Cyrus to Ahmadinejad
Iran: A biblical perspective
October 17, 2006
Confused about Iran? So is everyone else! Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, the new leader, has threatened to wipe Israel off
the map in one
big nuclear “storm.” Should we take him seriously?
What are the chances that this most existential threat yet to Israel’s
existence could actually come to pass?
While no one can predict
the future, we may be facing the darkest part of the night that
comes just before dawn. We could be surprised
to discover that all is not as it seems within Iran. Like the machinations
leading to the sudden demise of Haman in the Biblical Book of Esther – and
like the Soviet “evil empire” in its day – we
may dare to hope that that the Iranian theocracy will also experience
a swift internal implosion.
Indeed, the similarities between ancient
Persia and its reincarnation as modern Iran have perplexed me throughout
my days as a student,
Foreign Service specialist, and now, professor. The Book of Esther
presents a long series of twists, turns, contradictions, and ironies
centered on personalities and the hidden divine hand. A benevolent
King Cyrus allows the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and
rebuild the Temple, but the wicked King Ahashverosh scuttles his
plan. Haman, an evil minister bent on Jewish destruction, holds
the reigns of power but is replaced by Mordechai the Jew, who saves
In recent history, the benevolent Shah is replaced
by the anti-Zionist Khomeini. And Iran’s new ruler, a blustering
Ahashverosh-like sovereign who (like Ahashverosh) is not of royal
power and causes the lot of the Jews in his country to deteriorate.
next? A look at Iranian beginnings might give us a hint.
Modern Iranian history begins in the early 1900s, when intermittent
rebellion against the centuries-old rule of the weak Quajar monarchy
culminated in the constitutional revolution of 1909. The new constitution
provided for a representative parliament, the Maljis, to govern
the multiethnic populace, alongside the Shiite clergy and the monarchy.
However, as a country lacking strong central authority and consisting
of diverse rural tribes, Persia was at the mercy of interventionist
powers, particularly Russia and Great Britain.
In 1925, Reza Shah
Pahlavi (“the Great”), an officer
of the country’s only military force, seized power and replaced
the Quajar dynasty with his own. Reza Shah aimed to unite the country
under a strong central government based in Tehran. To strengthen
his power and protect against foreign meddling, he began a modernization
program. The impediment to his plan was the country’s dependence
on foreign technology. Resistant clerics and ethnic tribal chieftains
caused trouble as well. Reza Shah did manage to unite the country
through a foreign-developed national communication and transportation
system. And although dependent on assistance from foreigners – especially
Britain, whose Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was the nation’s
chief employer – Reza Shah sustained nominal Persian independence
through a divide-and-conquer strategy. Foreign assistance was auctioned
off among Britain, Russia, and Germany to preclude any single power
from achieving dominance.
Persia Becomes Iran
On the eve of the Second World War, Reza Shah unfortunately favored
Nazi Germany in order to counterbalance Russia, its neighbor, and
Britain, its economic overseer. As German advisors flooded the
country, he changed the country’s name from Persia to Iran, “Land
of the Aryans,” in an attempt to be attractive to the Nazis.
World War II, Britain and the Soviets had enough of Reza Shah’s
cozying up to Hitler. Iran served as the sole land bridge connecting
these wartime allies, and, fearing German subversion,
the Allies occupied the country, arrested Reza Shah, and shipped
him off to British-ruled South Africa. The Allied takeover turned
Iran into a shipping lane for aiding the Soviet Union fight against
the Nazi invasion of its territory.
At the war’s end, the
Allies failed to fully restore Iranian independence. Britain continued
to run the economy under the AIOC,
and the Soviet Union continued its occupation, establishing breakaway
puppet communist republics in Iranian Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.
The Cold War brought Iran back on the agenda. Soviet-backed communism
threatened Greece, Turkey, and Iran, prompting the U.S. to initiate
the Truman Doctrine. Massive U.S. aid was poured into Europe to
protect friendly governments from Russian hegemony. When the Soviet
Union used a 1921 treaty provision to pressure Iran into accepting
continued occupation, Iran took its case to the United Nations
(UN). With strong Western backing, Iran succeeded in forcing a
powerful Stalin to end the Soviet occupation and allow the return
of the breakaway provinces to Iran.
