Behind the Scenes of the 2009 Iranian Elections

More than a year has passed since millions of Iranians Marched on the streets calling the 2009 election a military coup carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG), their militia the Basij, and their armed plain-clothes hired-hands lebaseshakhsis. The goals of the coup: keeping Ahmadinejad in power and completing the military and economic control of the IRG in the country. After beating up, arresting and sometimes killing the protesters, the government put a record number of Iranian journalists behind bars (most now serving long sentences) and banned the foreign press from entering the country except to report on officially orchestrated occasions.

Subsequently, Mir Housein Mousavi, the main opponent of Ahmadinejad and many members of the reformist opposition – known as the Green Movement – were put effectively under house arrest curbing their ability to reach the public in Iran. Moving the scenes of its brutality from the streets to jails and interrogation rooms, the regime dropped out of headlines thereby reducing the pressure on the Iranian authorities to answer for their brutal treatment of the opposition.

In the meantime, using its full control over the media, the Iranian government began to promote an alternative account of the 2009 election, an account which has not been without impact on the western left. It goes like this: the Iranian upper and upper middle classes, fooled by the western supporters of the reformists, had assumed that they had majority while, in fact, in small towns and villages widespread support for Ahmadinejad gave him his 63% victory in the elections. Frustrated with their own miscalculations the defeated reformists resorted to street violence and therefore the government had no choice but to use harsher measures to calm things down. This scenario has many big holes including the fact that, even if Ahmadinejad had the support of the rural areas, the Iranian population is about 65% urban and in fact the large cities are more than able to give any candidate a victory. Furthermore, hundreds of video clips document the peacefulness of the early protest marches in large cities as well as small towns. They also document the unprovoked violence of the security forces against the marchers.

All of this has become relevant again since less than a month ago when an audio file of a speech by a chief intelligence officer and interrogator from the top ranks of the Revolutionary Guards came to light describing the behind-the-scenes of Ahmadinejad’s 1989 victory. The speech was leaked to the opposition websites and spread fast despite the heavy censorship imposed in Iran. Besides the fascinating details revealed in it, there are other things that make the document important including the fact that no one (not even the government) has disputed its authenticity. It is, in fact, very likely that the speech was leaked intentionally by the government itself. These facts lead to important questions. Who is the speaker? What does the tape reveal? What is the reformist opposition doing about it? And, why would the Iranian government leak a document that confirms its complicity in a fraudulent election– if indeed the leak has been intentional.

First a quick update on the current conditions in Iran. The country still has the highest number of jailed reporters in the world and only the official news and views are reported on the national media. Expressing political opposition in a blog can lead to five years in jail where the prisoners go on frequent hunger strikes to protest torture, unsanitary living conditions, and insult. Female prisoners will receive reduced sentences if they confess to illicit sexual relations with prominent members of the reform movement. Families of the prisoners who resist making confessions are threatened with more arrests. And despite Mr. Ahmadinejad’s claim quoted in the New Yorker’s recent piece “After the crackdown,” his critics are not free to speak their minds. A standard charge for jailed journalists is “insulting (read criticizing) the president.” To get a sense of the problem, imagine you are an Iranian blogger citing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s claim in his New Yorker interview in your blog asking “If it is ok to criticize our president, why are some journalists in jail for “insulting” him?”  You will likely receive a brief phone call from a security agent within days. He will tell you to introduce yourself to one of the intelligence headquarters (or even directly to the main office of Evin prison). If you are smart, you will do so immediately and quietly.

Side by side with these “security” measures, the National Iranian Radio and Television works to uphold its conspiratorial master narrative: the discovery of a “foreign” plot to end the supremacy of Islam in Iran. Those who would criticize the government are agents of this foreign “enemy.” One does not even need a blog to be considered a foreign agent. It is enough to mention an anti-government protest to a friend in an e-mail, or, worse still, attach a picture of the protest to the e-mail. Last week, in anticipation of the official Quds day celebration, the day the Iranian government reiterates its support for the Palestinians, the e-mail use was reduced to three hours a day.

The universities (particularly the schools of Humanities and Social Sciences) are perceived as infested with sympathy for the foreign enemy. In the past ten months, Ali Khamenei the supreme leader, Mesbah Yazdi a major cleric, and Sadeq Larijani the head of the Iranian judiciary, have all spoken about the unsuitability of the Humanities for Iranian universities. Mr. Larijani targeted sociology, psychology and the branch of philosophy that addresses human existential issues as the most unsuitable ones.

Against this sustained discourse of a foreign threat – versus the dutiful, legitimate, and honest efforts of the government to offset the treat – there is now the newly leaked audio-file of a speech in which, a major Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence officer / interrogator brags about saving the Supreme Leader’s glory via keeping Mr. Ahmadinejad in the presidential office. This has, according to him, been done single-handedly by members of the Revolutionary Guard through sensible planning and timely action: that is identifying the enemy (the reformists), and using all means (obstruction, violence, spying, threats, and arrests) to stop them from winning the election.

