In April 2017 Bridget Kendall, former BBC diplomatic correspondent and now Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, interviewed Michael Axworthy, author of Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know® about the history of Iran, the characterization of Iran as an aggressive expansionist power, and the current challenges and developments in the country today. Below is a transcribed version of part of the interview. To learn more, listen to the complete podcast at the bottom of the post.
The answers to some of the questions that you pose in Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know®—a lot of them have very deep historical roots. If you want to understand Iran, you have to go back. Can you give some examples?
There are several examples one can give. I suppose the most immediate example is trying to understand Iran’s rather lonely and often rather hostile position towards the west at the moment. It’s necessary to understand the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries between Iran and particularly the UK, but also the United States; foreign interference in the country then, and also previously; a long history of invasions before that time ranging from Alexander the Great to the Islamic conquest; and then the Mongols. It’s a long, long history and invasion is one perspective from which to look at it. But there is also the religious history: the Shia-Sunni schism, the turning of Iran into a Shia country in the sixteenth century. All of those things are very present and very important in understanding Iran now. And unless you understand something about the historical background, you don’t really get a feel for that.
The big turning point in modern day-Iran was the 1979 Islamic Revolution which swept away the shah and brought in Ayatollah Khomeini and a new Islamic Republic which is what we have today. It does seem as though it totally changed the name of the game in Iran, so doesn’t that mean that there was somewhat of a break with the past; that perhaps history becomes less important?
The other day I watched the film, The Leopard again. And there’s a great phrase in that: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.” And really, there are lots of different ways to look at the Iranian Revolution of 1979. There were winners and losers and there where people who expected to be winners who turned out to be losers, as happened with other great revolutions. But the successful group in the end was the group of clerics around Ayatollah Khomeini. And in many ways what they were trying to achieve was a solidification and a re-establishment of patterns of social and religious authority that have very deep roots in Iran.
So not a break with the past, actually but a reaffirmation in many ways, of some parts of the past.
Through a revolution—yes.
Most people think of Iran as one of the big regional powers in the Middle East, currently Islamic, part of the Muslim world—and perhaps some people don’t realize that the Iranian language is nothing like Arabic. Persian is, in fact, an Indo-European language. It’s a member of the same family as French and German and English and Russian – so how important is that cultural point of understanding Iran?
It is it is very important, and as you say, it’s often neglected and misunderstood. And when that is neglected and misunderstood by Westerners, the Iranians can be quite upset because many of them feel they actually belong with the west, belong with Europe, more than they belong in the Middle East. And some Iranians indeed are quite xenophobic towards other people in the Middle East.
So that feeling of identity through language is important. Also the feeling of cultural depth that goes back to the origins of Iranian language is also very important. And it’s also important because the Iranian language is the chief thing that gives a continuity to Iranian history, back through all those invasions and in particular the Islamic conquest, the Arab conquest.
How much of a sense of cohesion, now and historically, is there in Iran?
Iran has quite a strong cultural identity and that, again, has deep historical roots. It’s partly because of the deep historical roots that the identity is so strong. And that is partly about language, also very much about Persian literature, the great tradition of Persian poetry, the enormous contribution that Iranians made to the great wave of Islamic cultural development, and scientific intellectual development in the eighth, ninth, tenth centuries. All of that is very present in the minds of Iranians and is also influential on people, who, in one time may have been called the Iranian space or the Persian space.
In the sixteenth, seventeenth centuries, Persian was the diplomatic language used by the Ottoman Empire. It was the court language in the Mogul empire. And when the British began to take over in India, British administrators had to learn Persian in order to make the administration work with the Persian-speaking administrators that they inherited from the Mogul Empire. So Iran and Iranian culture have had an influence way beyond certainly the present-day borders of Iran and actually way beyond the widest borders that Iran ever had, practically.
Do Iranians see themselves as a big power or do they see themselves as a victim of geography?
I think the answer probably is both, of course. The long history of invasions, and particularly the history of the last 100-150 years of foreign meddling in the country before the revolution in 1979 tends to make many Iranians think about Iranian history in terms of victimhood and being vigilant for the danger of further meddling and further positioning Iran as a victim, and that makes Iran sometimes appear quite defensive. But the other side of appearing defensive, if your defense is active, it can make Iran look aggressive as well. And there are definitely some people who do see Iran as a great power in the region and a power to expand and wield influence. I would tend to think those people in general are a minority even within the Iranian regime. Iranians place a great emphasis on their culture, on intellectual achievements, and on education. And those things very much go together. And that’s just the sort of country that many Iranians see themselves as having rather than a militaristic or an aggressive kind of nationalism. And the periods where Iran has been an aggressive expansionist power in the recent history is quite narrow. Iran has not been kind of power for a long time – more than 200 years at least.
Featured image credit: “Iran, Flag” by Etereuti. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.