Skip to comments.Iranís 2,500-Year War with the West - The lessons of our long history of engagement with Persia
Posted on 04/01/2011 1:28:15 PM PDT by neverdem
Iran's 2,500-Year War with the West
The lessons of our long history of engagement with Persia
Iran is at war with the West!
Even as Western politicians remain oblivious to the threat, it has not escaped the notice of Arab governments. A few weeks ago, Saudi armored formations entered Bahrain to help that nation’s government defeat a Shia rebellion. While it is tempting to view Bahrain’s revolt as part of the greater upheaval challenging governments throughout the region, that is only part of the story. In reality, Iran is bidding to extend its influence throughout the Persian Gulf oil-producing areas. By infiltrating Shia organizations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and southern Iraq, Iran is working to destabilize neighboring governments. Even as it drives toward possession of nuclear weapons, Iran is conducting a shadow campaign as part of a long-term war to dominate a region vital to the West’s economic survival.
Despite what is happening before its very eyes, the Obama administration and other Western governments remain set on negotiating with Iran. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran’s aims. In the administration’s defense, however, the West has never understood Iran, nor Iran the West. In fact, our mutual 2,500-year track record since Persian civilization first encountered the West is one of nearly unrelenting conflict.
History never presents a clear roadmap of the future, and its lessons are often clouded in mist. Still, policymakers ignore history at great peril. For even the most enlightened persons still view the world though historical and cultural prisms established centuries ago.
Today, the West is pulling out all the stops in hopes of engaging Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and enter into a lasting peace. Unfortunately, two and a half millennia of history demonstrate that the prospects for a resolution short of conflict or Western surrender are bleak.
When Iran, then called Persia, first sent an army to conquer the West 2,500 years ago, it was met by merely 10,000 hoplites, most of them Athenian. Sent by the Persian king, Darius, to extinguish an infant Western Civilization, the Persians outnumbered the Athenians by as much as five or six to one. Miraculously, the Athenians won the day at Marathon, saving not only their own city, but also the ideas of democracy, freedom, and open markets, which have so long underpinned what it means to be part of the West. Unfortunately, this first violent clash of civilizations did not end matters. The Persians returned and were again driven back only a decade later, beginning a pattern of East–West conflict that has raged in many incarnations for well over two thousand years.
One is tempted to dismiss the notion that this first clash of civilizations was a contest between political and economic systems, and not just another attempt at conquest by a dominant power over a perceived weaker one. However, the words of Darius’s predecessor, Cyrus the Great, the creator of the Persian Empire, betray the true underlying motives. Cyrus, after being warned by a Spartan envoy to desist from attacking any Greek cities, inquired of his advisers about the relatively unknown Greeks. When he had learned more about them, Cyrus replied to the Spartan, “I have never yet feared any men who had a place set aside in the center of their city for meeting together, swearing false oaths, and cheating one another.” Here, over 25 centuries ago, is encapsulated the first recorded instance of an Eastern ruler expressing his contempt for the just-emerging democratic and market-oriented values of Western society.
Cyrus’s statement of contempt marked the start of a Persian policy of conquest, intended to exterminate such foreign ideas. It marks the beginning of an East–West cultural divide that still roils global affairs today. We live in a world that has been shaped for centuries by this divide and the conflicts born from it.
In no small measure, Rome proved unable to resist the barbarian invasions from the north because its strength was sapped fighting off invading Iranian (then called Parthian) armies. Later, when Iran became the Sassanid Empire, its constant attacks on Byzantium so weakened that great empire that it was incapable of resisting invading Arab armies fighting under the banner of Islam. Then, as part of (or in alliance with) the Islamic caliphate, Iran provided troops and treasure to aid in an almost constant assault on the West.
Throughout two and half millennia, Iran, in its various guises, has maintained one stable foreign policy: Whenever it possessed the strength to do so, it acted with all the means at its disposal to destroy or damage Western interests. Respites from these attacks came only during those periods when Iran was weak or when the West was strong and confident enough to make prodding it a dangerous undertaking. Those who are surprised that a resurgent Iran again confronts the West are demonstrating a remarkably shallow grasp of history. For one would be hard pressed to find a better example of a fixed continuity of purpose transcending the ages.
Given such a track record, one should wonder if it is even possible to fashion any kind of political, diplomatic, or economic inducement that might prove sufficient to deter Iran from its present course. In the past, only a West that was confident in its own institutions and possessed an overwhelming military superiority, coupled with a determination to use it to uphold its principles and values, has proved capable of keeping Iranian ambitions in check. On the other hand, whenever Iran’s rulers sensed weakness, they have never hesitated to use all available force to the detriment of the West.
