We do not understand Iran and maybe never shall. It is not a normal country, and that is meant in a good way. Half a century of dealing with fractious, artificial Arab states in the Middle East, and suddenly the face of conflict is not one of these but Persia, and we cannot behave the same way.
Iran is an ancient land. We once knew it as Persia and by that name we had more understanding of it. The land was not renamed: Persia was always called ‘Iran’ in its own tongue, going back five thousand years, but in the 1920s the king demanded that the native name be used by outsiders too. In doing so he unwittingly built a wall of incomprehension. Had we continued to use the name of ‘Persia’, then the nature of this extraordinary land would be more apparent to us all.
Persia echoes throughout our history and our culture. Biblical Judah encountered it; the Greeks fought it; Alexander conquered it and his followers became Persian as they ruled it; the Romans met the Persian Empire as an equal throughout their long Empire; but long before Rome was founded and long after it fell, Persia remained. Their language too is so deeply embedded that it became a lingua franca across the middle of Asia, and was even the official language of British India until Macauley’s reforms.
This is a fundamental distinction with the fractious Arab world we have become used to. Those states are a loose collection of emirates and new republics, the largest of them carved from the flesh of the old Ottoman Empire just a hundred years ago and they have no deeply rooted sense of nationality, beyond the name of ‘Arab’. Persia however has had that idea of itself for five thousand years. When Saddam Hussein invaded the Iranian province of Khuzestan, he thought that its people, as Arabs, would rise and join him, but he could not appreciate that the Persian Empire has embraced a variety of peoples and languages for millennia and the Arabs of Khuzestan were just as proud to be Iranians their Persian-speaking compatriots.
Therefore when the west confronts Iran, the Iranians may see us as precocious children: the western states, even the oldest, have nothing to say to a country which was a mighty empire of cities, craftsmen and armies when our forefathers were living in mud shelters.
It hurts such a nation if it is belittled or humbled, as it has been in 19th century conflicts with British India and Russia, in the concessions wrung out at that time, in that it took European archaeologists to display their own ancient treasures, in the almost casual military occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1944.
The current sickness in the heart of the Iranian state comes from an existential conflict. Iran, Persia is ancient, but the ruling ideology is not. Extreme Islam will tolerate no rival identity; even that of the nation, and this leaves a problem for an average Iranian. Iran is 98% Muslim, which is a religion brought from outside by conquerors to supersede their culture, and there lies a conflict that has never been resolved. There is no consensus about whether the 7th century Arab conquest can be considered a liberation from evil practices, or a national humiliation. The late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, incurred the wrath of the Ayatollah by modernisation, but it is said that the final straw was when n 1971 he lavishly celebrated 2,500 years of the Persian Empire and those aspects of Persian history which predated Islam: Khomeini called it “the Devil’s Festival”.
I do not believe an entire culture can be provided by Islam alone, to the exclusion of all other influences. If you look at Pakistan, it was an equal inheritor of India’s heritage, but in creating a separate, artificial country its rulers tried to create a difference, casting out their inherent Indian identity and millennia of rich culture, which left only the Mohammedan religion to be their basis. It seems as if the Iranian rulers are attempting the same.
This division, between popular culture and religiously defined culture is a powerful one. Iranians personally are delightful people in my experience, intelligent, aware, celebrating life and culture as well as anyone might, and they are very aware of their country’s seniority. Against them are the religious authorities which guard the state and would define every minute aspect. In 2014, you may recall, the young folk who filmed themselves joyously dancing to Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’; only to be shut down and sentenced to 71 lashes.
A division between state and society is apparent and is growing, and as I grows the state must react against it, deepening the division. I dread to think how that may end.
When we ‘precocious children’ in the west stand against Iran, as we must, it is the wayward government of the country that we confront. Threatening economic ruin makes little sense if the government could not care what happens to the people, and threatening war plays well with the ‘victim narrative’. Behind it though is a most remarkable people waiting to be let out.