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'Hail Cyrus!'

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

24 Sep 2010 20:19Comments
9_8906211503_L600.jpgAn extravagant cry echoes with irony.

[ dispatch ] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York this week to give yet another speech to the United Nations General Assembly and more interviews. For all his seeming confidence, however, he is evidently concerned by his shrinking popularity on the Iranian Main Street and the growing animosity of his former conservative allies. He misses no opportunity to expand his base of support and to gather some political muscle. The question is if his actions will backfire. When he praised a pre-Islamic king of ancient Persia, a conservative member of the Majles (parliament) was quick to point out: "Islam comes first." Mr. Ahmadinejad's tactics might cost him conservatives' support and his standing with the military.

There is currently a small, fragmented cylinder, on loan from the British Museum, on exhibit in Tehran. It has cuneiform symbols written all over it in the ancient Babylonian style. There are probably dozens of other cylinders like this, written in the Babylonian tradition, around the world. But this one is different. It was written by a Persian king -- Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire -- on the day he conquered Babylon to show his respect for the gods of his new subjects. Those who claim him as the founder of their nation call it Cyrus the Great's declaration of human rights. For them, it is the testament of a noble king in whom the powers of a prophet joined those of a prince.

Few figures approach Cyrus's eminence in the Iranian worldview. He is much more than just a "founding father" -- he is the founding king. He does not merely symbolize the qualities of a great leader, he defines them: nobleness, strength, pride, and justice. While other rulers claim divine protection, Cyrus's name appears in the holy texts such as the Book of Ezra and, according to some readings, in the Qu'ran. No wonder that 25 centuries later, this king, believed to be divinely appointed, still has a role to play in Iran's domestic politics, even if it is a role that he would have despised.

It took Iran the better part of a decade to persuade the British Museum's administration to let the Cyrus Cylinder travel to Tehran. Although the idea was that of former President Mohammad Khatami's government and proponents of his "Dialogue of Civilizations" policy, Ahmadinejad saw in the ancient artifact a golden opportunity to press his own agenda. In the unveiling ceremony, he spoke of Cyrus as the "king of the ancient world." He praised the cylinder as the "testament of all believers" and the standard by which "all rulers and kings in the history of humankind" must be measured. Actors performed events from the lives of Cyrus and Arash, another heroic figure of Iranian tradition. The stage was rather small and crowded further by a kneeling young Basiji, bearing a flag. When Ahmadinejad came onto the stage to wrap a chafiyeh around the actor playing Cyrus, there was no space left at all.

While the whole performance seemed hastily planned, Ahmadinejad's gesture was not without significance. The chafiyeh was the scarf worn by Iranian soldiers during the eight-year war with Iraq. Since then, it has become one of the Islamic Republic's primary symbols. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wears one to all official functions, speeches, trips, and meetings.

100912220821_cyrus_226x170_nocredit.jpgEven by Iranian standards, Ahmadinejad's laudatory remarks and theatrical participation were considered blatantly out of place. Opposition figures attacked him for his opportunism and many secular Iranians found Ahmadinejad's sudden appreciation of ancient Persia -- as Babak, a medical student, puts it mildly -- "nauseating." Many of them have neither forgotten nor forgiven the political establishment's open attacks on Iran's ancient cultural heritage.

On the other end of the spectrum, conservative leaders harshly criticized the president for departing from revolutionary values and traditions, which regard Cyrus and other kings as tyrants and unbelievers. Cyrus the Great might be popular with the Iranian people, but he is no favorite of the country's current political establishment. Many conservatives linked Ahmadinejad's homage to Cyrus with remarks previously made by his trusted advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who publicly declared, "We should believe in the idea of Iran, in the ideology of Iran." Cries of "sacrilege" had been heard from every corner of the conservative camp.

While some opposition figures dismiss Ahamdienjad's and Mashaei's comments as entirely hollow gestures, they might be motivated by more than a desire to grab the center of attention. Ramin, a political science major at one of Tehran's universities, observes, "It seems Ahmadinejad needs popular support after all." That is certainly true. Last year's turmoil shook the establishment to its very roots, deeply damaging its authority and credibility. The president is sufficiently shrewd to realize this and has enough of a survival instinct to do something about it. As described by Sima, a 40-year-old Tehran housewife, "He looks like a husband who has cheated on his wife, and is now trying to make up for his treachery by giving her things she wanted for a long time but was always humiliated for desiring." The irony does not end there -- our cheating husband has more than just one mistress and one wife to satisfy.

For the past five years, Ahmadinejad has relied heavily on conservatives and the military. The conservatives do not look kindly on his disastrous populist economic policies, and have only grown more alarmed by his recent departure from the official line regarding ancient Persia. Some hardline politicians, such as influential Majles deputy Ali Motahari, do not even bother to hide their animosity anymore. Many others already think of Ahmadinejad as nothing more than a streetwise opportunist. They view his recent actions as the first steps in a plan to break away from the current establishment, however implausible such a plan would seem. One thing is certain -- the political credibility crisis is far from over for Ahmadinejad. Many Iranians are reminding each other of a certain pre-revolutionary ruler who similarly tried to use the memory of Cyrus the Great to his advantage: Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

The sun was blazing, flags danced in the winds, row upon row of Immortal Guards in glittering parade dress stood at attention, and foreign dignitaries enjoyed a meticulously plotted, exquisitely appointed show. The Shah, wearing his royal blue uniform, approached the grave of Cyrus and declared, "Cyrus! Rest in peace, for we are awake!" As it turned out, the Shah was hardly awake to the depth of public dissatisfaction with his dictatorial rule.

For all his shrewdness, the same can be said about Ahmadinejad. To make the cry "Hail Cyrus!" may temporarily sate a burning hunger for the grandiose, but it is an ill-starred omen.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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