The Soviets continued their
influence, however, through the Iranian Communist Tudeh party,
which openly operated amidst a power struggle
between Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza, who took over in
1941, and the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Mossadegh, a popular nationalist, moved to end foreign domination
by nationalizing the oil industry. This provoked Britain into shutting
down the country economically through a trade embargo and boycott.
Simultaneously, Mossadegh picked away at the monarchy, forcing
the Shah to flee abroad. The power struggle ended with a CIA coup,
which restored the Shah and placed Iran back into the Western orbit.
Although beholden to the West, the Shah was no puppet. Like his
father, he continued to modernize his still backward rural nation.
With the support of the United States, he instituted a program
of land reform, literacy, and women’s rights, calling it
the White Revolution. The Jews of Iran benefited greatly in the
new atmosphere of progress.
Though the Shah was best known as a
champion of social reform and economic development and for his
desire to transform Iran into
a mighty regional power, his personal life also fascinated the
world. He divorced his beautiful second wife, Queen Soraya, when
nine years of marriage failed to produce a male heir. (He had a
daughter from his first wife, the sister of Egyptian King Farouk.)
The Shah then married the young Farah Diba, daughter of an Iranian
military captain, who gave birth to four children, including his
firstborn, Reza Cyrus. The child’s name was a symbol of Mohammad
Reza’s desire to position his dynasty as the continuation
of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire, founded by the great emperor
After 14 years of escalating progress in developing
the country, the Shah felt the time had come to crown himself emperor.
was held in Tehran in 1967. In an elaborate, bejeweled ceremony,
the Shah sat on the Peacock Throne and, reminiscent of Napoleon,
placed the royal crown on his own head. He then crowned his wife,
the first time the Shah’s wife had equal station with her
husband. He also changed the constitution to provide that she would
be regent of the country in the event of his death until their
son was of age.
A Spectacular Celebration
Four years after the coronation, in 1971, the Shah staged an unprecedented
party (rivaling that of Ahashverosh in the Book of Esther) to commemorate
the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire. (In one of the
interesting trivia of history, it was Jerusalem’s mayor and
chairman of the Israeli Government Tourist Corporation, Teddy Kollek,
who formulated the idea, after Iranian Prime Minister Assadollah
Alam asked the Israeli government to devise a plan for promoting
Iran’s tourist industry.)
Ten years in the planning, the celebration
took place at the ruins of Persepolis, the seat of the kings of
ancient Persia, in the
desert near the present-day city Shiraz. It was an amazing display
of extravagance, elegance, and splendor. The Shah and his wife
welcomed virtually every monarch and head of state, and succeeded
in convincing the world of the resurgence of Iran among the major
countries of the world. (For Israel, the celebration provided a
sense of regional belonging, as a paper was read describing Jewish-Persian
historical ties.) The event included the display of Cyrus’ golden
crown, on loan from the British Museum, and a highly symbolic ceremony
at the nearby grave of Cyrus himself.
The Shah and Israel
As a U.S. ally during the Cold War, the Shah naturally turned to
Israel for internal and external support. Like Iran, Israel was
a re-emerging ancient power defending herself against radical Soviet-backed
Arabs. These radical Arabs also threatened Iran, challenging its
maritime supremacy over the Persian Gulf and its sovereignty over
its Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province.
The Arabs scoffed at the
biblical-type, Jewish-Persian entente and denounced the Shah
for accommodating Zionism and Western imperialism.
Hesitant to provoke the wrath of his Moslem brethren, the Shah
did not give official diplomatic recognition to Israel. He commented,
in 1961, “Iran’s relationship with Israel is like the
true love that exists between two people outside of wedlock.” He
continued to strengthen Iranian ties with Israel, supplying Israel
with 60 percent of its energy needs in exchange for Israeli industrial
goods. Despite no official diplomatic relations, an Israeli trade
mission and regular El Al flights were tolerated.
Like Cyrus in
his day, the Shah backed the Jews’ return to
their homeland, allowing Iran to serve as a transit station on
the way to Israel for Iraqi and Afghan Jewish refugees fleeing
persecution. Israeli advisors participated in the White Revolution’s
centerpiece, the transformation of rural Iran to an industrial
power. The Shah also used Israeli agricultural know-how in his
land reform program based on the kibbutz model.
land redistribution to the peasants alienated feudal landlords
and the clergy by confiscating their property.
