daily Dish” and Nico Pitney of the Huffington Post, both of whom were live-blogging events following the election and both of whom relied heavily on anonymous or unknown sources, such as Twitter users. The overriding theme of both Sullivan’s and Pitney’s blogs was the fraudulent nature of the election and the brutal response by the government attempting to silence those protesting the vote. Their respective blogs became rumor mills, flooded with completely unverifiable information, but always favorable to Mousavi and his supporters.
NPR notes that “Niknejad also knows her site is big enough now to be noticed by the Iranian government. She publishes most reports without bylines.” As noted previously, the piece on the “open letter” was published without author attribution. So here, despite being characterized as “one of the most reliable sources for news” by the mainstream media, we have an acknowledgment that Tehran Bureau would simply “copy and paste” information about events in Iran without attribution or sourcing.
A June 20 piece in the Boston Globe called Tehran Bureau “a go-to source” for news on Iran. It notes that the site is “edited from Niknejad’s parents’ living room in Newton”, a Boston suburb, and quotes Niknejad saying, “Everybody thinks this is some kind of extensive bureau, but it’s just me”.
But it’s not “just” Niknejad. As we’ve seen, the site is actually owned by someone else, who registered the domain months before Niknejad launched her blog, which then was only later moved to the domain owned by Jason Rezaian.
The Boston Globe article quotes Niknejad saying, “Tehran Bureau is not an opposition news organization.” The article explains:
The English-language site has generated a lot of attention over the past few weeks as tensions escalated over allegations of electoral fraud by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. When demonstrators were shot and communication with the West was curtailed in a government clampdown, Tehran Bureau’s stream of news alerts and Twitter feeds became a valued source of information cited by The New York Times and other Western news organizations.
The Globe offers some further information about Niknejad:
Niknejad’s family emigrated from Iran to San Diego when she was 17, after living through the Iranian Revolution and the first stage of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. She went on to study law, and then got two master’s degrees from the Columbia Journalism School. Her parents moved to the Boston area seven years ago. She has not returned to Iran since she left in 1984, but she found herself pulled constantly toward her native land, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. This past September, she returned to Boston from nearly a year of reporting for an English-language newspaper in Dubai – a major Persian Gulf listening post for events in Iran – and resolved to launch a blog.
The “listening post” of Dubai
Dubai certainly is a “major Persian Gulf listening post for events in Iran”. The State Department called Dubai a “natural location” for a regional office due to its “proximity to Iran and access to an Iranian diaspora.”
That was in a State Department cable discussing the creation of the Office of Iranian Affairs (OIA) under the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The OIA sought to “reach out to the Iranian people” and recruit more Iran experts and Persian-speaking officers into the Foreign Service, the Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR), and other branches of the State Department.
According to the cable, the Dubai office of the OIA would be modeled on the listening station in the Latvian capital of Riga to gather information on the Soviet Union during the 1920s.
The Iranian media has called the OIA the “regime-change office”. A State Department official based in Dubai denied that, saying “It is not some recruiting office and is not organizing the next revolution in Iran.”
As British writer Claud Cockburn famously said, “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”
The leaked State Department cable said that the Deputy Director of the Dubai station would be responsible for seeking “ways to use USG programs and funding to support Iranian political and civic organizations” and “to alert Washington on [the] need to issue statements on behalf of Iranian dissidents.”
And a State Department senior official told CNN that the purpose of the OIA was “to facilitate a change in Iranian policies and actions”.
The OIA was established in 2006 under funding from Congress allocated “to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government,” in the words of the Guardian. The Christian Science Monitor reported candidly that the “implicit goal” of the funding was “regime change from within”.
The Obama administration has continued support for Iranian dissident groups through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been soliciting applications for $20 million in grants to “promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Iran” even while President Obama insists that the U.S. “is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs”.
In a report on the funding, USA Today observed that “The State Department and USAID decline to name Iran-related grant recipients for security reasons.” In other words, the Obama administration doesn’t want the strings attached to Iranian dissident groups to be seen, a policy much more in line of critics of the Bush administration’s overt financing for the promotion of regime change.
It’s reasonable to assume that the UAE remains a central hub for U.S. efforts to further the U.S. policy of regime change, enshrined in law under the guise of the Iran Freedom Support Act, which authorizes the President “to provide financial and political assistance (including the award of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities working for the purpose of supporting and promoting democracy for Iran.”
