Dealing With Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories
by Daniel Pipes
N.B.: (1) The research for this study was commissioned by the CIA. (2) This text differs substantially from that published in Orbis.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the longer you've been here the more you understand Iran. Most of our intelligence reporting has been wrong all along and not just since the revolution. Yours will be too. None of us understands the Iranians.
A strange event took place in November 1977 as the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was visiting Washington.
Iranians of all political complexions living in the United States took advantage of his presence to rally in Washington. Marchers protesting and supporting the shah's regime (the former wearing masks to hide their identities from the Iranian secret police, SAVAK), confronted each other on the Ellipse near the White House. They first traded insults, then physical blows. To separate the Iranian factions, the police used tear gas, some of which unfortunately wafted over the White House lawn just as President Jimmy Carter was formally welcoming the shah. The gas settled, causing the high-ranking figures to cry, wheeze, and cough. Predictably, pictures of the two heads of state wiping tears from their eyes were widely distributed and noted.
American officials saw this mishap as embarrassing and amusing, but not terribly significant. After all, anyone can demonstrate in the Ellipse, masked or not; and tear gas on the White House grounds resulted from nothing more than a mix of Iranian fanaticism and untoward wind patterns. Not for a moment did American officials connect the botched ceremony in Washington with subsequent disturbances in Iran.
But they should have, for Iranians saw the incident very differently. Pro- and anti-shah elements alike agreed that it marked complete U.S. government abandonment of the shah. Pahlavi himself, in typical Iranian style, suspected the authorities of simultaneously welcoming him and supporting his enemies. Focusing on the demonstrators' hidden faces, he claimed that this proved his opposition was made up of foreigners. "The masks hid non-Iranian demonstrators - professional troublemakers hired on the spot. . . . Most of them were young Americans - blonds, blacks, Puerto Ricans, together with some Arabs. Moreover, there was foreign money involved in paying their bills." Back in Iran, when the head of SAVAK saw a videotape of the incident, he reportedly concluded that the shah could not last.
If possible, the opposition read even more significance into the tear gas incident. Ibrahim Yazdi, leader of the main Iranian dissident organization in the United States, reported to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that the Carter Administration had abandoned the shah. According to Gary Sick, President Carter's Middle East specialist, the dissidents "reasoned that such an event could have occurred only at the president's behest. Thus they quickly concluded that Carter had abandoned the shah and launched a series of protest demonstrations and meetings [in Iran]." What came to be known as "the Washington tears" undermined the shah's claim to American support and deeply harmed his imperial prestige.
As this episode suggests, Americans and Middle Easterners understand politics in profoundly different ways. The event may take place in downtown Washington and concern a key ally; still, Americans responsible for foreign policy miss its implications. While American officials are nearly blind to conspiracy theories - the belief that complex plots are planned out by shadowy but omnipotent forces - Middle Easterners discern them in the merest accidents. These discrepancies hobble Americans' understanding of public life in the Middle East, including the way in which Arabs see Israel and Iranians see Iraq. Indeed, neglecting conspiracy theories can lead to a profound misreading of that region.
Israelis also find their actions get interpreted in ways they not only never intended but never imagined. Take two incidents: In 1956, Israeli forces avenged a terrorist incident from Egyptian soil by striking hard against an Egyptian target, intending to make sure that there would be no repetition. Instead, the disproportionate use of force led Egyptians to see Israel as an American agent. One Egyptian told an Israeli interlocutor, "You frequently do things that give the impression that you are the tool of an alien policy in the Middle East." The outbreak of the intifada in December 1987 resulted from the widespread conviction in Gaza that a traffic accident (in which an Israel truck driver struck a car, killing four Palestinian laborers) was a purposeful act of revenge by a relative of the Israeli who had been stabbed to death in Gaza two days earlier. The resulting fury took Israelis completely by surprise.
While the conspiracy mentality exists in all regions of the world, it is outstandingly common in the Middle East. Few there resist its impact; leading politicians, religious figures, intellectuals, and journalists espouse wild fears of world domination by enemies. These ideas have a home at the heart of the political spectrum and therefore influence the tenor of Middle East political life. Nothing is so false that someone will not believe it; and transparent silliness does not reduce the importance of conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories spawn their own discourse, complete in itself and virtually immune to rational argument. Five assumptions distinguish the conspiracy theorist from more conventional patterns of thought: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains; power, fame, money, and sex account for all.
In the Middle East, moreover, almost every speculation about the hidden hand ultimately refers back to two grand conspirators: Zionists and imperialists. And imperialism, of course, means primarily the U.S. government. Communists and others come into consideration only to the extent they ally with one of these two principals.
That the U.S. government is blamed for so much that goes wrong in the Middle East means that the fear of conspiracy in the Middle East has many implications for the U.S. government. Much of the region's anti-Western, anti-Israeli, anti-democratic, anti-moderate, and anti-modern behavior results from fears of clandestine forces.
The U.S. government should integrate conspiracy theories into its reporting, briefing, and negotiating activities. It should also consider exploiting opportunities created by the conspiracy mentality.
