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Everything You Need to Know
By John Farndon
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2007 John Farndon
All rights reserved.
A Mass of Contradictions
"As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map."
President Ahmadinejad of Iran, October 2005
When Iran's newly-elected President Ahmadinejad made this disturbing outburst about the destruction of Israel, it came as no surprise, of course, to Iran's critics. It was abundantly clear to them that after a brief flirtation with reform under previous president Muhammad Khatami, Iran had swung back into the hands of the Islamic hardliners with Ahmadinejad's victory in August 2005 - and the new president's remarks seemed only to confirm their worst fears. For its critics, Iran has become a pariah state - a loose cannon under the control of fanatical mullahs that could bring havoc and discord to the Middle East.
The hawks in the US government in particular have made no secret of their distrust of Iran. During his first term as president, George W. Bush famously cited Iran as part of his "Axis of Evil" along with Iraq and North Korea. And in the inaugural speech for his second term, Bush made a point of denouncing Iran as the "world's primary sponsor of state terror." At other times, Vice President Dick Cheney has assured us that "Iran is at the top of the list" when it comes to the world's danger spots.
The nuclear crisis
No wonder, then, that when, in early 2006, Iran announced that it would press ahead with its plans to develop nuclear power in the teeth of international opposition, many feared the worst. Iran has the world's second-largest oil reserves. So what could they possibly want with nuclear power?, critics ask. The answer to them is blindingly obvious: it's not nuclear power that Iran really wants, but nuclear weapons. And an Iran armed with nuclear weapons threatening to wipe Israel off the map would be a frightening prospect indeed.
As attempts to put pressure on Iran to comply with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) began to run into trouble in spring 2006, politicians in both the US and UK were challenged by the press to deny that they were considering military action against Iran. In an interview with BBC Radio Four's Today program (March 13, 2006), former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that military action against Iran was "inconceivable," but acknowledged that with the US, "nothing is ever ruled out." Straw also insisted that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be "a serious danger to the balance of power in the Middle East."
All the other major signatories of the NPT - including, significantly, Russia and China - are critical of Iran's stance on nuclear power. Yet many people feel that the view of Iran taken by the hardliners in the Bush administration is seriously blinkered. Moreover, they worry that this narrow-focused view is raising the stakes and reducing the chances of a successful diplomatic outcome. As Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times says: "The militancy of many of [Iran's] leaders, and that of many of their counterparts in Washington, has sharply reduced the chances of compromise. Without such compromise, however, Iran may find itself in the center of a global crisis."
There's no doubt that many Iranians are deeply unhappy about the Bush administration's view of their country. They are amazed, and not just a little insulted, by the assumption that they are Arabs like their neighbors in Iraq. They are a unique people, speaking their own language (Farsi), with their own remarkable culture. And unlike some of its neighboring states, Iran is not an arbitrary nation created by European colonialists drawing lines on maps. It's an ancient nation, with a rich history dating back 2,500 years.
Persia or Iran?
Of course, for most its history, Iran was known in the West by its Creek name of Persia. It has been known abroad as Iran only since the 1920s - although Iran is what most of its own people always called it. And Persia and Iran both conjure up rather different stock images. Talk of Persia, and many people in the West get an instant picture of a dreamy, ancient, glamorous empire - a land of beautiful magic carpets, secret, fountain-filled gardens, roses and shiraz grapes, luxurious fabrics and harems where dark-eyed beauties lounge around. The Persians in this image may be given to sensual pleasures, but are of course, the cliché goes, immensely civilized and polite. Talk of Iran, however, and many people instantly think of a dour, rabidly puritanical country led by fanatical, black-clad mullahs, all too ready to urge destruction on non-believers. Yet Persia and Iran are the same country, and while both these contradictory images are travesties, there is a grain of truth in both. This is what makes Iran difficult for outsiders to read.
Iran is a deeply contradictory country. It is at once one of the oldest countries in the world and the youngest. Its roots date back through a 2,500-year line of kings to Cyrus the Great, who unified the country in the 6th century BC, and many Iranians today proudly acknowledge their descent from the first Persians. All over Iran are wonderful ancient buildings, from the great ruined city of Persepolis to the wind-towers of Yazd. The great square and mosques of Isfahan are among the greatest historical sites in the world.
The last king, Muhammad Reza Shah, was overthrown in 1979 by the remarkable Islamic Revolution, which gave control of the country to the Islamic clerics headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. The change in the country was, at least on the surface, so dramatic that it was almost as if the country was born anew. To an extent, this is almost literally true. There was such a population explosion in the decade following the 1979 revolution that Iran's population virtually doubled, and almost half of Iranians are now under 25 - so young that the Iran of the Islamic Revolution is all they have ever known. Much of the physical fabric of the country is almost equally new. In Tehran in particular, many of the old buildings have been demolished to make way for a gigantic sprawl of concrete apartment blocks that make the city, just a village little more than a century ago, bigger than New York.