In another example, the State Department subcontracted an initiative to develop a news website to provide information to Iranians through new media and to recruit Iranian journalists to contribute to the effort to “promote democracy”, the usual euphemism.
Obama’s “hands-off” approach has been looked upon much more favorably than Bush’s overt support for Iranian groups seeking regime change by the leadership of opposition groups themselves. Niknejad has herself been a critic of the Bush administration’s overt strategy for regime change.
Niknejad has written elsewhere that she was “the diplomatic affairs correspondent for a new English-language newspaper” in the capital of the UAE.
In what has been called a cold war between Iran and the United States, the UAE has emerged as a Vienna of sorts – a place where America’s Iran-watchers can mingle with thousands of Iranians. One hub for this is the expanded Iran Desk at the U.S. consulate in Dubai, the more cosmopolitan UAE city-state up the coast from the capital. If Iranians are suspicious of journalists, it’s partly because our reporting jobs can seem like the perfect cover to gather intelligence.
As they often are. She criticized the Congressional funding for the OIA, however, saying:
Things got worse the following year, when the Bush administration asked Congress for tens of millions of dollars to secretly fund NGOs and activists to destabilize the Iranian government. It stoked government paranoia and became an effective tool in the hands of officials who have used it to stifle dissent and spread fear.
The objection, in this widely shared criticism of the Bush administration, generally isn’t that the U.S. is engaging in such activities, just that by doing so in such a blatant and open manner it actually undermined the efforts of Iranian dissident and opposition groups struggling to accomplish a change of government in Iran. In other words, the U.S. shouldn’t be perceived as interfering in Iranian affairs. The implied corollary is that if the U.S. is going to interfere, it should do so in a manner that allows it a measure of plausible deniability – something the U.S. didn’t have under Bush.
Niknejad offered a little more information on the English-language newspaper she was writing for:
At that time, the circumstances in the UAE were stacked against me. The paper I was writing for had no name and was still months away from being published. As we started dry runs, I wrote stories on deadline for a paper with no name that no one outside the newsroom saw.
As noted in the press release announcing the launch of Tehran Bureau, the paper she was referring to is The National out of Abu Dhabi, owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC). According to the ADMC website:
Abu Dhabi Media Company is a vertically integrated media company created in 2007 as a public joint stock company from the assets of Emirates Media Incorporated…. The company is headquartered in Abu Dhabi with offices in Cairo, Dubai and Washington D.C.
Emirates Media Incorporated (EMI) was established in 1999 by the government of the UAE under the Ministry of Information and Culture. Financing for EMI includes funding includes grants. The Minister of Information Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayid described it by saying, “the Government has relinquished formal control over the country’s largest media group. Emirates Media Incorporated now enjoys editorial and administrative independence. It remains somewhat dependent, however, on government funding, while ownership is still officially vested in the government.”
In 2006, EMI worked with the BBC World Service to set up Radio Al Mirbad to broadcast information covering southern Iraq while it was still occupied by the British military. The BBC’s Persian service, of course, has been accused by Iran of fomenting unrest such as by encouraging protests to dispute the election results.
“We stand with them and support them”
On one hand, Niknejad says Tehran Bureau is “not an opposition news organization”. On the other hand, a principle source for her reporting on events in Iran is a member of the Mousavi election campaign, a fact she revealed during an event coordinated to teach people how to show “solidarity” with pro-Mousavi Iranians.
Niknejad is a member of The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA). On June 23, AMEJA held a teach-in to discuss the ongoing events in Iran following the election. The teach-in was webcast on the Voices from Iran website, which was created the day prior to the event and which has little content other than an embedded video of webcast, hosted on USTREAM.
During the event, the terms “pro-Mousavi” and “pro-democracy” were curiously used synonymously, despite an admission at the beginning that calling Mousavi’s campaign “pro-democracy” was perhaps “wishful thinking”.
The first speaker at the event was Arang Keshavarzian, Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He spoke on how the protests that erupted following the election were “not spontaneous”, but rather organized by the young volunteers who gravitated to Mousavi’s campaign and had learned how to organize and distribute information prior to the election. Various organizations were also involved, such as women’s organizations, journalist organizations, youth organizations, and others. The protests, he said, were an “outgrowth” of the campaigning in early June.
