Khamenei’s latest headache: Iranians hail a sixth-century BC king
London - Footage of Iranians chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia in the sixth century BC, have circulated on social media and been called the largest demonstrations since the 2009 unrest following Iran’s disputed presidential election.
Chants of “Iran is our country; Cyrus is our father” morphed into “We are Iranians; we don’t worship Arabs” and “Freedom is our desire and it won’t come through beards”.
However serious these events at the tomb at Pasargadae, near the southern city of Shiraz — and the provincial prosecutor did announce arrests — Cyrus Day on October 28th, initiated a decade ago and this year attracting many thousands, highlights the unusual challenge the Islamic Republic faces in dealing with nationalism.
“Many governments use nationalism to mobilise their populations, including China and Russia,” said Robert Powell, regional manager for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit, “but the Iranian government is reluctant to do this, as nationalism can sit uneasily with the Islamic Republic’s religious tenets.”
Many Iranians like to gaze back fondly on Cyrus as a tolerant ruler who freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon and cherished ethnic diversity in building a large empire, but his legacy has proved troublesome for more modern Iranian rulers seeking to legitimise their rule.
The Safavid shahs, whose dynasty from 1501-1722 perhaps marks the start of modern Iran, set out to unite their subjects — Persians, Turks, Kurds, Arabs and others — through establishing Shia Islam as the state religion. Shia clerics, some from southern Lebanon, achieved high status while recognising the Safavid shahs as “God’s shadow on Earth”. Religion and nationalism sat together, if sometimes uneasily.
By the 20th century, the two Pahlavi shahs — Reza and Mohammad Reza — saw the clergy as an obstacle to development. Reza Shah banned the hijab, encouraged archaeological excavations at pre-Islamic sites and reduced clerical influence in education and the courts.
Mohammad Reza strongly emphasised continuity with ancient glories. His 1971 celebrations near Cyrus’s tomb of the supposed 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy and attended by many world leaders, became a notorious festival of conspicuous consumption that alienated ordinary Iranians and helped start the revolutionary tide that toppled the shah in 1979.
Initially, the Islamic revolutionaries expressed disdain for Iran’s history before the arrival of Arab, Islamic armies around 651. They looked askance at rituals such as Charshanbeh Suri, the last Wednesday of the year, when Iranians jump over bonfires.
For Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam should unite all regardless of nation or ethnicity but Iran was — and is — marked out as the only Islamic country other than Iraq with a majority Shia population and the Islamic Republic learned to live with practices merging Islam with pre-Islamic, even Zoroastrian, ways.
Millions of Iranians every year mark Nowruz, the new year beginning at the spring equinox, by visiting the shrine in Mashhad of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia imam.
Pre-Islamic customs are more popular than ever — this year more than 50 cities took part in a contest to build the most original haft-seen table, a practice by which Iranian families assemble seven items, including herbs and a goldfish, that begin with the Farsi letter “seen” and which represent renewal or fertility. Pre-Islamic Zoroastrian motifs appear more often in pendants, paintings and decorations.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005-13, tried to connect with such sentiments, probably sensing a potential popular base independent of the clerics, the bureaucracy or institutions such as the Basij. In 2010 he called Cyrus “king of the world” when opening an exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder, on which the king supposedly made the first declaration of human rights.
Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, took this further in speaking of an “Iranian school of thought” distinct from an “Islamic school of thought”, prompting some senior clerics to detect a “deviant current” and even to allege that Mashaei had bewitched the president.
Their nerves were understandable. “Iranian nationalist discourse is latently anti-Islamic and if its importance increases, then political Islam weakens,” said Walter Posch, of the National Defence Academy in Vienna.
Posch raised another issue: “If the regime changes itself into something nationalist, as Ahmadinejad partly tried, then Iran’s ethnic question will become an existential threat for national unity and not only a nuisance.”
Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis and Azeris have sometimes seen Iranian nationalism as a cloak for Persian nationalism and the “separatist” nationalism of ethnic minorities — half of Iran’s 70 million population — has grown.
Some of the recent clips from Pasargadae posted on social media feature anti-Arab chants. In another, a speaker refers to those standing beside him as a Kurd, an Arab and a Turk (perhaps Azeri), presumably to stress the unity of all Iranians. Even if his legacy is contested, 2,500 years after his death Cyrus remains an important symbol.