Rumors and Theories Swirl Around Protests

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Almost as soon as the crackdown on protesters began in Tehran, rumors started to spread: Those doing the shooting were not Iranians.

"Confirmed: Basijis heard speaking Arabic at protests in Iran," a Facebook user wrote, referring to pro-government militiamen.

"Don't know where Arabic-speaking foreign forces are coming from, but no doubt they are now in Iran," someone tweeted.

Rumor had it that 5,000 fighters from Lebanon had been brought in to suppress the demonstrations. A Web site contributor recounted a conversation with a Basiji acknowledging their presence.

No evidence of non-Iranian participation in this month's clashes has surfaced. But to many Iranians, the idea makes perfect sense.

"You don't think, after they've been funding Hezbollah for more than 20 years and Hamas for 10, that they're not going to ask them to help?" Shahriar Etminani, a District resident, said at a candlelight vigil at Dupont Circle on Thursday night.

Others agreed, adding that Iran's government had to import outsiders because, after all, Iranians would not kill other Iranians.

Such declarations, repeated by Iranians at cocktail parties and in cyberspace, do not spring solely from a saintly view of their countrymen or a particular beef with Arabs. Nor are they new; the Iranian proclivity to believe that foreigners are behind major political events goes back more than a century and has extended to the Russians, the Americans and, especially, the British.

"There is a rich tradition of conspiracy theory in Iran," said Afshin Molavi, an Iran expert at the New America Foundation, adding that the word "Churchillian" to this day connotes treachery and cunning.

During the 1979 Islamic revolution, rumors flew that Israelis had been brought in to shoot demonstrators. After the shah was deposed, those who executed his generals were said to be Palestinians. The student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 sprang in part from a fear that the Americans were plotting to reinstate the shah.

Conspiracy theories thrive in societies with limited sources of information, said Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. "When people don't feel in command of their own destinies, people ask the question, 'Who is running us, who is managing us?' "

Azar Nafisi, the author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, agreed. "Part of this mentality comes out of being so oppressed and so defenseless that you always think that some force stronger than you is responsible."

In Iran, foreign powers have in fact interfered in politics, most notably in 1953, when a British and U.S.-backed coup ousted a democratically elected prime minister and restored the shah to power.

The event colored the country's political and cultural development. In the 1960s and '70s, a popular book and television character, "Dear Uncle Napoleon," saw British intrigue everywhere. And during the revolution, each side accused the other of foreign ties. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pointed at the shah's support from the West, and the shah quipped that the ayatollah had a "Made in England" stamp under his beard.

This week, the Iranian government said protesters were acting under orders of foreign media.

Molavi said Basiji might be more willing to confront people they believe are being directed by foreigners.

The belief that foreigners are among the shooters might be fed by the fact that some Basiji and Revolutionary Guard Corps members come from distant provinces and have unfamiliar accents. But it also speaks to a romantic view Iranians have of themselves.

"It's a combination of conspiracy theory and an excessive jingoistic feeling about Iran, that Iran has got no thieves, no murderers," Karimi-Hakkak said. "Anyone who appears to be doing anything bad has to be connected with non-Iranians."

He dismissed the idea that non-Iranians were among the militia, but Molavi and Nafisi said the possibility could not be ruled out.

In the same way that Iran sent help to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, "it could also get help from its allies," Nafisi said, but added that even if it were true, they would be a small minority acting under Iranian government directives, and the bulk of those shooting into the people are Iranians.

Even the Basiji may not be sure.

"There are Arabs among you too. No?" a contributor to a Web site reported asking an Iranian Basij member in a sandwich shop.

"Yes," the Basiji replied. But his information seemed secondhand. "I heard that they brought them to a hotel. It's said that they are from Lebanon. Last night when they gave us tuna fish for dinner, the guys were saying that they give good food to the Arabs."

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