It is surely hubris for representatives of Western governments to go forward in their dealings with Iran in the belief that somehow Iran will adopt a more enlightened outlook, leading to a lasting outcome favorable to the West. Hope, of course, springs eternal, and every generation manages to convince itself that this time things will be different. Such an outlook might be forgivable for two millennia or so, but halfway through the third millennium since Marathon, one might reasonably expect that Western governments would start to catch on to history’s longest-lasting truism. Although no trend lasts forever, this is one that diplomats should not rush to bet against.
Iran’s ambitions, and its propensity to use military power to achieve them, will not be thwarted by inducements or a demonstration of the West’s benign intentions. Iran is looking through an ancient historical prism that has shaped its mindset since its troops met the Athenians on the Plain of Marathon — a mindset that views a West that would rather talk than act as weak. For Iran’s rulers, such weakness is and always has been something to take advantage of.
— Jim Lacey is a professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College and the author of The First Clash. The views in this article are the author’s own and do not in any way represent the views or positions of the Department of Defense or any of its members.
Let’s not make too much of this. It was Persians that rescued the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, and I seem to remember that it was the Athenians who started the war with Persia.
And, Rome pushed right up to Parthia’s doorstep, and tried to conquer it. What were the Parthians to do?
More Iranian people have become Christians since 1978 than in quite a few centuries before that point. They got what they wanted — an Islamic state — and discovered that it wasn’t what any sane person could want! At this point, most Iranians love America and hate their own government. All we have to do to reverse that polarity is let the butchers of Wall Street send us into yet another lucrative war against a Muslim nation.
But they still were not able to run their own affairs.
Persia was never democratic. Democratic values come from the West.
Sparta was democratic? Rome made a pretense of it after Julius Caesar for a few years.
2500 years ago? 500 B.C.? what kind of a “West” was there? Egypt? I would not call Egypt any part of the West.
OK, Greece. Forgot about Thermopylae. That was a heck of a war.
Uniting them was indeed a feat because they are historical enemies and have oposing geopolitical interests.
Persian March - Johann Strauss
the first recorded instance of an Eastern ruler expressing his contempt for the just-emerging democratic and market-oriented values of Western society.
Okayyy, Mr Lacey, this is a pretty good essay with some relevant history. In particular the reference to the Greeks as the first truly aware society where the citizen is recognized as a conscious decision-capable individual. This is the origin of "democracy," and that individual human consciousness has been definitively described by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
Incidentally there is a Grecian corollary in the plays of Euripides and Sophocles and history by Thucydides; that is, here for the first recorded time are human beings examining objectively there own conscious free-will selves, and putting it before the society of potentially free-thinking constituents. (This incidentally is exactly counter to the modern stupor of media, and leftist, mesmerism). There is also a modern literary example by Gene Roddenberry in the struggle between the bicameral authoritarian system of the Borg versus the independent consciousness of Federation members. As most of us once learned in school this consciousness and independent courage of the individual is the foundation of "Western Civilization."
But the bicameral authoritarian mindset goes somewhat beyond Iran, and I don't quite agree that that society is the one that carries it, at least exclusively, into modern times. In fact the Semites, the Arabs and Jews, (Arabs are every bit as "semitic," a subrace out of Arabia, as Jews), clearly adhere to an authoritarian top-down view of society, for example Moses, when held against the personal consciousness and morality of Buddhism and Christianity. Indeed it is almost like the Buddha forecast Christ; and of course this may well be an expression, as Jaynes maintains, of some deep schism in human psychological development. In any case it is clear that even today there is some profound chasm between those who perceive human society as functioning by the individual moral consciousness of the individuals, ala Christianity, versus those who perceive society as functioning through some dependent top-down mandate, ala the Left.
Is that clear?
As in the Borg versus the Federation it is not clear at all which human mindset will prevail in the long run, there is certainly mechanical intelligence on both sides. But the humanity in which many of us have held dearly stands for the individual, his consciousness, his responsibility, his free-will, his charity, as God's special creation, obliterated by the paganism of authoritarian extortion. Thus the Right versus the Left, the Tea Party versus the Democrats. (The Republicans of course being near worthless).
Johnny Suntrade, the Suntrade Institute
They all vied for leadership. Another sign of democracy.
Good points. Persia has been conquered countless times since Alexander, including by the Arabs, Mongols and Ottoman. Islam destroyed an otherwise dynamic culture.
Most artistic and scientific Muslim accomplishments are Persian. They resisted Muslim influence as much as possible.
Of all of the countries in the ME, I believe Iran is most prepared and able to function as a democracy. The Sunni Arab and Central Asian populations are even more whacky than their rulers.
