LET ME BEGIN with a few generalities about Iran to which I think it is useful to draw attention. In several significant respects, Iran is very different from the region which in modern times we have got into the habit of calling "Middle East." Most of the countries or nations of the Middle East are modern creations, invented by mostly European diplomats and imperialists with frontiers drawn with pencils and rulers on maps. Iran is not in that category: Iran is a genuine nation as that word is used in Europe. It has a millennial identity going back not just hundreds but thousands of years; it is familiar to anyone who reads the Bible and anyone who is acquainted with Greco-Roman history as well as other more recent events in the region. In most of the Middle East—that is to say in what is generally known nowadays as the Arab world—we use the term nationalism to describe the sentiments of loyalty and activism that motivate their political life. The word patriotism, which is more common in the Western world, does not really seem appropriate. It is appropriate for Iran. What we see in Iran is not nationalism Arab style; it is patriotism Western style: a continuing identity through many different changes of culture, of ruler, even of religion and, more important perhaps, a common identity which embraces a great number of ethnic and linguistic minorities, still intensely aware of their common Iranian identity. If you look at the map of Iran, there is one minority after another: various kinds of Turks, some Arabs, Baluchis and so on, all the way round. Yet these are for the most part overwhelmingly Iranian in their sentiments and loyalty, in contrast with other parts of the Middle East, where ethnicity counts far more than nationality and religion counts far more than either. In dealing with Iran, I would say therefore that it is very important not to give the present rulers of Iran the gift of something that they do not at present enjoy, and that is the loyalty of Iranian patriotism.
I will try to clarify what I mean by that as I go along. At the moment I just want to point out that Persian is a quite distinct language; it is not, like the rest of the spoken languages of the Middle East and North Africa, a dialect of Arabic. It includes many Arabic words, just as English includes many French words, but English is not French, and English is not a Latin language. In the same way Iranian retains its distinctive identity even after all the changes that followed the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Persian is an Indo-European language, related more closely to English and French than to Arabic or Turkish, in spite of their geographical propinquity. One can see this by applying the usual basic test—kinship terms and numbers: mādar (mother), pedar (father), birāder(brother), dukhtar (daughter), no (nine), deh (Ten), and so on. It is a language closely related to the adjoining languages of India, more distantly related to most of the languages of Europe. It is also spoken in various forms by a number of peoples outside the frontiers of the present republic of Iran, notably three groups. The first is Tajik, spoken in the former Soviet republic called Tajikistan. Most of the other former Soviet republics of Muslim identity speak languages of the Turkish family: Tajik is not a form of Turkish, however, but a form of Persian, and there is therefore a relationship with Iran that does not exist elsewhere. The second is in Afghanistan, where there are two national languages. One is a purely local one, shared with neighboring areas of Pakistan; the other, called Dari, is a form of Persian, very similar, though with some minor differences, to the language spoken in Iran. The third one—much less important but sometimes in the news is Ossetian, one of those small ethnic groups that are, shall we say, attached to the Republic of Georgia.
Let me turn now to the Islamic aspect of Iranian history and identity. There, as in the other lands that were conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, the previous identity was not just lost but obliterated. In all these countries of ancient civilization, as readers may know, the ancient languages were forgotten, the monuments destroyed and even the scripts forgotten. The same is true in Iran. Their history was deliberately defaced. If you go and visit some of the ancient monuments at Persepolis and other places, you can see how the inscriptions and the figures were hacked and destroyed. The writing used in Iran before the Arab conquest was no longer taught or known except among the small and dwindling Zoroastrian remnant, and the Iranian identity expressed in the older culture was forgotten, with this important difference: the Iranians did not adopt the Arabic language as did the ancient peoples of Iraq and Syria and Egypt and North Africa, who all adopted Arabic and became Arabized from the seventh century onwards. The Iranians retained their identity; they retained their language even within Islam; they retained an awareness of being something different. It is true that the Persian language, after the advent of Islam, is written in the Arabic script and contains an enormous vocabulary of Arabic words, often with subtle changes of meaning, but it is not Arabic.
