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world wide wednesdays :: iran so far away

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if i ever meet president barack obama, i'm going to have to thank him for twice timing important foreign policy announcements just in time for me to capitalize with a world wide wednesdays post. first it was cuba. now it's iran. i haven't read through the details of the new agreement on nuclear development [although unlike a lot of american politicians and israeli prime minister benjamin netanyahu, i admit that i haven't read it], but i'm already prepared to make one statement: it is the first meaningful step forward in american-iranian relations since the revolution of 1979. for more than thirty-five years, iran has been a pariah in the west, although it's unlikely that many would be able to tell you why that's the case. but chances are that iran, characterised not so long ago by president george w. bush [really by his speechwriter david frum] as part of the "axis of evil" alongside iraq and north korea, is going to play an increasingly important role in both american and world affairs. so today, it's time to play the "getting to know you" game with our new friends iran.

first of all, persia is iran

a lot of people are aware of this one, but they don't necessarily think about the implications. the persians of ancient history who fought with the greeks? iranian. the people who came up with a lot of the mathematics that haunted your high school nightmares? iranian. [i'm betting there are a lot of iranian teenagers who are just as pissed off at those guys as you were, which just goes to show that we have more in common than we might imagine.] persian rugs? iranian. persian coffee? iranian. persian cats? iranian.

classical persian art
persia is the greek name for iran, which got adopted in europe and then in european colonies. the name was officially changed in 1935, when the shah pointed out that he didn't go insisting england be called by its farsi name and so maybe the rest of the world could call iran "iran", which was the name they called themselves. the name "iran", by the way, is derived from the old persian word aryānā which means "home of the aryans".

while the rest of the world acknowledged that it was kind of douche-y to call iran persia when it wasn't their "real" name and agreed to make the change going forward, a lot of people persisted with calling them persia when their backs were turned and everything that they'd done up to that point in history was still referred to as "persian". so when you hear people referring to things as "persian", you realise that they really mean iranian. [side note :: just to confuse you, the language that iranians speak is persian, or rather it's a dialect of persian called farsi. the language is never called "iranian", although persian is part of the indo-iranian language group. got that?]

of course, a lot of you knew that already...

it's kind of hard to underestimate the iran's influence on the world

ancient persia gave us things like algebra, astronomy, and anesthesia, which are still pretty practical to this day. they also have one of the oldest examples of monotheism in the world, although their specific type of monotheism [zoroastrianism] is no longer very influnential. but iran's importance in the world isn't just an artifact of ancient times.

during what europeans termed the "dark ages"- as compared to the glorious times of the roman empire- iran was a crucial part of the "islamic golden age". as arab muslims conquered great swathes of the world, rather than destroying what they found, they made a point of collecting and consolidating the reserves of knowledge they encountered. so in addition to seeing their own culture revived, the persians gained access to the philosophy, literature, science, mathematics and more of the ancient greeks, phoenecians, romans and more. in fact, if it were up to europeans, a lot of that knowledge would have been lost, had it not been transcribed into persian and arabic.

in the 17th and 18th centuries, iran's empire was on par with that of england, france and spain. indeed, it may have been more powerful and certainly no country in the region could come close to competing with it. the iranian shahs conquered much of the near and middle east, including states like azerbaijan, which are now considered parts of europe. in 1738, the shah of persia even sacked the indian capital of delhi and brought back so much booty that he suspended taxation in the empire. that's right. possibly for the only time in history, a world leader looked at his accumulated [and stolen] wealth and said "i really don't need any more".

poor leadership, a couple of wars with russia, a famine and a civil war eroded iran's status by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but if you're looking for a point of comparison, iran is closer to spain or france than it is to the third world.

this is a country of survivors

starting in 1219, iran was invaded by the armies of genghis khan. it was a disaster and the country lost between ten and fifteen million people- possibly three-quarters of its population. fast-forward six hundred and fifty years and in 1870-1, 1.5 million people died as a result of the great persian famine [almost 25% of the population at the time]. and between 1917 and 1919, another famine killed between millions more.

that last famine is important for understanding the modern history of iran and its relations with the west. while the 1870 famine was the result of a drought, the 1917 one need never have reached the proportions it did, except for the actions of the armies who were fighting over iran's petroleum resources and access to both the caspian sea and the persian gulf. iran was formally neutral during the first world war, but many did take sides, either with the british and russian forces who controlled different regions of the country or with the ottoman/ german axis who encouraged them to rise up against their colonialist overlords. [side note :: although britain and russia had partitioned the country between them and administered it as a protectorate, iran was never properly colonised, one of the few areas of the world that's able to say that.]

during the war, the armies of britain, russia [until they left in 1917] and the ottoman empire were concerned chiefly with making sure their soldiers had enough to eat and therefore hoarded the food that was available. in addition, they were concerned that those resources should not fall into the hands of their enemies, which meant that when the armies moved, they often destroyed what they couldn't carry. it's also been alleged that the british wanted to crush iranian support for the ottomans and for full independence by restricting trade. the lack of imports during the time deprived the iranian government of tax money it needed in order to purchase goods from india and the united states- goods that could have mitigated the effect of the famine. at least one author has alleged that this amounts to a genocide on the part of the british, however the famine is rarely mentioned outside of iran.

