Roots of fear and hubris


June 12, 2006

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TO understand why Iranians are so proud of their culture and civilisation, I was repeatedly told, one must visit a few places besides Tehran, especially Shiraz, and Isfahan, regarded as the country’s most beautiful city.

It would be a gross understatement to say that my visits to these were well worth the time. In Shiraz are located the tombs of the two great poets, Saadi and Hafiz, and priceless monuments like the Atigh Jame’ mosque. But what takes one’s breath away is Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenian empire, built by Darius the Great in 518 B.C.

Staggering ruins

The gate of Xerxes, the entrance to Persepolis

Persepolis, 50 km from Shiraz, lies in ruins, but what exists is staggering — in particular, Xerxes’ Gate, and the Apadana Palace where the emperor held receptions. The palace’s magnificent staircases depict representatives of the 23 different countries over which the Empire ruled, how they dressed, and what tributes they offered to the emperor. Persepolis is magnificent; spread over 125,000 sq.m. Although smaller, monuments near by with Zoroastrian rock carvings are stupendous.

Isfahan is a city of incomparable beauty, laid out along the banks of a beautiful river with several medieval bridges across it. In a single monument like the Friday Mosque, one can see 800 years of Islamic architecture and art of the most exquisite variety. Even more spectacular is the Imam’s (Shah’s) Square, the world’s second largest square with a gorgeous arcade and four magnificent monuments including Lotfollah’s Mosque, which many art historians regard as the world’s most beautiful world. Isfahan’s central vista is so bewitchingly beautiful that a French poet described it as “Half the World”.

The scale of these monuments and the grandeur they represent give the Iranian people a very special identity and sense of their past. In some ways, this sense is even stronger than what most Indians have because there is greater continuity in Iran’s past from antiquity to the late Middle Ages.

However, Iranians are somewhat embarrassed by and resentful towards aspects of their more recent past. In the last couple of centuries, Iran became the hunting ground of various empires, and the site or side show of the Great Game in central Asia between Britain and Russia. Iran was repeatedly humbled and put down by the Great Powers. She was prevented from having a railway network and had to accept erosion of its sovereignty under the British, and then the Americans.

The Iranians’ most humiliating experience of Western interference is the CIA-sponsored coup against West Asia’s first elected leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. This was further compounded by U.S.-backing for the Shah, America’s partiality towards Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions on Iran imposed after the 1979 Revolution.

Reassertion of traditional culture

Resentment against a meddling, overbearing West is an important part of contemporary Iranian self-identity and a major force driving Iranian nationalism. Post-Revolutionary Iranian politics has evolved under the influence of this nationalism, as well as a militant reassertion of Islam and traditional Iranian culture, which had both been suppressed under the Shah.

Anxious to defend Iran against “external interference”, Iran’s political class and clergy devised a constitutional order, which would give priority to stability under a strong state — even at the expense of freedom. The underlying principle is that given a choice between tyranny with stability, and anarchy, tyranny is more “expedient” and must prevail because it at least preserves society and the state. The momentum of this paranoid reaction to the external world, rooted in the recent past, has weakened, but it has not run out.

Iran is one of the few countries of West Asia, which regularly holds relatively free and fair elections to Parliament (Majlis) and to the Presidency. But it is by no means a democracy in which the state is answerable to the people through their elected representatives. The (unelected) Supreme Leader can overrule both Majlis and President, and the National Security Council prevails over the President. The Council of Guardians can bar hundreds of candidates from contesting elections — as it did in 2004. The same mindset rationalises draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and savage repression of dissent. In the past five years, more than 100 newspapers have been closed down.

It is hard to miss signs of Iran’s urge to get recognition as a significant power, especially in its search for technological and industrial prowess and military strength. Modern technology has a high iconic value in Iran. Every Iranian-made car engine is a cause for celebration. Iran’s quest for nuclear power and its insistence on continuing with uranium enrichment must be seen in this context — a strange but powerful combination of wanting to “get even” with the West and overcome past humiliation, and a drive for modernisation on a non-Western model.