At the heart of Iranian life is what at first seems to be another massive contradiction. There is a genuine pride in the glory days of the Persian empire in the 6th century, before the coming of Islam, and many widely celebrated seasonal festivals date from this time, such as the Iranian New Year or No Ruz. Yet the coming of Islam profoundly changed the country, and most Iranians remain devout Muslims. When the last shah was in power, he cultivated the country's pre-Islamic Persian heritage at the expense of Islam. Now the Islamic clerics are in power, they frown upon the Persian days - and have tried to destroy some of the most famous Persian monuments. So, some people ask, which is the true Iran - sensual Persia or fervidly puritanical Islam? The answer may be, for most Iranians, a bit of both.
Today, Iran is gripped by the tyrannical rule of the Islamic hardliners. Dissent is crushed. Troublesome people disappear. Provocative books are banned. Most women are hidden behind the thick veil of the chador when they go out. America is regarded as the Great Satan, and Israel an abomination. The Iranian regime supports organizations with terrorist links such as Hezbollah, and is accused by some of fomenting the unrest in Iraq. Yet more women go to universities than in most Western countries. The reformist young Iranians listen to Western music, follow Western fashions and exchange ideas over the internet with an energy and enthusiasm unmatched by any other country on Earth. Blocked from expressing their ideas by conventional means, young Iranians swap comments via over 700,000 blogs.
At the same time as Iran presents a dour, almost ugly face to the world, with its Sovietesque new buildings, its black-clad women and its sternfaced mullahs, in private many Iranians share jokes about the extremes of the regime. President Ahmadinejad's insistence that "Nuclear energy is our irrefutable right!" has become something of an ironic catchphrase behind closed doors in Tehran that can reduce people to fits of giggles. And traditionally Iranians cherished beauty as much as any culture in the world, with a unique reverence for poetry, music, architecture and feminine beauty. The new generation of young Iranians, however, may have more in common with their disenchanted Western counterparts.
Perhaps the apparent contradiction at the heart of modern Iran isa mirror of its extraordinary scenery. At the center of the country is a vast, almost desert-like high plateau, bone-dry and scorching hot in summer and blasted by icy winds in winter. Nothing could be more puritanical. Yet around it are ranged green hills of gentle beauty and snow-clad mountains of dizzying grandeur. In the northwest, some scholars believe, lay the fabled Carden of Eden. Significantly, Iran has long been fed by crops grown in the dry heartland watered by snows melting in the mountains, channelled through tunnels called qanats whose origins are lost in antiquity. Iran's stem heart and lush extravagances have always been mutually dependent.CHAPTER 2
Iran's Persian Roots
"Welcome, pilgrim, I have been expecting you. Before you lies Cyrus, King of Asia, King of the World. All that is left of me is dust. Do not envy me."
Inscription on the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae
So much has changed in Iran in recent years that it's easy to forget just how ancient a country it is. Iran's roots are among the oldest of all countries, dating back to the dawn of human civilization in the Middle East. Five or maybe six thousand years ago - long before Stonehenge was even dreamed of - a people called the Elamites settled in the lowlands alongside the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and created Iran's first great cities, including Susa (known today as Shush), famed in the biblical story of Esther.
The Elamite empire endured well over 2,000 years and saw off first the Sumerians, then the Akkadians, and finally even the Assyrians. Most scholars are in no doubt that there was a huge degree of continuity between the Elamites and the Persians (and modern Iranians) that followed them. Indeed, Susa was the capital of many of the early Persian kings.
The kings of Media
When the Assyrian king Assurbanipal sacked Susa in 646 BC, he was convinced he had finally put an end to the Elamites. Yet although the Elamite empire was gone, other peoples were emerging in the Iran region who would carry on the flame. A wave of Aryan peoples came from the steppelands around the Caspian Sea. First were the Medes, who settled in the Zagros mountains and created a capital at Ectabana, modern Hamadan. Under their king Cyaxares, the Medes developed a formidable army. Allying themselves with the Babylonians, the Medes swept down on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC and drove the Assyrians into the abyss of history. By the time he died in 575 BC, Cyaxares had re-established the Elamite empire under the control of the Medes.
Yet following closely on the heels of the Medes was another group of Aryans, the Farsi or Persians, who settled around Fars on the Iranian plateau. Within barely a quarter of a century, the Medes' power was utterly eclipsed by the emergence of a Persian king, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus II was king of the Persian Achaemenes people who would soon give their name to the first Persian imperial dynasty, the Achaemenids. Like Cyaxares, Cyrus built up a large and astonishingly disciplined military machine.
