26 September 2013

Why are we surprised?

Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has merely articulated the position that Iran’s government has held for a very long time. Our government and news media have done the people of America a grave disservice by pretending otherwise, that the views of Ahmedinejad on the Holocaust, on the Jews and on Israel were the position of the entire Iranian government or people. Even within Iran, Mir-Hossein Mousavi condemned Ahmedinejad’s statements about the Holocaust. The Iranian government had not denied the Holocaust before Ahmedinejad, and the surprise that it is not doing so after Ahmedinejad is either ignorant or in bad faith.

Remember that the Iranian Jews have reserved permanent representation in the Majlis – alongside the Christian Armenians and Assyrians who have lived there for millennia. By and large, Iran is a country whose Jews do not want to leave, in spite of the repeat attempts on the part of the Israeli government to resettle them. Iran still preserves the burial sites of Esther, her kinsman Mordechai, the prophet Daniel and Ezra the Scribe – holy to both Jews and Christians (or rather, the Christians of the region who know and care about them). Neither Iran’s Jews nor Iran’s Christians want any war to ‘liberate’ them, since any such war would have disastrous consequences for them in particular, of the very same sort as we have witnessed arising from Western meddling in the homes of other ancient Christian communities, Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the oldest Christian nation on the face of the Earth, Armenia, shares a deep and long cultural affiliation with Iran, and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of that government to pursue peaceful applications of nuclear power.

Iran, being the primary route of the Silk Road, has been for millennia the crossroads of cultures, and the loom upon which the warp of the East has met the woof of the West. From these threads was created a beautiful tapestry which has enriched and inspired civilisations on either side for almost as long as human civilisation has existed.

The Iranian Zoroaster was among the first prophets, along with Abraham and Zhou Dan Gong, to articulate what was then, and apparently is again now, the radical social doctrine that it is not the absolute and untrammeled private right of the wealthy and the powerful to dominate the poor and the weak. He preached, indeed, that the treatment of the poor and weak, whether good or ill, would have eternal consequences, correspondingly good or ill. Zoroastrian magi were the tutors of Pythagoras, and through Pythagoras Socrates, Plato and the entirety of classical virtue-ethics. Zoroastrianism also spread east along the Silk Road and went on to inform parts of Chinese Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. The Zoroastrian ethics of sacral kingship motivated by a preferential option for the poor managed to transfigure the raw libido dominandi of early Islam into a faith with not only a deep respect for scholarship but also a radical social dimension – including the ‘Red Shi’ism’ of Dr Ali Shariati.

What we are seeing now in President Hassan Rouhani and the ‘charm offensive’ is a confluence of these strains, which have been so long obscured from the Western public consciousness – both by the Iranian regime’s own extremism and by the attempts going all the way back to the ‘50’s by American hegemony to exclude and isolate the country from international discourse. Hard though the Grey Lady tries, there is no real distinction to be drawn between the Rouhani who didn’t shake Obama’s hand and who spoke up on behalf of Palestinians and against the American imperium, and the Rouhani who decried Nazi crimes against humanity on American television.

We should welcome Rouhani. And with that welcome we ought to take the opportunity to re-evaluate our stance on Iran more generally. It would be, quite frankly, uncivilised of us to do otherwise.

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