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17 سپتامبر 2010

This cylinder defines what Iran was and what it will be

By: Alan Philps

There are few more important documents in the history of the ancient Near East than the Cyrus Cylinder, a proclamation inscribed in clay dating from King Cyrus’s conquest of Babylonia in 539BC. The document stresses the Persian king’s respect for the traditions of the Babylonian people and his determination to improve their lives, noting that he has freed captive peoples and allowed them home.

Among other things, the cylinder provides historical evidence of the Biblical story of Cyrus ending the Babylonian exile of the Jews. With some exaggeration, the cylinder has been called the world’s first human rights charter.

Despite its great age, the clay cylinder – held at the British Museum in London after being dug up in the ruins of Babylon in 1879 – is never far from modern-day politics. In 1971, the late shah of Iran, then at the apogee of his pomp, appropriated it as a symbol of enlightened monarchy for his commemoration of 2,500 years of the Persian empire. The shah invited all the world’s leaders to Persepolis, but this wasteful extravaganza only served to turn popular feeling against him. He was deposed by the Islamic Revolution seven years later.

The cylinder is now back in Iran, on loan from London for four months. This has presented the Iranian clerical regime with a dilemma. Celebrations of Iran’s pre-Islamic past have been out of fashion for 30 years as too reminiscent of the shah.

But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has seized the opportunity to bask in the cylinder’s glow and turn it into a symbol of the Islamic Republic’s power and prestige. For years Mr Ahmadinejad has been seen as a religious zealot, impatiently awaiting the return of the messiah of Shiite Islam. Now he is emerging as an Iranian nationalist.

in a ceremony on Sunday to unveil the cylinder at the Iranian National Museum, Mr Ahmadinejad sought to link modern Iran with the old Persian empire. He decorated a man dressed as one of King Cyrus’s soldiers with a keffiyeh, which is part of the uniform of the pro-government militia, the Basij. Having described Cyrus as “King of the World”, he praised the cylinder as embodying respect for the basic rights of mankind, freedom of thought and choice, and the revolutionary ideal of fighting oppression. Folk dancers representing the various ethnic groups of Iran performed to the sound of traditional instruments.

Stepping up the rhetoric, the hard-line newspaper Keyhan said that the cylinder “belonged to Iran” and suggested it should not be returned to the “thieves” of the British Museum.
There are several problems with this Iranian nationalist discourse. First, the cylinder was discovered in Babylon, 85 kilometres south of Baghdad, so if it were to be returned, it would be to Iraq, not Iran. Second, scholars are somewhat sceptical as to the thesis of Cyrus the Great as the pioneer of human rights. The proclamation appears to be part of a tradition going back thousands of years in Mesopotamia – modern Iraq – whereby new kings would make such declarations on ascending to the throne. “The Cylinder may indeed be a document of human rights and it is clearly linked with the history of Iran, but it is in no real sense an Iranian document: it is part of a much larger history of the ancient Near East, of Mesopotamian kingship, and of the Jewish diaspora,” Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has argued. In short, the cylinder’s origins lie as much in Mesopotamian tradition as in Persian.

Academic disputes aside, what matters is the context in which Mr Ahmadinejad was speaking. It is not uncommon for a politician in a tight spot to wrap himself in the nation’s flag, and the Iranian president is certainly beset by problems. The latest round of sanctions imposed to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear power are biting, forcing the government to consider scrapping petrol subsidies. The crushing of the opposition Green movement after last year’s rigged elections has dented the prestige of the leadership and split the clerical regime. Mr Ahmadinejad is accused by rivals of trying to grab too much power in his own hands, rather than being the servant of the clergy.

A focus for discontent is Mr Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, who is something of a mentor for him. He is associated with a current entitled “Islam minus the clergy” – meaning that while Iran is a Muslim nation, the state should be guided by its national interests, not the ayatollahs. This is close to heresy in modern Iran. The leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared: “Islam minus the clergy equals medicine without physicians.”

Mr Ahmadinejad can never regain the trust of the Green movement supporters. But he is clearly trying to broaden his appeal to a non-political stratum which is fed up with the corruption and incompetence of the clerical regime and wants a more prosperous Iran, more open to the modern world. Since two-thirds of the population were born after the fall of the shah, the heroic role of the clergy in toppling the old regime cuts no ice with them. Talk of Cyrus the Great as king of the world might mean more.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has in the past rebuked Mr Ahmadinejad for stepping out of line, and called on the factions to keep their disputes private, with little success.

This is a time of chaos and confusion in Iran. It is foolish to predict that the invocation of the Cyrus Cylinder by Mr Ahmadinejad will lead inexorably to the collapse of the regime, as it did with the shah. History does not repeat itself so neatly.

But it is clear that a phase of the Islamic regime has run its course, and something new has to be found to inspire loyalty now that rival factions in the elite are at each other’s throats. Mr Ahmadinejad, with his provocative pronouncements and failed populist economic policies, is clearly part of the problem rather than the solution. But it is hard to see where Iran can now go apart from towards a greater emphasis on nationalism.

Last Updated: September 16. 2010 6:39PM UAE / September 16. 2010 2:39PM GMT


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