by John Limbert
What is it about Harvard that impels its people to produce pseudo-scholarly non-facts about Iran? Four years ago a presidential candidate and graduate of the Harvard Business School claimed that Iran needed its alliance with Syria to achieve “access to the sea.” Perhaps they don’t use maps at the Business School. A couple years ago, a former professor and secretary of state who received his Ph.D. from Harvard warned darkly about a newly reconstructed “Persian Empire” that was about to dominate the Middle East.
Such ahistorical nonsense and geographical mishmash never seems to die. In a recent Time article called “The Iran Paradox,” the current dean of Harvard’s (and Tuft’s) Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy continued this unfortunate precedent. About Iran he wrote that “the inheritors of that [i.e. Cyrus the Great’s] imperial tradition are today’s Shi’ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East…will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.”
Of course there once were mighty Persian empires. The Book of Daniel tells of the great “empire of the Medes and Persians whose laws alter not.” In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus created a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire whose organizing principle was acceptance and support of local customs and beliefs. About 539-538 BCE, the ruler spelled out that policy in the famous “Cyrus cylinder” of Babylonia, which many Iranians today proudly claim was the world’s first universal declaration of human rights. One can argue about Cyrus’ motives, but no one can argue with the success of his program.
But all that happened over 2,500 years ago. What is the relation of Cyrus’ vast empire to the current Islamic Republic and its clumsy foreign policy? None. In the past there were great Persian empires, whose armies burned Athens and humbled mighty Rome. But the last of those empires disappeared over 1,400 years ago with the victory of the invading Arab Muslim armies over the Zoroastrian Sassanians. Since then, Iran has either been a province of larger empires or a country confined roughly to its present-day borders. Its history for the last 200 years has been anything but imperial. More often it has been invaded, divided, threatened, manipulated, and exploited by outside powers.
Iran today remains home to many monuments and memories of imperial glory, each a veritable Ozymandias. Iran retains only what British historian Michael Axworthy properly calls “the empire of the mind.” From time to time Iranian politicians will recall Iran’s past glories and issue bombast about reconquering territory lost centuries earlier. Such statements, however, ignore reality and are nothing but whistling past the graveyard in an attempt to conceal the Islamic Republic’s current weaknesses.
What our Fletcher colleague calls “Shi’ite Iranians” are in no way the inheritors of Cyrus’ imperial tradition. Instead, the Islamic Republic today operates from a position of weakness caused by both cultural isolation and its own diplomatic ineptitude. It has managed to alienate almost all of its neighbors with the exception of chaotic Syria and tiny, landlocked Armenia. When the Islamic Republic’s rulers allowed a mob to trash Saudi diplomatic premises in January 2016, and then made only a grudging apology, they only further isolated themselves from much of the Arab world. Iran’s foreign influence today is feeble, and consists mostly of backing factions in the most dysfunctional places, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Contrast such ineptitude with the skills of Cyrus and his successors. Such a performance by his compatriots would make Cyrus the Great, if he were alive, turn over in his grave, as Yogi Berra would say.
The persistence of such shallow pseudo-scholarship, especially among those associated with one of the world’s greatest universities, is inexplicable—unless perhaps the moon is always full over Cambridge and Somerville. Those presenting such an account of current events are certainly not learned in their subject. Instead, in order to argue for a questionable policy (for example, “a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge”) they repeat the empty phrases (“inheritors of an imperial tradition”) they have heard and that at first blush seemed profound. On closer examination, however, such ideas are only hollow catchphrases with no bases in scholarly history or geography. They also insult the memory of Cyrus the Great.
John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.
Photo: The tomb of Cyrus the Great.