One wonders why it is that the Persians, unlike the others, retained their identity; one can adduce several reasons. One is that people in Iraq and Syria spoke Aramaic, and the transition from Aramaic to Arabic was not all that difficult. But then in Egypt, they spoke Coptic, and there the transition to Arabic would have been more difficult but still took place. Probably the main reason is not language but awareness. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, all had been under foreign rule for centuries, in some parts for millennia. They had been conquered a long time before the coming of Islam; they had lost their identities, they had lost their memories, they had become accustomed to being subjects of some external greater power. This was not the case with the Iranians. Their memories of greatness, their memories of independence, indeed of dominance, were far more recent, were in fact immediate, and I think that is probably the main reason why, despite the loss of their history, they retained their identity. They felt the need for history, but since their history was not accessible to them, they invented one. We have the very rich Iranian tradition of, shall we say, "historical mythology," expressed in its best form in epic poetry.
All this is relevant to understanding the place of Islam in Iran and the place of Iran in Islam. With the Islamization of Iran and the adoption of this new Arabized, Islamized version of the Persian language, Iranians, in the early centuries to a much greater extent than later, learned and used the Arabic language—the language of their new imperial masters and of their newly adopted religion—and made a very significant and important contribution to early Islamic culture and history. One even finds occasionally the termIslām-i 'Ajamī, "Iranian Islam," so to speak—their version of it as distinct from what one might call the more orthodox (I hesitate before using that word, but it is the best I can think of) version pursued in the Arab countries.
Now one may say, Well, what about Shi'ism; that surely becomes typically Iranian? It does indeed but not until much later. There is, of course, a great divide in Islam between the Sunnis and the Shi'a. Some have likened this division to the difference between Protestants and Catholics in Christianity, a comparison the absurdity of which is easily demonstrated. Just ask which are the Protestants and which are the Catholics. There is no way of answering that question because it is meaningless. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics was over ecclesiastical authority; there is no Vatican in Islam, at least there was not for centuries. In Iran they are trying to construct a sort of pseudo-Vatican now. That is not the point: Shi'a-Sunni differences continued for a very long time, but it was at a comparatively late stage, in the sixteenth century, that Shi'ism became associated with Iranian identity. That happened when a Shiite dynasty established itself in Iran and created the Safavid monarchy, the starting point of the modern history of Iran.
Now this development was not nationalist. The Safavids were actually not Persians. They were not even Persian speakers; they were a Turkish tribe who came from Anatolia and moved eastwards. If we look at the correspondence between the Ottoman sultans and the Persian shahs in the early sixteenth century, the sultan writes to the shah in Persian; the shah writes to the sultan in Turkish. Now, one may say they are both being courteous, each addressing the other in his own language. Not at all: the letters in question are very insulting in tone and nasty in content and prepared the way for the outbreak of war. The sultan wrote to the shah in Persian because in sixteenth-century Turkey Persian was the language used by educated gentlemen, and the shah wrote to the sultan in Turkish because that was the only language he knew.
The Safavids from the early sixteenth century onwards were able to create and maintain (and were followed by others who did the same thing) a genuine national and territorial identity. Iran became a nation-state in something resembling the European sense of that term, without any parallel anywhere in the Arab world or for that matter in Turkey. Remember that in Turkey, the name Turkey was only adopted in the twentieth century by the Turks. Previously, the country had been known to its inhabitants by other names: Turkey was what Europeans called it. There is an interesting report from a Turkish ambassador in France in the eighteenth century who wrote a letter full of anger—he had been addressed as "the Turkish ambassador." He found this insulting because in his language as used at that time the "Turks" meant the nomads and peasants of Anatolia. He was the Ottoman ambassador.
It was not until comparatively modern times that identity in terms of nationality and ethnicity came to be generally accepted and understood. In Iran, from the Safavids onwards, it was not Persian or Iranian identity that mattered but the Shi'a monarchy, creating a kingdom sharply differentiated from its neighbors on all sides: to the west, the Ottomans; to the east and northeast, the various Muslim rulers of Central Asia; to the southeast, the various Muslim rulers of India after the Muslim conquest of the subcontinent. All of these were Sunni and most of them were strongly anti-Shi'a, persecuting the Shi'a in their own countries. The Shi'a identity thus became an important part of Iranian self-awareness, particularly in differentiating themselves from their neighbors on all sides.