Our focus on the region should be regime change in Iran.
Or of warlike tendencies.
The Persians are Indo-Europeans, as are the Greeks and the Romans. They all came from the same place, probably the Eurasian steppe.
The Persians were prone to bouts of violent religious fanatacism that preceded Islam. One of those was led by a man named Haman.
The clash of ideology leads to war? Heavens, thank God the US never engages in such folly!
Democracy should equal pacifism? Even the liberals will not tell you that this month.
Pericles? Solon? Anaximander? Herodotus? Sophocles?
Thanks for the link.
The Greeks city states among themselves. In modern history, the last time I know of democracies fighting democracies was the American civil war. Democracies generally don’t fight each other.
You seem to have an incomplete knowledge of: shalom b'SHEM Yah'shua HaMashiach
Judaism, and the follows of the Jewish Messiah.
Therefore the other city-states had to fight them.
There shouldn't be a doubt that the idea of democracy was alive and well in the Greek isles, though not all of them thought alike.
I've heard many here on FR say that they would be eager to take up arms if states like MA, NY, etc. continue on with their dictatorial ways. Here's to hoping it will never come to that but if it did would that be a sign that there was no democracy among us or would that be a sign that some were willing to fight for democratic principles?
How close is this to Orwell's "groupthink"? In NYC, the unthinking regurgitation of DNC talking points is comical as it comes from people who regard themselves as independent thinkers. They're sheep!
“The views in this article are the authors own and do not in any way represent the views or positions of the Department of Defense or any of its members.”
That’s good to hear......cuz it’s crap
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Here we go again - the neverending drum beat for war. Before we invaded Iraq, all you ever heard was what a horrible threat Iraq was to the world. I still remember Condi Rice’s silly statement about not wanting to wait for a mushroom cloud.
Now it’s Iran. Well, guess what. We are broke. We are still stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan propping up the new thugs and losing good people every day. All these morons who think we need a new war should suit up and go. Our military is being stretched to the breaking point, and every time I read about another young person killed or permanently maimed, I am enraged. Just how in the hell is it in the US interest to do anything about Iran now? Oh, yeah, I know, the old mushroom cloud. BS.
Any person w/ basic knowledge of Iranian history would know there are 2 distinct parts to that history: Pre-Islam & Post-Islam. Aside from Very few exceptions, largely, Iran, post-Islam (after Arab-Islam conquest in the 7th century AD & to date) is not comparable to what she was pre-Islam.
It would've been more appropriate for Lacey to choose post-Islam references/context to present his argument; there are a couple of more relevant examples to today's situation w/ Iran. Moreover, the regime ruling Iran since 1979 is in a league of its own. Not to mention that todays geopolitics, particularly in the ME & North African region, are not the same as 2500 yrs ago.
Overall, James Lacey make a couple of valid points. But, there are better ways of arguing against continuous Western support & appeasement of the regime, which has been occupying Iran for the past 32 yrs. Laceys reference to history of 2500 yrs ago, in a selective & biased fashion, is not one of them.
For instance, Lacey could also write about Alexanders invasion & later the Seleucid Empire (One and Two), which also ruled Iran. It was the Seleucids who gradually tried to force Hellenization upon the Jewish people in their territory by outlawing Judaism. This eventually led to the revolt of the Jews under Seleucid control - (tho Lacey has the audacity to criticize Cyrus the Great!). Equally, the Seleucids also tried to expand their Empire into Greece & began their own War with Rome.
Then, as part of (or in alliance with) the Islamic caliphate, Iran provided troops and treasure to aid in an almost constant assault on the West.
For 600 or so years, right up till the Safavid dynasty took over Persia rebelled against the Ottoman Caliphs and secured the division by making Shia Islam the state sect. Everything is complicated.
“...owing to Neocon idiots for the first time in history PERSIA, INDIA, RUSSIA, CHINA are united against common enemy.”
They are not united - far from it.
This statement is so weird, then I noticed you’re Canadian. Some of my best friends are from Canada, but they’re poorly educated about the Middle East.
After some length of time the West adopted Christianity and Persian standards prevailed over the world West of the Himalayas.
Greco-Roman thoughts on governance and the proper position of religion in life were driven into a small corner of the otherwise desolate regions of the Arabian peninsula. They returned with a vengeance in the 7th Century and nothing has been the same since.
(NOTE: which makes us "ancient Persia" and "al Quaeda" the Greco-Roman world, so be careful how you pick sides.)
It was always about Iran ~ which we now have surrounded.
You said: For 600 or so years, right up till the Safavid dynasty took over Persia rebelled against the Ottoman Caliphs and secured the division by making Shia Islam the state sect. Everything is complicated.