The Achaemenids and the first Persian empire
The turning point for Cyrus was a great victory over his grandfather, the Mede king Astyages. This meant so much to him that the battle-site, Pasargadae, was to be the location of his first capital, and also his tomb. After Pasargadae, Cyrus campaigned far and wide with unbroken success west to Turkey, east into Pakistan and south to Babylon. In just eleven years, he built up the greatest empire the world had yet seen.
Cyrus was not just a brilliant military leader; he was one of ancient history's most remarkable kings. In an age when kingship seemed largely defined by brute force, Cyrus stands out as a beacon of enlightenment with a legendary tolerance and wisdom.
At the heart of Cyrus's attitude, and perhaps his success, may have been the new religion of Zoroastrianism. Although Persian rule is not definitively linked with Zoroastrianism until the time of Darius, the third Persian king, it seems clear that Cyrus was driven by a Zoroastrian vision.
Zoroastrianism would have told him that Ahura-Mazda, the Supreme God, had entrusted him with the task of uniting the world in one kingdom of justice and peace. It was therefore his sacred duty not only to conquer the world, but to rule over it with tolerance and justice. This concept of justice and just rule and rule by the consent of the people - has remained at the heart of Iranian politics until today. Sadly, few of the country's rulers have ever managed to live up to Cyrus's shining example.
The Achaemenid kings of Persia who followed Cyrus - including Cambyses, Darius and Xerxes - are all renowned more for their military success, or lack of it, than for championing justice. Of them all, Darius achieved the greatest military conquests, pushing the limits of the empire far across North Africa and into Balkan Europe.
Yet the Achaemenid Persian empire was always far more than just an awesome military machine; it was one of the great early civilizations. Linked by paved roads stretching thousands of miles across the empire, it was governed with unusual efficiency and stability by 23 local authorities or satrapies. To communicate across their vast territories, the Achaemenids introduced the world's first postal service, and it was said that relays of horses could deliver mail to the furthest corner of the empire in just a week - faster than any system until the coming of the telegraph in the 1840s.
At the heart of it all was the great city of Persepolis, established by Darius. Persepolis was one of the wonders of the ancient world, comparable to the Egyptian pyramids or the Acropolis, though much less known. What was extraordinary about the Persians was their openness to the best of ideas from outside. Persepolis embodied this to perfection. To build their great city, the Persians gathered the most skilled artists and craftsmen from all the nations of the empire. The result was a multi-cultural concoction that was alone in the ancient world in its mixture of styles. Visitors were awed by its dazzling beauty and sheer size - especially that of the gigantic, multi-columned reception hall.
Persepolis and the first Persian empire met their doom at the hands of the young Macedonian upstart Alexander the Great. Darius's only significant defeat had been in 490 BC when his invading armies were defeated by the Greeks at Marathon - the famous Greek victory that inspired the modern Olympics. Ten years later, the defeat of Darius's son Xerxes by the Greeks at Salamis in Greece marked the start of a long, slow decline in the Achaemenid empire's power. It took well over a century, but by the time Alexander the Great led his armies into the Persian heartland, the Persians were too weak and divided to resist.
The Seleucids and Parthians
On Alexander's death, his vast empire was split between warring dynasties. Eventually, after 42 years, Alexander's cavalry commander Seleucis seized power in Persia, and his Seleucid dynasty ruled for almost 200 years. The Seleucids introduced Creek ideas to Persia, and made Creek the official language. Yet while the elite adopted Creek ways, most Persians held on to their own way of life and nursed their grievances.
Throughout the Seleucid era, trouble bubbled up on the fringes of Persia, and eventually Greek rule was blown away by the Parthians - a tribe of nomads from the Caspian shores who rode their horses and fired arrows with a skill never seen before. Once in Persia, the Parthians settled down and proved remarkably durable rulers, lasting four centuries and bringing to Persian culture such things as a love of painted miniatures and the first flowering of distinctively Persian architecture. Indeed, the Parthians proved so durable that they survived continuous onslaught from the might of the Roman empire.
Yet the Parthians, too, were foreigners, and like the Seleucids, they never exerted complete control over the kingdom. In the 3rd century AD, Fars, the heartland of Achaemenid power, gave itself its own king, Papak. When Papak's son Ardeshir became king in 208 AD he began to take over more and more of Persia, using a mixture of conquest and diplomacy reminiscent of Cyrus. At last he faced only one rival, the Parthian king Ardavan. When Ardavan challenged him, Ardeshir is said to have replied, "This throne and this crown were given to me by God" a claim central to the Persian idea of rulers (see The Value of Charisma above). Ardeshir and Ardavan strode out in front of their armies for a one-to-one combat. Ardeshir slew his rival and so began the Sassanian dynasty, which lasted until the coming of Islam in 637 AD.
Excerpted from Iran by John Farndon. Copyright © 2007 John Farndon. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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