The conflict between the West and Iran has intensified following Hamas’s brutal attacks and atrocities, potentially erupting into what could become an international war. We may witness a dangerous escalation from the protracted political and tactical struggles over the acquisition of nuclear capability, compliance with sanction-lifting agreements, deployment of ballistic missiles, and funding of terrorist organizations.
A look back at ancient history and “mentalités” — abiding cultural thought processes, values, and beliefs — can help us to understand the roots of the contemporary conflict and have a better idea of what the future might hold in store.
Hostility between Iranian and Western civilization dates back at least 2,500 years. The Persians, an Iranian tribe from southwest Iran, established a multi-ethnic empire — the Achaemenid Persian Empire — in the sixth century BCE under King Cyrus the Great. His successors expanded the borders of the empire and soon confronted the Greek city-states. The Athenians and Spartans, though initially suffering harsh defeats, managed to regroup and defeat the Persians in three major battles from 490 to 70 CE. Thus ended the first great conflict between East and West. Had it turned out differently, the Western civilization we know may never have developed.
In the next century, the Westerners were the aggressors. In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia ventured eastward and conquered the Persians and other Iranian tribes, bringing an end to the Persian Empire. However, the Easterners soon fought back. In 247 BCE another Iranian people, the Parthians, who originated in northeast Iran, rebelled against Alexander’s successors and established a multi-ethnic empire of their own. The Parthians and the Romans, the next great Western power, fought several major wars over the next 150 years.
In 224 CE the Persian Ardashir I overthrew the Parthians and established a new Persian empire, known as the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanian Persians repeatedly battled the Romans and their successors, the Byzantines, fighting at least 12 wars throughout the next four centuries. Major battles occurred in 238-43, 252-59, 296-97, 338, 348, 359-363, 421-422, 525-540, 549, 574-582, 586, and 590. In 620 to 622 the Persians exploded westward, conquering Palestine, the entire Near East, Egypt and much of Africa. The Byzantines beat them back in a campaign from 622 to 628. These centuries of fighting exhausted both empires, which were overrun by Arab armies in the seventh century. The Arab conquests brought an end both to the Persian Empire and to Byzantine-Christian rule over Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and most of the Middle East.
The dominant religion of the Persians was Zoroastrianism, which believed in a strict dualism between good and evil. The Zoroastrian worldview analogously distinguished eran, all things Iranian (also cognate with the term “Aryan,” of later infamy), the domain of the good god, from an-eran, “non-Iranian,” the territory and society beyond the Iranian empire, where the evil god rules. The two gods fought a cosmic battle between good and evil, paralleled by a terrestrial struggle between the Iranians and their enemies. The social and political suppositions of this worldview were also dualistic and hierarchical: the Iranian peoples, believers in the “good religion,” stood atop the hierarchy as a sign of their superiority with all other peoples subservient to them.
A graphic illustration of this worldview appears on a series of rock reliefs commissioned by the Persian Emperor Shapur I (242-73 CE) to commemorate his victories over the Romans. Shapur sits triumphant on a horse above the three Roman emperors he vanquished. Gordian III (225-244) lies dead before Shapur; Valerian (253-260), whom Shapur captured in battle, kneels before him; and Phillip the Arab (244-249) stands and holds the Persian emperor’s hand as a sign of submission. The carving manifests the right order of the cosmos, with the Iranian ruler supreme and the “un-Iranian” Western forces humiliated in defeat.
After the Arabs completed the conquest of the Persian Empire, they gradually Islamicized the population over the next few centuries. The extent to which Islam in Iran was influenced by the prevailing Zoroastrian beliefs has been much debated by scholars. However, it would appear that the dualistic and hierarchical Zoroastrian-Iranian worldview found a congenial home in Islam, which featured a dualism of its own: the “House of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) and the “House of War” (Dar al-harb). Islam dominates the “House of Islam,” whereas in the “House of War” Islam is yet to prevail, though eventually it must. Despite the Islamicization of Iran, Iranian culture and ways of thinking, including the fundamental underlying dualism of eran and an-eran, remained potent. The Shahnameh (The “Persian Book of Kings”), for example, the Iranian national epic poem retelling the mythic history of the Iranian empires, was composed around 1000 CE, more than three centuries after the Arab conquest. The Persians lost their political independence but staunchly preserved their cultural memory and their national identity as heirs to a world power with a glorious past of sovereignty, supremacy, conquest, and empire.
Dualistic and hierarchical thinking is not unique to Zoroastrianism, Islam, or Iran. Both Judaism (Jew/gentile) and Christianity (saved/unsaved) feature types of dualistic thinking, and many religions claim to be exclusive sources of truth. However, the dualistic Iranian worldview, entrenched through long centuries of Persian political glory and reinforced by modes of Islamic political and religious thought, has produced a world view and self-understanding that finds it particularly difficult to accept a status inferior to other nations.
It would be reckless to draw a straight line from ancient and medieval history to the contemporary conflict between the West and Iran. Other factors, such as the Enlightenment and secularization, colonialism, imperialism, internal divisions within Islam itself (especially the Sunni-Shiite split), and the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict all contribute to the complexity of the dynamic. Nevertheless, these deeply ingrained cultural values and ways of thinking from ancient times can inform our present-day situation.
That America and Western powers — Christian powers — are superior militarily to Iran is intolerable to the Iranian worldview. The drive to acquire nuclear technology is clearly motivated by the need to achieve military parity with the West. Yet the strategic or military goal is less the true driving force than is a deep-seated ambition to be equal or superior to the non-Iranian and non-Islamic peoples, those who by all rights ought to be subject to Iran.
Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its involvement in the current war are part of this long struggle. That Israel, a Jewish nation, is stronger than Muslims and Iranians, and right in the backyard of Iran, controlling the Holy City of Jerusalem and the mosques of the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), is absolutely unacceptable to the Iranian worldview.
The prospects for a lasting peace, both between Iran and the West and between Iran and Israel, therefore are remote. Can deep-seated, ancient worldviews and mentalités change? Certainly. But not quickly or easily, and not as long as a fundamentalist Islamic regime that looks back to the glorious Iranian empires of the past holds power. Ultimately Iran seeks not just parity with the West, but supremacy; not just security, but world-domination: the crafting of a Persian empire that will accomplish what Cyrus the Great, Shapur, and the other Persian emperors failed to achieve: the conquest of the West.