Sunday, April 09, 2006

One reason Iran should not be wiped off the map

Historian Peter Green in his book The Greco-Persian wars says, “Those with a naturally authoritarian cast of mind tend to be fascinated by the Achaemenid empire for just the reasons which induced the Greeks to hold out against it: monolithic administration, theocratic absolutism, lack of political opposition….” Never reluctant to imply modern comparisons, Green continues, “Achaemenid Persia... perpetuated a fundamentally static structure, geared to the maintenance of a status quo and hostile to original creativity in any form.”

This analysis of ancient Iran’s Achaemenid empire, serves the opinion that the political scene in Iran hasn’t changed much since 25 centuries ago. Sadly-- after some scholarly exertion and selective assumptions--Green’s confrontational position can be made defensible. Then why, in our modern, democracy-worshipping, world is Iran’s civilization worth preserving?

The answer lies in Iran’s historical tenacity. To Western historians such as Green, the defeat of the mighty Persian Empire by the clever Greeks showcases the triumph of the creative Western mind over the passive and submissive mindset of the East. After the brilliant defense of Greece and the amazing conquests of Alexander the Great, the curtain falls to riotous applause from the Western audience. The Iranian audience however stays around for the next act of the play. Soon after Alexander died, Greece ceased to be a player in world affairs. Though Greek intellectual achievements continue to enrich our lives even today, politically Greece ceased to be a world player back in the 4th century BCE. The supposedly defeated Persians with their “fundamentally static structure...hostile to original creativity in any form” survived as a world power to take on the next great Western empire, Rome.

Though typecast as an imperialistic power, there is little doubt that Rome owed its success to the strong elements of popular participation that characterized its early institutions. The decay of the Roman empire began only after Imperial authoritarianism robbed it of its democratic vitality. Iranians however have never had trouble surviving dictatorships. Like anaerobic life, Iranian societies seem to thrive without the oxygen of democracy. While Rome fell to the barbarian hordes, Iran recovered from the Arab invasion of its borders in less than a century. During this time, not only did Iranians evolve a new identity and language separate from their Arab conquerors, they instigated political manipulations that eventually led to the rise of the Abbasid dynasty. Several historians have argued that the Abbasid caliphate, the period that saw the rise of Islam as a world civilization, represented the shift in Islam from Arab to Iranian culture. The Abbasids relocated the capital of Islam from Damascus to Baghdad --only twenty miles from Ctisphon, the capital of the supposedly extinct Persian Empire.

Then late in the twentieth century, long after Western civilization seemed to have obsolesced rival paths to the evolution of socieites, Iran shocked the world with a revolution that challenged modernism, outmoding the universal appeal of the Western theme. Economically backward, socially disarrayed, and militarily obsolete, Iranians nevertheless found a way to jump back into the fray of History. It is reasonable to ponder whether Islam was merely the ideological vehicle used to accomplish this deliverance. Any other vehicle may have served the creative political psyche of the Iranian people just as well.

As Iran’s confrontation with the West intensifies, we should stay open to the possibility that Iran’s global restlessness may not stem from radical Islam but from the Iranian desire to contribute alternatives on a world scale. In the past these alternatives have not been democratic, but they have been adaptive in their own way, or Iran would not have survived this long as a nation. Let’s keep in mind that we don’t know why democracy ended in Greece and Rome, and we don’t know why it is showing signs of ebbing in the United States. The social conditions for democracy are still a mystery. Iran’s demonstrated ability to preserve civilization in the absence of democracy is one reason why it is wise to keep it on the map.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the other vehicale that keeps Iran in the map forever is the power of love, the love that Iranian have for their country. We born with this love and we die with it, no matter wich religious we believe and where in the world we love. Iran would stay in the map because her son's and daughter's fight for it proudly and sincerely.
Does religious has something to so with it? Of course we are people of moral values and religious is based on it. But Islam particularly made any difference and if we were Christian or Buddhist our feelings would be different for our country or we would not fight for it? I don't think so; if those leaders know how to spice our patriotism with religious I think it would have the same result. "Mume vatan" is in our blood and makes the best solders out of us when needed.

Danny said...

The key to this entry is the idea that Iran is a resilient nation. Even without the confines of a democratic system Iran has persevered through the challenges of history. While being largely resistant to the Western world Iran strives to keep up with the technological developments that keeps many of the core nations on a higher plane of power. Iran watches the functions of the world powers like the United States very carefully. Websites like and show examples of Iranian nationalism and the desire for preserving the culture and Eastern identity. Articles display president Bush as a greedy man unaware of the damage he inflicts on the rest of the world. The battle to attain nuclear capabilities frighten the rest of the world and cause the United States to impose a double-standard in attempts to maintain control of an uncontrollable situation. Iran struggles to contribute to the rest of the world and remain isolated at the same time. Ari, what do you think the West can do to improve relations with the East?

Tricia said...

