Foreign Affairs

Embassy protests may have been staged by Iranian government

Embassy protests may have been staged by Iranian government

Last week’s anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations in Iran, a response to the amateur YouTube movie trailer insulting the prophet Muhammad, were encouraged and may have even been partially staged by the Iranian government in order to score political points against its two staunchest enemies, Israel and the United States.

On Thursday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came out in favor of the various countries’ outrage, staged or not, over the film clip. In a public statement, he called the video a “desperate move” by “the enemies of the Islamic Awakening,” which is the Iranian government’s term for the Arab popular uprisings.

During a Sunday morning appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the embassy protests to make the case for a military strike on Iran. He said that the “fanaticism” behind the outrage would also motivate a nuclear attack on Israel by Iran, which he said was “six months or so” away from being 90 percent ready to build a bomb.

He added, “Do you want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?”

It appears that Netanyahu was correct in a way he may not have expected: the protests in Iran last week were at least partially affiliated with the Iranian government.

On Thursday, Human Events spoke to a Tehran university student who said he believed the protesters outside the embassy were “probably Basij,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ paramilitary street force, often identified by their strictly Islamic dress — beards on men, long black veils on women — and staunch loyalty to the Supreme Leader.

The source supported his suspicion with the fact that there was none of the visible preparation or organization that normally precedes a public demonstration. For instance, the Persian-language spheres of Twitter and FriendFeed, the usual digital outlets for public unrest in Iran, have been relatively silent. Instead, he said, the demonstrators “came out of nowhere.”

Human Events also spoke to an Iranian dissident on Twitter who said that on Thursday afternoon, a friend closer to the scene told him over the phone that the protesters were Basij shouting anti-American, pro-Libyan slogans outside the Swiss embassy, which handles American interests in Iran.

Posts on Twitter and Persian-language blogs that showed photos of the protests identified the subjects, carrying pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei, as Basij. One tweet claimed that the protesters were Basij members and called the demonstrations “a new distraction” from the largely suppressed grassroots opposition in Iran to the current regime.

Last November, Iranian students stormed the British embassy following the passage of stricter sanctions legislation in the U.K. against Iran. At the time, Iranian dissidents on social media and alternative websites pointed out that the protesters were in all likelihood members of the Basij. The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, Thomas Erdbrink,also made this observation.

The Tehrani student said that Friday’s protests were larger Thursday’s and involved non-Basij civilians as a result of what he called the previous day’s government “propaganda,” including the Supreme Leader’s public statement and state media broadcasts encouraging people to demonstrate.

Prior reports have speculated that the other protests sweeping the Middle East and Muslim countries since last week are also coordinated in some way.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the deadly attack on the American consulate in Libya was the work of Ansar al-Sharia, an armed Islamist militia formed during the uprising against Moammar Gaddafi. In Egypt, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood encouraged protesters via its Arabic-language Twitter feed and the Brotherhood’s rivals, the Salafists, may have even paid people in exchange for rallying outside the American embassy, according to the Times.

Human Events is not naming the two sources in Tehran for their own safety.

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