May 28, 2020 | Newsweek
The Old and New Persian Empires
May 28, 2020 | Newsweek
The Old and New Persian Empires
Iraq is invaded and its despot is deposed. Iran encroaches, amassing territory covering Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The year is 539 BCE, though it eerily echoes events following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Persia’s supreme leader in question is Cyrus the Great, not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iraq’s tyrant is Nabonidus.
Today, with Bashar al-Assad’s victory in Syria, Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon, the success of the Houthis in Yemen, the entrenchment of Iran-aligned forces in Iraq and the command of Iran-backed Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Islamic Republic has established a land bridge stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean, which many see as the “restoration of the Persian Empire.”
Contemporary Iranian government officials too, from Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—evoke Persia of old in order to condone their theocracy. In reality, the Islamic Republic’s imperialism is an inversion of the Achaemenid Empire, advancing a raison d’etre at odds with Cyrus’ creation.
While Persia of old was founded on enlightened statesmanship for its time, advancing plurality of thought and creed, the modern Persian empire was born out of an Islamic revolution intent on ideological expansion through sowing instability via insurgent terror groups across the region.
“The establishment of the largest empire in antiquity, one of the most benevolent of any in world history, if any empire is good, is associated with the Persians,” historian Touraj Daryaee explains. Though the precise veracity of the Cyrus story can be disputed, to understand Iranian national identity, the reception and transmission of his legacy in the nation’s psyche is more instructive than its historicity. That the nation’s founding father chose to present himself as an enlightened imperialist, in contrast to monarchs of his epoch who boasted of bondage and carnage, is telling.
When Babylon fell to the Persians, Cyrus proclaimed his policy of respecting local customs on what has come to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder. Cyrus freed foreign captives and restored temples of their respective gods, as opposed to the god of the victor. In doing so, he fashioned the first polity based on tolerance. For the following two hundred years of the Achaemenid empire, successive rulers upheld their founder’s laissez-faire approach, creating the period called “Pax Persica,” or Persian Peace.
Among these captives were the Jewish people. Mr. Zarif noted last year, citing “the Torah,” that a “Persian king saved Jews from captivity in Babylon” who, in the Hebrew Bible, “is only foreigner referred to as MESSIAH.” Tehran’s top diplomat neglected to mention, however, that Cyrus is referred to as God’s anointed, or messiah, because as the Book of Ezra recalls, Cyrus is chosen to deliver the Jews and “build Him [God] a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judea.” In addition to the Bible, other sources, such as first-century historian Flavius Josephus, detail the political and monetary support Cyrus provided to repatriate Jews in the land of Israel. Evoking this history, President Harry Truman declared “I am Cyrus,” due to his role in helping create the modern Jewish state of Israel. Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared President Trump to Cyrus for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
By contrast, since 1979, the Islamic Republic has been dedicated to the destruction of Israel and Holocaust denial. In light of “Quds Day,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the Holocaust this month, publishing a poster calling for a “Final Solution” for Israeli Jews. Iran’s proxy expansion engulfing Israel serves exactly this purpose, as laid out in Khamenei’s 2011 book, Palestine. In this work, he describes eliminating the Jewish state, not by means of traditional warfare, but through a prolonged proxy war of attrition aimed at breaking the Israeli will to survive.
Just the other week, an assailant in Hamadan attempted to set fire to the tomb of the biblical queen Esther—wife of Xerxes, Cyrus’ grandson—and her cousin Mordechai. The Islamic Republic has neither condemned the arson attack nor brought the perpetrator, allegedly caught on tape, to justice. The arsonist is likely connected to the regime. In February, the local Basij militia threatened to destroy the tomb and to replace it with a Palestinian consulate. Ironically, the shrine was renovated and expanded in 1971, as part of the shah’s national commemoration marking 2,500 years of the Persian Empire.
Further highlighting incongruity with Persian pluralism is the fact that Iran’s land corridor is known as the “Shiite Crescent.” To engineer contiguous allegiance, Iran and its proxies are converting or ousting Sunnis in war-torn Syria, while expelling Christians from their homes in Iraq. Iran’s regional influence correlates with those areas where it has been able to exploit the sectarianism necessary to form militias loyal to the theocracy, which then helps Iran position itself as the leader of the global Shiite community.
It is no wonder that in celebrating Cyrus, Iranians undermine the clerical regime. In the early 2000s, Iranians created “Cyrus the Great Day” to commemorate Iranian nationalism and their pre-Islamic history. Threatened by Cyrus’ legacy, the Islamic Republic bans celebrating at Cyrus’ tomb and arrests visitors. Defying the Islamic Republic, Iranians nonetheless flock to the ancient leader’s burial place and chant, “Iran is our homeland; Cyrus is our father,” and “Clerical rule is synonymous with only tyranny, only war.”
Xenophon, the prominent student of Socrates, wondered how human beings can rule sans revolution. The answer, he thought, could be discerned from Cyrus, whom Xenophon considered the paragon of statesmanship, ruling magnanimously over the whole known world. In Cyropedia (“Education of Cyrus”), Xenophon uses the Persian leader’s life to illuminate the making of the most virtuous ruler. This treatise, the first mirror of princes, was read extensively in the modern period and the Enlightenment, heavily influencing Machiavelli’s The Prince—which itself helped lay the intellectual foundation for modern liberalism. Cyropedia was, for Machiavelli, the most important work of classical political thought.
The ancient Iranian state also captivated America’s founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson possessed two copies of Cyropedia in his library, which he carefully annotated and encouraged his family to read. As a result, the model of governance Cyrus pioneered based on religious freedom was, in modern times first implemented by what the regime refers to as the “Great Satan.”
Eliora Katz is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @eliorakatz.