The Civilizational Approach: Notes on Iran and Iraq
American foreign policy has seemed to reach a dead end. It no longer serves either the needs of the United States or those of the world. A fundamental problem is that our leaders are no longer clear about the nature, abilities, strengths and weaknesses of the United States and American culture. One reason for reaching this dead end is the unwillingness or inability of persons at the top levels of the Department of State or other foreign ministries to understand the ways in which the countries with which we deal view or would prefer to view the world.
Analysts and politicians in these ministries have recently become fixated on Iran and the challenge that it represents. However, the tendency has been to interpret the “Iranian threat” narrowly as a part of the posited war of the West and Islam. For some Arab commentators, it is seen primarily as a rise in the power and influence of Shi’ism, the so-called Shiite crescent.
It would help if both groups of analysts remembered that for millennia Iranians were dominant in a broad region spreading from Anatolia to Uzbekistan, to India, then back along the Persian Gulf to Iraq and Syria. To historically conscious Iranians, Iraq, for example, as been more often an integral part of their country than a foreign state, while much of Afghanistan and what we call Central Asia has long been a center of Iranian culture, centering on the present-day Uzbek cities of Samarqand and Bokhara. Remember that Iran’s Achaemenid Empire was the successor state to the former Empires of Assyria and Babylonia. The identification of Iran with Mesopotamia was further sealed by the Parthian and Sassanian Empires that strove to emulate the Achaemenid. They placed their capital at Ctesiphon, twenty miles from present-day Baghdad. Some believe this to have been the largest city in the world from 570 to 637 A.D. (Readers who see this recitation as “merely” ancient history should reminded of the territorial memories of modern Jews in Palestine or the Serbian special relationship with 14th century Kosovo.)
After the Arab conquest, dominant cultural influences in Mesopotamia were Persian as much as Arabic during the Abbasid period, 750-1258. An Iranian confederacy ruled directly in Baghdad from 934-1055. After the Mongol cataclysm, the Safavids of Iranian background conquered Iran, as well as large portions of Iraq, imposing Shi’a doctrine on the entire area. Safavid and successors ruled from 1500 to nearly 1800. During this period they often controlled Baghdad. Iran continued to rule or have political influence in parts of modern day Iraq up until the 1920s: it was even suggested to the British that they appoint a Persian prince as monarch in Iraq in the 1920s. For another interpretation of this relationship see Farmanfarmaian.
This summer, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq announced that Iran is committed to working with Iraqi national and provincials governments on a restoration of the great palace at Ctesiphon. (In dealing with Tehran we are not dealing with the Taliban.)
It is to be hoped that American policy makers and future negotiators remember that a lasting solution in Iraq must take into account Iranian interests, interests that go beyond their mutual Shi’ism and the concerns of the day.