interior of an iranian mosque
the great satan? not so much

although ayatollah ruhollah khomeini may have applied that epithet to the united states in 1979, the current view of americans is nowhere near as harsh. a 2009 poll showed that a significant majority of iranians favoured restoring diplomatic ties and conducting open negotiations with the united states. moreover, 51% of iranians had a positive view of the united states [although not of its politicians, a distinction that iranians seem to find easy to make]. that's a higher approval rating than anywhere else in the middle east except israel. even the united states' longtime ally in the region, turkey, has a less favourable opinion of americans.

consider that america was deeply implicated in the coup that brought down iran's first democratically elected leader and replaced him with the autocratic shah. iranians are well aware of this and like the united states in spite of it, not because they are ignorant of it. [side note :: although a lot of americans are unaware of their involvement in removing democracy from iran and backing another brutal dictator, most american politicians on a national scale are quite conscious of it, even if they don't bother to talk about it. one politician who has spoken about it is presidential candidate hillary clinton. in a 2011 interview done for bbc persia, she said that she believed the deposing of mohammed mossadegh was a mistake. normally, that sort of thing would be derided by clinton's staunch detractors as weak and unpatriotic, but it's possible that, even if they saw the segment, they didn't know what the hell she was referring to.]

women and theocracy

in a theocracy based on a religion that's associated with horrific trespasses on women's rights, you'd assume that women have it pretty bad in iran. indeed, women are obliged to wear the hijab from the age of nine. they need their husband's permission to have a job. certain professions are off-limits to them and unemployment among women is significantly higher than among men.  they lag far behind in terms of participation in all areas of employment, including government, where there are only nine female members [out of 290].

however...

tehran
women have had the vote in iran since 1963. female literacy has skyrocketed since the 1979 revolution and rates among women by the age of 24 are near first-world levels. women represent over 50% of university students [keeping in mind that there are certain subjects that are forbidden to them]. interestingly, women form a considerable majority of science students at iranian universities. although it's not common for women to serve as police officers, there are women on the force who deal specifically with crimes against women and children. oral contraception [the pill!] is fully subsidized by the public health care program. women can drive, unlike in saudi arabia, and can socialise with male friends. controversial president mahmoud ahmedinejad was known for his conservative stance on many issues, however he appointed iran's first female cabinet ministers.

there have been stories that recent years have seen steps backwards for women, however, with the numbers in education being what they are, it seems inevitable that women will play a larger and larger role in iranian public life.

[side note :: women's rights isn't the only area where iran is more progressive than one might think. while homosexuality is illegal and severely repressed, iran recognises transgendered persons and sexual reassignment surgery is at least partially covered by public health care.]

anti-semitism is really not a thing there

in fact, iran has a pretty long-standing jewish community. the persian king cyrus the great liberated the jews from babylonian captivity and the links between the two have persisted ever since. although the population dropped after the islamic revolution, there are still about 25,000 jews in iran. they are recognised as an important religious minority in iran- along with christians and zoroastrians- and are thus guaranteed a seat in the national parliament. iranian jews serve in the army and have died for their country- over a hundred of them during the eight year war with iraq [when saddam hussein was a good guy in western eyes].
iranian negotiating team

in the build-up to world war ii, adolf hitler tried to court the iranians, hoping to capitalize on their abiding anger with the british. he made some progress, as well, attempting to sell the idea of the underlying interests of aryan peoples. however his anti-semitic policies proved repulsive to iran's muslim leadership and no entente ever resulted. the british and russians thanked the shah for rebuffing their enemy by invading his country and deposing him in favour of his son in 1941.

the iranian government has been tied to anti-israeli groups hamas and hezbollah [a group they founded and funded in response to the israeli invasion of lebanon], as well as to the assad government in syria. they are strong supporters of the palestinian cause and this is where confusion seems to abound as to their views on jewish people. president mahmoud ahmedinejad made that confusion worse by targeting israel and making outrageous comments denying the holocaust [something done largely to distract from the fact that he had proved to be a poor economic manager and had made the plight of many iranians worse during his tenure]. however, ayatollah khomeni was clear that there was a distinction between the jews of iran and the nation of israel.

"We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless, bloodsucking Zionists."

ok, that really doesn't work for making us all feel warm and fuzzy, but i guess it counts for something...

[side note :: iran has executed 13 jews since 1979, mostly on charges of colluding with israel, so it's not exactly all sunshine and roses for the persian jewish community. on the flip side of that, ahmedinejad's comments about the holocaust earned him a public dressing-down from the leader of the iranian jewish community and there were no repercussions.]

with the denunciations of the as-yet-unread agreement already starting, chances are we are going to be hearing a lot more about iran in the near future. presidential candidate lindsey graham has already characterised iranians as "liars", to give you an idea of the level of debate we can expect. but we can do better. iran is a fascinating and exciting place, a mix of ancient and modern the likes of which you can find in only a few places on earth. let's adopt the approach of the iranians who view the former "great satan" so positively: extreme skepticism of politicians coupled with optimism and curiosity about the people and the country. 

p.s. :: don't forget that other sort of iranian beauty...


i poached that from alireza's instagram. there's pictures of him in a bathing suit on there, by the way.

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