Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, from Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ahmadinejad

Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, from Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ahmadinejad

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by William R. Polk

William R. Polk provides an informative, readable history of a country which is moving quickly toward becoming the dominant power and culture of the Middle East. A former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, Polk describes a country and a history misunderstood by many in the West. While Iranians chafe under the yolk of their current


William R. Polk provides an informative, readable history of a country which is moving quickly toward becoming the dominant power and culture of the Middle East. A former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council, Polk describes a country and a history misunderstood by many in the West. While Iranians chafe under the yolk of their current leaders, they also have bitter memories of generations of British, Russian and American espionage, invasion, and dominance. There are important lessons to be learned from the past, and Polk teases them out of a long and rich history and shows that it is not just now, but for decades to come that an understanding of Iran will be essential to American safety and well-being.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“William Polk has written a superb and insightful historical account of Iran and the evolution of the Persian culture. This should be required reading not just for all those involved in Iranian policy making but for all those interested in understanding this critical nation and society.” —General Anthony C. Zinni USMC (Retired), co-author of Leading the Charge and The Battle for Peace

“A great scholar's brilliant appreciation of Iranian culture and history.” —Dr. Khodadad Farmanfarmaian, former Deputy Prime Minister of Iran

“Essential reading...a study of depth and clarity.” —Terrell Arnold, former chairman of the Department of International Studies at the U.S. National War College

“This is an easy read with a very big payoff -- a nuanced understanding of Iran as a complex society whose perceptions and politics are shaped by readily comprehensible history, religious traditions, and recent experience. Polk's writing is erudite but not academic; his prose is lucid and his policy experience shows. If you know someone in the United States government dealing with Iran or the Middle East, give that person this book; the prospects of American policy success vis-à-vis both could go up considerably.” —Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs

“The great value of Bill Polk's books is that they take a thoughtful, clear-eyed look at America's entanglement in the Middle East. Understanding Iran is the latest addition to the library of Polk's sharp, smart analysis of a region that America doesn't understand well enough. There are scoops in this book about how close the United States has come to war with the Islamic Republic. But more, there is a deep understanding of Iran, its history and its culture. He tells a story that anyone who cares about America and Iran should read.” —David Ignatius, columnnst for the Washington Post and author of "The Increment."

“Engrossing and penetrating. A beautifully written vision of the other which we desperately need.” —William H. McNeill, former president of the American Historical Association and chairman of the History Department of the University of Chicago.

Understanding Iran fully lives up to the promise of its title, giving us a thorough yet lively survey of a society that is moving quickly toward becoming the dominant power in the region. He reminds us that as much as Iranians chafe under the yoke of their current leaders, they still have bitter memories of generations of British, Russian and American espionage, invasion and dominance. There are important lessons to be learned from the mistakes of the past, and Polk teases them out of Iran's long, rich history. In the process, he makes a strong case that it is not just now, but for decades to come that a true understanding of Iran will be essential.” —Former ambassador Robert V. Keeley, Five and Ten Press

Understanding Iran fully lives up to the promise of its title” —Robert V. Keeley, Foreign Service Journal

“A digestible history of this tortured land is something Americans sorely need....And Polk carefully constructs one.” —USA Today on Understanding Iraq

“This book will be informative to two groups scarcely on speaking terms: the supporters of President Bush's invasion of Iraq and those implacably opposed to it....William Polk presents the reader with the full sweep of Iraq's history....He gives us a comprehensive tour.” —Washington Times on Understanding Iraq

“Haunting....One of the clearest prescriptions for success in Iraq yet to emerge.” —Publishers Weekly on Understanding Iraq

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St. Martin's Press
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Understanding Iran

Everything You Need To Know, From Persia To The Islamic Republic, From Cyrus To Ahmadinejad

By William R. Polk

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 William R. Polk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61678-3



Who were the ancestors of today's Iranians? How did they get to what we today call Iran? How did the first of them become "Persian"?

Answering these queries is the first mission of this book. I start as close to the "beginning" as is possible in order to establish a base from which we can examine the complex evolution of the modern Iranians.

For thousands of years before human events were recorded, Central Asia functioned as a giant heart, pumping periodic jets of nomadic tribesmen into Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Why they left their original homelands is unknown and the sagas of their migrations are obscured by "the mists of time," so we see them only once they have arrived at their destinations.