Pay Close Attention
Acknowledge the importance of conspiracy theories. It is tempting for the serious analyst or policymaker to dismiss conspiracy theories. They derive from rumors, sensational news items, ephemeral tracts, breezy memoirs, and other suspect sources. Their patent falsity makes them appear unsuitable for discussion by sober bureaucracies. Just as fastidious historians usually avoid "this dubious documentation, preferring the seemingly purer evidence of well-written official dispatches or of well-bound books," fastidious analysts are inclined to ignore bombastic and scurrilous claims.
Americans especially tend reflexively to dismiss the idea of conspiracy. Living in a political culture ignorant of secret police, a political underground, and coups d'état, they often find it hard to imagine that plots do play a role in other countries. Indeed Middle East paranoia bemuses sophisticated Americans. At a Beirut dinner party hosted some years ago by Malcolm Kerr, late president of the American University of Beirut, the conversation turned to a hail storm the night before, prompting guests to speculate about its possible meteorological causes. Kerr mischievously speculated, "Do you think the Syrians did it?" Fair enough - so long as merriment does not distract from the somber importance of the conspiracy mentality.
It is especially easy to disregard the theories when they pertain to oneself and one knows them to be patently false. Jordanian talk about the world-wide power of the Zionist movement usually inspires disdainful smiles in Jerusalem, and theories of imperialism arouse a like reaction in Washington. But inaccuracy does not render these conjectures insignificant.
Listen to Middle East informants. The better to comprehend Arab and Iranian views, close attention should be given to the glosses offered by their conationals. As Yehoshafat Harkabi remarks, "Arabs interpret their position copiously, and their elaborations are always superior to foreign, including Israeli, expositions." While this takes the point a bit far, one can learn much from those who understand the conspiracy mentality from the inside. Similarly, statements to constituents count more than rhetoric vented at the United Nations. Read the local press for insights into the minds of the leadership.
Listen to public rather than private statements. Middle East leaders often speak differently in private than they do in public. Which counts for more? Diplomats, intelligence agents, journalists, and others with access to the mighty tend to flatter themselves with the assumption that the inside story is the real one. But this is usually incorrect. Even if private remarks more accurately reflect a leader's personal views, they are not policy. Public statements usually reflect policies more accurately than private ones; when they do not, the government is headed for trouble. Were the views expressed in tête-à-têtes with Western officials operational, the Arab-Israeli conflict would have been resolved long ago.
Report conspiracy thinking . . . . Western journalists, diplomats, and intelligence agents in the Middle East generally bleach conspiracy theories out of their reporting. They do so to protect their own credibility in the eyes of their audiences. The U.S. press devoted massive attention to aspects of the Rushdie affair, but it hardly ever mentioned the conspiratorial interpretation of The Satanic Verses that loomed so large for Khomeini and his aides. The sentence of Saddam Husayn's 2 April 1990 speech in which he threatened to burn half of Israel was quoted over and over again; but much longer passages about conspiracies were ignored.
There is a world of difference between Middle East media in the raw and the sanitized news that reaches the West. John B. Kelly highlighted this disparity in a memorable passage published in 1973:
Diplomats also discount the conspiracy mentality. When U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan had to report on a conspiracy-obsessed shah of Iran during the terrible days of late 1978, he dealt with the shah's worries in as delicate and roundabout manner as he could. Returning from a particularly agitated session at the royal palace, Sullivan decided to request a letter from President Jimmy Carter to the shah, "reaffirming policy support for him." But Sullivan would go only so far in that reaffirmation:
Was Sullivan right to maintain the formal protocol of diplomacy in this incidence? Or would he have done better to have recommended that Carter directly confront the shah's obsessions?
There can be little doubt that the latter course would have been the wiser. True, it falls outside the normal bounds of diplomacy to deny that one's intelligence service is working hand-in-glove with its enemies; but this is no reason to shy away from doing so. Arguably, not reporting on the shah's thinking cost the U.S. government very heavily in Iran, for it deprived Washington of information on which to make a decision. Reticence on the part of the ambassador in Tehran meant willfully obscuring a key actor's thinking.
No matter how bizarre they sound back home, theories about the hidden hand should be carefully accounted for by diplomats and intelligence agents. Ignoring this prominent strain of Middle East thinking means not to understand the way intellectuals, religious leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians see the world. The analyst ignores Kelly's "monstrous playing board" at his peril.
. . . But with extra care. Conspiracy theories must be reported with special consideration, lest they be portrayed as the truth. Radio Monte Carlo, a French station, fell into this trap when its correspondent, Mustafa Bakri, reported on the killing of Palestinian workers by a deranged Israeli gunman in May 1990. He related that "important diplomatic sources" in Cairo "revealed new information" to the effect that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel personally ordered not only the murders, but also that soldiers chase and kill Palestinians afterwards. Quite the reverse: Shamir unreservedly condemned the killings and the soldiers protected Palestinians. Bakri had every reason to transmit the thinking prevalent in Cairo, but not to endorse it as he did.
All those who deal with conspiracy theories, whether journalists or government employees, must use discretion and judgment to distance themselves from these notions. As a form of disinformation, conspiracy theories need to be known for what they are, and not purveyed as plain news. This subject matter demands extra judgment by the reporter of conspiracy theories and his editorial supervisor.
