One Heavy Dose of Middle East Conspiracies

Some people do insist that conspiracies don’t exist. Well, have a look at this long, long list of real Middle East conspiracies, stretching only from the 19th century to 1994 (when the article was published) and get back to me:

Some of my favorites, and least known, are these:

-The British often conspired in Iran. After signing a treaty in 1814, the British negotiator privately held that, to assure India’s security, “it would be better policy to leave Persia in her present state of weakness and barbarism, than pursue an opposite plan.” In 1834, when Fath ‘Ali Shah died, the British assured his son Muhammad of the throne against his two uncles; and when Muhammad himself died fourteen years later, the British and Russians helped Nasir ad-Din ascend to power. In 1845, they intervened to protect a leader of the emerging Baha’i religion. Also about that time, the British provided a conduit for Indian money to reach Shi’i shrines in Iraq, thus making the mullahs beholden to them. On one occasion, for example, the prayer-leader of Tehran wrote Dalhousie, the British governor-general of India, asking that he use his influence to protect the Shi’a community in India. British support helped the Constitutional Revolution of 1906; the next year, the Anglo-Russian Agreement divided the country into two spheres of influence. General Edmund Ironside, commander of Allied troops in northern Iran, privately assisted Reza Khan to become commander of the Cossack Division and encouraged him to execute the coup d’état of February 1921, leading to the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty and its replacement by the Pahlavis. The Russians also connived in Iran, helping to undo the Constitutional Revolution in 1908. In 1912, seeking to show off their might, an agent provocateur stole into Meshhad’s shrine of Imam Reza and got safely out before Russian forces bombed the shrine.

-During the interwar period, the great powers shamelessly manipulated Middle East politics by such furtive tactics as paying off politicians and intellectuals, sponsoring publications and organizations, and propping up minority communities. Leading figures (including Shakib Arslan and George Antonius) accepted clandestine money from interested parties in Europe. As World War II approached, the powers became even more assertive in pursuit of their interests and these pressures increased. Radio Berlin spread rumors in October 1939 that the British consul in Damascus was distributing swastika armlets and badges, aiming thereby to provoke trouble between the British and French. Nazi Germany won impressive influence in Iraq during 1937-40 under the guidance of the formidable Fritz Grobba, who specialized in fomenting anti-British sentiments. The exigencies of war prompted Europeans to pull strings more overtly. British troops ringed the royal palace in Cairo, compelling King Faruq to change government. In Iran, the British and Soviets jointly decided that Reza Shah’s continued rule had become inconvenient, so they deposed him in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Their influence remained powerful, though nearly invisible. No one could quite tell who controlled what. Marvin Zonis comments: “The British, the Soviets, and the ruling dynasty were involved, in the eyes of many Iranians, in a folie à trois, each needing the other, each suspect.”

-The Suez War of 1956 (known in Arabic as the “Tripartite Aggression”) saw the British and French governments working secretly with Israel to control Egyptian territory, reinforcing Middle East phobias for years to come. On 24 October 1956, just days before the Suez campaign began, the three governments signed the Sèvres Protocol in which they spelled out in detail the series of steps each of the parties would execute. At the same time, they categorically denied the existence of such an agreement. This episode confirmed the conspiracy theorist’s worst fears about imperialist plotting. About the same time, the British considered assassinating Gamal Abdel Nasser and set up a transmitter in southern France which called him a “minion of Zionism”

-The British continued to manipulate Middle East politics from behind the scenes. In 1970, for example, a stringer for the Reuters news agency heard that Sultan Said Bin Taimur of Oman had been deposed, so she took her report to the Cable and Wireless office in Muscat. The Englishman in charge there read the dispatch and, the story goes, handed it back to her, remarking “You’re a bit early. Tomorrow, not today.” Of course, he was right; a day later the sultan was hustled on to a British plane and taken into exile.

-Israelis have often resorted to clandestine operations. In 1954, they arranged for Egyptian Jews to place bombs in several sensitive locations, including the premises of the U.S. Information Service, to frame Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government and disrupt Egyptian relations with the West. Known as the Lavon Affair (after the Israeli defense minister who approved the scheme), this plot created an abiding Arab fear of Israeli agents acting close to home. A year later, Israeli officials acknowledged to American diplomats their intent to overthrow the Abdel Nasser regime. Eli Cohen, the Mossad agent who penetrated the highest reaches of Syrian society in the early 1960s (befriending even the head of intelligence and the president of the republic), helped perpetuate this heritage of paranoia.

-It was widely understood in mid-1982 that the Israelis were ready to attack the PLO but needed an excuse; the Iraqis obligingly had an agent attack the Israeli ambassador in London, hoping this would divert Syrian attention (and maybe even win a cease-fire with Iran). Two days later, Jerusalem responded by launching Operation Peace for Galilee. The PLO for many years deposited money in Israeli banks for practical reasons (to facilitate the transfer of funds to Palestinians living under Israeli control) but to some it looked like collusion. The PLO itself acknowledged that Israeli intelligence agents had it riddled with agents. Abu Nidal had journalists on his payroll write articles in Lebanese newspapers critical of himself.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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