The earliest of the peoples about whom we have at least some information spoke languages in the family we know as Dravidian. The Central Asian heart pulsated along arteries that led south and west. As they pushed outward, tribesmen established themselves on a broad arc of territory ranging from the Indus River in what is today Pakistan, where in the centuries around 2500 BC they founded a flourishing urban culture composed of hundreds of cities and towns, through Iran, further across Anatolia, and perhaps all the way to Italy, where they may have been the people we know as Rome's teachers and rivals, the Etruscans. In these various places, they created what were the first great civilizations. They laid the foundation stones of history.

Following on the heels of the Dravidian speakers were the first groups of another great wave. These nomadic peoples spoke languages from the family of which both English and Persian are members; we call them Indo-Europeans.

What particularly distinguished the Indo-Europeans from the Dravidians was that, sometime around four thousand years ago, they managed to domesticate the horse. That accomplishment enabled them to move rapidly over vast distances and gave them overwhelming military superiority over more sedentary peoples. Mounted on or pulled by horses, they fanned out over much of Asia and Europe beginning about 2000 BC. We can follow their movements today by the telltale markers of DNA inherited by their descendants.

As they moved, they interacted with already resident peoples so that, over centuries, they gradually became Greeks, Romans, Germans, Slavs, Indians, and Persians. Much later, as other waves followed, they would become the ancestors of the French, Spaniards, Scandinavians, and English. So they are part of the bloodline from which most of us are also descended.

The Indo-European–speaking nomads shared veneration for the animal that had made their migrations possible, the horse. It became their "magical animal," or totem. One of the great nomadic groups that invaded Europe, the Goths, took their name from their word for "horses." Another group, ancestors of the Persians, used personal names derived from their word for "horses." Around the horse, Romans, Greeks, Indians, and Persians, among others, elaborated rituals that exemplified religion, defined politics, and even governed foreign relations. The first great Persian king was commemorated by the sacrifice of a horse each month at his tomb, and Indian kings regulated their frontiers periodically by allowing a horse to run wild among them. Horses even gave our ancestors their distinctive drink—one that Central Asian nomads still relish—khumiss, fermented mare's milk.

As important as it was, the horse was just one of a trio of developments that enabled the Indo-Europeans to shape world history. The second of the three great innovations was the light two- or four-wheeled chariot, which came into use sometime around 1800 BC. In fact, the oldest written document in an Indo-European language is a manual on training chariot horses. Riding on a chariot, even a few warriors could achieve tactical superiority over a much more numerous but immobile infantry force. Like the modern tank, the horse-drawn carriage was widely adopted by friend and foe. Horse drawn chariots became both the symbols and reality of military victory. The charioteers, known as rathaeshtars, soon formed a new social class similar in status and function to medieval European knights.

The third of the revolutionary changes was the weapon that would dominate warfare for nearly three thousand years—the bow. Possibly because they did not have suitable wood in sufficient quantities, the Central Asian nomads invented the most powerful variety, the compound bow, which got its strength from the use of bone and sinew in the shaft. Homer makes managing to pull it the arbiter among Odysseus' rivals for Penelope, and the Egyptian pharaoh Amen-hotep II brags that there was no one among his soldiers who could draw his bow. Its later adaptation, the crossbow, was regarded as so lethal a weapon that when it was introduced into Europe in the twelfth century AD, the Church banned it for warfare among Christians. The bow was the original weapon of mass destruction.

What the Indo-Europeans first brought to Iran from Central Asia in those dim early times set the theme for much of later history. Everywhere they went, they overwhelmed existing societies. Because of the horse, the chariot, and the compound bow, we and the modern Iranians are distant cousins.

It was not only weapons of war that the Indo-Europeans brought to the West: They also brought religious ideas that, as I later elaborate, deeply influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The original religion of the Indo-Europeans focused on the great forces of nature, which—as nomadic herdsmen, exposed as they were to rain, lightning, thunder, and wind—their shamans personified as gods. We know them best from the Greek and Norse myths and legends as Zeus (the sky god), Apollo (the sun god), and Poseidon (the earthquake god).

The nomads merged their religion, as they did their language and their "magic animal," into the cults and practices of the people among whom they settled—the local, agricultural peoples. The religions of the settled peoples they encountered in Iran, India, Greece, and elsewhere were more closely tied to the earth because the people were so bound to it. What mattered most to them was what they believed controlled the production of crops. Thus, while the nomadic religion had no permanent holy sites but was drawn from the ever-changing forces of nature, the religion of the settled people was fixed in sanctuaries of sacred groves, rivers, caves, and mountains. Over time, the two schemes—the "sky" and the "earth" religions— merged in new and diverse patterns and gave birth to new visions of the spirit world.