The Speaker

The speaker in the leaked audio file is Mr. Mas’ud Sadrulislam (known by the pseudonym Sardar Moshfeq and hence forth referred to as Moshfeq) – one of the two most powerful men in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Intelligence unit. The Iranian constitution is very clear on prohibiting Mr. Moshfeq (and his military colleagues) from interfering in politics. His speech, however, lists numerous ways in which he (and his Revolutionary Guard team) violated this constitutional principle to secure victory for Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. The Iranian constitution is not the only directive that Mr. Moshfeq has violated.

In the early years of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Revolution, ordered members of the Basij to choose between involvement in politics and membership in the Revolutionary Guard. Mr. Moshfeq chose to leave his party “The Participation Front” to devote himself totally to the Basij branch of the Guard. In other words, he is aware that the activities he describes in the speech violate the vision of the founder of the revolution in addition to the constitution of the country. He demonstrates no sympathy or respect for either or for the democratic process as a whole.

The general Tone of the Speech

The speaker describes himself as a “child of war.” His discussion of the election has a persistent military over tone and is replete with vocabulary such as “the enemy,” “the war headquarters,” “executing command,” “the unknown soldiers,” “the trenches,” “the final assault” and the like. When not used to refer to the West, the term “enemy” denotes the members of the reformist camp and their ideas of introducing a more pluralistic governing style. The speaker’s warlike ideas are couched in a casual (at times humorous) tone, a fact that makes the speech all the more eerie.  At one point in the presentation, as he refers to the post election casualties, a member of the audience shouts “how many did actually die?” He replies “twenty-nine or thirty. I can’t remember… let us move on” and resumes the topic he was addressing, namely the scope of the unrests which he describes as including the members of the Basij as well. The speech includes threats against the Basij themselves with comments such as “The reformists are not the only ones we are watching.” [On the number of the fatalities, 107 casualties of the post election unrests have already been identified].

Yet, Mr. Moshfeq mourns the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).  In fact, nostalgia for that war builds up in his voice as he notes a diminishing emotional dedication among the young members of the Basij as compared to the kind displayed in the days of the war. “Would that the enemy would attack us again,” he says at one point or “the enemy has moved the warfront to our hearts.”

The extent of the interference of the RG in the Election

Some of the general claims of the speaker, such as “everything was in our hands” or “the result was our work,” are hard to take for granted or evaluate in concrete terms. It is clear, however, that he and his team participated in tapping reformists’ phones, infiltrating their regular gatherings, collecting information on prominent reformist figures and passing it on to others in order to create conflict among them, disrupting the phone contact of 40,000 election officials supporting Mousavi, preparing indictment bills for reformist figures prior to the elections to facilitate their arrest immediately after the election, attacking selected reformist offices, and interrogation and extraction of confessions from reformists and their sympathizers. Mr. Moshfeq refers to this latter activity with a degree of personal gratification in phrases such as “we have them in our jails,” “I interrogated him myself,” and the like.

Accusations against the Reformists

The most serious accusation against the Reformists, according to the speaker, is their systematic and carefully planned efforts to return to power! As far as Mr. Moshfeq is concerned, had the return to power happened, it would have meant a serious curbing of the authority of the supreme leader and other major moves toward redefining the current hierarchy of decision making.

With the exception of Mehdi Hashemi, son of the influential cleric and two terms president Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the speaker refers to as “a corrupt lumpen,” the rest of the reformists are described in vaguer terms such as “indecisive,” “suspect,” “connected with foreign services,” and “dangerous.” Some of what he presents as criticism is in fact high praise for the reformist politicians. Mousavi, for example, he claims, has been holding regular study circles with academics and artists for the past ten years, and ex-president Khatami’s Baran Foundation has brought together academics and politicians at least for the past four years. Organizing a Monday breakfast meeting for political exchange is attributed to Mehdi Hashemi as well. This latter is particularly hated for importing mobile phones and setting up independent communication headquarters for Mousavi’s young supporters. These rooms which are described as “Hashemi’s hostile command centers” are particularly unpopular with the speaker.

When did Francis Fukuyama Say that?

Accepting the veracity of the stories that the speaker shares with his fellow Basiji audience depends on their good will. He does come across as informed, confident, and familiar with the political scene, to be sure.  Nonetheless, he has no sources other than unnamed individuals spaying on reformists and confessions extracted from prisoners during interrogation. To add a bit of drama, he has a brief clip of the televised confession made by Mr. Abtahi, a minister of culture in the reformist government of President Khatami. Abtahi who was arrested days after the election confessed that the talk of rigging the election had been around in the reformist circles long before the election itself (which the government presented as evidence of the falsity of the claim). The audience – probably sick of having seen Abtahi’s confession on the national television many times – asks the speaker for a clip of the street unrests instead. “No, no, that would be a waste of your time,” exclaims Mr. Moshfeq.

