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.

Tehran Bureau

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.