Anticipate malign interpretations. The Middle Eastern readiness to misread completely innocuous acts means that anything is likely to be interpreted in a hostile way. The worthiest impulses become deathly plots. Miles Copeland, an American with years of experience in intelligence, put it well: "In the Arab world, even the most innocent, high sounding statement . . . is examined microscopically for and can be given the most sinister implications by a clever opponent bent on doing so." Through the wrong timing or the wrong wording, Westerners can unwittingly become party to the political hallucinations of others.
Innocent of the Middle East's paranoid style, Americans during the 1960s and 1970s inadvertently did just about everything to confirm Iranian fears of plots. The huge size of the official American presence and its proximity to the central institutions of power, economics, and culture eased the way for the opposition to direct populist rage against Americans. American arrogance grated on Iranians. Worst of all, U.S. citizens in Iran won immunity from Iranian laws, a privileged position that smacked of the old capitulations (and gave Ayatollah Khomeini his first public issue). Awareness of the conspiracy mentality could have done much to prevent this hostility from forming in the first place.
The U.S. Senate's vote in the spring of 1979 to condemn Tehran's execution of a Jewish merchant who had been accused of being a Zionist agent had an unintended impact in Iran. Rather than showing America's humanitarian concern, it was perceived as a proof of a Zionist-imperialist alliance, and thus undercut the possibility of improved relation with Washington. It specifically led to the ambassador-designate to Iran, Robert Cutler, being rejected. More generally, as the scholar William O. Beeman, notes: "the American government, without specifically intending to do so, continued to behave throughout the revolution in ways that could be shown by skillful rhetoricians in the mosques and the streets in Iran to be characteristic of The Great Satan."
Anticipate arguments and avoid taking steps which appear to confirm paranoia. Even routine greetings on the occasion of a holiday - the sort of thing that goes on all the time in diplomatic exchanges - can arouse suspicions; this was the case in September 1978, when the U.S. government congratulated the shah on the occasion of the end of the Ramadan fast. The opposition interpreted this as an declaration of renewed support for the shah. A memo from the State Department in May 1990 instructed its diplomats to warn participants in an Arab League summit that their anti-American rhetoric harm relations with the U.S. government; Saddam Husayn portrayed this routine message as proof of a conspiracy against himself.
In 1962, Richard Murphy recounts, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus distributed pictures of Astronaut John Glenn "to a fascinated Syrian public." This seemingly innocent act came to be interpreted as the first step in a far-reaching political realignment:
In short, think like a conspiracy theorist. As the political scientist Robert Jervis observes: "Because decision makers know that others are not apt to believe in coincidences, they may delay or change their behavior in order to avoid the appearance of being influenced by other events that are happening at the time."
Worry more about quiescence than active support. The real danger of conspiracy theories lies not in how many people believe but in how many refuse to oppose the idea. Obsessive anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism do not win enough support to get a ruler into power, but they do much to facilitate the ruler's imposition of a xenophobic and repressive regime.
Hear yourself as a Middle Easterner would. American politicians often neglect to consider how their words resonate in the Middle East. The Eisenhower Administration exaggerated its role in restoring the shah of Iran in 1953, thereby confirming the worst fears of the Iranian opposition. When J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a television audience in 1973 that the U.S. government bears "a very great share of the responsibility" for violence in the Middle East, he was referring to what he saw as the incompetence of American policy. But Middle Eastern listeners heard something quite different; for them, the statement confirmed their suspicions that the U.S. government had sponsored violence in the region. In this way, Fulbright unintentionally confirmed Middle East paranoia. When Senator Henry Jackson averred in October 1979 that the Iranian revolution was bound to fail, and that Iran would then break up into many smaller states, he was expressing his deep concern. Rather than understand this, Iranians interpreted it as a declaration of American wishes: some took heart and others despaired at the news.
The Bush Administration's first major policy statement on the Middle East, delivered by Secretary of State James Baker on 22 May 1989, again demonstrated American tone-deafness. For the most part, Baker used standard phrases and recalled traditional American policies. But one line, his call to Israelis "to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel," was startlingly original. By "greater Israel," Baker meant to refer to the Likud Party's hopes to retain control of the West Bank, an area occupied in 1967. In the Arab world, however, Greater Israel means something much grander, namely Israeli conquest of a huge area stretching from Egypt to Iran. Thus, the American secretary's call seemed authoritatively to confirm a deeply held and cherished fantasy. As Syrian Vice-President 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam put it, "the Zionist call for establishing a state of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates is no longer a secret."
Timing is important too. The visit to Iran by Averell Harriman in May 1961 appeared to the shah as a signal of support for the opposition party. Hafiz al-Asad interpreted a U.S. government announcement about the Hama massacre of February 1982 as an effort to encourage the uprising against his regime. When the Red Cross condemned both the Iraqi and Iranian governments for their treatment of prisoners of war, the question arose on both sides, "Why now? Who benefits?"
Speeches, letters, and other forms of communication need to be gone over by specialists with an eye to nuances and misinterpretations. Do the contents contain ambiguities that can be misinterpreted? (Check the dictionary.) Does the timing have some implication in the Middle East? (Check the Islamic calendar.) Does the manner of presentation send an untoward signal? (Check with old hands.)