The clergy also resented the Shah’s “anti-Islamic” replacement
of the Islamic calendar with an “imperial” Persian
calendar from ancient days. These measures, along with the Shah’s
increasingly arbitrary rule, caused fierce opposition. Religious
leaders were afraid of losing their traditional authority, while
students and intellectuals wanted more democratic government. Unfortunately,
the Shah did not take public opinion into account, and did not
allow meaningful political liberties. He suppressed his opponents
with the security and intelligence organization, SAVAK, created
with the help of both Israeli (the Mossad) and American intelligence
services (the CIA).
The U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early
1970s, along with its dependence on oil, gave the Shah an opportunity
to pursue his
goal: the resurrection of ancient Persia. The U.S. saw the Shah
as its regional policeman to offset growing Soviet influence, especially
in the Persian Gulf, the shipping lane for Western oil supplies.
The West feared Soviet-backed Arab sabotage of this strategic waterway,
which Iran, as a Moslem power, could defend.
The Shah sought to
fulfill his policing role through acquiring advanced weaponry,
and turned to Israel to supply and train his
military. American diplomat to Iran, Robert Bayne, wrote about
the Israeli-Iranian military relationship he witnessed: “Every
general officer in the Shah’s army has visited Israel, and
hundreds of junior officers have undergone Israeli training.”
1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War brought a changed relationship
between Israel and Iran. The Arab oil embargo and OPEC monopolization
of energy markets demonstrated just how powerful the oil producing
nations could be with an energy-dependent industrial West. (Those
who were around in those days remember the hours-long lines at
Baltimore gas pumps.) The Shah joined the Arab-dominated oil cartel
in raising prices, becoming more accommodating toward the Arabs
at Israel’s expense. While maintaining ties to Israel he
denounced its control of Moslem holy places, and gave the Arabs
support during the war. Simultaneously, the Shah repaired relations
with radical Arabs, including Iraq. He joined Saddam Hussein in
a border agreement, and they conspired to expel the reactionary
Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini from Iraq, who had instigated
religious Shiite insurrection against both their regimes.
Khomeini’s expulsion to France turned out to be a fatal blunder.
Being in the West enabled him greater freedom to rally dissident
Shiites against both the Shah and Saddam Hussein. By 1979, Khomeini
was challenging the biblical scenario created by the claimed successors
of Cyrus, Nebuchadnezzar, and King David (the Shah, Saddam Hussein,
and Menachem Begin) through revolution, war, and Shiite insurrection
in Iraq and Lebanon.
In Iran, the Revolution erupted from street
protests by the devout, unemployed migrants who had flooded the
cities from the countryside.
The Shah’s modernization program had dislocated and economically
disenfranchised these traditional Iranians. They were led by Islamic
clerics opposed to the economic and social changes modernization
entailed, which benefited some classes at the expense of others,
and increased the gap between the ruling elite and the disaffected
populace. There was widespread discontent with the continuing repressiveness
of the regime as well. The Shah fled the country amid growing chaos,
while the returning Ayatollah Khomeini forged a revolutionary unity
under an “Islamic republic” hostile to foreigners.
victimized by centuries of foreign exploitation, in 1979, the Iranians
lashed out against the West in the U.S. embassy takeover
and hostage crisis. (Current President Ahmadinejad was one of the
ringleaders.) Israel was expelled from Iran, and native Jews as
well as followers of the popular, Haifa-based Ba’hai faith
After purging the upper echelons of the Shah’s
regime, the Revolution soon turned against its own revolutionary
in a manner reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789. The revolution’s
president (Bani Sadr) fled the country, a foreign minister (Sadeq
Ghobzedeh) was publicly executed for espionage, and a prime minister
(Medi Bazargan) resigned in the wake of house arrest. Iran descended
into a revolutionary chaos that was ripe for foreign attack.
the Revolution’s ousting of the Shah’s Israeli-
and American-trained and equipped military whet the appetite of
Saddam Hussein, next door. He also wanted to prevent a fundamentalist
Shiite revolution in his own country, as Khomeini had declared
war not only on the Shah but on Arab Sunni rulers like himself.
