“We’re going to investigate every Zionist you know,” an interrogator told Maziar Bahari, an Iranian filmmaker and Newsweek journalist, in Evin Prison in 2009. The man had personally arrested Bahari, who had gone to Iran that June to cover the election and had ended up reporting on the Green Movement. In Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me, which details his 118 days in Evin, he nicknames his interrogator “Rosewater.” Rosewater was preoccupied—sometimes comically so—with the idea that Jews and Zionists—groups between which he made no distinction—were part of a grand plot against the Islamic Republic.
Bahari, who now heads IranWire, writes that Rosewater insisted that a Cambodian visa in his passport was really from Israel, and challenged him over his membership in an Anton Chekhov fan club on Facebook, remarking, “We know that your Chekhov was Jewish and that you are a Zionist.” He accused Bahari of being a “Jew lover” because he had made a documentary, The Voyage of the Saint Louis, about Jewish refugees who attempted to flee Nazi Germany on the eve of war. He insisted that Bahari name every “Jewish element” he had ever met. “To Rosewater,” Bahari writes, “a Jew could not be an ordinary person.”
“Rosewater” is now the working title of a major film adaptation of the memoir, written and directed by Jon Stewart, and starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, and two prominent Iranian actors, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Golshifteh Farahani, as Bahari’s mother and sister.
The film has already met pre-release backlash from Iran’s wealthy, powerful, state media, whose head is directly appointed by Iran's supreme leader. Iran’s Channel One ran a segment warning that Stewart was making “an ultra-formulaic movie commissioned by his masters,” and quoting a “media expert,” Nader Talebezadeh, who suggested that the film had been conceived in a think tank for “the Zionist lobby.”
Earlier this year, the Iranian news website Mashregh attacked the film in a convoluted article by an unnamed author. Stewart’s “anti-Iranian” film, the piece claimed, was funded and supported by “the Jewish family Pritzker” which, it claims, promotes devil worship, atheism, and nudity through architectural awards.
The article builds conspiratorial insinuations around Penny Pritzker, who worked as a fundraiser for Barack Obama, and is now the United States Secretary of Commerce. She is not involved with the film, but is cousin to Gigi Pritzker, the founder of OddLot Entertainment, which produces the film. The article also notes the family’s support for the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Prize, which it likens to the Nobel Peace Prize (which has gone to “dubious characters” Shimon Peres and Barack Obama), and the Academy Awards, which honored Argo. It insists that international prizes, whether for films or architecture, are “managed toward…the macro goals” of an “international Zionist network.”
The article makes numerous insinuations by association, calling Norman Foster, the 1999 winner of the Pritzker Architectural Prize, “the most famous Freemason architect and record-setting builder of obelisks (the symbol of devil worship)” and claiming that the philosophy of the1989 recipient, Frank Gehry, “ultimately leads to atheism.” It also notes, in tones of portent, that a number of winners have designed buildings in Israel. Perhaps most striking is its attack on the 1979 laureate Philip Johnson’s celebrated Glass House, which, it implies, is anti-religious because religious cultures value “covering features” whereas “nakedness is an inborn western culture and civilization.”
The theme of nudity and “covering features” may be a hostile homage to Farahani, who was forbidden to leave Iran after she appeared without hijab opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2008 film Body of Lies, and was later banned from returning when she appeared partially nude in the French magazine Madame Le Figaro. The article also makes an insinuation about Aghdashloo, who “received an Emmy Award for the best supporting female role in the television series, House of Saddam [in which she] acted next to Igal Naor, an Israeli actor.” Now, it says, referring to Stewart, “extremist groups…ask a Jew to portray the 2009 riots for them with the same old western lies.”
Conspiracy theories feature prominently in the arts of political controversy in Iran, and can be found across the political spectrum. Encyclopaedia Iranica describes them as “a complex of beliefs attributing the course of Persian history and politics to the machinations of hostile foreign powers and secret organizations.” The historian Ervand Abrahamian borrowed the title of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, to posit a Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics in his 1993 book, Khomeinism. Abrahamian argues that the “style,” which emphasizes “hidden links,” promotes political narratives without ambiguities, and explains political difference through reference to spies and traitors, hinders the development of political pluralism in Iran.
Abrahamian, professor of Iranian and Middle Eastern history and politics at the City University of New York, spoke to IranWire about the Mashregh article. Referring to its theme of Jewish conspiracy, he says, “I don’t know how far that line plays in Iran these days. [In] the Ahmadinejad period, it was quite common. Obviously it pre-dates Ahmadinejad, [but] it’s a new trend.” “There was a mysterious adviser to Ahmadinejad,” Abrahamian recalls, “his name is [Mohammad-Ali] Ramin, and he speaks perfect German—he is part German—and he was spouting a lot of Jewish conspiracy theories.”
The Mashregh author, Abrahamian says, “is very crude. A more sophisticated one would say, ‘it’s really about Zionism, not Jews.’ I remember that the interrogator in [Bahari’s] book, [like the author of] this piece, doesn’t make that distinction. But people in politics, even Ahmadinejad, would try to make that distinction.”
In his memoir, Bahari writes that “Rosewater’s ideas about Jews and Israel came directly from [Ruhollah] Khomeini’s writings and speeches.” Abrahamian notes in Khomeinism that Khomeini referred to Jews “with the derogatory term yahodi rather than the more neutral kalimi,” and accused them of distorting Islam and controlling the mass media. But, Abrahamian says, “Khomeini was much more obsessed about British conspiracies. [He] would bring in Zionism in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute. And he actually gave quite a few audiences to heads of the Jewish community inside the country, so there was an attempt to assure them that [Khomeini and his supporters] weren’t anti-Jewish.”
The origins of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories in modern Iranian political culture are diverse. “In medieval Islam,” Abrahamian says, “there is an anti-Judaic discourse. In the early biographies of the prophet the Jews are always conspiring against [Mohammad] and raise questions to trick him into giving wrong theological answers. But this was a theological debate. Then, in the thirties, technocrats and intellectuals who go to the West to study pick up Nazi notions of race. But that’s a very small element in the secular intellectuals, never very influential. Then, when the Islamic Revolution comes, because of, I think, Israel, the Islamicists pick it up. But the more intelligent ones try to distinguish between Zionism and anti-Jewishism. I doubt any of the present cabinet members subscribe to these theories.”
Today Abrahamian locates some of the “less sophisticated characters,” in the intelligence services, “where they mesh the two. One place you find this is in the newspaper Kayhan, which is run by [Hossein] Shariatmadari, who was one of the people who was out to get Maziar. Shariatmadari is probably the most notorious of the right-wing intellectuals. He is big on the ‘Jewish conspiracy.’” Shariatmadari is not only the editor of Kayhan, but the Supreme Leader’s representative at the newspaper. He was assigned by Ali Khamenei to this post in 1994 and can be removed anytime Khamenei is not happy with him.
“The question,” Abrahamian says, “would be how much it really resonates [with] the public. With the Ministry of Intelligence there might be a lot of frustration because of all the nuclear scientists being assassinated, and that’s clearly [being] done by the Israelis, and they aren’t able to prevent that, so it’s easier for them to start stressing ‘Jewish conspiracy.’” But he also notes that the Iranian Jews he has met “don’t feel that that there is anti-Semitism there. It is more among the political elite or writers that this type conversation comes, but people who live in Tehran don’t feel that there’s a siege of the Jewish community.”
Surprising though that may be in light of recent political rhetoric, it is worth noting that one of the most popular reader comments listed below the Mashregh article was offered in an obvious spirit of sarcasm: “It’s always a Zionist’s fault.”