Remember that official and unofficial words get confused. Baffled by freedom of speech and the freewheeling ways of democratic governments, Middle Eastern leaders cannot always tell the difference between official policy and the views of editorialists and parliamentarians. New York Times editorials are assumed to carry official sanction. The U.S. Congress' essentially meaningless gesture in 1990 urging that the U.S. government recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital was wrongly perceived in the Middle East as a major change in American policy; accordingly, this event which was barely reported in the United States received enormous attention in Arab capitals.
Assure a successful outcome before formal negotiations begin. When public negotiations fail, the implications can be great. Not closing a deal is likely to be seen as a sign of insincerity. William R. Brown, an American official who traveled with Henry Kissinger, provides perspective:
In advance of formal negotiations, foreigners should make sure there is a realistic expectation of success; or that even failure has benefits which outweigh the costs of failing.
Avoid bestowing the kiss of death. Conspiracy theories foster a widespread suspicion among Muslims that foreign powers covertly control their rulers; overbearing foreign support thereby undermines a Middle East leader's reputation and this redounds to hurt the foreign patron. In Syria, the government did so badly in the elections of 1954 in large part because it was seen as far too pliant to American wishes. Not accidentally, it was replaced by leftist politicians who viewed Washington with hostility, and these ruled for decades afterwards. The shah of Iran and Anwar as-Sadat lost their countrymen's respect because both were (wrongly) seen as agents of Washington. Hafiz al-Asad and the communist rulers of Afghanistan suffered from their too close association with Moscow.
The merest sign of good will can be blown up into collusion by suspicious Middle Easterners. In 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski met Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan at a celebration in Algeria, thereby virtually ending Bazargan's political career. The next year, Brzezinski signaled an American interest to improve relations to the Iraqi government. While the Iraqis hardly noted his offer, the Iranians jumped on it as a sign of Iraqi subservience to the U.S. government and responded with threats to kill American hostages in Tehran.
Leaders being no more immune to conspiracy thinking than the citizenry, they too tend to exaggerate the role of the foreigner. The shah of Iran, for example, came to depend deeply on the U.S. government. On the one hand, good relations made him confident: "As long as the Americans support me, we can do and say whatever we want - and I am immovable." On the other hand, insufficient support rendered him desperate: "If America does not provide military aid, I will have no further responsibility for keeping Iran independent." In general, when a leader is so vilified as an American puppet that he withdraws from his own body politic, and instead seeks approval from abroad, the moment has arrived when foreign kisses threaten his rule.
Target enemy leaders. U.S. government use of force requires special care, especially as Arab and Muslim leaders are likely to perceive its goals as more extensive than is the case. Limited objectives are likely to be interpreted as something much more ambitious and subversive. When great powers dispatch force, Middle Easterners assume that the target regime itself is under attack. Should the regime remain in office, that in itself constitutes a great victory. This was Gamal Abdel Nasser's response to the Suez operation of 1956, Tehran's to American efforts to spring the U.S. hostages at the Tehran embassy in April 1980, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi's to the American raid on Tripoli in 1986, and Saddam Husayn's to the war against him in 1991. In each case, Middle Eastern leaders saw their very survival as a great achievement. In general, once fighting begins, the enemy leader had better go.
Use conspiracy theories as a window into the accuser's mind. Conspiracy theories provide remarkable insights into the minds of their propagators. Mirror-imaging - the projecting of one's own motives and behavior on to others - implies that accusations often reflect the speaker's own intentions. In February 1943, Josef Goebbels instructed Nazi propagandists to stress that if Germany loses the war, the Germans "will all be annihilated by world Jewry. Jewry is firmly decided to exterminate all Germans. International law and international custom will be no protection against the Jewish will for total annihilation." This was, of course total nonsense; but it did closely describe what Nazis were doing to Jews. Soon after Mehmet Ali Ağca's attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in May 1981, Soviet authorities put out stories about Washington having plotted the assassination attempt because of the pope's stand on the Palestinian issue. In reality, it was most likely the Kremlin that arranged for the killing, fearing John Paul's stand on Polish issues.
Gamal Abdel Nasser's insistence that Israel planned to eliminate the Arabs corresponded to his own effort to eliminate Israel. Asad's references to Greater Israel confirm his own intent to establish a Greater Syria; indeed, the more actively he pursues Greater Syria, the more he speaks of Greater Israel. When Iranian leaders accuse the "anti-human inmates" of the Bush White House of not caring "a bit for the people of the United States, not even for the lives of the American hostages," they betray much about their own attitudes toward Iranian citizens.
The Iraqi leadership habitually mirror-images. Saddam Husayn's speech of 17 July 1990 (the critical one that set off the Kuwait crisis) revealed the U.S. government's detailed plan for world hegemony through the
This fantasy has no connection to American intentions, but it does offer startling insights into Saddam Husayn's own ambition. Substitute Iraq for the United States, and his plan is quite exactly laid out. And was it coincidence that Bush's ultimate goal was portrayed as becoming "the world's dictator"?
