close button
Switch to Iranwire Light?
It looks like you’re having trouble loading the content on this page. Switch to Iranwire Light instead.

The Supreme Leader vs. the “British List”: Did a Math Calculation Swing Iran’s Elections?

March 22, 2016
Parvaneh Masoumi
14 min read
Journalist Hossein Bastani
Journalist Hossein Bastani

In February, Iran held two elections: One for its parliament, and one for a powerful group of Islamic scholars called the Assembly of Experts. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was clearly sensitive about the results. In a speech on February 17, ahead of elections on February 26, he warned of a British conspiracy to inspire strategic voting against his hardline allies.

In Tehran, citizens were to vote to elect 30 candidates to parliament, 16 candidates to the Assembly of Experts.

“The British radio is giving instructions to people of Tehran,” Khamenei said. “vote for this person, don’t vote for that person.... When we ask the people to participate in the elections with insight, with knowledge, with awareness, this is the reason: [they should] know what they want, and know what the enemy wants.  When you know what the enemy wants, you do the opposite; that’s clear.”  

This was a clear reference to BBC Persian, which had just aired an interview with Hossein Bastani, a BBC expert on Iran, about a campaign to eliminate hardline candidates from the Assembly of Experts. They included three veteran hardliners close to Khamenei named Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, and Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.

All three men held important posts in Iran’s convoluted system of clerical rule. Yazdi was president of the Assembly of Experts, which theoretically supervises the supreme leader. Jannati was secretary of the Guardian Council, which vets electoral candidates. Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, apart from his role in the Assembly of Experts, is also a main ideologue behind the hardline Islamist movement in Iran.  

The strategic voting campaign had started about two weeks earlier on social media, and advocates an unusual approach:  Given that centrist voters could not vote for sixteen centrist candidates because most such candidates had been disqualified, they could at least write the names of sixteen candidates other than Yazdi, Jannati and Mesbah-Yazdi, even if that meant voting for conservative candidates. That would prevent the trio’s election to the Assembly of Experts. 

In his BBC interview, Bastani concluded that, regardless of whether the campaign’s success would be good or bad, it was, “mathematically possible.”   

Bastani’s interview was a recap of an article he had just published entitled, “A Calculation: How is it Possible to Eliminate Yazdi, Jannati and Mesbah from the Assembly of Experts?” 

In the interview, Bastani explained that, if enough of the voters who had turned out to support Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election went on to vote for sixteen candidates other than Yazdi, Jannati, and Mesbah-Yazdi -- including candidates affiliated with that trio -- then “each conservative voter who votes for other conservative candidates, in addition to these three, is contributing, unintentionally, to the elimination of these three clerics.”  

Media Reaction to Bastani’s Article

Although Bastani’s article lacked political commentary or any recommendation to voters, Khamenei’s reaction laid the groundwork for a protracted political campaign by hardliners, giving rise to claims that the BBC had sponsored a “British list” to unseat Khamenei’s allies.

Almost all hardline dailies, websites, and news agencies turned Khamenei’s remarks into headlines and took a stance against what they called “British interference” in Iran’s elections.

The hardline rhetoric tapped into a long tradition of Iranian fear British involvement in Iran’s politics, which dates back to the era of British-Russian imperial rivalry in Iran in the 19th century and early 20th centuries.

One hardline outlet, Javan daily, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, called Bastani “a fugitive reformist journalist,” and said the BBC was trying to manipulate the public opinion in Iran.

Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline daily Kayhan, and Khamenei’s direct appointee in that role, warned that BBC Persian was under the direct supervision and management of the British foreign ministry and intelligence service. BBC Persian, he said, “is in all seriousness asking the people of Iran to vote in the Assembly of Experts election for candidates supported by MI6 and [former president Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani,” and encouraging people to vote against Khamenei’s top allies.

(Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founders of the Islamic Republic, who was president from 1989 to 1997, is now seen as a patron of Iran’s reformist movement).

Another daily, Vatan-e Emrooz, which is affiliated with Jebhe-ye Paydari, or “the Steadfast Front,” connected to Mesbah-Yazdi, warned against “engineering by BBC to eliminate ayatollahs Jannati, Yazdi and Mesbah-Yazdi” and “formulas provided by the British network and its employees and agents about how to eliminate these figures.” 

The Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Basij militia, referred to Bastani’s “abacus calculations to eliminate first-class jurists.” It warned Rafsanjani, current president Hassan Rouhani and the reformists that they should condemn the British, or “what will be recorded in history of the future will be shameful and embarrassing for generations of them to come.”  

Ahead of the elections, pamphlets and posters proliferated denouncing what they called a “British project to eliminate Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, and Mesbah-Yazdi.” 

One such flier showed a picture of Bastani’s BBC article next to quotes from Khamenei about the “orders” of a British media outlet to eliminate ayatollahs Yazdi, Jannati, and Mesbah Yazdi from the Assembly of Experts.

Another poster asked conservative voters to vote for only nine candidates, instead of sixteen, to prevent the trio’s elimination. The poster explained, “Voting for additional candidates may mean unintentional participation in advancing [Rafsanjani’s] agenda, and exploitation by the British government.”  

