At a time when the question of Iran has become so crucial and a heated polemic continues over the future of Iran – the direction that the country is headed and how relations should be developed – it is my opinion that we should, above all, make an effort to understand Iran’s cultural, spiritual and ideological idiosyncrasies.

Iran has throughout history been one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. Its culture, politics and ideology have always been a major influence, extending beyond the East during certain historical periods, such as the Achaemenid Empire (6th-4th century BCE). Historically, Iranian society has also been rather conservative - but every conservative society undergoes changes at one point or another. It is possible that Iran’s time to change is now. But if now is indeed the time of change, then how will change manifest, and what impact will it have? I dare not answer these questions. Speculations and conjectures are the field of fortune tellers; they are not the objective of researchers of the Middle East.

Iranians, as is the case with other large nations, have not lost their superpower mentality. It seems they still feel a sense of being a large nation, as they were during the Safavid and Sassanid eras. One of the interesting things about the Iranians is that, although they are primarily religious Shia Muslims, their national identity has largely been shaped by the Persian national epic Shahnameh, also known as “The Book of Kings,” which has nothing to do with Islam or its respective epic, and is instead associated with the pre-Islamic era and Zoroastrianism.

The author of the epic poem is Ferdowsi, who lived from 940 to 1020 A.D. Interestingly, while Ferdowsi – considered to be one of Iran’s most important writers and national poets – lived during an Islamized Iran, his writings instead delved into the pre-Muslim period, portraying Iran’s ancient history as a legendary and glorious heritage. The work has had a major influence in shaping the mentality of Iranians, especially among the educated. Ferdowsi was one of the foremost intellectuals of his time, noted not only for his sophisticated language and style, but also for his affinity for Iranian history, to which he dedicated his life. As both a poet and a historian, Ferdowsi created a stupendous masterpiece.

Shahnameh is one of the main shapers of the Iranian national identity, but it is certainly not the only one. In some sense, parallels can be drawn with the epic Kalevipoeg, which inspired the Estonian national awakening and shaped the national identity of the Estonians. But in some ways the impact of Shahnameh on the Iranians seems even more significant. It is indisputably a composition that unites all Iranians. The epic reflects ancient Iran’s religious, cultural, historical, folkloric, and ideological heritage. In addition to having an enormous impact on the Iranian people and society, the epic has also played a role in shaping the world view of other Central Asian and Middle Eastern nations. The direct and indirect impact of the Shahnameh can be seen in the society, ideology and culture of modern Iran. It can be said that the Iranian mentality has been strongly affected not only by Islam, but also by the Avesta and Zoroastrianism.

The Avesta is the holiest book in Zoroastrianism. The meaning of the word itself is not known. The Avesta consists of several parts, dating from various eras and varying in form and content. Supposedly, the first complete text of the teachings of Zoroastrianism was compiled as early as from the 6th to 4th century BCE It was written onto parchment - a treated bull hide. The book was located in the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis, in the Persian king’s castle. But circa 330 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered and burned the city of Persepolis. The fire destroyed the first version of the Avesta. Only centuries later, an attempt was made to restore the original Avesta. The new Avesta was written in the Aramaic alphabet. When discussing the Avesta, it cannot be forgotten that the Avestan language is one of the oldest preserved written languages of Iran. Avestan is today used as a sacred language by Iranians and Indians who practice Zoroastrianism. Words from the Avestan language had a strong impact on Persian and other Iranian languages. In modern Persian, there are many words that originate from Avestan - for instance, the word “behesht,” meaning “paradise.”

An Iranian Zoroastrian girl plays a daf, a large tambourine, during a celebration of the Zoroastrians’ ancient mid-winter Sadeh festival near Tehran. Sadeh celebrates the discovery of fire and its ability to banish the cold and dark. Sadeh was the national festival of ancient Persia when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion, before the triumph of Islam in the 7th century. Now it is mostly celebrated in the homes and temples of Iran’s some 60,000 remaining Zoroastrians. Photo: Scanpix

Established by the Iranians, Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. It emerged thousands of years ago in the Iranian region. Zoroastrianism is one of the most peculiar phenomenons in world and religious history, and it is probably the religion that has had the largest impact on humanity. It is believed that important concepts such as the “redeemer of man,” “resurrection” and “apocalypse” were brought into Christianity from Zoroastrianism. To some extent, Zoroastrianism even influenced the development of anciet philosophy. The prophet Zoroaster is thought to have founded the religion. Sources have dated the period of Zoroaster’s lifetime as early as the second millenium BCE, and the 6th century BCE at the latest. The highest deity of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and wisdom, and the creator of the world and humanity. The foe of Ahura Mazda is Ahriman, who represents evil. These two opposing characters wage a fight between good and evil. Such as is the world view of duality.

Even in the official ideology of today’s modern Islamic Republic of Iran, elements can be found that are not only related to Islam and Muslimization, but which reflect, perhaps indirectly, the ideology, geopolitics, and principles of ancient Persia. In that sense, Iran has not changed much throughout history - just as it fought the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago over hegemony in the Middle East, Iran has more recently retained the same goals in feuds with its more recent opponents.