As they became more sophisticated, the Indo-Europeans and their new kinsmen underwent a major change in their religion. How it happened, we do not know, but the primitive Central Asian "sky religion" and its modification with the addition of "earth religions" began to be recast or reinterpreted, presumably first by tribal shamans. A whole range of new questions began to be posed. How had life begun? What was man's relationship to the unseen powers? How could people protect themselves in the dangerous world? How could they ward off or prepare for death? The general answer of the shamans was that the gods must be appeased by ritual, prayer, and sacrifice. From this beginning, what gradually took shape among the people who would become Persians was an urbane, complex, and sophisticated cultural pattern that would underlie the actions of successive Iranian rulers and their societies for centuries and, in broad outline, still exists today as the Zoroastrian religion. It would also contribute to shaping the Shia Islamic religion that today molds Iranian life. The religion that the great Persian prophet Zoroaster began to codify was the first coherent cosmology and theology.

Although there are many myths and legends about Zoroaster, we know almost nothing about him, not even when he lived. Scholars have put forward guesses that are a thousand years apart—anywhere between roughly 1500 and 500 BC. What he said was memorized and repeated until written down long after his life; those writings contain thoughts and descriptions suggesting that he lived when the Indo-European invasions had begun but before the Medes and Persians arrived in Iran (i.e., perhaps around 1200 BC). So completely, however, was he to encapsulate the yearnings, beliefs, and fears of the Persians that his doctrine, finally set forth in the Avesta, became the Iranian "church" for hundreds of years—and it is still extant in Iran and India (where its followers are called Parsees)—and it deeply influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So to understand the Persians and today's Iranians, we need to understand Zoroastrianism.

Zoroaster proclaimed that there was a single god, Ahura Mazda (also called Ohrmazd), who was the creator of both the physical world (getig) and the spiritual world (menog). The fundamental question that Zoroaster confronted—the question that prophets and theologians of all religions must attempt to answer—was: If there is a supreme being who is beneficent, why do we experience evil, sickness, and death?

What we all seek, health, happiness, eternal life, what Zoroaster called "The Truth" (asha) obviously had not prevailed on earth; the "Lie," or Evil remained. Because people suffered and died, it was clear, he believed, that there were two forces at work: The Good comes directly from the supreme god, Ahura Mazda, who dwells in the "Abode of Light." Opposed to the supreme god, but also created by him, was disorder, untruth, and evil, known as drug.Drug was the preserve of Ahriman, the Devil, whose abode is darkness. Ahriman and his henchmen, the daevas, oppose humanity's well-being and seek to corrupt the ashavan, those the King James version of the Old Testament calls "the Righteous." Ahriman and his devils and fiends employed magic and greed to entice the drugvant, the human wicked, or, as the Quran calls them, the "corrupters of the Earth" (alfasiduna cala'l-ard) to tempt the Righteous.

Human life is thus a struggle between good and evil, asha and drug. In this struggle, humankind is not passive; each living person has a role to play. Indeed, man was created precisely to play this role, and, willing or not, he must do so. Some humans will be drugvant, and the ashavan must struggle against them. The outcome of their contest is ultimately predestined: Ahura Mazda will prevail. But this final victory in the far-distant future does not relieve the living from their tasks. They can take heart from the belief that, on "the Last Day" (the rasho-keretfi or frashegird), a world savior or messiah, the Soshyant, will return to earth to raise the dead and judge them, passing them through holy fire to burn away their sins.

What Zoroaster taught was that, although originally all creation was at rest, it was set in motion in a sort of "big bang" to create the physical world as we know it. At that point, the cycle of life and death, the daily motion of the sun across the sky, and the parade of seasons were begun. That first day, although the original meaning is now forgotten, is known in Persian as No Ruz, and it is still celebrated as a feast of joy with the coming of spring on March 21 each year.