An editorial in an Iraqi newspaper was even more revealing and articulate. An American victory over Iraq, it held, would
In an open letter to George Bush during the buildup to war, Saddam accused the American president of "living in a world you created for yourself through money, threats, and the love of destruction and harm." During the war, the regime that occupied Kuwait, plundered the country, and tried to erase its identity accused the U.S. government of intending to not wanting merely "to strip nations of their natural resources but also to strip them of their cultural, historical wealth."
Iraqi accusations are also revealing in their detail. A Baghdad radio station blamed the CIA for planning to remove the Saudi crown prince, 'Abdallah bin 'Abd al-'Aziz, either through political means or by means of an "accident" which would not arouse suspicion - precisely the way that Saddam disposes of enemies. When Middle Eastern despots rail against enemies, projection often causes them inadvertently to offer candid self-descriptions. "America isn't a nation at all. It's one enormous gang! A gang like Al Capone's!" Thus spoke Yahya Hamuda, Yasir 'Arafat's predecessor as head of the PLO. This rings false for the United States, but it does accurately describe the PLO of the 1960s. When Arabs accuse Israel of beating prisoners on the head until wounds appear, they are in fact conjuring up their own tortures.
[Investigations in most of the Middle East being a sham, so they must be in Israel too. When the Rabin government put together the Shangar Commission to look into the February 1994 massacre of Arabs in Hebron by an Israeli, Syrian radio saw the whole thing as a hoax and accused the commission of having "fabricated an investigation."] Middle Eastern narcotics agents profit from the trade they are supposed to suppress, and so too must their Western counterparts. According to the head of the Iranian anti-drug effort, Reza Sayfollahi, "the international drug smugglers conducted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) earned billions of dollars for the U.S. annually."
Saddam Husayn's subservient media actually described their own master when describing the king of Saudi Arabia: "This Fahd is no more than a sinful libertine who filled the earth with sins and debauchery before he came to his throne through plotting and treachery. It is easy for such a treacherous libertine to lie, fabricate, and forge facts." Saddam Husayn uses foreign hostilities to mobilize support at home, so he assumes democratic leaders do likewise. Thus, he accused the Thatcher government in early 1990 of creating a crisis with Iraq "to divert attention" from deteriorating circumstances within Britain. In fact, Saddam accurately described his own actions, for the end of the war with Iran created economic and political expectations he could not fulfill.
This points to a deeper truth. While the conspiracy theorist sees himself as very different from the conspirators he despises, he actually resembles them closely. In this, he echoes the clinical paranoid's pattern: "the faults he finds in others are usually his own, and his picture of other people is a mirror of himself." While conspiracy theorists see themselves as persecuted and endangered, in the process of defending themselves, they switch roles with their victims and end up as the persecutors and bullies. "Those who fear a Jewish Conspiracy," Tadao Yanaihara rightly observes, "are those who suffer from nightmares of persecutions they themselves inflicted on Jews." Conspiracy theories, in short, provide rare insights to the internal workings of otherwise inaccessible minds.
Discourage the Conspiracy Mentality? ...
Americans and other outsiders have a choice: help wean Middle East Muslims from the conspiratorial obsession, or probe this weakness to further their own policies. Should the U.S. government attempt to tamp down the conspiracy mentality or exploit it?
In the overwhelming majority of circumstances the former course is certainly wiser, for two main reasons. First, the proliferation of conspiracy theories makes for a heavy, pernicious political atmosphere, rife with danger and suspicion. American interests call for stability and rationality, so the encouragement of conspiracy theories in the long run works directly against American goals. Second, the fear of conspiracy has a logic of its own and can easily work against one's interests. For example, King al-Husayn of Jordan so feared that Ariel Sharon's notion of "Jordan is Palestine" would lead to his overthrow in favor of a Palestinian leader, he responded by doing just what the Israelis least wanted him to do - move close to Saddam Husayn.
Discouraging fears of conspiracy entails the following steps:
Deny the validity of conspiracy theories. The high road - not dignifying the outrageous with a response - does not work. Left alone, conspiracy theories fester. Better to do as Middle Easterners often do: reply promptly and in kind. If the accusations are made privately, reply in private; if publicly, then in public.
Middle Eastern states know the importance of denying conspiratorial intent. When talk of Syrian complicity in Lebanon with the Maronites and Americans gathered enough force, Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad eventually responded directly to them, denying in a April 1976 speech as "groundless" all charges that he was siding with Christians against Muslims. Three months later he explicitly raised and denied the charges of an "American-Syrian plot" in Lebanon. Asad eventually tried to put this issue to rest by reasserting the "firm and principled" Syrian position. "Sick voices" was the Saudi characterization of Iranian efforts to blame the July 1990 deaths of pilgrims in Mecca on the police. The Kuwaiti foreign minister did not hesitate to call Iraqi accusations against his government "fabrications and unfounded lies."
Egypt's Communications Ministry responded to conspiracy theories about a U.S. firm building the country's telephone system and so being able to tap it at will, even when Mubarak or 'Arafat were on the phone, by insisting there was "absolutely no truth" to this report.