One prominent organization campaigning for women’s rights in Iran is the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) in Washington D.C., a recipient of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn is mandated financing under U.S. law from the Congress, despite its pretense of being a “non-governmental organization”.
Another group that has received substantial funding from NED is the National Iranian American Council, which has been granted money in part to carry out a “media training workshop” to train participants in public relations and otherwise support groups both within and outside Iran.
Interestingly, Keshavarzian also listed “election irregularities” included in the “fatwa”, including the charge that mobile polling stations the printing of a large number of extra ballots were suspicious activities. He also stated that Mousavi’s campaign headquarters had been attacked, and that all these things were evidence of fraud. Every one of these claims can be traced to Tehran Bureau.
Even more interestingly, he said that the Mousavi campaign had showed great foresight in their pre-election efforts. “Their narrative that they constructed prior to the election fit in nicely into the events after the election”, he said. Presumably, this includes the narrative that the election would be stolen that he had just outlined from information that had appeared before the election took place, such as the “fatwa” letter.
As Paul Craig Roberts has observed, “Mousavi declared his victory several hours before the polls closed. This is classic CIA destabilization designed to discredit a contrary outcome. It forces an early declaration of the vote.”
When Iran declared the results of the election early, the charge was made that “the outcome was declared too soon after the polls closed for all the votes to have been counted”.
Another speaker, journalist Kouross Esmaeli, also a member of AMEJA, addressed the question of how to show “solidarity” with Mousavi’s supporters protesting in the streets. “We stand with them and support them,” he said. But he also urged caution against the perception of U.S. interference and said that any connection of the protests with U.S. “imperialism” would taint them and serve only to undermine them.
Perhaps the most interesting comments, though, came from Niknejad. She explained more about her reporting of events in Iran and her sources from which she would “copy and paste” onto Tehran Bureau. She explained that she used Facebook and other social networking sites for information, until the Iranian government shut such websites down. Then “it was very difficult for us”, she said, to get information.
But she did mention one source that was able to continue to provide information. “I was connected to someone that I know very well”, she explained, “and that I trust very much, who works – who happens to work – at the Mousavi campaign. So we were getting, you know, almost like minute by minute updates on what was going on there.”
Among the information received from the source at the Mousavi campaign was that the campaign headquarters was “stormed by militia” (evidence of election funny-business, remember, from the previous speaker), of which Niknejad emphasized, “I knew it was coming from a very credible source”.
Niknejad also explained how, based on the information this source who “happens” to work for the Mousavi campaign (purely a coincidence), it looked like “Mousavi was winning” early on. This just “happens” to fit perfectly with the “narrative” constructed by the Mousavi campaign early on to be used following the election in order to try to discredit the election and to call for its result to be nullified (surely another strange coincidence).
Niknejad also rightly observed how the information Tehran Bureau would “copy and paste” from sources such as someone working for Mousavi’s campaign was picked up off of Twitter and posted on other blogs, making “Tehran Bureau a source of information” about the election and subsequent events.
Niknejad also claimed that Tehran Bureau was “hacked”, the implication being that it was targeted by the Iranian regime. She explained that when she tried to log on and do other things with the site, it became very slow.
There’s a much simpler explanation for this, which is the enormous increase in bandwidth the new site was faced with (visible in a dramatic spike on Alexa) very suddenly at the time of the election. This alternative explanation would also fit with what she said next, that they had a company called MidPhase that put the website back up. In other words, Tehran Bureau changed hosting plans – no doubt to a plan on a new server that included more bandwidth allocation.
But the claim that the website was “hacked” by the Iranian government fits in much more nicely with the constructed “narrative”.
Another interesting point was made during the question and answer session. One of the panelists warned, without so much as a hint of recognition of the irony, to be wary because there is a lot of “misinformation” coming out on Facebook and Twitter – from the Iranian regime. We have to find sources that we trust, therefore, the panelist continued, like Tehran Bureau, which gets its information from trusted sources like members of Mousavi’s election campaign. Again, there was no indication whatsoever that the speaker was aware of the irony.
The differentiating variable becomes clear: information sympathetic towards the Iranian regime is deemed not credible while information sympathetic towards Mousavi and his reformist supporters is considered trusted. This is simply a matter of faith.
