Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad recently unveiled the Cyrus cylinder in a ceremony in Tehran. The cylinder, on loan from the British Museum, is seen by some as the world’s first charter of human rights. Leaving aside the bitter irony of the Iranian leader posturing next to a human rights document – which one opposition website described as ‘a stranger in its own home’ – the implications of Ahmedinejad honouring Iran’s pre-Islamic past in this way are interesting.
The Persian past, including hero-kings such as Cyrus, was used by the Shah to justify his rule, portraying his Peacock Throne as a natural continuation of Iran’s tradition of kingship. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 overwhelmingly rejected such symbolism, basing their rule and Iranian identity on Islam and decrying the Persian past as pagan. Yet Ahmedinejad seems to be reclaiming the symbolism and traditions of the pre-Islamic kings for his own. ‘One of our kings replaced that dictatorship with a just regime,’ said Ahmedinejad at the ceremony. ‘His name was Cyrus…I want to make a historical parallel here. Cyrus conquered Babylon and freed people from the brutal regime of Babylon. However, while going there to free the people, he did not hurt a soul. He does it in a way that the dictatorship in Babylon falls apart. And then he issues the Declaration of Human Rights.’ The focus on Cyrus has not gone down well with the Iranian religious establishment: ‘The president should be aware that he is obligated to promote Islam and not ancient Iran, and if he fails to fulfil his obligation, he will lose the support and trust of the Muslim nation of Iran,’ said one Iranian MP.
Some see Ahmedinejad’s new tack as the influence of his brother-in-law and close advisor, Esfandiar Mashaei. Mashaei is a controversial figure within Iran, where he is hated by the clerical authorities – Ahmedinejad originally tried to make him vice president, but was forced to demote him to chief of staff after an outcry by the clerics. He has challenged Iran’s foreign policy line, saying that the country is friends with the US and Israel and ‘has no international enemies’. In August he provoked more controversy by urging a group of expat Iranians to promote a national ideology, rather than an Islamic one. As part of Ahmedinejad’s own diplomatic team, who operate independently of the Supreme Leader-controlled Foreign Ministry, Mashaei works as Middle East envoy, meeting foreign leaders under the president’s personal instruction. Mashaei’s presence at the heart of government is worrying for the Iranian clerics, who see him as a subversive who is undermining Iran’s Islamic character and may even be secretly working with the Green movement. Ahmedinejad, in the face of their opposition, has repeatedly supported Mashaei and stood behind his statements.
There is a possibility that Ahmedinejad is grooming Mashaei for the presidency; Ahmedinejad is constitutionally forbidden from running again when his term is up, and some observers guess that he plans to install Mashaei for one term and then take back power for himself when Mashaei’s time is up. Yet the risks Ahmedinejad is taking, and the struggle between him and the clerics, also suggest that the Iranian picture is more complex that merely conservatives vs. reformers. His defiance of the clerics has gone beyond the Mashaei issue; the recent release of Sarah Shourd, the American hiker imprisoned in Iran, was apparently against the wishes of the religious establishment, who are also opposed to the Iranian leader’s trip to the UN General Assembly in New York. Ayatollah Khamanei’s continued support for Ahmedinejad make his position, for the time being, unassailable. Yet Mashaei himself has said that it will not be long before ‘certain people are calling Ahmadinejad an apostate.’
Juan Cole sees Ahmedinejad’s Persian posing as evidence of ‘the ingredients…for a new Iranian nationalism’. He points to Iran’s relative economic comfort – oil prices are stable, the country is not having to import any petrol, and exports to China and Japan are increasing. From a foreign policy perspective, Iran is close with its regional allies, and the US seems to have no recourse but arming Saudi Arabia and hoping for the best. According to Cole, Ahmedinejad is, for good or for bad, the ‘confident representative of a fiercely independent Iran’.