A word about the names Persia and Iran: Persia is strictly speaking the name of a province, one part of the country in the southwest, adjoining the Persian Gulf. In Iran, as in many other countries, there were different dialects, and one of them, Persian, came to dominate. Just as Tuscan became Italian and Castilian became Spanish, so Persian, the language of Pars, became the national language of Iran. Those who came from the West and first met that language and first met the people of Pars used the name for the country as a whole, though the Iranians themselves did not do so.
The name Iran is closely related to the word Aryan—Persian is an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit, on the one hand, and to Latin and Greek and the various languages of Europe, on the other. That also is part of the developing self-awareness. At times it became even a question of foreign policy. In the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany, the Germans made a great effort to win over the support of Iran, and they sent emissaries to tell the Iranians "You are not Semites; you are not of an inferior race; you are Aryans as your name indicates. We recognize you as equals," and so on. And it worked for a while: it did win some good will, not surprisingly after all—it is difficult to reject that sort of approach. Possibly (I cannot say certainly but I would go so far as to say probably), it was at that time that the government of the country began to insist on the use of the name Iran instead of the name Persia. Previously, the country had been known in all languages but their own as Persia. Now they insisted on the use of "Iran."
This raises the larger question of the pre-Islamic heritage. At the time of the advent of Islam and the Arab conquests, the countries of the Middle East west of Iran—Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa—were Christian and were in due course Islamized, some though not all preserving Christian minorities.
Iran was not Christian. The Iranians had a different faith, an original faith of their own, not brought in from outside: the faith of Zoroaster. Zoroastrians are dualists. That is to say, they believe not in a single almighty God who rules everything, but in two independent supreme powers, one of good and one of evil.
The dualism of Zoroaster is extremely important in human history. The Jewish, Christian and mainstream Muslim God is almighty; the Zoroastrian god is not. He is the supreme power of good but there is also, confronting him, a supreme power of evil, and there is a cosmic struggle going on for all eternity between the two. In some modern Islamic sects and movements as well as in Iran, one can see some relics of Zoroastrian dualism: the belief in a god who is not omnipotent but who, on the contrary, requires the help of humans to fight his enemies and offers them a variety of rewards and inducements to win them over. The struggle continues.
This dualism is very important when we look more closely at the figure of Satan: Satan has a long and complex history. There are two kinds—there is what you might call the Judeo-Christian and partly Islamic Satan, who is either a rebel, a fallen angel or something of the sort, or else a servant of God carrying out some of God's more mysterious purposes—testing for example on God's behalf.
In the Zoroastrian faith, Satan is an independent power, the enemy and opponent of God. This begins to be globally important with the Babylonian captivity. The Jews were sent from the land of Israel to Babylon and they remained there until the country was conquered by the Persians and became part of the Persian empire. We are all familiar with the story of how Cyrus extended his good will, his protection, to the Jews and helped them return to their homeland, and he is one of the very few figures spoken of with, one might say, adulation in the Hebrew Bible: he is described as God's anointed, God's Messiah. The Bible uses terms of praise for Cyrus the Mede stronger than those for any other ruler, Jewish or non-Jewish, and this strongly pro-Iranian attitude in the Jewish tradition continues thereafter.
There were reasons for this continued favor to which we will come back in a moment. One element which may help us to understand the relationship between Cyrus and the Jews is the mutual recognition of a higher religious level. Judaism and Zoroastrianism are in many ways very different but they resemble each other when compared with the polytheistic and idolatrous faiths of most of the ancient world. Their religions were not the same, but they were akin; they could communicate, and they shared the same contempt for the primitive cults that prevailed virtually everywhere else in the region. This mutual recognition and understanding may help us to understand why Cyrus adopted the policies he did toward the Jews and why the Jews responded as they did.
This mutual regard, I think, is generally understood and accepted. What is less generally understood is the importance of the Zoroastrian impact on postexilic Judaism and therefore on Christianity. If you look at the books of the Hebrew Bible and compare the pre-exilic books with the postexilic books, there are certain quite significant differences—differences which can in no small measure be attributed to Zoroastrian influence.
