A Study of Electoral Methods in Iran
Rigging, Bribery, Ballot Stuffing and Foreign Meddling

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| July 14, 2017     

A Study of Electoral Methods in Iran (Nov. 1953 CIA Report)

After the 1953 coup, the CIA, naturally, continued its operations in Iran to help maintain and preserve U.S. objectives. In November, while Mossadegh was still on trial, the CIA prepared this “operational” internal report to help guide its ongoing efforts to manipulate Iranian political affairs into the foreseeable future.

The report was submitted directly to Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., a central figure in the agency’s elaborate mission, accomplished in August, to replace the Mossadegh government with a regime the Eisenhower administration deemed more favorable.

The identities of its three authors, along with several other names mentioned in the document, remain classified. One paragraph is completely excised. There were also three (missing) attachments, two of which were “case studies”, the third being a list of declared Majles candidates.

The body of the document provided background information on standard electoral practices and abuses in Iran, citing the various factors involved in getting a candidate elected to the Majles (Parliament). Anecdotal evidence demonstrated how these factors (ballot stuffing, bribery, the Shah, British intervention) actually manifested themselves over the recent years.

One scenario involved Premier Mossadegh, who, ostensibly aiming to prevent the Shah’s military forces from “moving in and changing the ballot boxes” for the 17th Majles (Jan. 1952), instead presided over a blatantly stolen election for his own candidates. The legitimate ballots, explained the CIA, were confiscated and replaced with National Front ballots.

This would appear to be a very historically significant revelation, indicating that Dr. Mossadegh was not quite the principled champion of democracy he has been made out to be.

Before accepting this claim at face value, however, we must employ a little critical thinking.

If this incident really happened, wouldn’t it have made for the perfect opposition research against Mossadegh?
• Why didn’t the CIA leak this scandal to the press and make it more well known?

• Why didn’t any U.S. officials, such as Pres. Eisenhower or John Foster Dulles, condemn the act publicly as part of their “psychological warfare” campaign?

• Why are there apparently no CIA records from immediately after the alleged crime transpired?

• Why did the CIA only finally raise the issue in a ‘by the way...’ manner in a single document, months after Mossadegh was already deposed?

• Why did the CIA not spread this story in the various lie-filled propaganda they had circulating in Iran?

• Why didn’t the Shah ever mention it, including his two books in which he bashed Mossadegh with gusto and fabricated ludicrous accusations?

• Why wasn’t this included in the list of Mossadegh’s “crimes” at his treason trial?

• Why didn’t Kermit Roosevelt discuss this in Countercoup, or in any of his other public slanders against Mossadegh?

• Why are we first hearing of this incident in 2017, after an astonishing 65½ year long delay?

As far as we are aware, not a single author, historian, academic, or even past or present CIA or State Dept. official has ever cited this story. In our 13 years of studying Mossadegh, we’ve never come across it.

There may be a tendency to assume that internal U.S. government documents reflect sober analysis based on well-founded facts and figures, free of political bias or fakery.

If that were the case, then they would not have failed to account for their own vast meddling in Iran’s domestic politics, completely ignored the valiant campaign for electoral reform led by Dr. Mossadegh and the National Front in 1949, or feigned concern over the rights of the disenfranchised Iranian electorate while simultaneously scheming to impose their will on them. Nor would they have bothered, in a memo issued the very same week, to waste a single moment fixating on Mossadegh’s “large beak-like nose”.

346. Despatch From the Station in Iran to the Chief of the Near East and Africa Division, Directorate of Plans, Central Intelligence Agency (Roosevelt)

[text not declassified]–1472

Tehran, November 13, 1953.


Specific—A Study of Electoral Methods in Iran

1. Introduction

Elections, as we know them in the West, have never been held in Iran. In fact, one might almost call the process whereby a private citizen becomes a Majlis deputy selection rather than election. And, unfortunately, the voter is the least important person in the process. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs: a) Political parties, as we know them, do not exist in Iran, b) 90% of the population is illiterate, c) the majority of the population live in villages or tribal areas, far from the centers of political activity and are ignorant of current political developments, d) due to a, b, and c above, many Persians are indifferent and negligent in dealing with the problems concerning the fate of the ruling class, e) the electoral law is full of loopholes which allow factors other than “the man in the street” to exercise decisive influence over elections. In addition to these reasons, that portion of the educated class which is excluded from the ruling class, has a profound hatred of the latter which is exploited by intensive Tudeh propaganda. At the same time, due to lack of serious attention regarding improvement of the country, on the part of previous governments, as well as the influence and intervention in public affairs by the central government, the British government and the AIOC, an atmosphere of despair and negligence has been created, even among the more intelligent and educated class of the Iranian Society, with the result that even they refrain from constructive participation in public affairs and are satisfied to pursue their separate courses in search of personal interest.

