In Iran, Conspiracy Theories Flourish As Regime Tries to Win Back Legitimacy

In Iran, Conspiracy Theories Flourish As Regime Tries to Win Back Legitimacy

The Islamic Republic has been busy in three main ways since the presidential elections of June 12. Rejecting charges that the result — a 63% vote for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — was the result of fraud, the regime organized a partial recount, which on June 29 reconfirmed Ahmadinejad’s victory, a finding the opposition continues to reject. Simultaneously, the regime worked to put down the widespread street demonstrations that followed the disputed poll, sending in police and pro-government militiamen to beat up and disperse demonstrators. Now, with the street protests dying down, the regime has attempted to rescue its legitimacy by casting the unrest as the work of “foreign instigators.”

In his first public meeting since the elections, Ahmadinejad visited officials at the Intelligence Ministry on June 30. “The enemies, despite their overt and covert conspiracies aimed at soft regime change, have failed,” he said. Iran’s state media took up a narrative of foreign intervention and sabotage; foreign media and Iranian dual-national journalists were cast in lead roles. “The day after the elections, CNN started a 24-hour psychological war room against Iran,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hassan Qashqavi told a moderator with seeming outrage on Iranian state TV. Later in the program, the host said he had heard the Saudi-owned station Al Arabiya had even taught Iranian viewers how to build Molotov cocktails for use in protests. Iran’s pro-government newspaper Kayhan wrote that foreign media outlets had employed Iranians in the past years, some with foreign nationalities, “in order to facilitate relations between domestic and foreign anti-revolutionary forces.”

Britain has been the focus of particular hatred. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called it “the most evil” among Iran’s enemies in his speech a week after the elections, when he unequivocally backed Ahmadinejad. Under Winston Churchill, Britain engineered the 1953 coup that brought down the democratically elected government after it nationalized Iran’s oil, until then largely owned by British Petroleum. Understandably, many Iranians still see Britain as a credible culprit. In a piece titled “How did England mount the green wave” the official Islamic Republic News Agency analyzed London’s interference in Iran’s elections based on “expert psychological opinion.” The article, published on July 1, says British tactics included “mass distraction” and “hypodermic needle,” Both intended to subconsciously infuse Iranians with certain messages and goals. The British media pursued three phases, it said, the last of which saw 55 British reporters in Iran taking on the role of “spokesmen for the current of dissent and then the riots.”

The semi-official FARS News Agency published what it claims was a “press conference” with Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian correspondent for Newsweek. Bahari, 42, was arrested by security officials at his mother’s home on June 21. In what appears to be a forced confession, the news agency highlighted Bahari’s role as a producer for the BBC and Britain’s Channel 4 and quoted him saying that “espionage by foreign reporters is undeniable,” and that in some cases Iranian reporters, “make mistakes, become emotional and greedy, and fall into the trap of foreigners.” The news report fails to mention that Bahari is actually in detention. So far, he has not been charged with any crime.

IRNA has accused prominent American and European media by name for “being at the service of instigators with their soft politics.” Chastising the London Guardian newspaper for its reporting on Neda Agha Soltan — the 27-year-old woman whose death on video has made her an icon of Iran’s protest movement — it says the paper failed to mention “evidence” by the Intelligence Ministry, “which points to some foreign government’s planning of this scenario.” Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a conservative leader of Tehran’s Friday prayers accused the protestors themselves of killing Neda: “Any intelligent person seeing the film gets it … the way they’ve shot it from where the woman’s car is.” Iran’s ambassador to Mexico reckons the killing could be the work of the CIA. “The bullet … is of a kind that is not used in Iran. These are methods that terrorists, the CIA, and espionage agencies use.”

But despite all the conspiracies and bluster a large segment of Iran’s population remains incredulous. The propaganda campaign may well sway many Iranians, especially those who only consume state media, but many others see straight through it. Criticizing Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Islamic Republic foiled an attempt at a velvet revolution, Iran’s former reformist president Mohammad Khatami met with families of the detained this week. “If this poisoned propaganda and security atmosphere continues … we must say that what happened was a velvet coup d’etat against the people and the republicanism of this state,” he said. Millions of Iranians may agree. For now, though, there’s little they can do to change it.

See pictures of people around the world protesting Iran’s election.

See pictures of terror in Tehran.