Many incidental notions that figure in later religious thought first occur in the Avesta. The notion of a "poor man of good will," the dregush, seems to have been a sort of forerunner of the later Muslim dervish. The concept of ritual cleanliness and ritual cleaning carries over into Hinduism and Islam and is particularly strong in Judaism. The belief that God has ordained a code of life, the Law, incumbent on every living person is particularly strong in Islam. The idea of the Last Day is echoed in the Bible and is believed by religious fundamentalists throughout the Western world today. Fire (atakhsh), particularly central to Zoroastrianism and present in its temples as an emanation of the divinity, will, on the Last Day, cleanse or punish the newly arisen dead. Raising, healing, or punishing the dead is, of course, a belief common among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. On the Last Day, the newly purified and arisen dead will be given the gift of eternal life (anosh). Also strongly asserted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the role on that Last Day of God's agent— the Hebrew and Christian messiah, the Muslim mahdi, and the Zoroastrian Soshyant —who will "return" to earth to perform God's final work with humankind. Finally, and even more important, is the concept of a single, supreme God, which is fundamental to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Thus, at a minimum, we can say that Zoroastrianism prepared Iran for the advent of Islam.

The land of today's Iran is different in several respects from the lands of the ancient inhabitants. The peoples we know as the Persians called their land Parsa, but Parsa was just a small part of the country that was known in history as Persia. Persia was officially renamed Iran in 1935, and after the 1979 revolution it became known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today's Iran is about the size of a combination of the American states Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas, or the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark.

The modern state of Iran is situated in an extraordinarily complicated neighborhood, sharing about 4,400 kilometers (approximately 2,734 miles) of frontiers with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and a long coast fronting the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. At various periods in its history, it was far larger, comprising much of what we now call the Middle East (i.e., additional territories in what today is divided among Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Iraq to the west and south, and Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the east). (See map.)

Most of modern Iran is made up of a high desert with less than the eight inches of rainfall needed to sustain agriculture. In the mountains, the Zagros on the western frontier and the Elbruz in the north, rainfall is heavier than

on the plains, but it falls mainly during the winter months when it is less beneficial to agriculture. Consequently, agriculture has been largely concentrated in oases or in their extensions through irrigation. Long before pipes and pumps were available, the early Persians invented a remarkable system of underground canals, known as ghanats, that took water long distances from sources to where crops could be grown. Some of these channels required the digging of vertical shafts as much as a hundred meters (328 feet) to excavate the earth and keep the water flowing. Where agriculture could not be practiced, the population existed by nomadism based on herding animals, often trekking hundreds of miles over great mountain barriers from the lowland pastures in the winter to upland meadows in the summer.

The eastern expanses of Iran are composed of a mainly salt desert about a thousand meters (over 3,200 feet) above sea level with virtually no rainfall; in contrast, one-sixth of Iran is about twice as high with often heavy rainfall. Temperatures vary greatly from the northern highlands' mean monthly average of –10° C to 20° C (14° F to 68° F) along the Persian Gulf. The summer temperature on the coastal lands of the Gulf sometimes reaches 53° C (127.5° F) with high humidity, whereas the lush, tropical coastal strip along the Caspian Sea in the north is adjacent to Iran's ski resorts. So there are extreme contrasts from high to low, cold to hot, wet to dry, and lush to barren.

A notable feature of Iran today is that in 1909 an oil field was brought into production near the Persian Gulf. Large gas reserves were subsequently found and developed nearby. Plentiful and usually cheap Iranian energy has played a major role in the industrialization of the European developed world ever since and today turns the wheels of Asia. Currently, Iran produces about 8 percent of the world's energy supply. The way these resources were developed, as we shall see, was often skewed to fit the world market rather than the needs of the country and often was a cause of disruption and discontent rather than support and security for Iran.

The land that the ancient Persians thought of as their original homeland is also different from modern Iran. Their ancestors thought they had "originated" in an area situated in what is now northern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, which they called Aryana Vaejah (the homeland of the Aryans). When they were driven out or launched themselves from that area sometime around 800 BC, the Indo-European peoples who would become Persian moved south of the Caspian Sea along the Elbruz mountain chain. As they reached the northern part of what is today Iraq, they ran into one of the most powerful empires ever known, Assyria. The Assyrians stopped them in their tracks, massacring some and enslaving others. Pushed back toward the east, one group of them, known as the Mada or Medes, settled in what is now northern Iran, where they became agriculturalists and formed a number of small village "kingdoms." Then sometime in the seventh century BC, most of these separate kingdoms merged into a more or less unified state.


Excerpted from Understanding Iran by William R. Polk. Copyright © 2009 William R. Polk. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William R. Polk established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, was president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, and helped to organize the "Table Ronde" meeting that laid the groundwork for the European Union. He was called back to the White House briefly during the 1967 Middle Eastern War to write a draft Peace Treaty and to act as advisor to U.S. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy.

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