It was not exactly up there with the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the effort to discredit the Iranian regime took an embarrassing turn this week with a false media report claiming that Tehran had passed a law requiring Jews and other religious minorities to wear special badges.
The report and a related column by Iranian opposition pundit Amir Taheri ran in the May 19 edition of the National Post, a Canadian daily, promptly setting off a media feeding frenzy. The Simon Wiesenthal Center immediately called on the United Nations to open an investigation; other Jewish groups issued their own condemnations; Israeli papers picked up the story and the Big Apple tabloids feasted on it the next day, with the New York Post splashing a “Fourth Reich” headline on its front page and the Daily News penning a damning editorial. For good measure, Canada’s and Australia’s prime ministers expressed outrage; Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, fired off a news release calling the Iranian regime “lunatic” and “pernicious,” and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said such a measure would be “despicable” and “carry clear echoes of Germany under Hitler.”
There was just one problem: The report was, for the most part, false. No bill containing such measures was introduced or discussed in parliament, several experts said, prompting the National Post to retract the story.
The flap provided ample ammunition to Tehran’s already routine denunciations of America’s “Zionist-controlled media” for working to discredit the mullah regime and eventually unseat it.
“The Western media discredits itself and it only benefits the Islamic republic,” said Trita Parsi, a Middle East expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and head of the National Iranian American Council.
Iranian officials roundly condemned the report. Hamid-Reza Asefi, the foreign ministry spokesmen, called it a “Zionist operation” aimed at smearing Iran. Maurice Motammed, Iran’s only Jewish legislator, claimed the media report was a “mischievous act, a fresh means of pressure against the Iranian government.”
Chris Wattie, the reporter who wrote the original National Post article, sourced his story to Jewish groups and “Iranian exiles.” He quoted Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, describing the move as “reminiscent of the Holocaust” and charging that Iran was “moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis.”
Nazi Germany issued a law in 1941 requiring Jews to wear yellow badges in the shape of a Star of David.
The story of Iran’s badges became an instant megahit on the Internet and a topic of discussion in blogs, and Jewish chat groups. Other Jewish organizations then chimed in. Some, including the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, fired off statements blasting the move. More cautious communiqués were issued by the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The original story was drawn from a column in the paper by Taheri, a staunch advocate of regime change in Iran who claimed the law was “drafted two years ago” and had been revived “under pressure” from hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The new law, he wrote, “envisages separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct color schemes to make them identifiable in public. The new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis (unclean).”
Late in the day on May 19, The National Post published a subsequent story, also by Wattie, citing a variety of experts claiming the initial report was untrue and referring explicitly to Taheri’s column as a source. In a press release issued May 22 by Benador Associates, a public relations firm representing several prominent neoconservative authors, Taheri said that his column “was used as the basis for a number of reports that somehow jumped the gun.” Still, Taheri said, he stood by his article, claiming that sources, including three legislators who oppose the new bill, told him that a committee was currently discussing the implementation of a new dress code and that among the measures being bandied about are special markers for Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.
A former editor of the state-owned Kayhan newspaper under the shah of Iran before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Taheri is a contributor to various newspapers including the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Asharq Alawsat.
The National Post, founded by conservative mogul Conrad Black, is now owned by CanWest Global Communications and is managed by CanWest principals David and Leonard Asper, who are known for their strong support of Israel.
The draft law currently being debated in Iran has fueled concerns among the country’s liberals that the government is eager to reverse the loosening of the Islamic dress code in recent years by re-imposing veils and head-to-toe cloaks on women. The bill, which focuses on economic incentives for Islamic dress, has been heralded by conservatives as a tool to curb Western influence.
Several news services and Jewish-Iranian groups in the United States have confirmed that the measure currently contains no mention of religious minorities; they said that while religious minorities’ garb could become a topic in the future negotiations over the bill’s implementation, such talk was merely speculation at this time.