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Iran’s Conspiracy Theories

Sincere or not, conspiracy theories like this present Islam as a victim of global persecution, thus giving support to Iran’s efforts, as the world’s only modern theocracy, to be the leader of a global Islamist movement. This is on display also in conservative Iranians’ responses to the series of acid attacks perpetrated against women in Isfahan.

Despite being a decidedly domestic problem, this too has been a source of conspiracy theories directed against the West. IranWire on Wednesday published two separate reports on the attacks and the response of government officials and clerics to it. While it has been generally accepted that the attacks were extreme instances of vigilantes attacking women whom they determined to be improperly covered according to Islamic principles, the government has rejected this interpretation, with Ahmad Salek, member of parliament from Isfahan saying that the connection between the attacks and the hejab is merely a rumor “made up by the mercenaries who live in the West and want to weaken the regime.”

Mohammadreza Naghdi, the commander of the civilian paramilitary Basij, went even further, suggesting that there are links between the perpetrators of the acid attacks and Western intelligence agencies. The Basij is tasked with enforcing Islamic principles in public. Its power has recently been expanded by the government, and it is known for using violent attacks to “enjoin good and forbid wrong.” Thus it shares the supposed motives of the acid attackers.

IranWire also suggests that these attacks are connected to the recent resurgence of the paramilitary group Ansar e-Hezbollah, which announced in September that it would resume the practice of publicly repressing supposedly anti-Islamic behavior and dress. Somewhat ironically, while trying to dispel the notion of a connection between the acid attacks and this strategy of “enjoining good,” Mohammadreza Naghdi urged the media to encourage continued vigilance against those who seem not to be upholding supposed Islamic principles.

Again, it cannot be said with certainty whether Naghdi and others are sincere in their efforts to blame Western entities for carrying out such attacks or connecting them to the empowerment of domestic paramilitaries. But it is clear that this strategy encourages more paramilitary loyalty and opposition to the West. It is also clear that such accusations are made without evidence.

The tendency of Iranian officials to spread wild conspiracy theories has the added effect of casting doubt upon Iranian claims about situations where foreign interference is a possibility. For instance, Iran claimed on Tuesday via Fars News Agency that it had arrested several spies in Bushehr near the site of the country’s first nuclear reactor.

In the past there have indeed been sabotage attacks launched against the Iranian nuclear program, such as the Stuxnet computer virus assumed to have originated in Israel and the US. But there have also been incidents, such as last month’s apparent downing of a drone aircraft, wherein Iran’s claims of an Israeli link have been extensively questioned. Hardline officials who oppose negotiations over the country’s nuclear program benefit from the impression that that program is under constant threat from aggressive outside forces.

The perception of such a constant threat also helps to muster support for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s so-called “resistance economy” aimed at promoting growth in spite of economic sanctions. Here as well, by portraying Western nations as blindly aggressive, Iran avoids confronting the notion that it could overcome those sanctions simply by making reasonable compromises in the nuclear domain.

Contributing to this perception of blind aggression, Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht asserted on Monday that recent reductions in OPEC oil prices are not a result of market factors but are a conspiracy by Western nations and Iran’s regional adversaries to “squeeze the Islamic Republic.” Reuters carried Nobakht’s remarks soon afterward.

Analysts find that Iran requires prices of no less than 100 dollars per barrel in order to balance its budget – much more than its regional competitors and fellow OPEC members. Prices have fallen to about 86 dollars per barrel in the past three months, leading Iran to initially call for supply cuts before changing tack and suggesting that it can live with lower prices.