One is of particular relevance, and that is messianism. The idea of a messiah, of an anointed one of a sacred seed who will return and establish the Kingdom of God on the earth does not appear in the older books of the Hebrew Bible. It is a Zoroastrian notion: the idea of a descendent from the sacred seed of Zoroaster who would return at the end of time, defeat the powers of evil in the final battle and establish the triumph of good on earth. This kind of messianism has impact in postexilic Judaism and therefore more powerfully in Christianity.
Let me turn now to the subject of national revival and the revival of national self-awareness in Iran. Here, as elsewhere, the Orientalists played a role of key importance in restoring to the people of Iran some knowledge of their own heritage. The ancient languages of Iran were not entirely forgotten. The Parsees, who follow a form of the ancient religion of Zoroaster, preserved their script and some of their scriptures, but they had minimal impact on their own past and most of them were not in Iran; they were in India. It was the orientalists who first deciphered the ancient writings, the ancient inscriptions and restored to the Iranians, as they did to the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the rest, the knowledge of their own glorious but forgotten past.
I recall a particular manifestation of this change in 1971, when the late Shah decided to have a public international celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian state and, more particularly, from his point of view, the Persian monarchy founded by Cyrus the Great. It was an international celebration to which I had the privilege of being invited, and I was flown there—to Tehran and from there to Shiraz and from there to Persepolis. It was quite a memorable occasion. There was a great statue of Cyrus, and a quite elaborate construction on which all the guests were situated—political leaders, diplomats, academics and others. Then the Shah descended from the sky in a helicopter, landed just by the tomb of Cyrus and made an eloquent speech, of which I vividly remember the last words. He said "O mighty Cyrus, you may sleep in peace for we are awake."
This historical allusion also has an importance, I think, in understanding the role of monarchy in Iran, as a unifying factor. As I said before, there were different ethnicities, different languages, different local cultures, but, along with Shi'ism, the monarchy was the great unifying force, and, for the Shah and his followers, this was a point of which they made very full use.
Another theme in modern Iranian history is that of revolution. As is well known, revolution is a word much used in the Middle East: it is the only generally accepted title to legitimacy. All regimes claim to be revolutionary, though most of them have come to power by procedures which would be more appropriately described as coups d'etat or something of the sort. Coup d'état in French, Putsch in German, pronunciamiento in Spanish; the history of the English-speaking peoples happily provides no equivalent. Revolutionaryis a common, widely used term; every regime claims to be revolutionary. The Iranian Revolution is real. By this I am expressing neither approval nor disapproval; what I am saying is that it is a genuine major transformation, comparable in its way with the French and Russian revolutions, with parallel themes and parallel phases, and it now appears to be entering what one might describe as either the Stalin or the Napoleon phase. The Iranians would probably prefer to call it the Napoleon phase; I think it would be more accurate to call it the Stalin phase. The initial Western reaction to the Iranian Revolution was a very positive one, particularly in the United States where it is generally believed that any movement to establish a republic in place of a monarchy must be progressive and therefore good.
There was considerable reluctance to recognize the reality of what was happening in Iran. At the time of the Iranian Revolution I was in Princeton. I had been in Iran not long previously, but when it happened I was back home, reading the newspapers and listening to the news. There was a great deal of talk about this man Khomeini. I must confess I had never heard the name Khomeini before, but I did what we normally do in our profession: I went to the university library and looked him up in the catalogue to see if there was anything either by him or about him. And I found a little book called Islamic Government written by the said Khomeini. It was available in both Persian and Arabic, but not, at that time, in any Western language. I checked the book out and read it and this made it very clear who he was and what his aims were; and the popular idea that this was going to mean the establishment of a liberal, open, modern society in place of the reactionary Shah was utter nonsense.
The problem was how to make this disagreeable fact known. It took a long time before it was possible to persuade either the media or officialdom of the existence of this book, of its contents and its meaning, and of who Khomeini was and what he was going to do.
I think by now we have all lost whatever illusions we may have had about the regime, though some people have substituted a different set of illusions.
By now the Iranian Revolution is seen as a major threat in the region, and it is in the sense that it is reaching out—eastward to Afghanistan and Pakistan, westward to Iraq, where it has been playing a major role in the various disorders that have plagued that country, and beyond Iraq by the northern route to Syria and to Lebanon and by the southern route to Hamas in Gaza. The fact that one is Sunni and the other is Shi'a does not seem to bother them. The common enemy overrides what have become relatively minor differences among themselves.