The ‘Fatwa’ letter and ‘talk of a ‘green revolution’
The Guardian on June 8, a day after Tehran Bureau had posted the “open letter” claim, reported another useful part of the “narrative” constructed prior to the election:
Experts agree the higher the turnout the greater the chance that Mousavi will unseat Ahmadinejad, possibly in a second round run-off. Iran’s interior ministry said it was hoping for a record turnout among the country’s 46 million voters.
So if it turns out there is a high turnout and Ahmadinejad wins, it must therefore be a dubious result, if we trust the unknown “Experts”. This part of the “narrative” is eerily similar to the assertion in the “fatwa” letter itself that a high turnout could serve to counteract the regime’s alleged attempts to fix the election. And the Guardian report refers to that letter in the very next sentence:
But there was no response to a report that ministry employees were instructed to rig the election results on the basis of a fatwa – religious edict – from a pro-Ahmadinejad ayatollah.
Tehran Bureau is the named source of this “report”.
On June 9, still three days before the election, the website Rooz ran an article on the “fatwa” entitled “Mesbah Yazdi’s Decree to Rig Votes”. The website is published by a self-described “reformist journalist” as a part of the Iran Gooya media group.
Rooz has prominent ad links to WashingtonTV, a “Washington, D.C.-based news site” offered in both English and Persian. Curiously, that website was launched in early May, barely a month before the Iranian presidential election. And that site’s “About” page interestingly states:
With the approach of Iran’s tenth presidential election, to be held on 12 June 2009, the site is also devoting a special section to daily updates of news and events on the election.
It also states that “WashingtonTV has writers and contributors in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, including contributions by citizen journalists from inside Iran.” The website is registered by Proxy, Inc. through GoDaddy.com, Inc. This is a means of protecting the privacy of the registrant.
Why would a legitimate news organization want to hide its organizational information? If you do a WHOIS lookup of the New York Times website, for example, you’ll see that it is registered to “New York Times Digital, 620 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10018, US”. There are administrative and technical contacts. The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, CBS News, etc., are all registered to their respective news corporations, with organization street addresses and contact phone numbers and e-mail address.
There is some contact information available on the WashingtonTV website. The phone numbers are all area code 202, Washington, D.C. In fact, they’re all the same number, 470-3030. The News Desk, Video Production Lab, Advertising Department, Editors, and more are all the same phone number, with only three different extensions between them.
There is also a mailing address given. However, it’s to a P.O. box with ZIP code 20043-4151. A lookup of ZIP code 20043 on the U.S. Postal Service website reveals that this ZIP code is a “Special Case”. What are special cases? They include cases where “The ZIP CodeTM is used for a specific company or organization.” It could also be a military ZIP Code: “Military – This is a military specific ZIP code for an APO/FPO (Air/Army Post Office or Fleet Post Office) or a domestic military installation.” Or it could be: “PO Box Only – This ZIP Code is for a specific PO Box.”
In other words, this ZIP Code doesn’t exist, except for by use by a single organization, the U.S. military, or a single P.O. Box – or a perfect cover, perhaps, for an intelligence black propaganda or PSYOPS operation.
Rooz is also registered through a proxy. While there are numerous proxy services available (many servers provide them), it happens to also be by Proxy, Inc. through GoDaddy.com.
As already noted, Rooz’s “About” page states, confusingly, that it is published by “an independent and reformist journalist”, but also states that the “Publisher” is “Iran Gooya media group, registered in France on January 21, 2005”.
Gooya is a website that has come up repeatedly in my investigations into numerous claims that have been made throughout the events that followed the election. The site’s homepage has prominent ads for BBC Persian, the Voice of America Persian News Network, and Radio Farda.
The VOA and Radio Farda are operated out of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and are prohibited from broadcasting into the U.S. because it would violate the Smith-Mundt Act, which forbids USIA (the Ministry of Propaganda, if we drop the Orwellian euphemism) from being used “to influence public opinion”.
Gooya is similarly registered through the same proxy as Rooz. Its news website similarly features ads for BBC Persian, the VOA Persian, and Radio Farda.
Returning to the alleged “fatwa” letter, Rooz reported:
Following the discovery of a “Fatwa” (”religious decree”) issued by ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi which sanctions cheating in Friday’s presidential election and was published in an open letter written by a group of Ministry of Interior employees, the heads of the Election Supervision Committees established by reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi sent a letter to the head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati, warning about the possibility of manipulating election results.