Today, Iran is still seeking the position of lead violinist in the Middle Eastern region. In addition to the to the long-term political and regional conflict between Iran and Iraq, the Shia-Sunni theological conflict, border and economic disputes, one of the reasons that led to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was definitely the fact that Saddam Hussein, the former ruler of Iraq, and the Iranian leadership both sought to dominate the Middle East. The Iran-Iraq War is sometimes seen as one of the last major conflicts between Arabs and Persians, or Shiites and Sunnis.
In this January 2012 photo, an Iranian smuggler in Oman prepares for a short trip across the Strait of Hormuz to reach Iran. As sanctions squeeze Iran ever tighter, the 60-kilometre route across the Persian Gulf is an attractive clandestine option. Photo: Scanpix

In that situation, Iran attempted to gain control over the entire Persian Gulf and take Iraq’s meagre 40 kilometers of coastline, which would have left Iraq in an especially sad state, blocking access to the sea and thus the ability to transport oil with freighters. The root of the Arab-Iranian conflict has often been traced back to the end of the Sassanid era (224-651 A.D.) and to the 7th century, when Islam became dominant in the Middle East and the Sassanid Empire lost territories to the Arabs. One important event was the Battle of Ghadasia in the year 636 (other sources cite the year 637 or 638), when Muslim Arabs decisively defeated the Persian army. In 651, the Arabs conquered Iran, beginning the region’s Islamization. And so collapsed the Sassanid Empire.

To better understand modern Iran’s culture, politics and official ideology, it is not enough to study the country’s recent history, security, religion, geopolitics and the history of Shia Muslims. One must also examine Iran’s history, culture, and theology as a whole, as well as the archaic periods and how ideology was shaped through time. The establishment of Persia 2,500 years ago - along with its apparatus, ideology and propaganda - was the foundation of today’s Iran. Of course, Islam and the modern globalized world has significantly changed all this, but the essence of the archaic, unique and conservative culture remains.

A Brief Overview of the Development of Iran’s National Ideology

Ancient Iranian tribes belonged to the group known as the Indo-Europeans, as did the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs, Germanic peoples, etc. Thus, Iranian languages, folklore, mythology and religion all have much in common with both the Indian and European cultures. The ancient Iranians, who could possibly have originated from Central Asia, were present in the Iranian region beginning in the first millenium BCE It is not clear when exactly they arrived in Iran, but researchers suspect the transition period between the first and second millenniums BCE

The first known Iranian country to be established in the Iranian region was the Kingdom of Media (circa 9/8-6th century BCE). Of Iranian origin, the Medes conquered western Iran and dominated the Persians. Yet the Kingdom of Media was not the first state to be formed in the Iranian region - from the fourth to the first millennium BCE an Elymian civilization thrived in the northwestern part of the Iranian region. The tradition of statehood in the Iranian region was, therefore, already 2,000 years old. In ancient times, Elymia was a very productive territory. The Elymian civilization was strongly influenced by the acient civilizations of Mesopotamia - Sumeria, Assyria, and Babylon. In turn, Elymia had a deep impact on the shaping of the Iranian national ideology.

In the first millennium BCE, the powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire emerged in Mesopotamia, essentially dominating the whole of the Middle East. In the second half of the 6th century BCE, the Middle East became an easy capture for the Persians. By that time the Persians had already learned how to run a state from the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Elymians, and other nations.

A dhow carrying tourists cruises in Oman’s waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened to close the Strait if extra sanctions bite, cutting off the transport of 20 percent of the world’s oil. The US has warned Iran that doing so would cross a “red line,” prompting likely military action. Photo: Scanpix

Thus emerged the first major Persian state, ruled by kings from the Achaemenid dynasty (558-330 BCE). The Achaemenids traced their origins to the mythical Achaemenes, who according to legend was an ancient Persian tribal leader. One of the Achaemenids, Cyrus the Great (558-530 BCE), conquered the entire Middle East. Cyrus the Great founded a powerful empire, which ruled Western Civilization for the next 220 to 230 years, becoming a role model for many others, including Alexander the Great, the Parthian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Sassanid Empire, the Safavid Empire, and the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled from 1925 to 1979 and continues to rule Iran today.

The most famous ruler from the Achaemenid dynasty was Darius I (522-486). He was a great conqueror and reformer, as well as one of the greatest leaders of the official Persian propaganda apparatus. The Persians learned the tactics of propaganda and the elements of imperialist ideology from the Assyrian, Babylonian and Elymian empires. Actually, the archaic imperialist mentality of Iran developed from the combined influence of several factors - beginning with the fact that the Iranians were for a long time dependent vassals of numerous rulers, the most powerful of which was the Neo-Assyrian Empire (9th-7th century BCE), led by an oppressive military ruler with unlimited power and who aspired to be the ruler and hero of the universe as well as the administrator of the gods on Earth.