Because of this expansion, there is a growing concern in the Muslim Middle East, particularly in the strongly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who see this as a real danger, and it is a real danger for two reasons. One is the Shi'a reason: there are significant Shi'a minorities in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia and in the other Gulf states—even some Shi'a majorities, locally at least—who have been suppressed and disenfranchised in most ways. The Iranian Revolution has awakened them, and they are seen, with some justification, as a major threat to the existing regimes. It was perfectly clear, in the war that Israel fought against Hezbollah in 2006, that the Sunni Arab states were quietly hoping the Israelis would do the job and finish it and were manifestly disappointed when the Israelis failed to do so. This growing concern has interesting parallels with Sadat's fears of Soviet domination. It was the fear of Soviet domination rather than any goodwill to Israel which led him to seek peace against what he saw rightly as the more dangerous enemy, and clearly there are a number now in the Arab world, including near neighbors, who take the same view. If we look at the reactions to what has been happening in Gaza, one cannot but be struck by the relative silence on the West Bank, for example, and elsewhere. This creates, I think, a new and interesting situation.
In looking at the Iranian Revolution, we must also be concerned by what I would call the apocalyptic aspect of it, the fact that these people really believe that this is the final stage. Most religions, certainly Judaism, Christianity and Islam, share a belief in an end-of-time scenario when God's anointed (however he may be defined) will come and fight God's enemy in the final battle and establish the Kingdom of God on earth, when all the wicked will go to eternal damnation and the good will enjoy the eternal delights of paradise, as variously described.
Awareness of the threat of mutual assured destruction, was an effective deterrent during the Cold War in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Both had nuclear weapons as also did some other powers. But they did not use them because they knew that if they did use them, the others would respond in kind, and the fear of mutual assured destruction was a way of keeping the peace. This does not quite work at the present time because of the apocalyptic view. With these people's apocalyptic mindset, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement; it is a quick free pass for the true believers to heaven and its delights and the dispatch of the rest to hell.
This raises the interesting and relevant question of the Devil. In Iran, the common practice is to speak of the United States and Israel as the Great Satan and the Little Satan. Generally speaking, there is a not very sharp but nevertheless discernible difference of opinion between those who hate America because America is Israel's patron and those who hate Israel because Israel is America's protege. They overlap but they are distinct and the different themes can be seen in various groups and writings. For the Iranian leadership, the United States is the major adversary, the leader of the world of the infidels in succession to the long series of leaders who ruled the world of infidels. Against them, the Iranians now see themselves as the rulers of the world of true Islam. This coincides to a quite remarkable extent with the al-Qaeda perception of the struggle—again, the United States as the global infidel satanic force. What I find interesting is that in some Iranian writings about the role of the United States as the satanic force, the word they use is not Shaitan, which is the Islamic equivalent of Satan, but Ahriman, which is the Zoroastrian term for the supreme figure of evil. More recently, in the demonstrations after the Iranian election in June 2009, the crowds denounced the president, calling him "Ahriman-nejad."
Let me turn now to another aspect: the resulting attitudes toward Jews and Israel. Here I think the two names that I put in the title—Haman and Cyrus—may serve to typify two long-standing traditions. The treatment of Cyrus by the Jewish historiographic tradition is quite remarkable: he appears as a messianic figure, and during the periods of Persian rule, there were no complaints, no rebellions. There were problems now and then, problems with the Resh-Galuta, the officially recognized head of the Jewish community, who got into trouble with the authorities, but these were generally speaking seen as very minor problems and did not affect the genuine relationship. Cyrus, as I remarked before, is presented even in the Bible as God's anointed, and the period of Persian rule in Babylonia is still seen as a golden age in Jewish history, especially the early centuries of the Common Era, before the advent of Islam—when Syria, Palestine and Egypt were ruled by the Byzantine empire and when Babylonia (Iraq) was ruled by the Persians and the Jews were headed by their own chief, the Resh-Galuta. Jews were accused by the Byzantines of being a Persian fifth column; they were suspected (and there is some evidence that these suspicions were not without foundation) of being pro-Persian and anti-Byzantine. The clearest evidence of this is in the early seventh century, when the Persians invaded Palestine and captured Jerusalem, where they were welcomed enthusiastically by the Jewish population and stayed for a number of years, after which the Byzantines were able to recover the city, drive out the Persians and then carry out a major massacre of the Jews.
