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Jeremy J. Stone

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How the Iranian Election Was Stolen

Posted: 06/17/09 03:23 PM ET

There is, perhaps, no greater potential for evil than the power of priests speaking in the name of God.

With this power, one Iranian Ayatollah, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi -- the spiritual leader of President Ahmadinejad -- seems to have stolen the Iranian election, to have justified the now-ongoing arrests of reformers, and to be trying to eliminate such democracy in Iran as now exists.

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 -- Yazdi gave the Interior Ministry employees a Fatwa, a religious degree, authorizing the changing of votes.

The Ayatollah told them: "If someone is elected the president and hurts the Islamic values . . . it is against Islam to vote for that person." After harshly criticizing the other candidates (Mousavi, Karroubi, and Rezaie) he went on: "You should throw away those who are unqualified, both morally and lawfully."

The letter reported that the elections' supervisors subsequently became "happy and energetic for having obtained the religious Fatwa to use any trick for changing the vote and began immediately to develop plans for it." (The letter indicated that the same thing had been done in March 2006 to help fundamentalists allied with Ahmadinejad in that election. But when the Interior Minister at that time, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, reported these irregularities to the Supreme Leader, he was fired by President Ahmadinejad.)

Among other things, the election supervisors reduced the number of voting stations, increased the number of mobile voting stations, reduced the number of eligible voters, insisted that vote-containing boxes must have two official seals, and printed 12,000,000 more ballots than were necessary.

Yazdi has been called the most conservative and influential cleric in Qom. He espouses complete isolation from the West and proclaims nonliteral interpretations of the Koran to be heretical. He is said to have great influence with the Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji paramilitary force. In 1997, he is said to have encouraged them to use any means, including violence, to stop reform agitation. In 2006, he said to use atomic bombs had religious legitimacy. Above all, he would like to eliminate the democratic element in the Iranian system.

Now, following four years of appointments made by President Ahmadinejad, Yazdi has many loyal supporters in the Government, including the head of the election commission.

A perfect political storm has arisen in Iran. Ironically, May polls showing that democracy might prevail in Iran have created conditions that could lead to the loss of such democracy as exists in Iran.

A weird president, mentored by a fundamentalist Ayatollah, may now use ongoing arrests to eliminate, politically if not physically, his reform opposition and then govern by repression. Recent unconfirmed reports suggest that Mohammad Asgari, an interior ministry official who had reportedly leaked evidence that the elections were rigged, has been killed in a suspicious car accident in Tehran.

Nonviolent opposition is the only answer. And protests are, after all, widespread and not only in Tehran. They have spread to Isfahan, Ahwaz, Shiraz, Gorgan, Tabriz, Rasht, Babol, Mashhad, Zahedan, Qazvin, Sari, Karaj, Tabriz, Shahsavar, Orumieh, Bandar Abbas, Arak, and Birjend. Many of these cities do not have riot police. The revolutionary guards and the Basiji have to be dispatched to many sites -- and an order to crack down everywhere could be more than the authorities would dare.

The Iranian reform movement is trying to seize the high ground, to avoid violence, and to appeal to the forces of repression not to use force. With the world watching, and with so many new techniques of communication, it may be that the reformers can give the authorities a run for their money. But it will take an awful lot of Iranian courage and ingenuity to make it work.