You're right, it is complicated. Unfortunately, Lacey makes it even more confusing by not explaining events in any detail, and by being selective & biased.
Hope I won't make it more convoluted by mentioning a few pertinent points:
Lacey is referring to Arab-Moslem Caliphate immediately after the Sassanid Empire was overthrown in a critical, huge & bloody battle w/ Moslem-Arabs in Nahavand in the 7th century AD; it took place after Mohammad's death.
Following abovementioned event, 3 main Arab-Moslem Caliphates, directly, ruled Iran for nearly 2 centuries (Patriarchal, Ummayyad & Abbassid in that order). The Iranian dynasty (post-Arab invasion of Iran) who, essentially, were moslem converts & can be considered a proxy of Abbassids Arab Caliphs, were the Samanids - they ruled for about 180 yrs. I think, it is the Samanids that Jim Lacey is referring to in terms of alliance with Islamic caliphate. It was also the Samanids who took Sunni Islam further beyond Iranian borders.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire Caliphate did not come into play until 16th century AD.
You're also correct, Shia Islam became the official state religion in Iran during the Turkic speaking Safavid dynasty in the latter part of 16th century AD. Shia Islam was forced on Iranians by the Safavids. Prior to that & for approx. 1000 yrs, Iran was by majority as Sunni country.
A key learning point from that period of history, IMO, is: had the Byzantines & Persians put their differences aside, supported one another & united against the vile Moslem-Arabs, the Bedouin Arabs, most probably, wouldve been defeated, or at least prevented from spreading their atrocious ideology thereafter; indirectly or through new converts to Islam. INSTEAD, Jim Lacey, in this article at least, attacks pre-Islam leaders of Iran.
A fundamental question remains: What is Western Civilization? It surely doesnt refer only to Greeks or Romans of yester years. Nor purely to democracy, depending how democracy is defined to begin with. (I can give many examples of how Western countries did not achieve democracy easily, nor quickly; some are still not quite as democratic in their practices as we'd like to think they are).
However, Western Civilization is fundamentally meant to be about Christianity; or those countries who by majority are Christians. IOW, it is about Religion. And, Mullahs Regime & the mullahs in Iran, along w/ the Saudis et al (regardless of shia or sunni) are the epitome & center of that clash between Christianity & Islam (not pre-Islam "Persian Civilization"). Although, in our infinite lack of wisdom, our Western, representative democratic govts support those in the Islamic world who hold sway, influence & power over the masses there.
What percentage of the Athenian population was eligible to participate?
You’re kidding, right? We have Iran surrounded the same way Custer had all those Indians cornered. What are going to do, send in the Boy Scouts?
I seem to remember from a history class that it was about 5%.
Who’s talking about war with Iran. We’re just reviewing historical facts. I’ve been of the opinion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been used strategically to squeeze Iran, which is the real source of most terrorism since 1979, but Bush was too interested in nation building, and fighting wars to show how nice we Americans are.
We should have been fighting to show that we don’t take no sh@t.
Democratic principles started in Greece, spread to Rome, and eventually came down to us...a good heritage.
Persia's sytem of Gov't was inferior.
Peerhaps the idea of democracy came to us from Athens, but the idea of the rule of law, which is at least as important, comes from the Torah, the idea that rulers may not use their position to enrich themselves, and that they are subject to the same laws as the ruled.
True, many Canadians either have no clue or have Polyanna world view, perhaps it has something to do with watching 90$ of media contents coming south of the border:-)
It is true that the majority of Canadians have no idea of NATO involvement in Afghanistan. Ask any Canadian whether China borders with Afghanistan, and you'll get a blank stare.
But China knows why NATO is in Afghanistan.
Average Canuck has never heard Mad Allbright's ramble that it is not fair that Russia has Siberia only for herself. But Ruskies have taken note.
So, China arms Persia, gives money to Russia for next-generation military research, Russia in turn builds Indian Navy and provides current generation hardware to India, China and Persia. And India and China represent a wide manufacturing base to churn out Russian hardware.
China and India are adversaries, China and Russia are adversaries, Persia is no friend to either of them, yet, they work together and brings others to their scheme. Together, they build BRIC economic block expanding outside of Euroasia. Check the south Atlantic shipping routes China plans to establish to bypass Panama and Suez choke.
Why? Discples of Leo Strauss gave them forewarning. The fact is, Cecil Rhodes design for world domination is going down the toilet. Victorians have finally lost.
Attack on Libya is the last attempt.
America could have profited from that, but did not. Owing to the stupid and greedy neocons.
I am not happy at all because of that.
Yes, of course it did.
We are perfectly positioned to tag any of their big stuff.
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