What about Haman? According to the widely held opinion, the Haman-Esther story as contained in the Bible is probably mythic. We are indeed told in the Talmud that the Book of Esther was not originally included in the Hebrew Bible, but it was finally included because of its popularity among the people. It was not part of the original choice. If you look at the book, it is in many ways suspicious, starting with the names—Esther and Mordechai. One thinks of the Babylonian Ishtar and Marduk, a rather remarkable resemblance. Nevertheless the Haman-Esther story does, I think, give us a first account of the other Iranian tradition, the tradition of hostility. It is expressed through the personality (be it historic or mythic) of the Persian dignitary Haman, whose main purpose in life seems to be to make life difficult, if not impossible, for Jews. This hostility continues, though not in the pre-Islamic period; at least it is not documented. There are occasional difficulties but nothing of any consequence, nothing that is retained, shall we say, by the Jewish historiographic tradition.
But with the advent of Islam and the adoption of Shi'ism, it is quite a different story. Iranian Islam is much more intolerant of Jews than in most other versions of Islam. There was, for example, the idea that the Jews were nijis—unclean—that anything touched by a Jew became unclean and could not be used or eaten. There was a whole elaborate development of this doctrine of what one might call "untouchability" since it is obviously related to the kindred Aryan doctrine of untouchability in the neighboring country of India.
This attitude continued, and if we look at the position of the Jews in well-documented semimodern periods it is clear that the Jews were very badly treated; they were treated, as I said, as untouchables and subjected to all kinds of indignities and humiliations. It is in the same tradition that, in the language of the Islamic Republic today, Jews are usually depicted as vermin or something of the sort. "Cancerous microbes" is the phrase that is often used.
There is some difference between the external and internal language used in Iran at the present day; for example in slogans draped over military vehicles, the English text says "Down with..." and the Persian text says "Marg bar," which means "Death to...." Death to is not exactly the same as "down with," though I doubt if there would be much difference if the Iranians were able to realize their purpose.
Let me end with some quotations; one from Khomeini: "A billion Muslims should unite and defeat America." This was basically the purpose of the Iranian Revolution; this was what it was all about for him and his followers—confronting the ultimate enemy, the Great Satan, compared with which Little Satan was of relatively minor importance. Here is another quotation from Khomeini: "The Americans will run away [from the Middle East] leaving their illegitimate child [Israel] behind them, and then the Muslims will know what to do." Ahmadinejad many times, when addressing the Arabs, uses this formula and also has made the point that the Middle East has become the battleground between the Muslims and the infidel West. In other words, it is not the Middle East as such that matters; it is now the battleground between the two great global forces—the force of good and the force of evil.
What are the possibilities in dealing with this threat from Iran? I think one can divide them into two: one is the obvious military one. It may reach a point when there is no other; I do not personally believe that we have reached that point yet, and I believe that, even in talking about it, it is very important not to give the regime a free gift of something that they do not at present enjoy, that is, the support of Iranian patriotism. This needs careful handling: for example, if one says, "Iran must not have nuclear weapons," the answer is that we all agree on that. But try to look at it from the point of view of an Iranian patriot, not a supporter of the regime necessarily. He would say, "To the north there is a nuclear-armed Russia; to the east a nuclear-armed China; to the south a nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; to the west a nuclear-armed Israel. Who is to say that we must not have it?" It is obvious why they must not have it: none of the others are proposing to obliterate anybody. But I am trying to put the question as it might appear to an otherwise well-disposed Iranian patriot. I think one has to handle this very carefully and before deciding that the military option is the only one that remains. There are possibilities internally within Iran, opportunities which I think have been underused or totally neglected. One thinks, for example, of the bus strike not long ago—a quite remarkable opportunity, but nothing was done about it. It seems to me that, for the moment, one should aim at disruption rather than a military action, but I must, in concluding, admit the possibility that one may, at some time, reach a situation when there is no other option available.