As a usurper, Darius I worked to strengthen his rule. First militarily, successfully crushing all resistance. Secondly, he successfully eliminating all potential rivals. Thirdly, although an Achaemenid, he was still an unlawful usurper, so he married Atossa, daughter of Cyrius II, who was in turn the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Additionally, Darius I mandated the construction of a collosal bas-relief along with an inscription in three languages (Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian) in a place that is now known as Mount Behistun. There, Darius I names himself the “the great king” and the “king of kings,” copying the titles of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian rulers. The inscription is one of the first and most important texts in shaping the Iranian national ideology. The royalty of the Achaemenids has later appealed to several Iranian leaders. For instance, the Sassanids dreamed of the glory and pride of the Achaemenid Empire, attempting to restore the old borders of the Achaemenids - running from India to Egypt - during their rule of Iran from 224 to 651 A.D. Persian kings of the Sassanid dynasty asserted that they were the descendants of the Achaemenids, which was incorrect, but the Sassanid dynasty did originate from Persepolis, which had once been the Achaemenid capital. Beginning with the founder of the empire, Ardashir I (224-241), the Sassanid kings called themselves the following: shahanshah eran ud aneran - “king of kings of Iran and non-Iran.” Later, the Safavids, who ruled Iran from the 16th- 18th century, adopted the same attitude and attempted to restore the old imperial borders. In the new era, the restoration of Iran’s statehood and strength is tied to the Safavid dynasty. The Safavid Empire was founded by Ismail I (1501-1524). This ambitious ruler created the powerful Safavid superpower, in which Shia Islam became the dominant religion. Ismail had a serious opponent - the Ottoman Empire, whose power and prestige rose significantly after it conquered Constantinople in 1453, leading to the destruction of remains of the Byzantine Empire and the conquest of the Balkans. Another problems was that Ismail I did not just declare himself a secular ruler, but also the spiritual leader of the Shiites, claiming to be the direct ancestor of Ali, the fourth caliph. He persecuted the Sunnis and this angered the Turkish sultan, who considered himself the protector of Sunnis. This resulted in several wars between Iran and Turkey, and the latter was more successful during the 16th century. The power and prestige of the Safavids was not restored until the rule of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629). He was a very prominent and talented ruler and military leader. During the rule of Abbas I, the Safavid state achieved its peak and was triumphant over the Ottoman Empire. It was his plan to restore Iran’s boundaries to those of the Sassanid Empire. The last shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) also sought to associate themselves with the Sassanids and the Achaemenids.

The title “king of kings,” as well as other elements and symbols from the ancient national ideology of Iran, proved to be surprisingly viable – shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty also used this title (Shahanshah) until 1979, when the Iranian revolution transpired and the monarch was dethroned. It seems that the glory and power of the Iranian empires - the Achaemenid and the Sassanid empires – has been preserved in the historical memory of Persians for a long time. It appears also to haunt the leadership of modern Iran, although a completely different sort of government system is in power today. The supporters of Iran’s monarchy consider the older son of the last shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979), to be his lawful heir.

Iran After Islamization

Today, Islam is the dominant religion in Iran. Islam was brought to the Iranian region in the mid-7th century, when the Arabs destroyed the Sassanid Empire and conquered Iran. Later, Iran’s territories became independent, but Zoroastrianism’s former status as the national religion was not restored and Islam became dominant. Today, Iranians are primarily Shiites. Shiite Muslims believe themselves to be the descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph. They believe that power among Muslims must always be passed on to the descendants of Muhammad i.e. the the descendants of Ali and Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad. This concept led to the Islamic rift, establishing the Sunnis and Shiites. Shiites do not recognize the legitimacy of the first three Arab caliphs, considering them imposters. In addition to the Koran and the Sunnah, Shiites also have their own holy book, the al-Jafr, which describes the caliph Ali’s activities and contains his sayings.

Shia Islam and the Shiite life philosophy, as well as the religion of Islam in general, has influenced all aspects of Iranian life - from literature, art and music to national ideology and politics, especially considering that Iran is today essentially a theocracy.

The state’s highest authority has since 1979 belonged not to the president, but to the spiritual leader known as the Ayatollah. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, the monarch was overthrown and the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. The leader of the revolution was a Shiite spiritual leader, Ruhollah Khomeini (ruled from 1979 to 1989), who embraced rather radical views and who returned to Teheran in 1979 after a long period in exile to establish an Islamic republic in Iran. This republic is by no means, however, more democratic than the monarchy of the shahs. The state that had once been open to the influence and ideas of the West, is now closed and has taken a course toward Islamization and spreading Shia Islam to other countries.

The territories of Iran have for 4,500 years been ruled by despots and absolutist rule. No longer is there a king, or shah, in Iran. The absolutist monarchy has disappeared; unfortunately, nor has democracy emerged in 33 years. It is certainly naive to hope that Iran, which is ruled by a non-democratic regime, will in the near future adopt the Western democratic model. Nevertheless, when considering what has happened in Iran in recent years, there is reason to believe that Iran may soon face significant changes. But let’s see what the future brings.

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Vladimir Sazonov is an orientalist