Saddam believed that the American hostage crisis and the purge
of the Shah’s military would give him a quick victory. And
Iraq actually penetrated deep inside Iran, with Hussein boasting
he would be in Tehran in four days.
The Iran-Contra Affair
This did not come to pass. The Iraqi invasion was repulsed as Iran
recalled the Shah’s former military, which embarrassingly
turned to Israel for help. Amidst an American hostage crisis and
an embargo, the grounded Iranian Air Force asked Israel to refurbish
it with American equipment. Risking U.S. disapproval, Israel complied – in
exchange for the relaxation of Jewish emigration.
from the deal in that it alleviated an economic recession through
military purchases of Israeli weaponry from overseas
arms dealers. Despite Khomeini’s anti-Zionist rhetoric, players
in the former Iranian-Israeli entente acted in their previous roles
to jump-start the relationship they had previously built.
Nimrodi, the head of the Israeli Mission to Pahlavi Iran, brokered
most of the overseas weapons sales to the Islamic Republic,
while SAVAK’s General Hussein Fardust and Muncher Ghorbanifar
transitioned their intelligence careers from the Shah to Khomeini,
under the new intelligence service, Savamma. General Ariel Sharon,
after successfully bombing Iraq’s Tammuz 17 nuclear reactor
in 1981 with the assistance received from Iranian Air Force aerial
photographs, planned his Lebanese campaign in collusion with his
Iranian military counterparts. A 1982 Iranian counteroffensive
against Iraq succeeded simultaneously with the Israeli offensive
against PLO-infested Lebanon.
While cooperating with Israel, however,
Khomeini confused many by his duplicity in sending a Revolutionary
Guard Force, a counterweight
to the Shah’s army, to Lebanon to fight Israel and form Hezbollah.
Soon, Lebanese Shiites deserted the popular Israeli-backed, anti-PLO
South Lebanon Army (SLA) for the Iranian-backed terrorists.
to moderate the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary
dogma against the West and Israel failed miserably with the publicity
surrounding the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration
violated a Congressional arms ban in exchange for the release of
American hostages held in Lebanon. The Affair peaked in May 1986,
when a joint American-Israeli delegation landed in Tehran for a
meeting with Iranian parliamentary Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani,
amidst a power struggle between radical and moderate clerics. The
struggle forced Rafsanjani to reject any accommodation with Zionism
or the West as the Iraq War and Shiite terrorism escalated, isolating
Iran not only from Israel and the West but also from the Arabs.
Iran-Iraq war eventually ended in stalemate. A disgruntled and
mostly Shiite Iraqi army returned home, threatening Saddam
Hussein’s Sunni rule, and Iran also intensified fundamentalism
at home through political and military purges, Jewish persecution,
and mass emigration, and at the same time inciting its new Hamas
and Hezbollah terrorist proxies against Israel.
The Shiite Hezbollah’s eviction of Israel from Lebanon in
2000, along with the Sunni Hamas-led intifada (1987 - present),
has forged an uneasy marriage between Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism.
The 1991 Gulf War encroachments into Saudi Arabia, Islam’s
birthplace, further unleashed Sunni fundamentalism against the
West, in an attempt to replicate Iranian-theocracy globally. Indeed,
both Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists successfully evicted Soviet
infidels from Afghanistan while fighting Israel.
Iranians were disillusioned by a revolution that ousted modernity
and economic prosperity along with perceived
foreign dominance. They elected Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, a reform-minded
cleric to the presidency. Khatami, a former mosque imam in Germany,
represented both the Revolution and globalization. He promised “a
dialogue of civilizations,” the relaxing of religious excesses
imposed on a resistant Iranian society, and protection of the Jewish
community. Under his presidency, a thawing in relations with Israel
seemed possible. But radical clerics soon turned Khatami’s
reform efforts into an exercise in futility, in which he complained
that he had less freedom than the ordinary citizen. Radicals unleashed
a terror campaign against the Jewish community, ending a blind-eye
policy toward travel and familial ties to Israel. The Islamic Republic
arrested 13 Jews and publicly prosecuted them for espionage and
Hopes for improved ties failed, as an announced official
visit to Iran by Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef
was rejected by the Islamic Republic. Khatami’s gestures
of goodwill were also sabotaged by both internal and external extremists.