There is one traceable source our speaker quotes: the celebrated Johns Hopkins political scientists Francis Fukuyama.  Mr. Moshfeq quotes Fukuyama as having described velayate faqih “guardianship of the jurist” – in a conference in Jerusalem – as the Shiite’s unique source of strength.  That he needs to establish his authority on the uniqueness of Shiism by quoting Fukuyama is itself interesting. However, this traceable quote used recently by a number of Iranian politicians turns out to be unfounded.  Jaras (the official site of the Green movement in the U.S.) asked Professor Fukuyama about the quote. He did not “remember participating in such a discussion or making such a statement.” To help him remember, the reporter translates the full phrase: “…Shiism is a bird that flies beyond the reach of our arrows. a bird that has two wings: a red wing and a green one. The green wing is the belief in the last Imam who will come and the red wing is martyrdom which originated from Karbala. These wings make Shiism immortal. Fukuyama believes that Shiism has a 3rd aspect which is more important. He says: this bird has a shield. This shield is acceptance of jurist’s guardianship.” An astonished Fukuyama responded “Thank you for this clarification. I never said anything remotely like the quotation you translated, so I’m not sure where they are getting this.” Of course, the member of the Basij would be able to know the fictional nature of this story only if they can break the government’s filter on Jaras news site and visit:

Reformists Reaction

Soon after the release / leak of the tape last week, seven major reformist  figures (Aminzadeh, Tajzadeh, Ramezanzadeh, Arabsorkhi, Mirdamadi, Safa’i-farahani, and Nabavi) all known from the early years of the revolution, and high ranking politicians in President Khatami’s government, filed an official complaint. These  politicians / intellectuals who are either in jail, or temporarily released on bail, in their letter appealed to the Head of the Iranian Judiciary and of the Armed Forces Judiciary to investigate the illegal activities committed by the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence unit described in Mr. Moshfeq’s speech preserved on the leaked audio file. Predictably, the only action taken by the judiciary so far has been asking Safa’i-Farahani one of signatories of the complaint, recently released from jail, to report back to Evin Prison (which he did, accompanied by relatives, friends, and supporters who walked him to the Evin’s doors). Still the formal legal action is an important step.

The most important outcome of the legal action is to transform a rather insignificant speech designed to carry government propaganda into an important historical document. The speech – filled with incriminating details revealed with brashness – documents the unlawful activities of the Revolutionary Guard – an organ which has overstepped its constitutional boundaries by leaps and bounds. It also documents the complicity, or at least lack of opposition to these actions, on the part of the Supreme Leader. Historical precedent shows that such documents acquire tremendous symbolic significance as soon as a small historical opportunity for change presents itself.

Second, the complaint is hoped to reach the young men inside the IRG itself. There is no doubt about the presence, among the young IRG members, of many who are not comfortable with the role that their organization has played (and continues to play) in the breach of the country’s constitution and brutalizing the civilians.

Why would the Leak be intentional?

At the same time, there is general support for the view that the leak is likely to be intentional and carried out by the Revolutionary Guards themselves. The thought has certainly occurred to the seven incarcerated reformist politicians who know their legal action will make their lives in captivity harsher. They are unlikely to expect Mr. Sadeq Larijani, the current head of the Iranian Judiciary, to support them or take the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards to task for obstructing the democratic process.

Why would then the IRG leak a talk that, should the Iranian constitution ever be honored, incriminates them beyond doubt. Clearly, there is information in the tape that they consider important for the public to hear, and hear indirectly? In my opinion, it is any number of the following points or a combination there of.

The leak could be a step in the process of preparing the public for a likely transition from the Islamic Republic of Iran to an Islamic Government of Iran which draws its legitimacy solely from the Supreme Leader’s approval rather than a combination of that and the public’s vote.  Leaking news and creating rumors has long been a strategy for testing the civic tolerance for new draconian measures in the Islamic Republic.

It could be an attempt at strengthening the myth of all encompassing power of the IRG by intimidating the public. Secret police forces draw a significant portion of their control from self-censorship which they encourage by maintaining an elevated level of fear and tension among the public. In this tape, Mr. Moshfeq comes across as informed, in control, and prepared to be brutal if necessary.

Finally, the leak of the tape, weather by the IRG intelligence or unhappy elements among them, makes another point clear. The battle of Ahmadinejad’s government for establishing its legitimacy is not over – not even among the members of the Guard.  The intelligence chiefs therefore deem it necessary to convince their own members that they are in control of the situation – better still, they themselves have masterminded the current situation in the first place.

FATEMEH KESHAVARZ is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.