Bahai News - Encyclopaedia Iranica
Conspiracy theories and
By Ahmad Ashraf
the Persian Mind
Conspiracy theories in Persia are a complex set of beliefs attributing the
course of Persian history and politics to the machinations of hostile foreign
powers and secret organizations.
In contemporary social psychology such theories are defined as elaborate and
internally consistent systems of "collective delusions," often
tenaciously held and extremely difficult to refute.
Many conspiracy theories are based on a simple dualism in which the world is
viewed as divided between good and evil forces with the latter determining
the course of history. Various failures and disasters, for example, defeats
in war, revolutions, and general backwardness can thus be blamed on powerful
Conspiracy theories often serve an important social function, helping to
assuage certain kinds of anxiety among group members but also often limiting
or hindering their capacity to respond effectively to external and internal
social and political challenges.
Particularly since the beginning of the 20th century, Persians from all
walks of life and all ideological orientations have relied on conspiracy
theories as a basic mode of understanding politics and history.
The fact that the great powers have in fact intervened covertly in Persian
affairs has led ordinary people, political leaders, even the rulers themselves
to interpret their history in terms of elaborate and devious conspiracies.
The acceptance of such theories has in itself influenced the course
of modern Persian history, for it has engendered a sense of helplessness in
dealing with the rumored activities of foreign conspirators.
Conspiracy theories in modern Persia can generally be divided into two
categories: those focused on supposed plots by Western colonial powers and
those focused on satanic forces believed to have been active against Persia
from antiquity to the present.
Conspiracy theories focused on colonial powers
The weakness of Persia under the last three Qajar shahs (1896-1924),
coupled with such events as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, which
had the support of Great Britain against Russian interests; the Anglo-Russian
Convention of 1907, by which Russia and Great Britain divided Persia into
zones of influence; the occupation of Persian territory by Great Britain,
Russia, and Ottoman during World War I; the abortive 1919 Anglo-Persian
agreement, by which Persia was to become a kind of semiprotectorate; and
the British-backed coup d'etat of 1921, which led to the establishment of
the Pahlavi dynasty, encouraged the development of conspiracy theories
focused on foreign powers.
During most of this period, foreign embassies openly intervened in Persian
affairs through individual political notables, tribal khans, wealthy
merchants, and members of the olama (clergy).
For their part, these Persian notables found foreign patronage extremely
tempting; it was easy to overcome rivals and to mislead timid compatriots
with the air of being 'in the know.' Such notables, hinting at knowledge of
the real intentions of the foreigners, fostered a general sense that Persian
affairs were directed by hidden plotters in the embassies.
Conspiratorial schemata focused on the British
Although there have been conspiracy theories implicating all the Western
powers that have competed in Persia, those involving the British have been
most popular among members of the ruling and middle classes born before
World War II.
The basic premise is that the British have controlled the course of modern
world history, including all major events in Persia from the Russo-Persian
wars of the early 19th century to the Revolution of 1979.
The British are depicted as cold-blooded, foxy, and cunning (rubah-e
makkar), able to "cut off the heads of their enemies even with
cotton" -- that is, possessing nearly miraculous powers (siasat-e
Engelis) to achieve their ends.
They are supposed to have duped and manipulated the "simple Russians" and
the "naive Yankees." such notions were influenced by conspiracy theories
abroad in France and Germany since the 18th century by students returning
Russian, German, and Ottoman propaganda against the British in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries encouraged fears of secret British designs against
Persia and the Islamic world as a whole.
Conspiracy theories focused on the C.I.A.
After the C.I.A. had engineered the 1953 coup that overthrew the Mosaddeq
government, the dominant position of the United States in Persia began
to be reflected in conspiracy theories.
The Persian elite of the post-Mosaddeq period, one American diplomat noted,
belied in the myth of "American omnipotence." Imagining that primeministers
were chosen by the United States, "candidates or would-be candidates for
prime minister come to advertise their assets and their availability."
It was widely believed that the shah's White Revolution and the
land-reform program of the 1960s had been designed in detail by Americans,
though in fact American officials had favored more moderate land reform.
Leftists and many others in the middle class believed that the reforms
had been designed to undermine the feudal basis of British interests in
Persia. Khomeini, among others, considered land reform part of an American
plot to destroy Persian agriculture in order to create a market for surplus
American produce and to ensure Persian dependence on food supplies from the
Satanic theories of conspiracy
According to the satanic theories, the failure of Persia to attain its
"natural" position of political, military, cultural, and religious
superiority is the result of conspiracy by inimical global forces, variously
"Hellenic westernism," Freemasonry, Zionism, the Bahai faith, and even the
Hellenic westernism. The uneasy relationship between Persia and and
western powers from antiquity to the present has encouraged intellectuals
like Ahmad Fardid, Zabih Behruz, and Hosayn Malek to adopt theories of
The term gharbzadegi ("plagued by the West" or "westoxication") was
coined by Fardid, who claimed that Freemasons and Jews are engaged in a great
conspiracy to "hellenize" the entire world.
