Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Some thoughts on Iran

Man, can we hold a grudge.

We’ve been in a cold war with Iran for my entire adult life – since the American embassy was seized during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, my senior year of college.   That’s over 35 years now, coming up on as long as we were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union.   It hasn’t occupied central stage in our consciousness the whole  time like the conflict with the Russians did, but it’s never eased. 

This diplomatic crisis weighed heavily on me at the time – it inspired me to go to graduate school and study diplomatic history with Robert Ferrell and apply for the foreign service, instead of law school.  In fact, I passed the foreign service exam in November 1980; the Reagan hiring freeze cancelled my interview, and probably changed the course of my life.  I was young and patriotic and saw the foreign service as a way to participate in the protection and projection of American values.   I wasn’t a pacifist.  I would have supported a viable military response. 

But even then, even with a history degree, I didn’t fully appreciate the backstory on Iran, or Persia.

Persia is one of the great civilizations in world history.   The modern Iranians have a cohesive ethnic identity and a language, Farsi, which is at least as identifiable to its 2500-year-old predecessors as modern English is to Chaucer.   Persia had a religion – Zoroastrianism – that I’m going to get back to in a bit here.  They had cats and rugs.   The Western world would probably be entirely different if the Greeks had not turned the Persians back at famous battles like Marathon and Thermopylae in the 5th century BC.

In fact, Persia is the dividing line between what we consider the Western World and the Eastern World.  More precisely, I suppose, that dividing line was the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern Iraq.   Our most ancient oral literary and religious traditions date to Abraham, who came west from Ur of the Chaldees in the Fertile Crescent about 2000 BC and settled in Canaa.  At the same time, others carried the first trappings of civilization –  agriculture and the Code of Hammarabi, among others – a few hundred miles west of Ur.  Those were the Persians.

While the Persians were settling in modern-day Iran and the descendants of Abraham were migrating to Egypt and back, in Mesopotamia the city of Babylon emerged as the cultural center of the Fertile Crescent. For 1500 years, though, Babylon was ruled by Assyrians, from the west.   The Assyrians also battled with the ancient Hebrews, but it wasn’t until a resurgent Babylonian empire conquered the Assyrians and kept going, that ancient Israel actually fell, resulting  in the famous Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews under Nebuchadneezer.

The Babylonian captivity didn’t end until this Babylon was conquered by the Persians.  It was the Persians, under Cyrus, who allowed the Hebrews to return to Israel.   But it was at this time that our Bible first began to be put into writing; and the robust religions of Christianity and Islam that grew out of the Hebrew Bible and religion were deeply affected by the good-vs.-evil mentality of Persian Zoroastrianism. 

Persia (as well as Israel and everything else in the modern middle-East) was then conquered by the Macedonian Greeks and then the Romans, but Farsi and Zoroastrianism continued to flourish until 700 BC.   The Romans, of course, eventually destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the troublesome Hebrews, and later adopted Christianity as their state religion.   They never really stamped out local religions or ethnicities, though.

It wasn’t until Mohammedism, or Islam, took root among the nomadic Arabs to the south of ancient Mesopotamia, that the middle east became predominately “Muslim.”   And here is where it gets interesting.   For all the Western rhetoric about persecution and forced conversion, the Islamic Arabs allowed Christian and Jewish enclaves to survive throughout their empire, because they were “people of the book.”   That’s one of the reasons the current ISIS is so problematic – they are killing and destroying 2000-year-old Christian communities – communities that “somehow” survived Mohammed and Saracen and the Seljuk Turks and Saddam Hussein.   The Arabic Muslim world has long had a practice of exacting a “tax” from the Christians and Jews in their states; but it started out as a means of having them pay for a government in which they were not allowed to participate.   Sort of like the British view of the American colonies in the years before the American Revolution.   It’s a bad policy that cost the British their most lucrative colonies; but it’s a long way from genocide. 

The early Arabic Muslims had no such teachings, however, about other religions; which is why in Persia, Zoroastrianism did die out.  It does seem that in Persia and points east, the locals may have been converted to Islam at the point of a sword. 

Most of what we Westerners now know about ancient Persian culture comes to us through Western filters, 
such as  Neitszche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.   Michael Crichton’s re-telling of the Beowulf legend, Eaters of the Dead, was conveyed through the eyes of a Persian official who had been kidnapped by Vikings in 10th-century Russia.   Frank Miller’s bizarre version of the Persians in the popular 300 graphic novels and films demonized them as the ultimate “others.” 

Modern Iran dates from the dissolution of the (Islamic, but Turkish) Ottoman Empire after World War I.  It was one of several proxy states that the British and French created in their efforts to rebuild their own empires; but this one had a cohesive identity and culture.   Shah Reza tried to stay neutral in World War II, but the British invaded supposedly to prevent Iran from tilting toward Nazi Germany, and also to create a supply line to Russia.   After the war, the British and Americans replaced Shah Reza with his son, Reza Pahlavi, who was a more compliant ally in their rivalry with their new adversary, the Soviet Union.

For 25 years the “new” Shah of Iran was presented here as a progressive pro-Western ally, but he probably never had the support of the Iranian people.  But the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s didn’t become violently anti-American until after Jimmy Carter reluctantly granted the deposed and dying Shah sanctuary on medical grounds.   Their government allowed radical groups to seize our embassy; we imposed sanctions and armed Iraq in a war against them, and we’ve been at odds ever since.

And frankly, there isn’t a good reason for Iran and Israel to be mortal enemies, beyond the fact that Islam became a uniting force for the Shah’s oppressed opponents.   The Arab world has always had reasons, real and imagined, to resent the creation of modern Israel in their midst, but strategically Israel doesn’t affect Iran except as a foothold for what they understandably see as Western imperialism.    They’ve not helped themselves by meddling in the affairs of Arab states and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they are hardly the only guilty party in the region.

Iranians have every reason to see themselves as a strong and independent modern power, but a beleaguered and surrounded one.   The world would no doubt be safer if they didn’t have nuclear weapons, but the same is true of Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and NATO.   The United States didn’t prevent India from getting nuclear weapons because they were a counter to the Chinese.   We didn’t prevent Pakistan from getting nuclear weapons because they were a counter to the Soviets in Afghanistan.  It’s widely believed that we haven’t prevented Israel from getting nuclear weapons. 

Iran’s apocalyptic rhetoric is frightening and not helpful toward achieving peace.   But we don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that their leaders’ sabre-rattling is a matter of playing to their base in the same way that the sabre-rattling of American Republicans is. 

The Christian (and post-Christian) West has strong cultural ties to Israel, and part of that is still some reasonable guilt over complicity in a Western state’s near-genocide of the Jewish people  just 70 years ago.   But if you want to get cultural, you can argue that there may have been no Bible and maybe no Judaism if the Persians hadn’t rescued the Hebrews from the Babylonians 2500 years ago.  And we could probably stand some self-reflection over our role in Iran’s current isolation.

I think the nuclear limitations treaty that the U.S., along with Germany and the U.N. Security Council, is negotiating with Iran is worth seeing through on its own merits, but also as a next step in re-establishing relations and providing Iran with a path back into the community of nations.