The latest news about “Iran” comes across as more irritation from a region that seems to always be in conflict. Moreover, the news and commentary tend to be divorced from actual history, allowing vague hand-waving, finger-pointing, and shoulder-shrugging. What follows is an attempt at a bit more definite hand-waving over the map, placing Iran briefly in their own historic context, touching on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey as the other centers of power over the centuries.
It is not “those people.” It is not “that place.” It is not even “Islam.” Don’t take my word for it:
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:4-8, KJV)
By the time Christ spoke those words into history, the lands we now call Iran and Egypt had already waxed and waned as great powers, marching back and forth across the land of Israel and Judah. Indeed, one of these great clashes is captured in the accounts of the Jewish people being carried into captivity in the east by the late Babylonian empire, then sent back to reestablish their society after the first great Persian power crushed the Babylonians and swept west.
Persia arose as a regional power when it, in senior partnership with the Medes, swept away the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, wading into Babylon one night after diverting the Euphrates River (Herodotus 1.191). A map of the first Persian Empire gives one view of its phases of expansion. A ten-minute video “Empires of Ancient Persia explained in 10 minutes (History of Iran)” does an even better job, expanding the time horizon significantly. We can generally take the point that “Persia” is identified with a very long history of military might, extensive trade, and rich art—including poetry persisting to this day.
You will note, towards the end of the video above, a clash of two monotheistic empires. The Eastern Roman Empire and the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire wore each other out, creating the opening for the Arabs to burst forth across the region. The Arabs were displaced by other armies and kingdoms, centered in Egypt and finally in what became Turkey. The final great empire centered in the region was the Ottoman (Turk) Empire, eventually picked apart by the great European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Understandably, peoples in the region felt a loss in going from lords of the horizon to subject lands. One reaction was pan-Arab nationalism, with a hint of socialism and a lot of military government. Nassar’s Egypt was the high water mark for that idea, which ultimately lacked power over national and tribal identities. There would be not fusing of “the Arabs” into a nation as “the Germans” experienced in the early 20th century.
Another idea arose in Egypt in the mid-20th century: the loss of political power had been due to loss of faith, and the answer was not private piety but politically engaged Muslims. The Muslim Brotherhood arose carrying this idea. They failed to seize and keep the state, even in Egypt, but helped drive the ideas and seeding of organizations that trouble the world to this day.
While a secularized Turkey focused on linkage with NATO, securing its southern flank, Egypt became the mass cultural center in the region, producing movies and then television shows. Iran became a bulwark, and an American military equipment client, in the continuation of the Great Game, in which Russia has long sought access to warm water ports, trade routes, and natural resources to the south, but did not project power. Finally the Arabs, newly rich with oil sought to reassert power in the world, first by economic pressure and then through a new religious-cultural offensive.
The early 1970s saw the brief brandishing of oil supply as a weapon. Yet, OPEC was inherently fragile, and all the wealth being produced by oil sales needed to go somewhere. It made sense to buy off critics of opulence and decadence in the ruling elite by giving money to the firebrand clerics to establish indoctrination centers around the region and then the globe. Need a new mosque? You can have one at no cost. You just need to accept the new preacher who must come with the best doctrinal training, after all, just look at the wonderful new place of worship!
Yes, violence ensued, but the real battle was for influence over minds, converting populations under their rulers’ noses. At the same time, the Saudis were spreading their influence with a well-funded missionary program, Iran was about to be seized by one man’s vision of greatness through a cleric-dominated state. This vision was alien to the experience of his coreligionists and set him in rivalry with the traditional senior religious leaders, located in the Shia spiritual heartland, in Iraq. Never before in history had ayatollahs, not “mullahs,” ruled secular society. Ayatollah changed that in 1979.
When you hear or read “Iran,” think either “Khomeinists” or “Persia.” The source of conflict with the region and the world is not Persia. It is the unelected and unaccountable Khomeinists, the clerics and their Praetorian Guard, or Red Guard if you prefer—a military elite apart in command and control from the larger regular military. This force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and it is now branded a terrorist group by the United States.
Recall that the Iranian people rose up, unarmed, against the Khomeinists and their security forces only a few years ago. President Obama turned his face away from them as eggs that would have to be broken to make a new Middle East omelet, in which the Jewish state would finally be put in check, brought to heel by the red-green alliance.
To feed expansionist ambitions, the current regime encouraged population growth. In the wake of the stalemated Iran-Iraq War, a young generation has arisen that is disillusioned by the government, limited economic opportunity, and apparent hypocrisy. The government is seen as corrupt, yet repressive of individual expression as immoral. As Christopher de Bellaigue recounts In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, the revolutionary generation also became worn and disillusioned.
Iranians around the world drove Farsi into the top ten blogging languages, before the Khomeinist regime started imprisoning bloggers. They also were early adopters of podcasting. An educated, younger population has been held down by a theocracy with the beard of an elected parliamentary government. Such governments do not last forever. Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in Iraq is criticizing the religious leaders in Iran of tainting pure religion with their involvement in politics.
The Persian-born ayatollah represents the conservative and mainstream of Iraqi Shias – rejecting the model of Iranian-style theocracy in favour of a separation between religion and politics.
So, “Iran,” “mad mullahs,” “war,” and “nation-building” are all stick figures or straw men in our domestic discourse. With Iranian people used to voting, and with the structure of a parliamentary democracy already in place, we could see a short transition to actual democracy. Perhaps the unelected regime can be thrown off or curtailed into a ceremonial role, no stronger than, say, the British monarchy and House of Lords. Most likely, the IRGC would have to be defeated first, preferably by the regular Iranian military in the lead, possibly acting in the name of the people’s elected government.
There is a real opportunity to end the regional and global threat from the Khomeinist regime and enable an educated and civically engaged people to reestablish their nation as a center of stability in the region. Doing so would deprive Hezbollah and Hamas of major material and organizational support, multiplying the positive effects in the region. This outcome, desired by the Iranian people, will not come from large military strikes against “Iran,” especially against its infrastructure. Rather, relentless pressure across diplomatic, informational, economic, financial, intelligence and law enforcement elements of national power, backed by the check of vastly superior military power, will create the conditions for regime collapse, whether bloody or peaceful.