Understanding Iran is stimulating and frustrating at the same time. It is a tiring work of interpretation far beyond the usual historical and sociological models of the West. The Iranians do not think like us, neither like their Arab cousins. Their cognitive framework of reference shapes at the same time their sense of justice and their sense of history. For an Iranian, the philosophy of his own history is much more important than most of the Shia precepts that marks their daily life.That is a first sign of deep rift between Iran and the West: Europeans and Americans have become people without history and, worst of all, people that have lost the sense of their own history.
The latter is an essential point to understand the paradigm of reference for the Iranian foreign policy. The Ayatollah’s regime must be studied as a nutshell covered by different layers that can be opaque for the foreigner, but indeed quite clear to the old man as to the young student of Teheran. Paul Kiwaczeck, in his book In Search of Zarathustra, says that, from different points of view, in Iran Islam is nothing but a veil, an accumulation that was layered and build over something more olden. For thousands of years before the Muhammad’s Revelation, Persian religion was the Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic belief that left indelible marks in the folds of collective consciousness.
As Kiwaczeck writes: “Islam in the Iranian world it is like the simple chador of a woman, worn over refined clothes, a veil that covers, hide or embody most of the preIslamic traditional Zoroastrianism”. Indeed, this ancient cultural tradition was not relegated under the jahiliyya – the state of ignorance before the Revelation of the Prophet – as happened in the Sunni sphere, yet it survived as the plaster under the paint. If you show interest, an average Iranian can tell you how most of the nomadic tribes of the Iron Age used to speak a proto-Iranian dialect; how many cities and commercial center of Central-Asia used the Indo-Iranian languages and the incredible legends behind the Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians. He will explain with pride that many nomadic Persians were recruited in the II century A.D. to defend Roman Britannia thanks to their military skills and that they reached modern Spain, France and North Africa. He will underline that in the Caucasus the Ossetians speak an Iranian language, as in Pamir and Chinese Turkmenistan where the population speak the saka dialect (Khotanese).
Nevertheless, how these historical reminiscences can help to understand contemporary Iran? Simply by keeping in mind the idea that history is the filter with which Iran converse with himself and the rest of the world: history is the corner stone on which lays their imperial dream over the Persian Gulf and the Shia population in the Middle East. Iran looks at the world not with the eyes of Islam – the shallow veil – but with the feelings of Zoroastrianism: the duality of good and evil that appears in the circular motion of history as the Alexander’s colonization – the barbarian that destroyed the sacred book of Avesta and married a Persian girl – as the British coup against Mohammed Mossadeq, or as the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The weight of these events, perceived as a usurpation, pushed Iran to hide himself under the chador, behind the doors of the Revolution, or any other “wall” that can protect themselves from the foreign interferences – real or presumed. That is the same Shia society that practices the taqiyya, the dissimulation to protect the faith. Dissimulation is the key word to approach the Persians. And it doesn’t matter if we are dealing with an engineering student, an imam or an Iranian diplomat sent to discuss the nuclear issue. That is the same.
According to Robert Baer, the distinction between Iranian and Muslim is deeper than anyone can think. A citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran is Iranian and Muslim, and he will never stop to point it up. Indeed, that is a very particular demeanor inside Islam where many Muslims – including westerner – consider their religious identity as preeminent over the national one, if not their only identity. Pointing up their Persian ethnicity – so the set of the cultural traditions that came before Islam – is common not only to the average people in the street but also to the leadership. The continuous call to the destruction of Israel made by the former President Ahmadinejad is a clear example of the Zoroastrian rhetoric: Shia Islam is the pure good free of contamination, while Israel as a Zionist State is the evil. It is nothing but the fusion between an apocalyptic vision of Islam and the old Zoroastrian belief in the struggle among light and shadow. In his The Mantle of the Prophet, Mottahedeh says that it is possible that Satan’s figure, barely present in the Old Testament, became important inside Hebraism only after the Babylonian captivity of the VI century B.C. When the Jews fell under the influence of the Persian traditions, they incorporated the dualism between good and evil, making the first ontologically superior to the second.
With such a complex vision of the world – integrating Zoroastrian traditions and Shia precepts and dissimulation – it is easily understandable why for the West is so difficult to catch up with Iran. Nevertheless, the Iranians have enough realist mindset to know that history can be a source of inspiration yet not a totally reliable compass. Keeping this in mind, and putting Iran in his context, is it possible to read their foreign policy with less ideological lenses, lowering the risk of thinking to the conflict with Teheran as a necessity and not a choice.