In one of the more colorful and direct efforts to cope with the accusation of conspiracy, President Husni Mubarak of Egypt confronted Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya at an emergency Arab summit meeting just after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After a morning session, Qadhdhafi regaled PLO officials with accusations that calling the summit meeting showed Mubarak part of an "imperialist conspiracy against the Arab nation." Hearing of this comment, Mubarak confronted the Libyan: "Mu'ammar, if you think I would be party to such a conspiracy, as you say, then I would long ago have sent a couple of armoured divisions to occupy Libya; I had a hundred and one pretexts for doing so, as you know." This apparently left Qadhdhafi speechless, so Mubarak put a hand on his shoulder and added, "Come, I will buy you lunch."
The Israeli government usually hastens to deny a conspiracy theory. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) spread rumors about Israelis making up part of the American expeditionary force in Saudi Arabia, both immediately denounced the report. One day after Baghdad accused the Saudis of participating in a scheme to undermine Iraqi currency, Riyadh mocked the report. After Yasir 'Arafat presented x-rays of the Hamas fatalities in November 1994 and noted that the type of bullet was found only in the Israeli arsenal, the reply came quickly: "The IDF today rejected 'Arafat's hints that Israel was involved in some way in the death of demonstrators in Gaza last Friday." Faced with rumors about Israel seeking economic hegemony over the Middle East, Shimon Peres rightly replied, "we are not giving up control over Arab territory in order to win control of the Arab economy."
The Russians know what to do. When alarm spread during 1990 about the decline in tensions between Americans and Soviets, and what this would mean for the Middle East, the Soviet ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Feliks Nikalayevich Fedotov, explicitly denied the existence of a U.S.-Soviet conspiracy.
Americans should emulate this practice. Sometimes they do. Post-war suspicion of Jewish power was so strong, recalls Miles Copeland, a CIA operative at the time, that American diplomacy in the Arab world during the period 1947-52 consisted largely of trying "to convince the various Foreign Offices that our Government was not under the control of the Zionists." In October 1989, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d directly responded to Iraqi accusations about Washington attempting to bring down Saddam Husayn: "the United States is not involved in any effort to weaken or destabilize Iraq." In his notorious meeting with five U.S. senators in April 1990, Saddam Husayn repeatedly alluded to "a large-scale campaign" in the West against Iraq. After listening to a barrage of such assertions, Senator Alan Simpson (Republican of Wyoming) replied: "There is no conspiracy by the U.S. government, or in England or Israel, to attack this country."
Of course, denial does not always convince, to put it mildly. When Anthony Parsons, the last British ambassador to the shah's court, denied that his government supported Khomeini against the shah, an Iranian interlocutor responded: "But of course you have to say that. I know. I was educated in your country and am married to an English lady. You cannot deceive me."
If some denials do not work, others may eventually pay off. Anwar as-Sadat credited his own enlightenment to just such persuasion. "My talks with Dr. Kissinger convinced me," he explained, "that he rejects the simplistic notion of some of your strategists who see - or saw - Israel as the American gendarme in this part of the world." Sadat is not likely soon to become a model for other Middle East leaders, but to the extent they realize the excessive quality of their fears, the more likely it will be that they live in peace with their neighbors.
Teach about the wider world. The conspiracy mentality will subside only when Middle Easterners come to understand that not all states - and especially not democracies - engage in conspiracies as much as they do. Only when they "develop a greater sense of openness and awareness of the workings of other states" will they be able to drop the notion that plots are a central feature of international politics.
Although concepts such as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, civil rights, and the rule of law were introduced to the Middle East two centuries ago, beyond the ranks of a small minority, they have hardly penetrated the region's public life. Not comprehending these fundaments, Middle Eastern leaders cannot make out the motives of Western governments. Cultural distance thus encourages credence in conspiracy theories about Europe and America.
Point out that conspiracy theories backfire. "The Shah," Marvin Zonis observes, "despite his attacks on the West and his efforts and those of his officials to foist the failings of their rule onto foreigners, never managed to convince the Iranian people that they were not part of some foreign conspiracy to crush Iranian culture." Sometimes they do real harm to the one who spreads accusations of conspiracy. Anwar as-Sadat's seizure of 1,500 opponents in September 1981 on charges of conspiracy, for example, caused massive disaffection in Egypt.
Do not conspire. Western leaders have to act with special propriety to shed a long-established (and deserved) reputation for deviousness. No back door deals, no major discrepancies between stated policy and actual behavior, and a minimum of clandestine activities. Remember the conspiracy outlook and tread so lightly that suspicions are not raised.
This appears to have been a motive of George Allen, the U.S. ambassador in Iran, when he refused to coordinate actions with the British embassy during 1946. For similar reasons, President Lyndon B. Johnson hesitated to meet with Foreign Minister Abba Eban of Israel on the eve of the Six Day War. The British ambassador to Iran, Anthony Parsons, did his best to avoid the appearance of conspiracy during his last meeting with the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. When the shah pressed him to recommend a course of action, Parsons tried not to answer, noting that the shah would construe whatever he said as a British plot. Only when the Iranian gave his word of honor that Parson's advice would not be misrepresented did the ambassador volunteer his own thinking.
. . . Or Exploit It?
Yet such model behavior, however laudable, may not work. Suspicions are so deeply ingrained in the Middle East outlook that even saintly activities arouse doubts. The British ambassador's very reticence vis-à-vis the shah was seen as part of an especially subtle plot; thus, one author notes that the ambassador's "inordinately defensive stand" confirmed Iranian suspicions about him.
