A Walk through Iranian-European History
by ANN DE CRAEMER in Brussles
06 May 2010 21:54
[ opinion ] In 1971, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi celebrated 2,500 years of Persian monarchy with an opulent party for hundreds of international luminaries featuring plates of roast peacock stuffed with foie gras, 5,000 bottles of champagne, and imperial Caspian caviar. Near the ruins of ancient Persepolis, 600 guests attended the most lavish official banquet in modern history, as recognized by Guinness World Records. Among them were the heads of state and nobility of countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Italy -- to name just a few.
Eight years later, the Islamic Revolution led to a chill in what had been the friendly relationship between Europe and Iran. Diplomacy and trade continued, in contrast to the total rupture between the United States and the Islamic Republic after the seizure of the U.S. embassy. But relations between Europe and Iran have never returned to "normal." Especially since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, Europe often seems at a loss as to how to handle the fanatic regime in Tehran. The European Union acknowledges the problem on its website: "There is great potential for deeper relations between Iran and the EU. Whilst practical cooperation between the EU and Iran already exists, the scope is currently well below potential."
On March 22, the European Union issued a statement calling for Iran to stop censoring the Internet and jamming European satellite broadcasts. It has not said whether it will take punitive action if Tehran refuses. Faced with the political turmoil in Iran after last June's rigged election, the European Union seems to be very careful in acting tough with Tehran -- an attitude prompted at least in part by the fear that a belligerent tone would serve to confirm the regime's rhetoric that "foreign enemies" want to overthrow the Islamic Republic and harm the legacy of Imam Khomeini.
I cannot judge whether the policy of the European Union toward Iran is the "right" one. In any event, those of us who are European citizens need to focus first on how we can try to make things better ourselves. We may not be able to directly shape the policies of Europe's leaders, but we can take a stance toward the problems in Iran.
It is very clear that the political rift between Iran and Europe caused by the Islamic Revolution has significantly affected the European mindset. After thirty years of cool relations, Europeans seem to have forgotten about Iran. Before 1979, the extent of friendly contact almost made it seem as if it the country, despite its location, was part of the West. Today, Iran might as well be another world for most Europeans: it is seen as a gloomy place full of bearded ayatollahs and women in black chador. After last year's election, media coverage of Iranian youth fighting for their rights in blue jeans and green shirts broadened perceptions a bit, but all in all, Europeans generally feel that Iran is a country that has nothing to do with Europe and have forgotten how much it did in the past.
Much has been written about recent European -- for which, read British -- interference in Iran, but there is a rich legacy that is now widely overlooked. Twenty-five centuries ago, the conflicts between the Hellenic city-states and the Achaemenid Empire, known as the Greco-Persian Wars, led to a massive cross-cultural exchange. Greek influence on the East has been thoroughly researched, but it is about time to analyze the other direction of cultural influence -- a subject that British historian Tom Holland has dealt with in his masterpiece Persian Fire (2005). When we identify Greece as the cradle of Western civilization, we should also mention that many of its great achievements -- from economy and culture to politics -- are indebted to Persia. One remarkable example: When the famous Odeon of Pericles was excavated, it turned out to have almost the exact same dimensions as the Hall of the Hundred Columns at Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
Leap forward to the 17th century. The Dutch East India Company has a trading post in the port of Bandar Abbas, and the extensive commerce between Iran and the Netherlands leads to a vibrant cultural exchange: Persian people and costumes become a motif in the Dutch paintings of the Golden Age. European art was also very much in demand at the courts of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). On January 3, 1608, a delegation of Discalced Carmelite monks, arriving in Esfahan from Rome via Kraków, presented to Shah Abbas I one of the most precious treasures of medieval European Christianity -- an illuminated manuscript with hundreds of miniatures of scenes from the Pentateuch and the books of Judges and Kings. Shah Abbas, entranced by the tome, ordered that it be provided with captions in Persian so he could better understand it.
Persian literature left its marks on European literature, as well. Johann Wolfgang Goethe's passion for Hafez inspired him to write his famous West-Eastern Divan (1814-1819), very influential on 19th-century religious and literary syntheses between "Occident" and "Orient." Among the many other examples of European admiration for Persian poetry, there is, of course, the famous translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyatby Edward Fitzgerald (1859), the single most popular work of Victorian poetry. In the realm of philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra(1883-1885) invokes the ancient Persian prophet as the wellspring of his revolutionary vision of morality.
In the century just ended, the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 led to a constitution and a system of constitutional monarchy closely modeled on Belgium's. Recent European literature has also played a part in Iranian culture: Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1951), who lived for many years in Paris, brought the innovations of modernism to Persian letters.
It is crucial to tell these stories about our shared past, because words are what we have as European citizens to help those in Iran in their struggle for freedom. In the West, many have lost their belief in the power of "mere" words, but in Iran, no one has. The constant efforts of the regime to shut down newspapers and websites and to censor all media are clear proof of words' power. The current crisis adds a new element to our shared past: Iranians now struggle for just those things that French citizens fought for during their revolution -- liberté, égalité, fraternité. We need to speak out instead of keeping silent, and emphasize not what separates us, but rather all that binds us together.
These famous words of the Persian poet Saadi adorn the entrance to the Hall of Nations of the United Nations building in New York:
Of One Essence is the Human Race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base.
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace.
The Unconcern'd with Others' Plight,
Are but Brutes with Human Face
All Europeans should feel concerned with the plight of Iran and its people, and feel the urge to speak up against its brutal, inhuman regime.
Ann De Craemer is the English editor at Tehran Review, where this article first appeared.