The only organized group which is conducted along the lines of a political party is the Tudeh. There have been other attempts at organized party activity, but the foundation of these various organizations has always been a particular aim or motive, which, once having been attained eliminates the reason for existence of the organization. The best example of this is Qavam’s Democratic Party of Iran which was formed for the specific purpose of having a Majlis favorable to Qavam. [Ahmad Ghavam] After the elections to the 15th Majlis, in which there were many members of Qavam’s party, the organization disintegrated, and members like Makki bolted. [Hossein Makki] They had joined merely to gain a Majlis seat. Their objective reached, they no longer had need of membership in the organization. Regardless of how this sounds to the Western mind, Persian political history is full of such examples.

2. The Dynamics of the Electoral Process

The major ingredients of the electoral process are: a. the government, b. the Shah, c. vested interests, and d. foreign intervention. To get one’s fingers in the Majlis pie, a combination of these ingredients must be available. However, the amount of each ingredient used is determined by the location. There are, in general, three categories for consideration:

a. The large cities. (Tehran, Tabriz, Meshed [Mashad], Isfahan, [Esfahan] etc.). It is almost impossible to control the vote in large cities. Voters are divided into many groups, they have different political ideas and inclinations and there are usually a good many candidates in the running. As a result, the only way the government can insure victory for its candidates is to change the ballot boxes and this has been done with almost monotonous consistency in the past. The central government appoints the governors of the various areas. They, in turn, appoint the Electoral Commissions who change the ballot boxes or simply render the desired decision by means of false figures. This commission also arranges to stuff the ballot boxes in suburban areas subject to its jurisdiction by means of cooperation from the local landlords. An example of this type of “selectoral process” is as follows:

1) In the elections to the 17th Majlis, Mossadeq was extremely concerned about the military moving in and changing the ballot boxes. [Premier Mohammad Mossadegh] Since, in Tehran, the Electoral Commission must at least go through the motions of counting votes, etc., it was important that the proper votes be in the boxes when the time arrived for counting. Mossadeq therefore instructed the Electoral Commission to set up all ballot boxes near Mosques where possible. He then placed sentinels in the minarets. When the Shah’s representatives (usually military) approached to change the boxes, Mossadeq’s sentinels sounded the call to prayer. The crowd was then led by professional agitators in a movement which would cause the Army to lose face. Just before the close of balloting, Mossadeq leaked the rumor that the Tudeh Party was going to attack and burn the ballot boxes. Orders were issued for assembling all ballot boxes at the Ministry of Education for safe keeping. While one truck picked up the legal ballot boxes, another was loaded with “National Front” ballot boxes. The latter arrived at the Ministry of Education. The former disappeared. Makki was elected first Deputy of Tehran with 120,000 votes, Kashani was second with 100,000. [Ayatollah Seyed Abolghasem Kashani, the powerful Muslim cleric] The reason for this is that, Mossadeq, although he had no objection to Kashani’s election, did not want him to be first deputy. Electioneering agents of the National Front were instructed to repeat Makki’s name on the ballots 20,000 times more than Kashani’s. (Every source utilized for this report maintains that Makki could not have gotten 5,000 votes fairly, while Kashani is generally conceded to have 15,000 votes in the Bazaar.)

“If the government cannot figure out a way to change the ballot boxes, they may play safe and just stuff them.”
2) For a case study in changing ballot boxes, see Attachment A. Although the Shah attempted to elect his candidate from Karaj, the area was under civil government control and he was unsuccessful.

If the government cannot figure out a way to change the ballot boxes, they may play safe and just stuff them. Government employees of various factories and the railroad are granted paid leave for one or more days and ordered to form queues in front of polling places. They are instructed not to allow “outsiders” to join them. Qavam did this in the election for the 15th Majlis. He did not want Kashani to be re-elected and so he stuffed the ballot boxes. In addition, the electoral boards were instructed not to stamp the identity cards of voters who voted for the government list. The result was that the 12 deputies of Tehran each got more than 40,000 votes while Kashani received only 15,000. One voter is known to have voted 132 times in this election. Total figures for the election ran to 600,000 votes cast at a time when Tehran’s population was roughly 750,000.

b. Tribal areas. In the areas occupied by tribes, the military usually plays an important role. This means, of course, that the Shah has the upper hand. His Majesty’s chief vehicles of influence are the Army and the clerics. The royal influence is therefore exercised mostly in frontier regions where the military holds sway, and in regions where the influence of religion is strong—such as in areas inhabited by Sunnites. Examples of the Shah’s influence are:

1) In the elections to the 17th Majlis the Shah wanted Mir Ashrafi [Seyed Mehdi Mir-Ashrafi] to be deputy from Meshgin Shahi. [Meshkin Shahr] Mir Ashrafi is a former Army officer who was expelled from the Army for being too corrupt. During the war he acquired for himself the reputation of being one of the worst crooks in the country. However, Meshgin Shahi is a region inhabited by simple peasants who certainly had never heard anything of or about Mir Ashrafi. Since the Army controlled the area, the Intelligence Bureau of the General Staff communicated the royal desire to the Commanding officer at Meshgin Shahi. A few men were instructed to fill thousands of ballots with the name of Mir Ashrafi and the peasants were ordered to cast the ballots into the ballot boxes. It is probable that the majority of “voters” never learned whose name was on the ballots they cast. The whole thing was done so smoothly that even Mossadeq did not know what was afoot until the results were published.

