Darius and his dignitaries, miniature from the The History of Alexander the Great by Pseudo-Callisthenes, 13th-14th century [Getty]
“Iran is piling one brick on the other,” warns one pundit with solemnity. “Today’s Iranians, with their Persian heritage, are on the march as surely as were the armies of Xerxes 2,500 years ago.”
Usually such right-wing wizardry is the premise upon which is launched the criticism of US President Barack Obama’s evident determination to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
“Desperate for a legacy,” this particular warmonger surmises, “our president obsesses about a deal [no matter how wretched] on Iran’s nuclear programme, while ignoring Iran’s aggression across the Middle East”.
If the domain of such nonsense about the rising “Persian Empire” – a blatant act of fear mongering to call for yet another disastrous war in the region to facilitate the further Israeli theft of Palestine – were limited to these neocon artists, there would be very little to be said.
Alas, and quite regrettably, we have begun to see echoes of them among some of the leading Arab thinkers, intellectuals and opinion-makers. Where did that come from?
The origin of this particular brand of fanciful ghostbusting may seem to have been a casual remark by a verbose Iranian official who is reported to have said, “Baghdad is now the capital of the Iranian empire.”
But did he – really? A quick check of the actual phrase by this official, Ali Younessi, President Hassan Rouhani’s adviser on Ethnic and Religious Minorities affairs, does anything but corroborate that charge.
“Cultural, economic and political cooperation between countries in the region,” he had said, and then parenthetically added, “[which in the past composed the Persian empire] could be instead of past ancient empires.”
An entirely pretentious and convoluted sentence you might say, but a claim to the rising Persian Empire – by no means. Later on, Younessi went out of his way emphatically to deny he had ever said anything to claim the return of the Persian Empire – but to no avail.
If someone were to bother to read Younessi’s original Persian phrasing, the confusion about the rising currency of “the Persian Empire” will become even more confounded, because in the midst of all his bombastic verbiage he keeps repeating: “What I say does not mean we want to conquer the world but we must reach historical self-consciousness and understand our place in the world, and while thinking globally act in an Iranian and national manner.”
Again: pompously verbose, you might say and think the proverbial clerical penchant for vacuous hyperbole may have overcome the man at this conference on “Iranian identity”, where he delivered this speech – but calling for a Persian empire now? Not really.
But the news of an Iranian official calling for a Persian empire with Baghdad as its capital soon spread like a bushfire among the nervous and confused pan-Arab nationalists. They were rightly upset about Iranian meddling in many Arab countries, but so upset that they did not bother to check the original, which after all is in a language very much akin to their own?
So where did such panicked rubbernecking around and about the phrase “Persian Empire” originate?
Reviving the Persian Empire?
The date of this speech by Ali Younessi is March 7, 2015. But the neocon US and Israeli Zionist charge of this Persian empire business predates it by many months and years until it finally found its way to the august pages of the New York Times by three apparatchiks employed at the notorious Zionist joint Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (WINEP).
In other words, the boorish and blase charge of the ruling regime in Iran trying to revive “the Persian Empire” did not have to wait for Younessi’s idiotic remarks at a gaudy conference on “Iranian identity”, for the hasty and nervous Arab opinion-makers seem to have taken it directly from Israeli and American Zionists, with whom they now seem to share not just the English language but a frightful Iranophobia.
There is no longer any Persian, Arab, Ottoman, Indian, Chinese, British, Spanish, or Mongol empire, and may the angels of mercy and justice be praised for that. The only empire that exists, and it does not feel particularly well or imperial these days, is the American empire. It is a kind of postmodern empire, as it were, ruling, or wishing to rule, via drones, proxies, mercenary armies, and lucrative arms sales to rich, corrupt, and bewildered potentates.
Iran has not become a Persian empire. As a fragile and internally unstable Islamic republic, Iran has systematically and consistently spread its sphere of influence in a region where national boundaries mean very little.
Saudi Arabia is right now in Yemen, and a couple of years ago it was in Bahrain. While bombing Libya, Egypt wants to lead a pan-Arab army around the region, as the European settler colony of Israel continues to sit on, and steal more of, Palestinian and Syrian territories and eyeing even more.
Syria and Iraq are under attack by a murderous gang of former Iraqi Baathists and other runaway hoodlums they have hired from around the world and call themselves ISIL, “a digital caliphate”, as Abdel-Bari Atwan rightly calls it in a new book.
Pakistan acts freely in Afghanistan, as Turkey does in Iraq and Syria. Kurds have run away from Iraq to form an autonomous region and protect themselves from yet another Baathist slaughter. Iran is integral to this widening gyre of geostrategic free fall – not above it. To disregard the real imperial power operating in the region, and turn a blind eye to the aggressive counter-revolutionary mobilisation and speak of “Persian Empire” at a time when all post-colonial boundaries have collapsed, is a silly red herring.
Speaking of “Persian Empire” and thus exaggerating the influence of a deeply flawed, menacing, and malfunctioning Islamist theocracy, plays the horn from its open side, as the Persian proverb aptly puts it. It blinds us to the factual evidence of a chorus of counter-revolutionary forces that place the ruling regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia on the same (and not on the opposite) sides.
There is no “Persian Empire” in sight: only the hard geostrategic facts of US imperialism reshuffling its cards to play a more winning hand. The test of our moral and intellectual mettle is to keep our eyes on the ball and not be distracted by any curved ball that seeks only to reassert the old Roman imperial dictum: Divide et Impera: Divide and Conquer!
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual PhD in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber’s theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.
His books include Authority in Islam ; Theology of Discontent ; Truth and Narrative ; Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future ; Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran ; Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema ; Iran: A People Interrupted ; and an edited volume, Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. His most recent work includes Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (2011), The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012), Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body (2012), The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2012) and Being A Muslim in the World (2013).