Any crisis or event provides an opportunity for the Islamic Republic to direct blame at Israel. Whatever happens, there’s a solid chance that a good conspiracy can be carved out of a news story, a bad luck tale, or an unexpected development. The global coronavirus pandemic, of course, provides one of the best current opportunities for conspiracy theories to be hatched and disseminated.
Plenty remains unknown about coronavirus, and this has helped some religious or ultra-conservative communities in Iran and elsewhere manufacture narratives. When officials have placed restrictions on public life, including religious traditions and rituals, it has become even easier for people to push their theories, and for devotees to believe them.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, various groups in Israel challenged their government’s quarantine rules, including the ban on gatherings and, as a result, the cancellation of certain religious rites. As this happened, the Islamic Republic regime began to consider how it might link coronavirus and Israel. The Iranian media close to the regime presented the high volume of news coverage of the growing crisis, and the international preoccupation with it, as proof that Israel was busy identifying an opportunity to build more settlements and to grab more Palestinian land.
Using every argument at its disposal, Tasnim News Agency, an affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards, portrayed the coronavirus crisis as a useful tool to serve Israeli interests. “The spread of coronavirus might have entangled the Zionist regime in a growing crisis but in certain cases it has helped this regime in advancing extremist policies in the occupied lands, in further suppressing and threatening the Palestinians and in normalizing relations with Arab regimes,” it wrote.
But the conspiracy theories linking Israel and coronavirus went much further than this. Quoting reports by “Arab sources,” Tasnim claimed Israel was responsible for actually spreading coronavirus. “Information provided by these reports show that Israel has the vaccine for this virus and since the whole world is in need of it, the Zionist regime intends to pocket a huge amount of profits by sacrificing hundreds of thousands of people,” the article claimed.
Reports by government-linked media have presented various conspiracy theories about Israel and coronavirus as facts. “Some analysts conclude that Israel and the Jews play a role in the coronavirus pandemic so they can reduce the world population and make a lot of money by producing the vaccine for this disease,” a Tasnim report said.
Such reports are published by the official Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency (IRNA) too. In one of them, Orthodox Jews and opponents of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are presented as sharing the same view of coronavirus. “Extremist Zionists and the terrorists in Syria do not believe that this disease is lethal,” an IRNA article claimed.
Fake News from Fake Sources
One of the features common in such reports is that they fabricate facts and attribute them to reliable sources, or sources that do not exist. These fabricated quotations from “Arabic and Hebrew reports,” the “Israeli Academy for Studying Domestic Security” and “Quds Center” are interspersed with other, accurate coverage and presented as a package of reliable news stories. The reader is then told these reports are so damaging to Israel that Israeli officials are trying to censor them: “The Zionist regime’s foreign ministry has announced that it has been following these reports with alarm and has issued orders to Israeli embassies across the world to surveil them. Israelis are trying to manipulate international laws to prevent the publication of such reports. They are also trying to use the potential of social media to prevent the publication of this news and, as far as possible, block the pages associated with groups who publish such news online.”
The sentence “Israelis are trying to manipulate international laws to prevent the publication of such reports” is completely misleading. After the coronavirus pandemic started, particularly in its early weeks, fabricated and fake information about Covid-19 was posted online, reports that could potentially endanger people’s lives. As a result, social networks have recently introduced stricter rules on what can be posted. This has nothing to do with Israeli attempts to “manipulate international laws.”
Nevertheless, Tasnim’s report insisted that “news and information about the spread of coronavirus by Israel have become so numerous that people on social media are calling coronavirus the ‘Jewish virus.’ Currently, Israel’s foreign ministry is hard at work to prevent extensive publication of this news and information by working with social media companies — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.”
In one of its reports, Tasnim refers to “Quds Center” as its source and quotes the non-existent institute as saying that the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Palestinian National Authority to resume its cooperation with the Israeli government, which was suspended after Donald Trump’s peace plan: “This center has warned that, without this cooperation, coronavirus will spread in the occupied lands.”
The Islamic Republic media outlets also translate and publish conspiracy theories manufactured outside of Iranian media. One such conspiracy theory was produced by the International Quran News Agency. The agency quoted the controversial Taj El-Din Hamid Hilaly, a Sunni Muslim leader in Australia, who blamed Israel for the pandemic. “This tiny virus that has paralyzed the world is the result of crimes and the corruption by Zionism in Palestine, despotic governments in Yemen, and tyrannical marauders in Syria,” said Hilaly. “If the true followers of Moses and Jesus ruled these tyrannical countries this calamity would not have befallen the people. This virus came to existence to make us aware of all this corruption.”
In addition, there are specific, identifiable individuals engaged in the creation of conspiracy theories about Israel and coronavirus. “Under the cover of the coronavirus epidemic, Israel intends to occupy Al-Aqsa Mosque, to arrest and assassinate Palestinian religious and political leaders and implement the century’s most ominous deal,” wrote a mid-level cleric and a scholar at Qom Seminary by the name of Aref Ebrahimi on the website Rasa.
“What do these aggressive acts mean when...the world is fighting coronavirus and the Muslims have closed Al-Aqsa Mosque on the advice from health officials?” wrote Ebrahimi. “The answer is obvious: the Zionist regime wants to achieve its hidden goal, by soft means, of dividing Al-Aqsa Mosque between the Jews and the Muslims.”
Of course, Israel can never “win” in Iran’s government-backed media. Whenever the number of coronavirus cases in Israel rises, the Israeli government is accused of being incompetent but if the Israeli government tries to contain the spread of the virus by imposing restrictions, it is interpreted as a new conspiracy by the Israelis.