The concept of "westoxication" appears to be derived from a recurring theme
in Martin Heidegger's works, the "darkening of the world." The perceived
decadence of the West had already begun, according to Fardid, with the
development of Greek philosophy, in which human beings (vojud) were
separated from the the unity of consciousness (delagahi).
The humanistic belief that man is at the center of the universe has
determined the Western ethos since the time of the Greek philosophers.
Western man is immersed in technology and more concerned with himself than
with his spiritual calling in the world.
This ethos is in conflict with the "spiritual ethos" of the East, but, on the
other hand, the East has lost its cultural potency and is dominated by
Western civilization. The liberal conception of a free society is useless
in a world in which being and consciousness are no longer well integrated.
Fradid believed that the Constitutional Revolution in particular was
tainted by Western Freemasonry and Judaism. His theories have been adopted by
some intellectuals who claim that the policies of the current Islamic regime
are manifestations of Eastern spirituality.
Conspiracy between the shi'ite olama and world powers
In the 1980s Shoja-al-Din Shafa, a former Persian deputy court minister
for cultural affairs, developed another conspiracy theory, based on ideas
in the deposed shah's book that a "strange amalgam" -- among the
Shi'ite clergy, leftists, Western media, major oil companies, and the
British and American governments -- had set out to destroy the rapidly
developing nation of Persia.
Shafa suggested that "the emergence of the Shi'ite olama in the
10th century constitutes the greatest conspiracy in Persian history and
perhaps the oldest conspiracy in world history." The purpose was to
emasculate true Shi'ism by transforming it into the instrument of corrupt
Three "capital investments" ensured the loyalty of the olama.
First, they received financial support from temporal authorities and
bazaaris, a "sacred coalition" of the forces of tyranny
(estebdad), exploitation (estesmar) and demagoguery
Second, they accepted the "Indian money" and other contributions from Great
Britain in the late 19th century. Finally, in the 1970s a gigantic coalition
of big oil companies and the intelligence agencies of the United States,
Great Britain, the U.S.S.R., and Israel used the olama to mobilize the
forces of the Islamic revolution in order to halt the development of Persia
and to prevent its impending entry into the "northern club."
Conspiracies of the Freemasons, Bahais and Zionists
It is commonly believed in Persia that various elite groups are organized
in secret lodges of Freemasons under the control of the British, who use
them to advance their secret designs to control world affairs.
Groups accused of being under the thumb of the Freemasons include former
courtiers, landowners, tribal chiefs, intellectuals, leading olama,
wealthy merchants, contractors, influence peddlers, political bosses, and
most politicians, including deputies to the Majles and cabinet members.
Belief in a conspiracy among the adherents of the Bahai faith is based
on a forged document attributed to Prince Dimitri Dolgorukov (known in
Persian as Kinyaz Dalguroki), the Russian minister to Persia in 1846-54.
It purports to a memoir in which the prince described how he created the
Babi and Bahai faiths as a way of weakening Shi'ism and Persia as a whole.
It was first circulated in Tehran in various forms in the late 1930s and
has since been widely cited in Muslim polemics as evidence that the Bahais
were controlled first by the Russians and later by the British or the
Americans or both.
Those who believe in an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the
world find their proof in the protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document
originally forged by the czarist secret police but still widely accepted
as authentic in the Middle East.
The Zionist conspiracy is thought to have supported the "despotic" rule of
the shah; for example, soldiers who are supposed to have massacred
"thousands" of innocent people on Black Friday (8 September 1978) are said
to have been Israelis.
Some people have argued that Israel supported the Islamic revolution in
order to weaken its only potential rival for domination in the region by
replacing the shah with a "vulnerable and dependent Islamic regime."
The popularity of conspiracy theories among Persians arises from a
combination of political, social, psychological, and cultural factors:
frequent foreign interference during the period of semicolonialism in the
early 20th century and great-power politics in the 1940s-80s; the legacy of
deeply rooted pre-Islamic and Shi'ite cultural beliefs about satanic forces;
and the effectiveness of such theories as a collective defense mechanism,
particularly during periods of powerlessness, defeat, and political turmoil.
Certain deep-rooted aspects of the Persian cultural heritage, which
seem to have no parallel in other Muslim societies, may also have contributed
to the popularity of conspiracy theories. They include a dualistic world view,
probably derived from pre-Islamic religious beliefs, in which good and evil
powers were considered to be in conflict, with the latter directing the
course of history.
The mythological character of traditional Persian historiography, which may
reflect a particular receptivity to the mythological mode of thought; a
propensity to poetic exaggeration (eghraq-e sha'erana) among the
Persians at all social levels; and a long tradition of attributing miraculous
deeds to the twelve Shi'ite imams are other probable contributing factors.
Although blaming others can help assuage anxiety about failures,
ready acceptance of conspiracy theories has also proved to be highly
dysfunctional; in modern Persia it has contributed to political malaise that
has sometimes precluded rational responses to internal and external crises.
©Copyright 1996, Iranian
Page last updated/revised 051401
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