Middle East History: Understanding Iran

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We watched them protesting their last elections when they were stuck with the same lunatic they didn’t vote for again. The protests went on for weeks but we didn’t stay with the story for long before we lost all interest. Why? Didn’t we realize that particular grassroots protest was a significant chapter in Middle East history? In fact, it may well be a revolution in the making.  That revolution would significantly change the face of Middle Eastern and most certainly world politics.

 The name Iran typically evokes scorn in the minds of Americans and for good reason. The present government of Iran has used its powers to export terror and ill will to Israel and others in the Western world for the past thirty years. The problem with Iran, however, is not a problem of the people, but of the Authorities.

In the U.S. we have a real stake in the democratic process and that makes it difficult for us to relate to older cultures particularly Middle Eastern peoples and most particularly the Persians (Iranians).

 Ancient Persia

The name Iran comes from middle Persian and it means “aryan” (an ethnic reference). However the people of Iran call themselves Persians and Persians are proud of their heritage. Persians speak Farsi and are not Arabs (and God help you if you ever confuse the two to a Persian).

Persians have an ancient legacy as the cultural guardians of law, learning, civilization, and tolerance. None of these attributes seems to define the present government of Iran, which regularly imprisons, abuses and even executes citizens for speaking out against authority.

The Persia of Cyrus the Great

This is the people that gave us Cyrus the Great who conquered the world from Libya to just east of the Indus river and as far north as the Aral Sea. It was the world’s greatest kingdom.

It was the Persians that liberated the Judeans from captivity.

They were for centuries the center of learning and thought.

Persia was one of the first great advocates of cultural and ethnic preservation and absorption, from art and architecture to politics and religion. So loved was Cyrus by his conquered subjects that the Babylonians cheered for him as he entered their capital city.

Persia is the origin of many of the great achievements in science, philosophy, mathematics, warfare, empire building, music, astronomy, religion, rhetoric, architecture, and the list goes on. It is kind of hard not to achieve greatness when your empire spans most of the known world for two hundred years.

The internal Schizm

Today the Persians are essentially a conquered people, oppressed by a religious government run by clerics. They are not free to assemble, or to express opposition, and if they are women they are not free at all. In a way they have gone backwards losing much of the liberties that an ancient emperor once granted freely even to its conquered subjects.

We Westerners must understand the difference between the Persian people and their government. The Persian people want what we all want, peace, liberty and opportunity.

In the summer of 2009 we saw a glimpse of fearless, young Persians taking to the streets of their modern police state and shouting their dissent against phony elections and totalitarian thugs. Let us hope that these same people who have made such great contributions to society may some day overcome their oppressors, go on to more feats of greatness, and leave this ugly period behind them as a minor blip on history’s timeline.


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