On the other side of Iran’s political landscape, meanwhile, most outlets chose not to directly confront the “British list” allegations. Only a few cautiously responded.

ISNA, a news agency close to Rouhani’s administration, was one of them. Was the is the Iranian government so vulnerable, ISNA asked, that “it is influenced and overshadowed in one of its important elections by a journalist’s article?”

Another author, writing for the moderate website Parsineh, argued that in their reaction, the conservatives had “accepted that a BBC analyst can influence elections in Iran and that all national media, websites, television channels, networks, and analysts cannot stand up to Hossein Bastani’s logic.” 

The website Khabar Online, which is close to parliament speaker Ali Larijani, published a piece entitled, “We Vote for the BBC list!”  The author argued that by making allegations about the influence of foreign powers, members of a particular faction underestimated the public’s “political intelligence.” The public, he argued, are guided by “their wisdom and intelligence, even if their desired list [of candidates] is supported by BBC.”  

Reactions from Political Officials to “British Infiltration”

As hardline news outlets advertised claims of Britain’s interference in the Assembly of Experts election, a large group of hardline leaders took similar positions, and state-run radio and television networks published their remarks.

Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said, “Those who are supported by the United States and Britain are guilty unless they express their opposition to the United States and Britain.” 

Masoud Jazayeri, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, said, “the foreign ministry’s silence against the British is questionable.”  

Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the Basij militia, said, “When the criminal Britain tells us what to do and names several of our jurists, asking the Iranian people not to vote for them, that means that it is trying to find a way to infiltrate the country.”  He predicted the Iranian people would turn Election Day into “the day of saying no to Britain.” 

Judicial authorities voiced similar concerns. Sadeq Larijani, head of the Iranian judiciary, said, “people detect foreigners’ plots and will not allow the United States and Britain to decide the elections for them.” 

Similarly, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ezhei, the judiciary’s number two person, said the Iranian people should give a “knockout” response to “Britain’s lowly act.” 

In such an atmosphere, it was not surprising that the main conservative coalition aligned against Rouhani published a statement asking voters to vote for their “slate” of candidates in order to deliver a “hard slap to the face of evil and interventionist Britain.”   

Ahmad Khatami, a member of the governing committee of the Assembly of Experts, and a candidate in the elections said a “no to Khamenei” campaign had been formed in London. He predicted that voters would not back what he called the “adversary list” because “people know [BBC Persian journalists] as supporters of the sedition.” He was referring to post-2009 “Green Movement” election protests.

Ahmad Tavakoli, a conservative member of parliament, published an open letter addressed to Rafsanjani. Tavakoli expressed “shock” at “Britain’s obscene and obvious electoral interference,” alleging that the British “expressly support” Rafsanjani, as well as the list of candidates affiliated with his political allies. He said Rafsanjani must publicly take a stance against “infiltration.”  

Rafsanjani reacted to the hardliners’ allegations, and expressed regret for “destructive actions of certain candidates and their supporters who control media outlets and networks, and propagate lies, allegations and insults against their opponents using the public budget.” 

“We’re shocked,” Rafsanjani said, “at how a group that claims to be pious and revolutionary attempts to deceive the people with lies, and sins so easily...If their candidacy is meant to promote God’s path, they must not sin in promoting their candidacy.”  Rafsanjani also denounced the term “British list” as “insulting to the intelligence and wisdom of the Iranian people.” He said hardliners were trying to take “revenge” for their loss in the presidential election by “insulting the [Rouhani] administration and the person of the president.”  

Rouhani himself denounced the term “British list” as “belittling” to Iranian people, and indirectly addressed the conservatives opposing the administration: “People know the candidates clearly, and will pick the best with intelligence and awareness.”  

Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, the Rouhani administration’s spokesperson, said, “We certainly don’t have what is called the British list.” He said proponents of the concept were “insulting” the Guardian Council, which had vetted the candidates’ qualifications. 

Majid Ansari, the president’s deputy in parliamentary affairs, said, “People will respond to the poisoned propaganda against the administration with their intelligent votes.”  Denouncing the “British list” allegations, Ansari said, “We are deeply disappointed that the national television and radio is using this as an excuse to campaign in favor of three candidates.”  

Ali Motahari, a prominent member of parliament from Tehran, who was voted into parliament again this election with the second highest number of votes, said that calling a certain list “British” is “charlatanism and insulting the people’s intelligence.” He also responded to conservatives who claimed that the BBC is “interfering” with the election. “If the BBC had really wanted to interfere, it would have interfered in institutions that could benefit it,” he said. “It would have interfered in institutions that claim to support the supreme leader and the revolution.” 

Hardline news outlets continued to bombard Rouhani supporters, demanding explicit denunciation of the “British list” and “BBC infiltration.” 

Among those who declined was Mohammad Reza Aref, who headed the reformists’ list for Tehran’s parliamentary elections.  Responding to a report by the Revolutionary Guards-backed Tasnim News Agency, Aref said, “What do I need to denounce? Do I have to denounce BBC 24 hours a day? Do I have nothing else to do?” 

