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.