This article states that the alleged letter “has been signed by a number of Ministry of Interior employees”. Interestingly, the text of the letter at Tehran Bureau had no signatures. Rooz adds:
The letter does not reveal the identity of the seminary school professor, but describes the qualities of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s spiritual guide, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.
According to the translation of the letter, the “fatwa” supposedly issued by Yazdi stated:
If someone is elected president whereby Islamic principles that are currently on the rise in Lebanon, Palestine, Venezuela and other parts of the world, start diminishing, it is Haraam [forbidden by Islam] to vote for that person. We shouldn’t vote for that person and we should inform the people not to vote for him either, or else. For you, as administrators of the election, everything is permitted to this end.
The “fatwa” also appeared in an article in Newsmax by Kenneth Timmerman. Writing a day before the election, Timmerman followed the “narrative”:
As the wildest campaign of the past 30 years winds down, Iranians are worried that their votes won’t decide the result of the election Friday. Instead, they fear, the unelected officials at Iran’s Interior Ministry in charge of counting those votes will sway the outcome.
Timmerman provides some further insightful information about the “fatwa” letter:
Supporters of “reformist” candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, with the backing of the Persian Service of Voice of America, claim to have discovered a secret “fatwa” or religious ruling issued by a radical cleric close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They contend that it encourages bureaucrats at the Interior Ministry to do “whatever it takes” to get their man elected…. The “fatwa” was revealed in an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from a pro-Mousavi group of Interior Ministry officials, who asked him to intervene to keep the election fair.
Thus, if Timmerman is correct, the “open letter” was an example of a “copy and paste” job by Tehran Bureau of information propagated by the Mousavi campaign and the VOA.
Timmerman also reported that while there was a movement among opposition groups both in Iran and the U.S. (and elsewhere) to boycott the election, the VOA had “urged Iranians to go to the polls no matter what” in coverage slanted towards Mousavi:
Well-respected parties, including the Iran Nation’s Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, Marze Por Gohar (Glorious Frontiers), and others have called for a boycott. But in recent weeks, editors and supervisors at the Voice of America’s Persian Service have banned them from the airwaves.
“It would be one thing if they just closed their eyes,” Roozbeh Farahanipour, a spokesman for Marze Por Gohar, told Newsmax. “But it’s as if the State Department and Voice of America had become campaign advisers to Mousavi.”
Some Iranians believe that has happened.
Saeed Behbehani, the owner of Mihan TV in suburban Washington, D.C., says he recently spoke with a well-known Iranian-American businessman who boasts of his ties to the State Department and who just returned from a trip to Dubai. The businessman said he met with Mousavi’s campaign manager, Mehdi Khazali.
“The day after they met, VOA put Khazali on the air,” Behbehani said.
Some of the VOA broadcasters themselves are upset at how slanted the U.S.-taxpayer funded network has become.
Timmerman also had this prescient comment (again, recall this was one day prior to the election):
And then, there’s the talk of a “green revolution” in Tehran, named for the omnipresent green scarves and banners that fill the air at Mousavi campaign events.
The “green revolution” as it has since come to be called, refers to protestors who support Mousavi and charge that Ahmadinejad’s win was the result of electoral fraud. Why would there be talk of a “green revolution” before the election results were announced? Unless, of course, it was all part of the “narrative”, planned beforehand to lead to the protests – which were “not spontaneous”, we may recall – in an effort to destabilize the Iranian regime.
Timmerman continues with a perhaps even more extraordinary acknowledgment about the role of the NED (emphasis added):
The National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars during the past decade promoting “color” revolutions in places such as Ukraine and Serbia, training political workers in modern communications and organizational techniques.
Some of that money appears to have made it into the hands of pro-Mousavi groups, who have ties to non-governmental organizations outside Iran that the National Endowment for Democracy funds.
And Kenneth Timmerman, as Daniel McAdams has pointed out, is perhaps in as good a position as anyone to know. He’s the President and CEO of The Foundation for Democracy, “established in 1995 with grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to promote democracy and internationally-recognized standards of human rights in Iran.” He’s also the author of the book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.
