For many months now, the so-called P5+1 countries have been negotiating with Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The endless futile negotiations over how many centrifuges and how fast they should spin and for how long – have lost their way. Maybe the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) should try a radically new approach.
Junk your entire nuclear program and hand over all your intercontinental missiles, they could tell Iran. Just get rid of the lot, like Assad who junked his chemical weapons. We were going to give him the Gaddafi treatment, but now he sits safely in power in Damascus. So just eliminate your foolish threat to ourselves and we shall gratefully watch from afar while you rebuild the empire of Cyrus.
"What Cyrus?" some may ask. Any Iranian schoolchild knows the answer from history lessons. Cyrus the Great (d. 530 BCE) created -- in barely a decade -- a Persian Empire that encompassed most of the Middle East, including present-day Turkey. His son added Egypt and part of Libya. "What's more," the Iranian child will proudly add, "I'm still speaking the language of Cyrus!"
Never mind that Cyrus and the child would hardly understand a word of each other. The point is that all Iranians know that their ancestors once exerted hegemony over the whole area. The depredations of the "Islamic State" have given Iranians the opportunity to restore a dominance that they enjoyed intermittently until the Arabs conquered them. Only the well-justified Western fear of Iranian nuclear missiles stands in their way.
In the version of Xenophon, Cyrus achieved his goal by allying himself with resentful downtrodden groups in the regimes that he destroyed. Today, the same scenario has returned: the Syrian Alawites and the Shiites of Lebanon and Iraq see Iran as their defender. Even some Christians may turn to Iran in despair. The Christians of Iran are oppressed, for sure, but they are killed only one by one from time to time, whereas Sunni Islamists kill and expel Christians by the hundreds and thousands.
"Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great," oil on canvas (1796) by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
A hundred years ago, any well-educated Western politician would have known about Cyrus from reading the Greek classics at school and the Bible at home. Today, such knowledge is mostly restricted to specialists. But there are two nations who still learn it at school: the Greeks and the Former Yugoslav Macedonians. Hence their governments fight over the franchise for Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia who overthrew the Persian Empire and installed Greek-speaking generals in place of Persian governors.
The Iranian schoolchild will tell you, by contrast, that he was the "accursed Alexander" of Persian history books, the drunken savage who destroyed a blissful empire in which the various nations stopped fighting one another and each enjoyed its own happy national life under the benevolent eye of Persia. Even the miserable Israelites, along with other exiled peoples, were allowed to go home.
Moreover, the child will continue, we soon regained our independence and constantly got the upper hand over Greeks and Romans. And even when the Arabs, a nation even more savage than the Greeks, conquered us, we managed to free ourselves after two centuries of tyranny. The proof: we still rule historic Iran and we still speak Persian, whereas elsewhere the conquered lost their own cultures and talk in a debased Arabic.
Yes, the child will concede, the Arabs brought us Islam. And Islam is far superior to Zoroaster's religion, which favored only priests and aristocrats, whereas in Islam everyone is supposed to be equal. But the Arabs ignored exactly that principle of Islam and used Islam as an excuse to despoil us and let their caliphs live in disgusting luxury at our expense. Look at the Islamic State: they are gleefully demolishing every symbol of culture, just as their tent-dwelling ancestors destroyed our magnificent ancient civilization. Arab philosophy, Arab medicine? You're joking. Al-Farabi, Razi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) – they were all Iranians. Even Al-Ghazali, the supreme theologian of those arrogant uncouth Sunnis, was a Persian-speaking Iranian.
The above sketch draws upon a schoolbook written in Persian for Iranian schoolchildren. It reveals an unfamiliar background to the thinking of Iranians and the attractions to Iran of regaining suzerainty over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. At the same time, from the viewpoint of the P5+1, this Iranian dream embodies three immense drawbacks.
First, and paramount, are those missiles, which threaten not just Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but London, Paris, Berlin and Moscow. All the worse if Iran should gain a foothold on the Mediterranean. The P5+1 have to demand the total elimination of the means of delivery as well as the means of producing the warheads.
Currently, the P5+1 are negotiating as if they have make concessions over Iran's centrifuges in order to persuade Iran to help against the Islamic State. This is absurd and back to front. The negotiating stance of the P5+1 should be that to grant Iran a leading role in Iraq and Syria is to do Iran a massive favor and must presuppose the total elimination of the centrifuges and missiles.
Second is the delirious hatred of the ayatollahs for Israel. Once the missile threat has vanished, however, Israel can adequately look after itself.
Third is the appalling human rights record of Iran, especially its ruthless treatment of dissidents and women. It belies the cultural superiority affected by the ayatollahs, who pride themselves on maintaining a living tradition of Islamic philosophy that has died out in Arab lands. So far, however, the P5+1 have not even raised this issue. Russia and China evidently have their own reasons for being uninterested. Still, with the military threat from Iran eliminated, the West could devote more attention to the Iranian suppression of human rights, although results will be obtained at most in some individual cases.
On the other hand, in order to rebuild a Persian Empire -- to the extent that it is feasible -- Iran has to take three steps. The first, as discussed, is the total renunciation of nuclear missiles. The second is to seize the opportunity that Turkey's Erdogan is missing, to make a pact with the Kurds whereby Iranian Kurds content themselves with limited autonomy while Kurds elsewhere gain liberty under Iranian protection.
The third step would be to cease the demonization of Israel and to recognize that the southern limit of the Neo-Persian Empire would be the border with Israel. This step is hardly imaginable, however, so here Iran's imperial exercise is likely to break down.