Blaming the Enemy for Internal Protests – An Historical View from Iran
IraniX no. 12
Written and Edited by Dr. Raz Zimmt
In his speech on the Iranian New Year, the Iranian leader accused the Western countries, and the United States in particular, of supporting the wave of protests which has surged in Iran in recent months. Iranian leaders have made similar claims in the past, in light of previous protests. However, accusing foreign entities for internal crises was not invented by the Islamic Republic or other autocratic leaders today. With the increasing internal opposition to the Shah's regime in the 1960's and 1970's, Mohammed Reza Shah blamed regional and international enemies for supporting the opposition in his country. Projecting responsibility in this manner serves to draw attention away from internal crises, to devaluate the Iranian opposition in the eyes of the people by claiming it collaborates with external enemies, and to justify the government's increased security expenses. Like the Shah, leaders of the Islamic Republic prefer to avoid dealing with their country's fundamental problems and blame the exacerbation of internal challenges on foreign enemies – real or imaginary.
In his speech for the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) on March 21st, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei blamed the West once again for supporting the waves of protest which have surged throughout Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini in late September of 2022. Khamenei claimed that the US president and the leaders of several European countries have explicitly supported the riots, and have provided not only providing verbal support but also financial and security aid meant to weaken the Islamic Republic. This is not the first time an Iranian leader has blamed the West, first and foremost the United States, for protests in his country. In early October of 2022, a few days after this recent wave of protests broke out, Khamenei declared that the United States and Israel were behind the riots, and that they had not been planned or carried out by "regular Iranian citizens". In his speech on November 26th for Basij week, Khamenei once again blamed the protests on Iran's enemies, who are allegedly determined to overthrow the regime. In the past, similar claims have been made after periods of protest. In early January of 2018, Khamenei blamed Iran's enemies for using various means, including financing, weapons, and intelligence agents, to support the wave of protests that swept the country in late 2017. In December of 2009, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the US and Israel for the tumultuous protests by supporters of the opposition ("The Green Movement"), which were a response to claims of forgeries in the Presidential election that summer, calling it "a Zionist and American-ordered nauseating masquerade".
Blaming foreign entities for internal battles is not exclusively typical of the Islamic Republic. Other contemporary autocratic leaders, such as Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have claimed on several occasions that waves of protest in their own countries were backed by foreign enemies. Nor is this a new phenomenon. The Iranian leader at the time, the Shah Muhammad Raza Pahlavi, blamed increasing internal opposition to his government on foreign players in the 1960s. The growing strain on Iranian-Egyptian relations since the beginning of the 1960s was partially due to the Shah's July 1960 reassertion of Iran's recognition of Israel a decade earlier. This encouraged the Shah to try and draw attention away from increasing internal challenges towards external hazards, and he decried Nasser's Egypt as a threat to Iran's internal stability.
Iran's accusation of Egypt for alleged involvement in its internal affairs climaxed after the bloody events in June of 1963, during the protest against "The White Revolution" initiated by the Shah. Egyptian diplomats were quick to take advantage of these protests to attack the Pahlavi regime, presenting it as reactionary and corrupt, and accused the Shah of leading the country to repression with his policy. Egyptian media described the protests as a popular uprising aimed at overthrowing the Shah's regime. In addition, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent 150,000 dollars by messenger to aid the victims of the protests.
These developments gave the Shah further justification to blame Egypt for interfering in Iran's internal affairs. Accusing Egypt in this manner served a few purposes: it was easier for the regime to explain the increasing opposition to the Shah's reform policies, it drew attention away from domestic troubles towards an external threat, it helped to devalue the opposition in the eyes of the public by claiming it collaborated with foreign enemies, and it justified the government's increasing security expenses. The Shah, determined to continue with his reforms, was unwilling to recognize the internal opposition to his plans and wished to deflect attention towards Egypt.
Iran's accusations of Egypt peaked at a press conference summoned on June 15, 1963, by Hassan Pakravan, who headed the Iranian Intelligence Services at the time. He accused Nasser of being responsible for the riots and divulged information about foreign operatives whom he claimed were behind the riots. Days later, in an interview for an Italian newspaper, the Shah accused the Egyptian leader of being involved in the riots. He admitted that Iran had no direct proof of this involvement, but claimed that the arrest of Nasser's agents, who admitted bringing money into Iran to support the opposition, was sufficient testimony.
However, from all testimony regarding the Egyptian involvement in the riots of 1963, it appears that the claims made by the Iranian regime were unfounded. The accusations made by Pakravan towards Egypt were based on the arrest of a Palestinian refugee from Beirut, named Muhammad al-Qaysi. The connection between the arrest of Muhammad al-Qaysi and any Egyptian involvement in the riots was cast into serious doubt by the memoirs of two high-ranking intelligence officers. Manouchehr Hashemi, former head of the counter-intelligence department at the Iranian SAVAK, addressed this incident in a 2003 article, where he noted that there were no grounds for the SAVAK's claims that Nasser's operatives had sent one million Tomans through one of Tehran's merchants to finance terrorist activity and oppositional propaganda. Hossein Fardoust, the former deputy director of the SAVAK, also wrote in his memoirs that the claims made by senior SAVAK officials regarding the alleged involvement of Nasser in the riots of 1963 were unfounded, and that their purpose was to conceal the failure of the intelligence organization, as it was surprised by the eruption of the riots.
Although foreign enemies were often blamed for supporting the opposition, the identity of these enemies changed throughout the years. If Egypt was accused of standing behind the opposition in the 1960s, in the early 1970s and in light of the tension between Iran and Iraq, the Shah placed the blame for the majority of terrorist attacks on Baghdad. And in the final decade of his regime, the Shah blamed the Soviet Union for supporting the opposition. For instance, in talks with US Ambassador William Sullivan in 1977, the Shah said that the opposition's leaders were none other than Islamic Marxists and Soviet puppets. In the final stages of his rule, the Shah even criticized the governments of Europe. In an interview dated November 1978, the Shah accused French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of supporting his opponents. As the Shah failed to understand how Islam could become a political lever that would undermine the stability of his regime, he connected the opposition to external entities, treating them all with suspicion and tying them to foreign forces. The Shah's views were largely grounded in the allure of conspiracy theories in Iranian society, which aimed at the various superpowers.
There is no doubt that the growing internal opposition to the Shah's policies provided legitimate reasons for increased concerns by the royalist regime about the rise of anti-monarchic sentiments in Iran and the influence of radical forces on internal stability. However, the accusations of foreign entities exacerbating the internal tumult were clearly unfounded. Decades later, other authoritarian leaders in and outside of Iran continue to adopt a similar approach, blaming real or imaginary foreign enemies while ignoring the fundamental problems of their countries.