2) In the elections for the 17th Majlis at Mahabad the Shah had the Imam Jomeh of Tehran elected. This is particularly significant when you remember that Mahabad is inhabited by Sunnites and the Imam Jomeh is a Shia high priest. Nevertheless, since the Sunni believes that the Sovereign is the supreme spiritual and secular authority, the Shah’s decision was accepted by the Sunni Imam Jomeh of Kurdistan and successfully carried out. Mossadeq attempted to stop this operation, but without success. Thus, from the capital of Kurdistan a non-Kurd, who is a Shia, was elected.

3) For a detailed case study of the elections at Mahabad for the 15th Majlis, see Attachment B. This case study is an example of how all opposition to the Shah’s desires is futile, but it also illustrates principles of action which are utilized throughout Iran.

Within this category, the element of foreign intervention often crops up. Examples of this are:

(1) Hossein Farhoodi was elected to the 15th Majlis from Dashti-Meshon in the Bani Toref region, then controlled by the AIOC. [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British firm] The Shah did not want Farhoodi, Qavam didn’t want him, the military didn’t back him, he had no money with which to bribe anyone, yet all other candidates withdrew in deference to the AIOC.

(2) When Soviet troops were stationed in Iran during the war, the Russians succeeded in sending eight Tudeh deputies to the Majlis. They were supposed to represent the areas occupied by the Soviets. In order to achieve this the Soviet Embassy in Tehran came to an agreement with Ali Soheily, then Premier. Original Soviet demands were much higher than eight deputies but Soheily only allowed eight Tudehites to go the 14th Majlis.

(3) Seyyad Zia Tabatabai was elected to the 14th Majlis on orders from the British Embassy. The Vice-Consul at Yazd was informed that Seyyid Zia was the British choice and despite the fact that the Shah was then against him, he was elected. [Seyed Zia Tabatabai, note they spelled his first name two different ways successively]

(4) [1 paragraph (8 lines) not declassified]

“...Officials of the government accept bribes from all of them and promise each not to interfere with his election. In such cases the candidate who spends the most money wins the election.”
It should also be noted here that in areas inhabited solely by tribes, the Chieftains have control over elections. Cases in point are the Qashqai region and Zanjan.

c. Non-tribal areas. This category is that which is neither subject to military control nor to the type of influence exercised in big cities. It is the area fairly close to the big cities but not in tribal districts. The most important factors here are money and vested interests. Here, the governor (Farmandar) is a key figure. [Farmandar is Persian for governor, not a name] In some cases, the government allows the various candidates in a constituency to fight out their battle. This happens when they find themselves confronted with several equally non-objectionable candidates. Officials of the government accept bribes from all of them and promise each not to interfere with his election. In such cases the candidate who spends the most money wins the election. Influence of the land owners is also needed to make certain of victory in these areas. In many cases, the large land owners, having vested interests with the government do not object to the election of total strangers from their area. Such tactics were used in Saveh, Damavand and Shahrud. For example:

1) Shams Qanatabadi was elected to the 17th Majlis from Shahrud. [Shams Ghanatabadi] He had never been in the area before his campaign and he was totally unknown in Iran. However, when Kashani joined the National Front, he announced that he wanted Qanatabadi to be elected to the Majlis. The request was communicated to Mossadeq who was working with Kashani at that time and the necessary instructions were given to the governor, the Chief of Gendarmérie and the Chief of Police of that area. It was the first that the people of Shahrud had ever heard of Qanatabadi.

“...we must resort to the same methods, through the government and the Shah for the election of a Majlis favorable to our purposes in Iran.”
3. Conclusions

This information has been gathered in order to give us the proper operational intelligence needed to draw up an election program of our own. It is obvious from this study that we cannot hope to change the methods of operation prior to the elections for the 18th Majlis, but instead we must resort to the same methods, through the government and the Shah for the election of a Majlis favorable to our purposes in Iran. We are initiating election talks with the government on 14 November. We already have a list of declared candidates for the 18th Majlis (Attachment C), and we are ready to do what we can to assist the [name not declassified] in this matter.

It is imperative, from our point of view, that the Prime Minister [Fazlollah Zahedi] and the Shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] agree on a list of candidates, thus eliminating harmful conflict between these two elements. [name not declassified], at least, shares this point of view. As far as pushing our own candidates is concerned, we are attempting to place the names in [name not declassified] mouth and thus avoid recommending but maintaining a role of concurrence. Details of our approach to this will be the subject of a separate dispatch.

[name not declassified]
[name not declassified]
[name not declassified]

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DDO Files, Job 89–00176R, Box 1, Folder 20, Political Activities—Iran. Secret; Security Information. Sent for the attention of the Deputy for Psych/Intel. The three enclosures to the despatch are not printed.

The Historic 1949 March and Sit-In Against Election Rigging

Related links:

Why Do We Call It Electoral ‘College’? | August 18, 1952 editorial

Estimate of the Political Strength of the Mosadeq Government | State Dept. (May 1951)

Our Policy In Iran | National Security Council Memo, (Oct. 1962)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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