The End Result

Until a few days before the election, many news outlets seemed certain that accusations of British infiltration would prevent the defeat of Yazdi, Jannati and Mesbah-Yazdi in the Assembly of Experts elections. 

Kayhan published an editorial by Shariatmadari, who denounced BBC Persian and Voice of America’s analyses regarding the possible elimination of the three hardliners. He called them “an example of enemies’ stupid actions.” He said those actions would benefit all three men. Shariatmadari’s reasoning was simple: “Who among the people of this nation, other than a small minority of the deceived or unprincipled, would not recognize the anger and vengefulness of Iran’s and Islam’s sworn enemies directed at prominent figures in the regime?”

RoobahNews, which was established to “debunk” BBC Persian and other outlets, wrote “Hossein Bastani, a senior analyst for BBC Persian, has single-handedly brought BBC Persian into a game ... Hossein Bastani either doesn’t know the public opinion of Iranian society or has become entangled in a tornado he cannot escape.” 

Nevertheless, as Election Day approached, it appeared that some hardliners were becoming concerned that accusing opposition candidates of being under the influence of foreign powers was not having the anticipated effect.

Alireza Panahian, a famous speaker at religious gatherings hosted by the supreme leader’s office, told a young voter, “A disaster is taking place...Each conservative voter who votes for other conservative candidates, in addition to these three, is contributing, unintentionally, to the elimination of these three clerics from the final list.”

Ayatollah Khamenei, whose February 17 speech about “British radio” had created this atmosphere, continued to insist on his views. Just one day before the election, Khamenei said once again that foreign media outlets were interfering in the election. “American politicians have learned from experience that they should not speak [about the elections]; whenever they speak, people do the opposite, so they are silent this time...But the small agents of imperialism, who are supported by the American and British governments, and who live there, are busy; in radio networks, various media, online outlets, the Internet and such; they are busy day and night.” 

In the end, the election results surprised most analysts: In Tehran, not only were all thirty parliamentary candidates supported by the reformists elected, but fifteen out of the sixteen Assembly of Experts candidates supported by the reformists were also elected.  In the Assembly of Experts election, Rafsanjani received the most votes.  Of the three candidates that conservatives were working hard to keep on the Assembly, two of them -- Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- were eliminated. Only Ahmad Jannati was elected in Tehran, in final place, as the sixteenth candidate.  

A day after the election, the website Parsineh, which supports the Rouhani administration, wrote, “The principlists [conservatives] must now think about how to analyze the results, and how to explain the victory of the ‘British list’ in the Islamic Republic’s capital...The height of creativity for the principlists in this election was to come up with a mythical creature named the ‘British list,’ and scare everyone away from it.  Ironically, they lost to the same mythical creature.”  

Three days after the election, Motahari said that the “British list’ rhetoric had backfired. “The analysts predicted at best twenty seats for the reformists and ten seats for the the days leading up to the election, we saw efforts to destroy and insult a group, even calling a slate the “British list” and accusing them of being beholden to foreigners, which raised the public’s sensitivity and led to this reaction.”  

But even after the results came out, some factions continued to repeat the “British list” theory. The Rasa News Agency, which is affiliated with the Qom Seminary School, published an interview with Mohsen Sanjari, a local seminary leader from the Kerman province. Sanjari continued to warn against “British conspiracies” in the election. Attacking Bastani’s article, Sanjari said, “Bastani’s remarks were being echoed by Britain and its agents while, unfortunately, no one in the administration denounced them.”  

Bastani himself published a new article after the elections, analyzing how conservatives had “unintentionally contributed to their electoral defeat in the capital.” Bastani noted, “The type of political campaigning by the so-called hardline camp in the week-long period leading to the election polarized the atmosphere in a way that resulted in unintended consequences: In particular, it mobilized a segment of society to vote that, in normal conditions, may not have participated in the election.” 

Bastani wrote that the hardline camp’s efforts to secure victory for Yazdi, Jannati and Mesbah-Yazdi were at times destructive; for example, distributing 6-person, 7-person, 9-person and 11-person lists among conservative voters, all in order to help the three candidates, but essentially just confusing voters. Bastani concluded, “On election day, while reformist voters acted in serious unison, the opposite occurred in the opposing camp: some of them, as expected, voted for 16-person lists, unintentionally increasing the number of votes for the seven candidates they shared with the reformist slate (all of whom came ahead of messers. Yazdi, Jannati, and Mesbah-Yazdi); others voted for shorter lists that did not seem to be put together based on any logic.”     

After the election, Bastani wrote on Facebook, “I wish that members of different political groups could understand that an analyst’s job is to logically explain phenomena.  If the result of an analysis is that an event is ‘mathematically possible,’ that doesn’t mean that a stance has been taken [on] that event.”

“You cannot ask a person to solve a mathematical equation such that the answer is A, or not A,” he wrote. “The answer to a mathematical equation either is or is not A, regardless of whether all politicians in the world find that expedient or not.”  



“The Promise of a New Day”: Looking Back at Obama’s Nowruz Speeches

March 21, 2016
Roland Elliott Brown
6 min read
“The Promise of a New Day”: Looking Back at Obama’s Nowruz Speeches