Iran regime using superstition and mythology to evade responsibility
Iran’s leadership is well skilled in adapting its rhetoric depending on its target audience. For external audiences, it uses diplomatic language full of concern about human rights and humanitarian issues. Meanwhile, domestically, its rhetoric is largely reliant on conspiracy theories, sorcery and superstition. The latter is the focus of this article.
The contradiction between the leadership’s various rhetorical styles and claims has become even more strikingly clear during the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. Instead of acknowledging and genuinely confronting the root causes of the spread of the virus across Iran and the resulting overspill into neighboring nations such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf states, the ruling elites in Iran have displayed contradictory positions. On the one hand, they have boasted that Iranian doctors are close to creating a vaccine and there is no need for external help; while, on the other, they have requested foreign support and the lifting of US sanctions.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, typically, cited a conspiracy theory, accusing the US of creating COVID-19 explicitly to target Iran. He claimed that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they (the US) have obtained through different means.” Khamenei has also claimed that the human and supernatural antagonists of Iran have united to help each other accelerate the crisis in the country. He asserted that the country’s enemies had attempted to use demonic forces to infiltrate Iran’s political system, but had failed to do so.
Senior officials and clerics, such as Hojatoleslam Valiollah Naghipourfar, regularly make similar statements, indicating that the theocratic elite adopts policies built on magic, sorcery and conspiracy theories. The fact is that the Iranian leadership is seemingly incapable of holding individuals accountable; instead attributing any crisis in the country to wild conspiracy theories, sorcery and evil spirits.
This rhetoric is deep-rooted in the theocratic elite’s worldview. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad irritated the religious elite when he amplified the idea of the Hidden Imam Mahdi’s imminent return and cited it in most of his speeches. His political loyalists produced a film, in which Khamenei and Ahmadinejad were hailed as soldiers heralding the Mahdi’s return. Some clerics, such as Naser Makarem Shirazi, voiced opposition to the film at the time, arguing that it dealt a blow to the Iranian people’s beliefs and their faith in Mahdism.
In a recording of the former president purportedly in conversation with senior cleric Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, Ahmadinejad said that, during a speech at the UN, he sensed the presence of Imam Mahdi and felt as though an aura of divine light was surrounding him. While this prompted many clerics to accuse Ahmadinejad of exploiting the Iranian people’s beliefs for political gains, rhetoric of this nature is not unusual.
Similarly, a representative of Khamenei appointed to run the affairs of the Jamkaran Mosque in Qom claimed that he had personally witnessed secret meetings between the supreme leader and the Mahdi. This startling claim did not surprise anyone in Iran, with this rhetoric similar to that of Shah Ismail, the 16th century Safavid leader who claimed to have met the Hidden Imam in a cave near Tabriz city and to have told him: “It is time to come out. Go, I have given you the authority.”
The Iranian leadership seemingly attributes any crisis to wild conspiracy theories, sorcery and evil spirits
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Given the regularity of such rhetoric, it seems that this is a hallmark of Shiite political factions — attempting to coerce believers into greater loyalty through exploiting their religious devotion in order to enhance their legitimacy.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems that loyalist clerics like Shirazi are utilizing the same cynical calculus in their approach to the coronavirus crisis. For example, they urged the public to visit sacred shrines and tombs in order to be divinely healed. Ayatollah Mohammed Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative in Qom, said: “We consider this sacred place as a haven for healing. Accordingly, this place should remain open. The people should flock to it en masse.”
Similarly, a post on the website of the famous Fatima Masoumeh Shrine criticized the decision of the provincial council in Qom to suspend congregational prayers and sterilize the shrine’s tomb, falsely claiming that the structure of the shrine is antibacterial.
Due to this metaphysical and mythical rhetoric, playing on the public’s heartstrings, exploiting their desperation and appealing to their religious devotion, people took to the streets to protest the closure of the Fatima Masoumeh Shrine. Some stormed the shrine, while others professed their belief in its miraculous powers by licking it, rather than listening to medical advice that such places are hotspots for the virus to spread.
All these facts lead us to the inescapable conclusion that, by embracing such rhetoric, the Iranian elite seeks to evade responsibility for the precarious political and economic realities its policies have caused and the obligations for which it is responsible, while attempting to enhance its legitimacy and political standing through appeals to superstition and mythology.
At a time of multiple crises, of which COVID-19 is the latest, Iran’s theocratic elite is finding that its customary superstition-based metaphysical excuses and conspiracy theories may not be enough to sedate the worries and anger of the long-suffering Iranian public. While the religious elite attributes every failure to abstract causes and blames external factors regionally and internationally, as always, more and more Iranians are no longer gullible, especially as the government’s failure in dealing effectively with the coronavirus is clearly apparent to all.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami