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May 23, 2006

Iran the Target of Disinformation Campaign

by Jim Lobe

A story authored by a prominent U.S. neoconservative regarding new legislation in Iran allegedly requiring Jews and other religious minorities to wear distinctive color badges circulated around the world this weekend before it was exposed as false.

The article by a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Iranian-American Amir Taheri, was initially published in Friday's edition of Canada's National Post, which ran alongside the story a 1935 photograph of a Jewish businessman in Berlin with a yellow, six-pointed star sewn on his overcoat, as required by Nazi legislation at the time. The Post subsequently issued a retraction.

Taheri's story, however, was reprinted by the New York Post, which is owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, and picked up by the Jerusalem Post, which also featured a photo of a yellow star from the Nazi era over a photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Another neoconservative publication, the New York Sun, also noted the story Monday, claiming that the specific report that special badges were required by the legislation had been "incorrect." At the same time, however, the Sun quoted two Iranian-American foes of the Islamic Republic as suggesting that dress requirements for religious minorities were still being considered by Iran's ruling circles. It offered no evidence to support that assertion.

The story, which was also noted in the Australian press, comes at a moment of rising tensions between Iran and both Israel and the United States over Tehran's nuclear program, which, according to the latter two, is designed to produce nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and Israel have suggested that they may take military action against nuclear-related targets in Iran unless ongoing diplomatic efforts to freeze Tehran's program bears fruit.

Juan Cole, president of the U.S. Middle East Studies Association (MESA), described the Taheri article and its appearance first in Canada's Post as "typical of black psychological operations campaigns," particularly in its origin in an "out of the way newspaper that is then picked up by the mainstream press" – in this case, the Jerusalem Post and the New York Post. A former U.S. intelligence official described the article's relatively obscure provenance as a "real sign of [a] disinformation operation."

Taheri's original article, entitled "A Color Code for Iran's 'Infidels,'" dealt primarily with new legislation that it said was designed to ensure that Iranians wear "standard Islamic garments" that removed ethnic and class distinctions and that eliminated "the influence of the infidel" – presumably meaning the West – "on the way Iranians, especially, the young dress."

But it also noted in passing that it would "envisage" separate dress codes for religious minorities – Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians – who will be required to adopt distinct color schemes to make them identifiable in public "so that [Muslims] can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus [become] najis [unclean]."

In particular, he explained, religious minorities will "have to wear special insignia, known as zonnar, to indicate their non-Islamic faiths. Jews will be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes, while Christians will be assigned the color red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the color of their zonnar," he wrote.

While Taheri did not evoke the Nazi precedent in his column, the National Post asked its readers at the end of the piece, "Is Iran turning into the new Nazi Germany? Share your opinion online at nationalpost.com."

That was compounded by the Post's publication of a front-page article by Chris Wattie, which quoted unidentified "human rights groups" as "raising alarms over a new law passed by the Iranian parliament that would require the country's Jews and Christians to wear colored badges to identify them and other religious minorities as non-Muslims."

"This is reminiscent of the Holocaust," Wattie quoted Rabbi Marvin Heir, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, as telling him. "Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis."

The story also quoted one Iranian exile living in Toronto as confirming the story, as well as Canadian Jewish leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper as denouncing the legislation and suggesting that it was consistent with other recent moves made by Tehran.

Similarly, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, who, however, denied any specific knowledge about the alleged measure, called it "despicable" and reminiscent of "Germany under Hitler."

In fact, however, the legislation contained "absolutely no mention of religious minorities," according to Hadi Ghaemi, the chief Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), who said it included "only generalities with regard to promoting a national dress code and fashion industry that should be subsidized and supported by the government."

The article – and especially its attribution to "human rights groups" – was particularly unfortunate, he told IPS, because "it plays into the hands of the Iranian government that wants to discredit human rights issues that are raised at the international level." The actual legislation was indeed "a troubling development," but not for the reasons cited by the Post, he added, because "its main target is most probably Iranian women."

Other denunciations were quick to follow. One Jewish representative in the Iranian parliament, Maurice Motamed, insisted that color requirements for ethnic minorities had "never been proposed or discussed in parliament," let alone approved. "Such news," he told the Associated Press, "is an insult to religious minorities here."

"This report is a complete fabrication and is totally false," he told The Australian newspaper. "It is a lie…."

Two Israel-based Iran experts, Menashe Amir and Meir Javedanfar, also denounced the original reports about the legislation, suggesting in a follow-up article in the Jerusalem Post Monday that they were based on outdated speculation about the impact on non-Muslims of the adoption of Islamic dress standards.

Nonetheless, the Sun, without endorsing the specific contents of the National Post articles, refused to drop the story, quoting "a leading spokesman for Iranian Jews," the secretary-general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, Sam Kermanian, as thanking "the world for its outcry" over the original reports and praising Taheri as "someone with fantastic credibility."

Taheri is a member of Benador Associates, a public relations firm that lists a large number of leading neoconservatives, including American Enterprise Institute (AEI) associates Richard Perle, David Frum, Michael Ledeen, Michael Rubin, and Joshua Muravchik, among its clients. Major boosters of the war with Iraq, Benador clients, who also include former Central Intelligence Agency chief James Woolsey and former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, have also called for the Bush administration to take a hard line against Iran.

The newspapers that so far have run the story are similarly identified with a hard line against Tehran. The National Post, which was bought by CanWest Global Communications from Conrad Black, a close associate of Perle's, is controlled by David and Leonard Asper, who have accused the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of being anti-Israel, according to Marsha Cohen of Florida International University, who has closely followed the badges story.

Similarly, the Sun has consistently taken positions consistent with the right-wing Likud Party in Israel on Middle East issues, while Murdoch owns the strongly pro-Israel Weekly Standard and Fox News, in addition to the New York Post.

"I think the way these stories played – particularly the references to the Holocaust – was designed to arouse and play upon concerns and accusations that Ahmadinejad is another Hitler who needs to be dealt with accordingly," noted Cohen, who added that the Iranian president's questioning of the Holocaust and aggressive statements about Israel have made such stories more credible.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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