I never thought about any of this before, but at the same time, none of this is ever taught in school. Since we live in the Western world it can only be viewed as great and democracy can be the only great government. God forbid there be options. I find it funny how democracy is supposed to be about the people and what the people want, but what if the people have worked just fine in a different environment for centuries.
I am going to slightly contradict myself here, though. Despite Iran having survived all these years, so has democracy. And both have actually survived in much the same fashion. You mention that the Greek and Roman Empires eventually failed and crumbled, but so did the Persian Empire. None of these three ever came back, but their ideals withheld. They are just at different places on a timeline. You also mentioned the ebbing of the United States, but it is still young and learning. I think it is unfair to start judging America's future as of yet.
Do you think it is naive to so blindly follow one way of government and stick to just that one form? Do you think that world leaders have anything to gain from observing the opposing politics?

Ari Siletz said...

In reply to trish,
"Do yo think it is naive to so blindly follow one way of government and stick to just that one form?"
It is not only naive, it is dangerous to cut ourselves off from options. The world is more complex and changeable than any single organizing principle (government) can adapt to. Evolutionary biologists can cite numerous extinctions that can be blamed on becoming too specialized. The koala only eat eucalyptus leaves. If a blight attacks the eucalyptus species, the koala will disappear along with the eucalyptus.
What has made humans persevere in the animal world, despite their comparative weakness, is the extremely flexible nature of our societies. We have monogamous societies, societies where men have more than one wife, societies where women have more than one husband, societies where children are considered adults at puberty, societies when they are not considered full adults until they are twenty one, etc, etc. Far from being reason for alarm, this variety of social behavior is a healthy sign. It is what makes us robust as a species.
"You also mentioned the ebbing of the United States but it is still young and learning. I think it is unfair to start judging America's future as of yet."
I mentioned that American democracy is showing signs of ebbing, and I am impressed to see that you see this as America ebbing as a whole. It is as though you (correctly)identify the soul of America with democracy. The fact that America is militarily powerful and that it is the world's only superpower has little to do with why you love your country. If that is the case, then you should be doubly alarmed about the state of democracy in America today. Election fraud, congressmen taking bribes, dubious and self serving interpretations of our constitution, the redefining of our national interest in terms of the interests of the very rich, blatant violations of our civil rights, and so on are threatening our nation.
Sadly, since 9-11, many Americans are giving up their rights as citizens. They say it is OK to commit acts that go against the spirit of America. It is OK for the government to have computerized voting machines with no paper receipts, to use nuclear weapons against a nation that has not attaked us, to torture prisoners of war,to listen in on our phone conversations. Once citizen oversightis given away, it will take a revolution to take it back, because freedom is a difficult uphill and totalitarianism is an easy downhill.
Those of us who want this young country to grow up to be a healthy adult have reason for concern, and motive for political action. And we better hurry or it will get riskier and riskier to speak up (see my movie review of "V for vendetta".

Ari Siletz said...

"Ari, what do you think the West can do to improve relations with the East?"
With the Muslim world in particular, the US should take a more even handed stance relative the Arab-Israeli situation. This does not mean immediate and complete withdrawal of support from Israel, because that could trigger a war and the possible destruction of Israel and other nations as well. The best policy would be to signal a gradual drift towards not playing favorites. This way the Arabs and the Israelis can come to terms based on their local needs rather than continue playing a more complicated global game with multi-national interests involved.
To do this democratically, a strong lobbying force will have to be created in the United States to balance the influence of the very powerful pro-Israeli lobbies. So far the Muslim community in the Untied States has not been able to muster enough political power to do that, but there are some efforts (see my article on this website "Hafez at Stanford.">>

Anonymous said...

Seriously Ari, you are right on in saying that Iran shouldn't be wiped off the face of the earth (inshallah). Schoolchildren across the world would have to relearn their geography, Farsi would become nearly a dead language, and nearly all of the beautiful women in the world would be gone. But if it does happen , I came up with a new name for the body of water that would be ready.........the Caspersian Sea.

Oh and on another note, I was reading the paper the other day and I decided that there are some crazy white people in the pentagon. Let me know what you think.

Ari Siletz said...

In reply to anonymous:

I know of some pretty powerful people in Iran who would score just as high on the crazy scale as the folks in the Pentagon, and some of them are dinstinctly off-white. I suspect a few of the nutty statements are actually carefully planned. Specialists in the mathematics of game theory (whom the Petangon does hire) are of the opinion that the only way to win a game of chicken is to be the first to visibly throw the steering wheel out the window. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out the twisted yet coldly logical reasoning.

I know what you mean about the beautiful Iranian women. I saw a female compatriot the other day in Los Angeles and my heart paused to wonder, "Could this be the strand of hair that the mullahs have warned us about?"

I wouldn't mind reading a sci-fi novel based on your "Caspersian Sea" idea, as long as it is tasteful, and written with the purpose of making sure such a name is never needed.