The claim of the “fatwa” was picked up by Jeremy J. Stone and repeated in the Huffington Post in a piece entitled “How the Iranian Election Was Stolen”. Stone touts the report from Tehran Bureau as evidence for his assertion that the election was stolen:
According to an open letter of early June by a group of employees who work on elections in the Interior Ministry — after May polls showed that Ahmadinejad would lose the election – [Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah] Yazdi gave the Interior Ministry employees a Fatwa, a religious degree, authorizing the changing of votes.
Muhammad Sahimi likewise repeated the claim at Antiwar, stating matter-of-factly that the results of the election had been “rigged” and describing it as an “election coup”. The men behind this “coup” have as their “spiritual leader” Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the person who allegedly issued the “fatwa” for the elections to be rigged. Sahimi states without qualification (and without a source) that:
Two weeks before the elections Mesbah issued a secret fatwa – which was leaked by some in the Interior Ministry – authorizing the use of any means to reelect Ahmadinejad, hence giving the green light for rigging the elections.
This is the only piece of evidence in the entire article to support the assertion that the election was “rigged”.
“As loony and baseless as possible”
The Iranian regime, of course, has claimed that the U.S., Britain, and Israel are behind the claims of a fraudulent election. “Americans and Zionists sought to destabilize Iran”, asserted Intelligence Minister Mohseni Ejei, rejecting allegations of vote rigging.
While remarks from Iranian government officials are certainly not evidence for it, it nevertheless certainly remains a perfectly plausible explanation, despite a strong tendency by commentators in the U.S. media, both mainstream and alternative, corporate news and blogs, not only to dismiss the possibility, but to portray the very suggestion as an absurdity.
Noted journalist Fareed Zakaria explained this phenomenon quite candidly. He begins with an acknowledgment:
And it is worth remembering that the United States still funds guerrilla outfits and opposition groups that are trying to topple the Islamic Republic. Most of these are tiny groups with no chance of success, funded largely to appease right-wing members of Congress. But the Tehran government is able to portray this as an ongoing anti-Iranian campaign.
Notice his use of the word “portray”. The Iranian regime “is able to portray” an ongoing anti-government campaign “as an ongoing anti-Iranian campaign.” Again, the issue isn’t what the facts are, but what the perceptions are. Zakaria then praises President Obama’s response to events in Iran, saying
In this context, President Obama has been right to tread cautiously — for the most part — to extend his moral support to Iranian protesters but not get politically involved.
Remember, it’s not that funding “guerilla outfits and opposition groups that are trying to topple the Islamic Republic” isn’t being “politically involved”. It’s simply that Obama has wisely, and not without success, created the perception of being politically detached. With this as his framework, Zakaria concludes:
Ahmadinejad is also a politician with considerable mass appeal. He knows that accusing the United States and Britain of interference works in some quarters. Our effort should be to make sure that those accusations seem as loony and baseless as possible. Were President Obama to get out in front, vociferously supporting the protests, he would be helping Ahmadinejad’s strategy, not America’s.
So, accusations that the U.S. is interfering in Iran are true. But acknowledging that would be strategically unwise. “Our effort” – and by “our” Zakaria presumably includes journalists like himself – should not be to report the truth (drawing the obvious corollary), but to work to discredit anyone who observes that the long arm of the U.S. has certainly not been withdrawn from Iranian affairs.
There is a vast amount of unverified or, in some cases, verifiably false information floating around, often originating from sources with a clear bias. Tehran Bureau’s use as a primary source someone who is a member of the Mousavi campaign is just one notable example. Information from such sources is then spread around the internet, sometimes with viral effect, without attribution or sourcing and with a completely uncritical eye. This is often on account of the commentator’s own bias, such as the assumption of the teach-in Niknejad participated in that we should express “solidarity” with the “pro-democracy” – that is to say, the “pro-Mousavi” – movement.
Our effort should not be to take sides in an election campaign in a foreign sovereign nation, but rather to make the best effort to be objective and, far from reporting only that information which suits our own personal political ideology, to discern from the available information in an effort to learn the truth.
Regrettably, numerous commentators on recent events in Iran obviously disagree, preferring instead the creed of Fareed Zakaria.
Jeremy R. Hammond is the editor and principle writer for Foreign Policy Journal, an online publication dedicated to providing news, critical analysis, and commentary on U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to the “war on terrorism” and events in the Middle East, from outside of the standard framework offered by government officials and the mainstream corporate media. He has also written for numerous other online publications. You can contact him here.