Portrait | Iran: bloody land that keeps circling back in time


Portrait | Iran: bloody land that keeps circling back in time

Aside from the modern weaponry, Iran's attack on Israel last weekend might well have been a story told in some ancient manuscript. WILLEM KEMPEN tries to bring the old and the new together.

ALMOST three millennia after the inalterable “law of Medes and Persians" landed Daniel of the Bible in the lions' den, the people around the paradise of Genesis are still ready to fight over whose rules should apply and who must be in control.

The story also shows how dangerous it is to rely on ancient texts to resolve contemporary conflicts; the Book of Daniel is considered mostly fictional today but the mythology — of a Jewish outsider who is punished for being smarter and more successful than the local guys — survives.

In any case, for Iran (Persia) the next 3,000 years were an endless cycle of religious and other empires and dynasties that came and went; of conquest, revolution and war:

♦ Under Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid Empire (550 to 330 years before the common era) was at that stage the largest empire in ancient history. (It was under Cyrus that the Greeks began to refer to Iran as Persia, after which both names were accepted as correct. In 1935, Persia officially became Iran again.)

♦ In the seventh century after Christ, Iran was conquered by Islamic Arabs. It was the beginning of the end for the dominance of Zoroastrianism, the religion established by the prophet Zoroaster in Iran (also sometimes called Arya) about 3,500 years ago.

♦ Under the Safavid dynasty of 1501 to 1736, Shia Islam was reinstated as the state religion in Iran, where it is still dominant.

♦ Under the Qajar dynasty from 1796 to 1925, Iran's sovereignty was challenged by the power struggle between the British and Russian empires. In the Caucasus and elsewhere, Iran ceded territory that included parts of present-day eastern Georgia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

♦ The Constitutional Revolution of 1905 introduced modern political concepts such as a parliament and a constitutional order to Persia, although the monarchy continued to rule for decades afterwards.

Top left is Reza Pahlavi, father and predecessor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Top right are Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Pahlavi senior in Ankara in 1934. Bottom left is Mohammad Reza Pahlavi when he was still Shah, and bottom right is him with his wife, Farah Pahlavi, in the throne room.
Top left is Reza Pahlavi, father and predecessor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Top right are Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Pahlavi senior in Ankara in 1934. Bottom left is Mohammad Reza Pahlavi when he was still Shah, and bottom right is him with his wife, Farah Pahlavi, in the throne room.

Incidentally, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis partly stole the concept of an “Aryan superrace" with roots in India and Iran from Darius the Great of Iran and twisted it to suit them; the earliest reference to someone of Aryan descent is near Darius's burial site. The Nazis even proclaimed on occasion on the Iranian service of the propaganda station Radio Zeesen that Hitler was the Shiite Messiah, the “Twelfth Imam" who had returned to exterminate the Jews and communists.

♦ In 1963, sweeping reforms proposed by the pro-Western Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (then “the Shah of Iran") were approved in a referendum that ushered in the White Revolution. Iran's Islamic fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were outraged, especially because the people of Iran had voted for suffrage for women in the referendum. Khomeini said in his sermons that Iran's destiny “should never be determined by women".

♦ All these attempts at modernisation came to a dramatic end in 1979 when Khomeini removed the monarchy from power in the Islamic Revolution and proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under Khomeini, Iran became the international standard-bearer of fundamentalist Shiite Islam and the ruthless enforcement of sharia law. Khomeini also did his best to whip up the people of Iran and Muslims in general against the US (“Great Satan") and Israel (“Little Satan").

♦ Also in 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq. In September 1980, his troops invaded Iran, starting the bloody Iran-Iraq war in which more than half a million people perished before it ended in 1988. One of the reasons for the invasion was a land dispute over access to the Persian Gulf but Saddam was also afraid that the Islamic Revolution would spill over into Iraq and spell the end of his own regime if he were to lose the support of his country's minority Sunni Muslims.

♦ One of the many consequences of George W Bush and Tony Blair's ousting of Saddam in the Second Gulf War (“Quagmire Accomplished") was that Iraq's Sunni Muslims filled the power vacuum with organisations like ISIS (also read here). And in certain Sunni circles, Shiites are hated almost as much as Jews, perhaps even more.

♦ While Iraq and Saddam drew most of the international attention for years after this, Iran continued to use its enormous oil resources to further expand its theocracy and fundamentalist Shiite Islam. In 1989, Ali Khamenei took over from Khomeini as Supreme Leader, and the following year Iran completely rearmed and reorganised its military and spent $10 billion on fighter jets, tanks and missiles from the then USSR and China. This weaponry has since become outdated but Iran still has one of the largest and strongest armies in the Middle East. And then there are the nuclear weapons…

Ali Khamenei, Iran's second and current Supreme Leader.
Ali Khamenei, Iran's second and current Supreme Leader.

♦ The US had been sharing its nuclear technology with Iran since the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace programme. This meant Iran's nuclear capability was well advanced by the time the 1979 revolution changed everything. After this, to make a very long story very short, in 2015 Iran signed a nuclear agreement with a group of world powers in return for eased US and European sanctions, then almost immediately declared that the agreement would not prevent it from developing missiles and other nuclear weapons, and that Tehran would “continue to arm our regional allies".

This brings us to Iran's attack on Israel last weekend, because these “regional allies" include Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran gives both organisations money and weapons by Iran as a way to expand its influence in the Middle East, and also at the expense of rival powers such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is probably no coincidence that Israel and Saudi Arabia were about to establish exploratory diplomatic relations when Hamas struck on October 7 last year. To add to the conundrum: Hezbollah is a Shiite organization; Hamas is Sunni.

Modern-day Tehran.
Modern-day Tehran.

So, now we wait to see how Israel will retaliate for Iran's attack, which was retaliation for Israel's attack on Iran's consulate in Syria, which was retaliation for Iran's support for Hezbollah, which was retaliation for who-knows-what, which was revenge for something that happened even longer ago, which was revenge for... And so it continues, all the way back for thousands of years.

♦ VWB ♦

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