The stories of Persia
he Americans have never really understood Iran, its Islamic Revolution in 1979, or its subsequent evolution. How, in the first place, could its people overthrow a ruler such as the shah, a relatively benevolent despot by Middle Eastern standards who had modernised his country, vastly improved the educational level of its population and generally raised the country’s standard of living?
But it must be admitted that the Iranian people themselves were also confused, and few of them realised that they were having an Islamic revolution until it was too late.
And yet, despite the oppression of religious fundamentalism, the shah’s work in the fields of education and industrial development has continued, resulting in an increasingly modern, educated and secular population — and a young one — that has little attachment to headscarves and chadors.
In many ways, Iran would be a much better ally for the US than Saudi Arabia, which, like the Gulf states, represents a distasteful combination of crude materialism and hypocritically enforced fundamentalist piety. Admittedly, American Christian fundamentalism has found its own way of reconciling gross materialism with revivalist religion, so perhaps there is a natural fit between the two.
Iran has suffered many vicissitudes over the centuries, but it has a far longer history and a deeper culture than the Arabs; indeed, Arab culture is almost entirely made up of what the Arabs learnt from the Greeks and the Persians following their conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. The Arabs were a tribal people, suddenly occupying lands where remarkable civilisations had flourished for a millennium and a half, and indeed far longer if we go back to the Bronze Age.
The greatest handicap of the Persians — and ultimately the root cause of their inability to conquer the Greeks in the fifth century BC — was that they had never developed the ideas of the rule of law or of responsible government, in the broadest sense, which underpinned the life of the Greek polis. The law remained at the whim of the ruler, and because the people had no say in who the ruler was, they had no commitment to the state.
All of that is what the constitutionalist movement of the early 20th century was trying to change: the modernisers in Persia, as it then was, realised that they could never become a modern nation until they were able to build the institutions of civil society. But on the other hand the great advantage of Persia was a deeply humanistic yet also spiritual tradition embodied by its great poets, and a profound ethos of community, manifest in remarkable infrastructure, especially the underground water conduits or ghanat that make life possible in the desert, and unfailing courtesy in private relations between people.
Today, the political life of Iran is a work in progress: it is a semi-democracy, in the sense that the people vote for the election of a president as well as for members of parliament, but from lists of candidates vetted by the clergy, who regularly disqualify anyone they consider too radical.
Despite this, the drift has been towards more progressives in parliament. President Hassan Rouhani is a relative moderate, a clergyman who realises that the system must adapt if it is to survive; the ultimate leader of the country, however, remains the supreme Ayatollah, who is more conservative but has been willing to support Rohani in some of his reforms.
The two most important things that are often misunderstood about the Iranians are first, that they are not Arabs at all, but Indo-Europeans (Persian is related to Latin, Greek and German); and secondly, that they belong to the Shia branch of Islam, which adheres to the direct line of descent through the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali, and which was usurped by the Umayyad caliphs and their successors the Abbasids, who systematically murdered all of the rightful heirs, known to the Shia as imams.
The first of these facts explains their dislike of Arabs in general — and their hatred of Saudi Arabia and its proxies in particular — and the second explains the unique cult of martyrdom that pervades Shia religious life in a way that far exceeds the cult of the martyrs in the Catholic Church. The separation of Shia from Sunni was sealed by the killing of Ali’s son Hussein at the battle of Karbala in 680AD, and to this day the annual commemoration of that battle, the most important time in the Shia year, is held in September or thereabouts, depending on the lunar calendar, and lasts for a month.
These factors are important if one is to understand the ethos behind the Museum of Holy Defence in Tehran, which opened in 2012, although parts of the vast site are still being developed. The museum commemorates the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which Saddam Hussein took advantage of the disarray into which the Islamic Revolution of 1979 had thrown the shah’s powerful armed forces to invade Iran and seize parts of its territory.
The plan was initially successful, but the Iranians regrouped and fought back, and gradually pushed the Iraqis out; peace was restored in 1988 after a war in which hundreds of thousands of young men died and no territory was gained on either side.
For the Iranians, the awful reality was overlaid with historical echoes, the first of which was that the Iraqi invasion recalled the Arab invasion of 651AD, which effectively put an end to Iran as an independent state for about 850 years, although the Iranians resisted the cultural imperialism of Arabic and retained the Persian language.
Even deeper were associations with martyrdom and Imam Hussein as protomartyr. Every young man who died in the war was re-enacting the sacrifice of Hussein in the face of barbarism. This is the theme around which the museum is