Or take this example, from long ago concerning King Ghazi of Iraq in 1939: Although he formally ruled Iraq, London retained effective control on the country, leading to a tense situation. Ghazi had a weakness for alcohol and fast cars, and on 4 April 1939 he took his roadster for a spin while under the influence of alcohol. Driving at high speed, he smashed into an electric pole, killing both his companions immediately. Taken to his palace with a fractured skull, the king died an hour later. His British physicians were alert enough to understand the danger they were in; to protect themselves against suspicions of murder, they insisted that an Iraqi doctor of Arab nationalist bent witness their actions. As one of the British doctors put it, "I was fearful lest, if no Iraqi doctor was in attendance, Anglophobic mischief-makers might originate canards to the effect that [Noel] Braham and I were responsible for the King's demise."
But this caution did little good. Most Iraqis pointed to the British or to pro-British elements. Salah ad-Din as-Sabbagh, a leading politician, held that "Ghazi was the victim of a conspiracy plotted by Nuri [as-Sa'id] and some of the officers." By similar token, Rashid'Ali al-Kilani suspected Nuri as-Sa'id. Rumors swept the country: "One that was persistently repeated," the British ambassador cabled London, "was the story that the English had killed the King. . . . Another story . . . was that Nuri Sa'id had murdered King Ghazi and several groups of mourners were heard chanting the slogan, 'Thou shalt answer for the blood of Ghazi, O Nuri.'"
And Anglophobic mischief-makers, German and Arab, exploited the incident to the hilt. Fritz Grobba, the chief Nazi diplomat in Baghdad, recounts how he learned the news from his Iraqi servant, who told him that "the English have killed our king." Within hours, Nazi radio blamed the British for Ghazi's death. Rumors of a secret British plot spread behind the apparent accident spread rapidly through the whole country and British officialdom held German radio broadcasts and local agents primarily responsible for the unrest that followed. The next day, as the British consul in Mosul attempted to calm angry crowd by explaining what had happened, he was murdered from behind with a pickax.
Realistically, then, policymakers must recognize that actions by foreigners will not do much to reduce the conspiratorial mindset. Self-confidence and common sense are the only true antidotes to this mentality, and there is no basis to think they are waxing in the Middle East. If the conspiratorial outlook is likely long to remain a feature of the Middle East, the other course of action - encouraging one's opponents to believe in selected conspiracy theories - becomes worthy of consideration.
There are several reasons to promote conspiracy theories. They weaken the enemy's camp and enhance his sense of one's power. The enemy's conationals worry about being sold out, while he and his allies are constrained to eye each other with suspicion. When Bassam al-'Adl, a lone Syrian pilot, decided to defect to Israel in October 1989, Minister of Defense Mustafa Tallas characterized his action as the result of a vast conspiracy by the Israelis.
The effect of such suspicion is to spawn an atmosphere of the deepest mistrust in the enemy's ranks. But if the enemy is everywhere, how can he be defeated? Defeatism and despair are the natural responses, as is anger against the regime for so poorly protecting the country's interests.
Worrying about foreign intrigue unwittingly imbues the foreigner with power. The more the enemy is hated, the taller he stands. Here is Muhammad al-Ghazali, a prominent Egyptian fundamentalist, writing in 1951 about the British:
Or Sattareh Farman Farmaian's account of the servants in her family's house: they "believed that the englis-ha [English] were so diabolical that they could even cause floods, droughts, and earthquakes. And it was true that to Iranians, the British seemed almost supernaturally clever. They took nearly all the money from Iran's oil while we stayed poor."
Virtually every major accusation of a conspiracy, from the British having sponsored the Baha'i religion to the Americans messing up Tehran traffic, reflects an assumption of Western omnipotence. The U.S. government is regularly seen as controlling its most avid enemies in the Middle East, including such figures as Yasir 'Arafat, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi., Ayatollah Khomeini, and Saddam Husayn. Middle Easterners see bureaucrats sitting in Washington, London, and Jerusalem as awesomely capable.
These fears create opportunities. If the hidden hand clearly offers a useful tool of statecraft for local governments - the Iranian, Iraqi, and Egyptian in particular - why should foreign powers not rely on it too? In fact, they occasionally have.
On returning to Iran in 1943, Ziya ad-Din Tabataba'i was widely seen as a British agent, and to build up his base the British authorities did nothing to discourage this assumption. In 1954, the perception that the British government sought a union of Iraq and Syria under Iraqi leadership contributed to the failure of this scheme. In actual fact, London was not enthusiastic about such a union and may have intentionally created this misleading impression as a way to scuttle it. In 1966, when Moscow had not yet embraced the Palestine Liberation Organization (it still referred to Palestinian terrorists as "provocateurs"), the Soviet ambassador to Israel suggested that either Israeli or American intelligence had instigated the Palestinian raids, and was using them to push Israel into war against the Arab states. After being told at a 1979 meeting by Yasir 'Arafat that the Lebanese crisis resulted from an American conspiracy, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko then spoke of the situation in almost identical language.
