x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

It's all the fault of foreign plotters

The Iranian government says the West is waging a 'soft war' on Iran and has banned contact with more than 60 organisations it accuses of conspiring against the country.

"When you see some people here dressed in American-style clothes, you are seeing the bullets of the West," the leading ideologue of a violent Iranian vigilante group told this reporter 10 years ago. But the bearded zealot was most vitriolic about reformist students he believed were being used by "American and Zionist" agents to destabilise the Islamic republic. Today, as Iran grapples with its worst, self-inflicted crisis in three decades, the regime has embellished this lurid narrative to blame foreign powers - in particular Britain and the United States - for the unrest spawned by June's disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, recently proclaimed that Iran was in the throes of a "soft war" with enemies abroad. These, he claimed, were using a "mixture of cultural means and advanced communication equipment to spread lies and rumours and cause doubt and divisions among the people". Iran last week banned contact with more than 60 "subversive" international organisations it accused of conspiring against the state. Among them were think tanks, academic institutions and leading non-governmental organisations from the United States and Europe. The list included the BBC, Voice of America and other media organisations that beam Farsi-language programmes into Iran. "The regime sees the BBC and VoA as part of a cold war," said a senior analyst in Tehran, who declined to be named. "The regime, meanwhile, views the role of its own media being to counter what foreign outlets are saying, rather than providing information." In trying to use the West as a lightning rod to deflect popular anger, the regime relies on most Iranians giving credibility to conspiracy theories. They have good historic reasons to do so because their country has been the victim of genuine conspiracies plotted by foreigners that thwarted their democratic aspirations. Today, however, the opposition says those same aspirations have been blocked by their own regime, which they accuse of an "electoral coup" to re-install Mr Ahmadinejad. The opposition, in other words, argues that Iranians are now victims of a conspiracy hatched by their own rulers. "I don't think the allegations of western involvement will be bought by many people," said Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at St Andrews University in Scotland. "Blaming others is a standard line in Iran and this will probably only assure the already converted." Embarrassingly for the government, polls indicate that most Iranians favour better relations with the United States, which their rulers demonise as "the Great Satan". It is, however, unclear how far the regime genuinely believes its claims that foreign enemies are responsible for Iran's political turbulence, or whether their accusations are merely a cynical attempt to discredit the opposition by portraying them as lackeys of adversarial powers with no indigenous support. Expert opinion is nuanced and mixed. The regime may not be serious in claiming that the West has sent people to foment unrest, but it certainly appears to believe foreign powers are indirectly complicit, a European senior former diplomat to Tehran said. Ayatollah Khamenei and senior hardliners have often expressed a belief that foreign enemies are encouraging Iranian journalists, academics and lawyers to undermine the Islamic republic from within. "Khamenei believes there's a cultural war that is being waged and which requires very strong action by the Islamic republic to protect itself," the former diplomat said in an interview. Other analysts say the regime's conspiracy theory is aimed mostly at its own constituency. "The show trials and everything else are trying to convince the grass roots of their own movement that they're right, that there actually is a conspiracy going on and they were justified in using all this force and brutality," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. He views the list of 60 or so proscribed organisations as an Iranian government "publicity stunt" designed to portray the entire protest movement as foreign-inspired and foreign-controlled. The list looked like something "an intern has put together", he said. Some organisations have been named twice. Others "have been involved in the type of people-to-people exchanges that the Iranian government itself said it favoured," Mr Parsi said. Nor, he added, did the blacklist include a lot of Iranian organisations abroad. "That would defeat the purpose of saying this [opposition movement] is foreign." Mr Parsi acknowledged, however, that there were people within the "most paranoid elements of the security apparatus" who may actually believe some of the Iranian government's claims that the West is hell bent on fomenting a soft or "velvet" revolution. Those caught up in the post-election crackdown have been stunned by the paranoia gripping the cosseted, elite forces of repression that the regime relies on for its survival. "Until my imprisonment I had never fully appreciated the corrosive suspicion that is rotting the Islamic republic from within," wrote Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist who spent 118 days behind bars. His interrogation revealed that "the [Revolutionary] Guards see real enemies all around them - reformists within the country, hundreds of thousands of US troops outside." Even worse, Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian, added, "are the shadows - supposed agents of Britain, the United States and Israel - upon whom they impose their own fearful logic and their reinvented history". Millions of Iranians who believe Mr Ahamadinejad's election was "stolen", reject the regime's conspiratorial narrative. Many ask why their rulers tentatively discussed Iran's nuclear programme with countries it claims are trying to topple it. "If anything, in their relations with the West, they [Iran's rulers] will be accused of hypocrisy," Prof Ansari said. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition's main figurehead, recently scoffed that, unlike Mr Ahmadinejad, he had not sent a congratulations card to Barack Obama on his election as president last year. The Iranian authorities suffered acute embarrassment in November during an official anti-US rally marking the 30th anniversary of the storming of the US Embassy. Among the ritual chants of "Death to America" and dissident calls of "Death to [Iran's] Dictators", a new chant was heard: "Death to Nobody." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae