Iran's Conspiracy Industry
by Stephen Schwartz
In times of economic and social dislocation, conspiracy theories abound. The sudden uncertainty of events drives ordinary people as well as pseudo-intellectuals, in countries all over the world, to seek explanations for newly revealed political and financial problems in "magical thinking," blaming the unexpected anxieties of their lives on hidden, dark powers. While convoluted "explanations" for national and world events have proliferated lately in the West, conspiracy theories have long flourished in the lands of Islam.
The clerical misrulers of Iran have particular incentives to indulge in conspiracy thinking. Their own people have clearly repudiated them, and the news from Tunisia and Egypt indicates that Sunni as well as Shia Muslims are overcome by yearning for freedom. Iran's ruling caste is anxious to project before the global public its particular "interpretation" of the Egyptian turmoil, to its own advantage. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared in his Friday sermon on February 4 that Tunisian dictator Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali was overthrown because of his secularism. Hardline Tehran propagandist Hossein Shariatmadari, of the daily newspaper Keyhan, has joined those who see the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions as purely Islamist, and has proclaimed that the motive of the Egyptian protesters is to attack Israel.
But Iranian opposition presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi has noted the parallel confrontations between the state power and social media in the Iranian post-election protests of 2009 and the Egyptian upheaval. In both countries, the dictatorship tried to suppress popular anger by arresting dissenters and shutting down cyberspace networks. Moussavi called on Iranians to pray for the success of the Egyptian and other protesters in Arab countries.
Still, the Iranian government has recourse to video propaganda no less than to preaching and editorials. As 2010 drew to a close, Iranian national television began broadcasting a new "docu-drama" series, titled Secrets of Armageddon 4: Project Ghosts, which I will abbreviate, for the reader's sake, as Secrets 4. Produced for the "news desk" of Iran's Sima TV network, the program is a compendium of conspiracy theories arguing that Jews and Freemasons control the West (old, old nonsense). Allegedly, these plotters have penetrated the the Iranian Islamic Republic and other Muslim countries, through books, radio and television, movies, universities, and social as well as spiritual movements. Each of the 26 segments of Secrets 4 is broadcast and rebroadcast throughout each week to Iranian viewers.
In Secrets 4, Iranian state paranoia ranges wide. According to the series producers, the Jewish mystical schools of Kabbalah conceal a plot for world domination—an idea first put abroad in tsarist Russia, and used then and since to incite murderous anti-Jewish violence. Kabbalists, who traditionally lived a quiet, spiritual life apart from the concerns of the world, are credited in the Iranian TV series with the foundation of Freemasonry, Zionism, and mass secularism in the West. Above all, "New Age" movements imported from the West are accused of scheming to destroy Islam.
As indicated by its numerical order, Secrets 4 is the latest in an elaborate and ambitious catalogue produced by Iranian television and aimed at stirring hatred of those the Tehran regime labels its enemies. The first Secrets of Armageddon appeared in 2008, and Said Mostaghasi, who has directed the production of each series, was then interviewed by Iranian news channel IRINN. As translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Mostaghasi's comments were so bizarre they would have been funny had the malevolent power of the Islamic Republic not stood behind him.
Mostaghasi's 2008 "revelations" were mainly aimed at Jews and members of the Baha'i faith. The program asserted the authenticity of the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the 19th-century text in which a polemic against modern journalism and politics, which had nothing to do with Jews, was edited and published by a Russian tsarist agent supposedly as the product of a hidden Hebrew conclave planning a world dictatorship. But the first installment of Secrets of Armageddon also included the claim that the explorations of Christopher Columbus were sponsored by Jewish "aristocrats" seeking "the Promised Land." The large Jewish population of New York, according to Mostaghasi, was planned centuries ago.
As Secrets of Armageddon has turned into an Iranian media phenomenon, the breadth of its accusations has widened. The Iranian video makers now present the Jewish spiritual students of Kabbalah as the source of all activities they find nefarious around the world: the "hidden hand" behind such apparently disparate phenomena as the spread of Indian mysticism in the West, the movement in solidarity with the Dalai Lama and Tibet, and even Transcendental Meditation. All are depicted as false "end-times" philosophies intended to counter the devotion of Iranian Shia Muslims to the imminent arrival of the mahdi, or Islamic messiah. As everybody conversant in Iranian affairs is aware, the cult of the mahdi has been promoted by Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to revive enthusiasm for the spiritual pretensions of the Iranian Islamic revolution.
The roster of hallucinated claims in Secrets 4 is long. Aside from its previously mentioned targets, the series assails the Brazilian pop-mystic novelist Paulo Coelho, whose novels were suppressed in Iran in January. To the rest of the world Tehran's action against Coelho was inexplicable, though Coelho reported that his Iranian editor, Arash Hejazi, had been videotaped, during the climactic anti-regime demonstrations of 2009, trying to save the life of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman killed while participating in an anti-Ahmadinejad protest in Tehran. Agha-Soltan's death became a global symbol of the Iranian democracy movement.
Coelho responded to the Iranian ban by placing the Farsi editions of his books online as free downloads, and most of the Western reading public saw the Iranian prohibition on such innocuous works as yet another example of the arbitrary actions of the clerical dictatorship. Episode 25 of Secrets 4 provided, however, a detailed explanation for the abrupt action against the Latin American author. Coelho is one of more than 160 members of the International Board of Governors of the Peres Foundation for Peace, established by Israel's former president Shimon Peres in 1996. In addition, according to the Iranian program, Peres praised Coelho in a session of the Davos World Economic Forum a decade ago, which to a public of Ahmadinejad fanatics, is sufficient condemnation in itself. For Iranian conspiracy theorists, such "connections" are gold.
All of this might seem like nothing more than typical, daily insanity in Iran. But the Iranian tyrants have also been troubled by the continued resistance of the spiritual Sufi orders, which have immense cultural prestige in the country, to the repression imposed since 2009. The Sufis and Kabbalists have much in common, and their perverse condemnation by Tehran may now be added to the inventory of similarities. As reported last month on this site, Sufis have refused to accept the stalemate between Ahmadinejad and the opposition Green movement that emerged in 2010, and the Iranian state has arrested and "disappeared" numerous mystics, especially those belonging to the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi Sufi movement, among the largest in the country.
Episode 23 of Secrets 4 focused negative attention on the Sufis, and was shown to the Iranian public just as three lawyers representing arrested members of the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi spiritual group were incarcerated. Attorneys Amir Eslami and Farshid Yadollahi each received sentences of six months in prison, while Mustafa Daneshjoo, their colleague, was jailed for seven months for "spreading lies and disturbing the public." Yadollahi pointed out in a radio interview that Sufi activity is not mentioned, much less forbidden, in the Iranian constitution or penal code. But the Sufis have suffered beatings, house searches, and closure of their meeting places, as well as detention in unknown locations, because they refuse to accept the claim for legitimacy of the clerical regime.
The Committee for the Rights of Students and Sufis in Iran, which is active among Iranian émigrés and human rights advocates in the West, has condemned Secrets 4 for creating "a very, very dangerous situation" for Iranian Sufis by defaming their leaders and inciting further violence against them. The 24th episode in the series featured extended allegations against Sufi teacher Nur'ali Tabandeh, who is accused of leading young Iranians to deviation from Islam. The Sufis' supporters in the West warn "these accusations are life-threatening"!