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History on His Shoulders

4 minute read
Robin Wright

I often tell Americans that there are two ways to understand Iran. The first is to think of the most chauvinistic Texans they know and then add 5,000 years of history. The Persians are surely among the world’s most prideful people. The other way is to consider the Cyrus Cylinder, a chunk of baked clay shaped like a rugby ball that is inscribed with one of the world’s earliest declarations of human rights.

The cylinder, currently on a nine-month tour of museums in five U.S. cities, tells the story of the Persian Emperor who freed the Jews and other enslaved minorities after conquering neighboring Babylon almost 2,600 years ago. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return home, purportedly giving them back their sacred vessels and providing funds to rebuild their places of worship. The cylinder records — in tiny Babylonian cuneiform and in the King’s voice — the creation of the first empire to espouse religious, racial and linguistic tolerance — revolutionary ideas in the ancient world.

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I saw the cylinder on its first stop in Washington. (It’s at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until Aug. 4.) I’ve covered Iran since 1973 and interviewed royals during the monarchy and four Presidents of the theocracy, including the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, when he was President. But nothing made me understand how Iran sees itself — or why it’s so tough at the negotiating table — more clearly than the Cyrus Cylinder. Whatever their politics, Iranians assume that after contributing so much to the world over so many centuries they have the right to a prominent place in the world today too.

They’re not totally misguided, as the cylinder illustrates. The acts and ideas of Cyrus — which are recorded in the Old Testament, heralded by Aeschylus and mischievously interpreted by the likes of Machiavelli — also influenced American history. As Thomas Jefferson helped craft the U.S. Constitution, he was inspired by the Cyropaedia, a somewhat loose biography of Cyrus by Socrates’ student, Xenophon. After Harry Truman was introduced in 1953 as a man who had helped create Israel, he retorted, “Help create Israel? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus!”

Modern Persia, renamed Iran by its last royal dynasty, has hardly been a model of tolerance. The world’s only government-of-god now carries out proportionately more executions than any other country. It allocates seats in parliament for Jews and Christians, but dissidents and followers of the Baha’i faith face draconian persecution. Instead of exporting great ideas, the Islamic Republic now exports extremism, most notably to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

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But understanding the Cyrus Cylinder helps explain what could happen under Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric nicknamed the “diplomat sheik” who won Iran’s presidential election on June 14. His decisive victory elicited a flicker of optimism in Western capitals, and it has reduced the gloomy sense of collapse-around-the-corner in negotiations over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

During the campaign, Rouhani pledged to change the course charted by the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “I’ll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace,” he said. After winning, he vowed to “increase transparency” in talks with the world’s six major powers about Iran’s nuclear program. “We will increase trust between Iran and the world.”

Rouhani, who was national security adviser for 16 years and negotiated the only (temporary) deal on Iran’s nuclear program with the West in 2003, will not himself be on Iran’s next negotiating team. But his moderating influence will nevertheless have an impact in public and perhaps on Iran’s hard-line Supreme Leader.

But it’s important to understand that Iranians of all political stripes want to restore their nation’s greatness — and believe nuclear energy is key to 21st century development. “All should know,” Rouhani warned, “that the next government will not budge from defending our inalienable rights.” So renewed talks, which Western officials now expect to begin in August, could be excruciatingly tough. Despite the change in leadership, the Iranians will still be negotiating from the position that they are the heirs of Cyrus the Great.

Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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