Cyrus the Great Cylinder and Ahmadinejad's quest for legitimacy
By Amir Taheri
LONDON, (CAIS) -- Hoping to regain a measure of legitimacy in the wake of the disputed presidential election in 2009, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be trying to recast himself as a nationalist leading a struggle against foreign foes.
We have already noted this trend in previous columns as, slowly but surely, the president abandoned the standard Islamist discourse in favour of a nationalist one.
Now, there are fresh signs to confirm the trend.
On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad made a trip to Semnan, the native province of his parents, to inaugurate some real or imaginary projects. At a gathering of his supporters, he made an hour-long speech in which, according to the text published by the official news agency IRNA, the word Islam was not mentioned once.
Ahmadinejad spoke of "the land of the pure" one of the names that ancient Aryans gave to Iran as they settled in it. Instead of using the word "ummah" which denotes the Muslim community and is favoured by the mullahs, the president used the word "mellat" which means "nation" in Persian.
He developed his new theme of the "Iranian school", as opposed to the "Islamic school", and claimed that, thanks to its ancient civilisation, Iran was capable of offering mankind leadership.
On his arrival, Ahmadinejad received a list of demands by the local population.
According to the province’s Director of Cultural Affairs, Hamid Yazdani, top of the list was a demand for the extension of an exhibition in Tehran. There, the item on exhibit is the famous Cyrus Cylinder that contains an edict by Cyrus the Great the founder of the second Iranian dynasty, the Achaemenids in 550 BCE.
The cylinder is on loan from the British Museum in London and is due to be returned there next week.
"The people of Semnan wish to see a relic of a civilisation that brought light to the world," Yazdani claimed.
All that is anathema to the mullahs who claim that, before Islam appeared to end "the Age of Darkness", there was no civilisation anywhere in the world. The late Ruhallah Khomeini, the mullah who founded the regime, hated such words as "nation" and Iran. This is why he insisted that Iran’s parliament, known as the National Consultative Assembly of Iran, be renamed the Islamic Consultative Assembly. In almost every government institution, the word Iran was replaced by the word Islamic.
Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic regime, publicly made no secret of his contempt for pre-Islamic Iranian culture – deriding everything Iranian from Noruz to the Persian language.
According to Roya Hakakian: ". . [Khomeini] made no secret of his contempt for the non-Muslim dimensions of Iranian life. He injected Persian with so many Arabic words that it confounded the ordinary listener, something for which he compensated by repetitiveness."
Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, one of the founders of the Khomeinist regime, even suggested that Iran be re-named Islamistan.
"Nationalism is a sin and a disease," Khalkhali wrote in 1981.
Ahmadinejad’s nationalistic twist has been criticised by mullahs including "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei.
The president has responded with defiance. "There are people who are afraid of the word Iran," he said in a recent speech. "Let them be! This is Iran and we are Iranians."
In December, he despatched the Revolutionary Guards to stop a group of Islamists from destroying the ancient remains of the Temple of Anahita the Goddess of Fertility in Kangavar, west of Kermanshah.
Ahmadinejad may be a late convert to a trend that one might call Iranism. The trend has affected almost all Iranian political groups including almost all the opposition.
Former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mussavi, the man who claims to have won the 2009 presidential election against Ahmadinejad, has adopted an almost entirely nationalistic discourse. He no longer uses the title seyyed that denotes his claim of decent from seventh Imam of Shi’ism, manufactured during the reign of Safavid King, Shah Esmail I (July 17, 1487 - May 23, 1524). Shah Esmail, a self made king who was an Iranian from Talysh of Tati speaker declared Shi'ism as the official religion of Iran.
A man who denied the very existence of an Iranian nation in the 1980s has recast himself into the role of its legitimate spokesman.
The Mujahedin Khalq, a terrorist group that helped Khomeini win power, started as a cocktail of Marxist and Islamist groups with is own flag, insignia and anthem. In recent years, however, it has moved into the opposition and rallied under Iran’s national flag and "Lion and Sun" insignia. As for its anthem, it has adopted the "O Iran" hymn, one of the most popular tributes to Iranian nationalism.
Even the more openly Marxist groups, such as the People’s Fadayeen Guerrillas, have almost totally abandoned their leftist discourse in favour of one that emphasises nationalism and democracy.
Almost all Iranian political movements opposing the Khomeinist regime have adopted the green-white-red tricolour flag, the Lion and Sun insignia, and the hymn "O Iran!". Iranism is a major part of Iranian identity and affecting all aspects of life in Iran and many public speeches now start with the phrase "In the Name of God and Iran."
The number of visitors to ancient ruins and monuments, including the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great at Pasargad north of Shiraz, is growing by leaps and bounds. The Cyrus Cylinder exhibition, in Tehran’s Museum of Ancient Iran, drew record crowds. People queued all night long to enter the exhibition that Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i claims to be the most popular in Iranian history.
For the first time since the mullahs came to power, Iranian embassies and offices of the government-owned airline abroad for the first since 1979 have been ordered to display posters showing some of Iran’s pre-Islamic monuments.
The return of Iranism is the latest sign of Iran’s split personality. As a people, the Iranians have a history that spans almost thirty centuries. Half of that time-span is covered by Iran’s ancient glory whilst Iran was a major contributor to the creation of an Islamic civilisation in the other half. To reject either half would be to deny a major part of the Iranian identity.
People like Khomeini, who denied the existence of an Iranian identity, resembled those Marxist internationalists who favoured class solidarity over nationalism.
It is too early to decide whether Ahmadinejad’s attempt at posing as an Iranian nationalist has any chance of success.
His new discourse might resonate with segments of the urban middle classes as well as part of the military. It may also mislead some people into believing that Ahmadinejad’s provocative foreign policy is motivated by national interest rather than ideological considerations.
The new discourse may also help the government justify its policy of repression against Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities as they become more vocal in their demands for autonomy and cultural rights.
In the end, however, Ahmadinejad’s move towards the last refuge of the scoundrel, is unlikely to succeed. A repressive regime with an anti-Iranian ideology cannot be transformed overnight into one motivated by patriotism. Beating the drum of ancient glories will not change the fact that the Iranian economy is losing 3,000 jobs each day while growth is in sub-zero regions. Nor will it prevent a substantial number of Iranians from sincerely believing that Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 election.
Whether he talks of Iran or Islam, many nationalists and at least some Islamists will find it hard to trust a leadership that has isolated the country and is keeping it in a state of perpetual crisis.