The Khomeinids, Part One
Hayden R. Ludwig, Foreign Policy Contributor
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s high clergy, the ayatollahs, are the apex of a priesthood that has long defended the nation’s soul - albeit from the mosques. Now they’re running the show.
“Of the disparities that afflict foreign relations,” writes Karl E. Meyer in his study The Dust of Empire, “the most difficult to overcome is asymmetry of knowledge.” Among the Central Asian states, Iran remains an enduring mystery to the average American observer. It has been years since U.S. forces first occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, and in that time names like ‘Baghdad,’ ‘Fallujah,’ and ‘Kabul’ have drifted into the American lexicon as places we vaguely understand, or at least think we do.
Iran, however, is something entirely different. Previous generations entertained warm affections toward the Persian state and its plucky shah (or king), viewing Iran as a pro-Western country doggedly pursuing modernity. And until 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, that was largely true - although that view submerged intense national emotions bubbling beneath the velveted surface.
The twentieth century gave rise to numerous revolutions, but very few - if any - were peculiarly religious in nature. The Iranian Revolution was not led by the Tudeh (communist) faction, nor by a secular warlord, but rather by the Islamic clergy. This harkens back to a long tradition characteristic to the Iranian national soul, and it’s key for the United States to better understand its Persian rival.
The key to understanding Iran is in its religion, Shia Islam. Perhaps contradictorily, so too is the country’s irreligion. Put more acutely, the beating heart of the Persian people is discovered through the religious veil - neither the beginning nor the end of their legacy, yet absolutely central to it. I will attempt to explain.
In the crowded Middle East, Iran stands out. In this region known for its secular despots, Iran is the sole constitutional theocracy. Yet its population is one of the least religious in the Middle East, illustrated by the religious capital at Qom. This city, which once birthed the 1979 Revolution with Ruhollah Khomeini’s fiery sermons held in the grand mosque, has since grown wealthy, bedecked with shopping malls and Western clothing. Iran follows Sharia law, yet women outnumber men in universities, some by nearly 2:1.This contrast is hardly new.
Across much of its history, Iran was famous for its wine (home of the shiraz vintage), poetry, literature, and art. These are not desert-scrabbling nomads, like their Arab neighbors, and Iranians are intensely proud of their history. They have a romantic soul, and the poetry of Hafiz, Rumi, and Omar Khayyam stands in contrast with the stark calls by modern ayatollahs, Marg bar America (“death to America”). Yet Iran cannot be properly understood through secularism. The clergy class has long formed an enduring, conservative core in the country, although one usually short of political dominance. We see their influence increase most closely at points of acute hardship.
In historical terms, Americans live eternally in the present; Iranians in the pervading shadow of the past. That past is distinctively biblical in scale, full of stories of hoary kings, venerated campaigns, and sultry, wine-sozzled romances, all whispering by day and night in the Persian ear. This is a distinct nation forged across twenty-six centuries of life. Nine of those centuries were spent in foreign bondage, too, beginning with Sikander, or Alexander, the mysterious subjugator riding at the head of a Western army and responsible for the annihilation of the first Persian Empire (known as the Achaemenids). This empire was once the largest contiguous state in the world. At its zenith, it was boasted by Cyrus the Young, “My father’s kingdom extends so far to the south that men cannot live there because of the heat, and northward to where they cannot exist because of the cold.” Alexander is a figure still very much alive in the Iranian imagination, even honored as a namesake, despite the humiliation he almost single-handedly unleashed upon their ancestors in the 5th century B.C.
After Alexander, Greeks would rule the Iranian plateau, followed later by Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Central Asian warlords. Iranians would not rule themselves again until the sixteenth century A.D., by which time the outside world had left its unforgettable marks upon the country. Amazingly, Persians preserved their language - although the Arab caliphs impressed Arabic script upon it. They did not preserve their religion, however, the ancient cult of fire-worshipers known as Zoroastrianism. There is much in Zoroastrianism that speaks to the Persian worldview. At a time when polytheism and sun worship dominated the Earth, the ancient Persians worshiped Ahura Mazda, a god of fire - cleansing, pure, and wantonly destructive. Founded by the teachings of the ancient prophet Zoroaster, it espoused unique characteristics reminiscent of the future Abrahamic faiths which replaced it: monotheism marked by an omniscient, omnipotent god; duality between good and evil; and angelic servants called Amesha Spentas. The Magi, or Wise Men, who ventured across the desert to Bethlehem were followers of Zoroaster. Even in an Islamic theocracy, Iran protects this tiny minority, and many Persians recognize the Zoroastrian New Year, or Noruz, each March.
This monotheistic foundation may partly explain the readiness with which 8th century Persians adopted Islam (not that their Muslim Arab masters offered much choice). But even in this ‘defeat’ Iran showed a kind of defiance by converting to the sect of Shia Islam.
Part Two will further explore the importance of this sect to the national psyche, and the bearing it has on the modern politics of Iran - as well as the role played by the Shi’ite clergy now responsible for governing the country amidst a sea of threats and opportunities.
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