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Stolen Statues Spark Conspiracy Theories

By Raha Tahami, Tehran (source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting)


Tehran swirling with rumours about who lies behind theft of bronze monuments. In the febrile political atmosphere of Tehran, the disappearance of at least ten large bronze statues is being blamed on religious radicals, revolutionary guards, even British art dealers, according to which rumour you listen to.



The disappearances began in March and were regarded by city officials as petty theft. But the thieves would have needed cranes and heavy equipment to dislodge and remove the statues and yet no one saw anything, even though they were in streets and parks and mostly on open view.


On May 3, when the number of stolen statues in Tehran had reached nine, the municipality finally called in the police. Tehran police chief Hossein Sajedi said, "The thieves used special equipment to pull off these heists and this is an organised crime."


The statues were mostly not more than 20 years old and are said to be worth 10,000 to 12,000 US dollars each.


Some of the missing items were busts of prominent Iranian revolutionary figures from the early 20th century, like Sattar Khan and Baqer Khan. Other targets included prominent linguist, researcher and writer Mohammad Moin; Ali Shariati, an intellectual who played an important role in the 1979 Islamic revolution; and Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna. A bust of 10th century mystic and poet Abu Saeed Abolkheir was also among the stolen pieces.


The Sattar Khan bust had sat in front of the security post of the city park of the same name. Park maintenance staff initially claimed it had been taken away for repairs but later admitted it had been stolen. The Mohammad Moin bust had only been in place for a month.


One attempted theft - that of the statue of the 10th century astronomer Abdolrahman Sufi - was foiled by municipal workers when it was spotted by traffic control cameras. The culprits got away.


As the thefts mounted, speculation and conspiracy theories began to swirl.


Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who was previously the police chief, insisted rather cryptically that the motive for the crime was not the bronze of the statues, "Ordinary people would not commit such an act. The issue is more complicated than it appears."


Hossein Bonyadi, the deputy head of Tehran city council, seemed to agree that these were no ordinary crimes, "How is it possible that a 400 kilogramme statue is easily stolen with a crane and nobody finds out?"


Hamid Shans, a prominent sculptor, wondered pointedly why the police had not been able to arrest anyone in connection with the thefts, "It is interesting that the police with their level of surveillance and authority in municipal security have never encountered the thieves."


Most were installed in locations close to surveillance and traffic control cameras and one was near a police station.


The Fars News Agency, which is said to be affiliated with the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps, IRGC, subscribed to another theory - that the hidden hand of Britain was behind the thefts and claimed British art dealers were involved.


Many Tehran citizens, however, believed the crimes were the work of a radical religious group with links to the IRGC and the Basij militia, a conviction rooted in an incident in the city of Isfahan in 2002. Statues there were either stolen or set on fire and a radical paramilitary group headed by a young cleric was declared to be responsible.


While Islam has forbidden, and in some cases banned, sculpture, seeing it as a form of idolatry, Iran has not had any problem with this form of art. The installation of statues first began under the secular reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.


Statues of him were removed after the 1979 Iranian revolution, but other sculptures were left intact despite opposition from fundamentalist groups. A statue of the great Persian poet Ferdowsi was beheaded after the revolution but was restored after a public outcry


Pressure from radical clerics caused sculpting to experience a decade of stagnation after the revolution but that has eased and the art form flourishes now. Tehran has more than 500 statues and more are being installed.


Rumours that fundamentalist groups affiliated to the IRGC and Basij militia and working to orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were responsible for the monument thefts spurred the authorities into action.


Jahannews website, which belongs to conservative lawmaker and former head of the student Basij Alireza Zakani, republished a decree by Khamenei permitting sculpture.


"If the statues were the embodiment of a haram (religiously forbidden) act, then the Supreme Leader as the Just Jurisprudent would issue the necessary decree [banning statues and sculpting]," it said.


However, this website also did not rule out the possibility that the crimes could be the work of an autonomous group, and went on to say, "But [those behind the thefts] must know that their actions have no religious justification based on the decree of the Supreme Leader."


Notwithstanding the regime denial of any involvement in the thefts, some analysts believe that elements within the administration had staged the crimes with the aim of further unsettling the population.


"It appears that the theft of the statues is part of a psychological warfare campaign to test the endurance of society," said one political analyst, who preferred not to be named. "This creates fear and terror to some extent. It shows that even statues lack security. The interesting part is that the police, with their silence, have made matters more complicated."


The affair has even sparked dry humour from a poster on the website Balatarin, who linked the thefts to last June's controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "The one behind stealing the statues in Tehran is the same one who stole our votes last year."



Raha Tahami is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and social affairs analyst in Tehran. This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.

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