In January 1980, when the American hostages were being held at the U.S. embassy, Americans took advantage of Iranian susceptibilities. Gary Sick relates that the escape of six Americans from Tehran with Canadian help threatened to jeopardize delicate negotiations between Washington and Tehran. To minimize the impact, Hamilton Jordan of the White House staff came up with idea of blaming the timing of the escape on the exigencies of the Canadian prime minister's re-election campaign. Of course, "the conspiratorial nature of the explanation had immediate appeal to [Foreign Minister Sadegh] Ghotbzadeh, who added his own distinctive touches to the story." What could be more natural to an Iranian politician than having Canadian domestic politics run Iranian life?
At other times, without having to do anything at all, foreign powers benefit from the conspiratorial mentality. Fearful of falling into a trap, Middle Easterners fail to exploit advantages. In late August 1918, on the eve of the British defeat of Turkish forces in the Levant, Faysal ibn al-Husayn, military leader of the Arab revolt and T. E. Lawrence's partner, proposed to the Turks that he switch to their side in return for an Ottoman guarantee of Arab independence. His stunning offer was rejected, apparently because the Turks mistakenly believed it to be a British plot. In 1976, the Syrian government's deep belief in an "imperialist-Zionist" plot caused it to magnify the role of the United States in the Lebanese civil war, and therefore to exercise more caution than circumstances warranted. Khomeini was so confident that Saddam Husayn would not tangle with the power and prestige of the Islamic Republic that he assumed there could be no war with Iraq. Having decided this, according to Mohamed Heikal, he suspected that information about Iraqi preparations for war was manufactured by Iranian army intelligence, which hoped thereby to make the revolutionaries dependent on the military. Too much suspicion rendered the Iranian government less capable of responding to a real threat.
Conspiracy theorists sometimes insist on turning an enemy's accidents and failures into victories. So disinclined are the Arabs to accept an Israeli mistake, they find a rationale to explain it. When Jerusalem foolishly held elections in 1976 that enhanced the PLO's standing on the West Bank, anti-PLO elements suspected a clever Israeli maneuver. As they saw it, Jerusalem promoted its most intractable enemy so that it could plausibly announce to the outside world that no reasonable negotiating partner could be located on the West Bank. Thus was an Israeli miscalculation turned into a master stroke of strategic thinking. The inadvertent downing of an Iran Air flight in July 1988 by the U.S. Navy had a profound impact on the leadership in Tehran, which worried what Washington's next step might be. This fear then played a significant role in the decision taken two weeks later to end the war with Iraq. The Iranians' assumption that the U.S. government had acted in a premeditated fashion turned an accident into a major turning point.
As this suggests, conspiracy theories can be turned against their creators by anyone disposed to make the most of his Middle East opponent's foibles. This is making the best of a bad situation. It is also a form of disinformation, and therefore to be engaged in very sparingly and only when the stakes are sufficiently high. Also, the U.S. government must have specific goals before embarking on such a risky undertaking.
Exploiting the conspiracy mentality could include the following methods:
Deny with a wink. Disclaim the existence of conspiracies; but then add a verbal nudge to make the target audience think twice. This is what Yitzhak Shamir did in August 1990, when King al-Husayn of Jordan was particularly agitated about an Israeli conspiracy to control the world media. Shamir told an interviewer:
Formally, Shamir disavowed the notion of a Jewish conspiracy; informally, he signaled to Husayn that worse is to come.
Suggest that your enemies work for you. Middle Easterners are particularly susceptible to the notion that apparent enemies are in fact co-conspirators. Damascus routinely calls Yasir 'Arafat "a U.S. tool against Palestine and Palestinian rights" and the PLO responds by accusing Asad of participating in a U.S.-Israeli-Syrian conspiracy against the Palestinians. Abo'l-Hasan Bani-Sadr, Khomeini's one-time ally and Iran's first president, accused Khomeini of working hand in glove with Ronald Reagan, while Iranian leftists theorized that Khomeini was the chosen American instrument to steal the revolution from them. The list goes on and on.
It may be possible to undermine one's opponents by fabricating conspiracies that do not exist. This might include offering praise for a well-known enemy in private conversation or connecting him to the U.S. government in public statements. The inclination will always be to believe the conspiracy, not the denial. There is a danger here, of course: hints that enemies are in the U.S. government pay might spur them, in the effort to prove their credentials, to new heights of anti-Americanism.
Conspire. There is nothing like actual conspiracies to fuel the conspiracy mindset. Learning that the U.S. government is indeed as tricky as is feared establishes new respect for it. Sending unsolicited arms in such a way that third parties become aware of them will convince many in the Middle East that what appears to be enmity toward the U.S. government is in fact a cover for collusion. Revelations about the Iran/contra affair meant that, for once, Americans lived up to their reputation. Given prevailing assumptions, a bit of money and few weapons can go a long way.
The picture is not a simple one. Detaching Middle Easterners from their susceptibilities is a very attractive prospect, but also a highly uncertain one. Indeed, there is reason to doubt whether outsiders can affect such deeply held views. In contrast, while the dangers of exploiting the conspiracy mentality are decidedly great, the benefits can be immediate and concrete.
This leads to a twofold recommendation: As a rule, do not play games; but be aware of vulnerabilities created by the conspiracy mentality and, on special occasions, exploit these to the maximum.
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