angered Arab delegates at a Swiss international conference in 2004
by selecting an Israeli Ma’ariv reporter to question him
about recognizing the Jewish State. Sitting beside Israeli President
Moshe Katsav at the Pope’s funeral last year, the two devout
leaders shook hands and conversed about their mutual birthplace,
Yazd. After receiving scorn from his cleric colleagues at home,
Khatami denied the encounter, telling his country’s official
news agency, “These allegations are false. I have not had
any meeting with a personality from the Zionist regime.”
The “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency,
with his call for Israel’s destruction and his quest for
nuclearization, has only provoked more confrontation. At home,
many Iranians view Ahmadinejad’s presidency as a repeat of
his mayoral appointment to Tehran by the shadowy clerical Guardian
Council, Iran’s true ruler. That appointment and interference
in democratic politics led to Ahmadinejad’s replacing a popularly-elected
liberal mayor who was subsequently prosecuted and jailed.
Council and Ahmadinejad continue to defy public consensus. Besides
offending the international community, they provoke rebellion
among their restive subjects. Upon inauguration, Ahmadinejad arrogantly
visited Baluchistan, a restive Sunni province, where he barely
escaped assassination by sniper attack. The Majlis (parliament)
continually rejects his inexperienced presidential appointments,
while the Iranian foreign ministry is kept busy extinguishing his
public relations fires, including his warmongering nuclear rhetoric
against Israel and the West.
While Iran cheers fundamentalist electoral
successes in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yesha, a volcano of simmering internal
to erupt. As in the wake of communism’s fall, nostalgia for
the imperial era intrigues much of the populace born after the
Revolution. Their forebears tell them about a time of prosperity
and a Persian legacy beyond the clerics’ close-minded obsession
with Islam, a religion imposed on Persia through a hated Arab conquest.
Many Iranians view their country’s Islamic warmongering under
an ethnic Arab defense minister as alien to Persian culture.
internal dissent, however, cleric-led Iran continues to arouse
revolutionary fundamentalist Moslem fervor across the region,
causing neighboring rulers to feel threatened by their own fundamentalists
and/or Shiites turning against them. As Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak lamented, Iran has provoked instability throughout the
Middle East Shiite underclass, especially in Iraq: “Most
of the Shiites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they
are living in.” he told the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya television.
for Iran’s effect beyond the region, the fulfillment of
its nuclear ambitions is in sight, if not already achieved, and
so, the West and Israel are preparing their defenses.
Iran, which appears unified from without, may, under mounting
world pressure against it, surprise everyone with a Book of
twist of events. The Islamic Republic could implode unexpectedly.
Nahavandi, a cabinet minister under the Shah, smells revolution
in the air, noting that the so-called Islamic Republic exhibits
neither traditional Islam nor republican democracy. In a recent
Front Page interview,
he cited the radical interior ministry’s own statistics showing
rising youth suicide (the highest rate in the world) alongside
preference for traditional Persian separation of religion and state.
Such findings indicate disillusion with theocracy, a form of government
alien to a Persian culture founded upon Cyrus’ tolerant legacy.
Sentiment to restore this historic Persian legacy, free of Arab
religious chauvinism, grips Iranians in this age of globalization.
Nahavandi expresses this sentiment:
“Iran and Israel have
no real disagreement. The Jews have been in Iran for 2,700 years.
Don’t forget, Cyrus was the liberator of the Jews and is
referred to in the Old Testament as G-d’s anointed one. Israel-Iran
economic, military, and security cooperation was of a high level,
and I myself, as University of Tehran rector, launched a cooperation
agreement with the Weizmann Institute. The anti-Zionist vociferations
of the Islamic regime are disgraceful, and go against our cultural
and historical traditions.”
And so, although the Iran grabs
headlines, Jews as in the days of the Book of Esther await a
Purim-like salvation to usher in
final ingathering of the exiles and Redemption. Comment
The author worked in the Foreign Service for
the U.S. Department of State at the American Embassy Tel Aviv
during the Iran-Iraq