THE COURSE FROM CYRUS TO TAQQIYA*: Iran’s ‘National Character’ and the Current Nuclear Crisis


 Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar


The question of whether Iran will make the bomb is a vexed one. In balance are the unrelenting sanctions, the inexorable push to pariah status and the imminence of military action on the one hand, while on the other, is a chimerical power status that not only serves to satisfy civilizational urges but also fulfils its perceived destiny as the dominant regional player. This article examines the impact of Iran’s “national character,” as inferred through the prism of history and contemporary polity, on the current nuclear crisis and thereafter scans the larger strategic context that Iran is faced with. The article concludes with a short-term prognostication.

Keywords: Asymmetric warfare, Break-out capability, Dualism in central authority, IAEA and Iran, Iran nuclear program and proliferation, Iran strategic context, National character, Persian vs. Islamic identity, US 2007 NIE, US-Iran relations.

Download full article here: Shankar, The Course from Cyrus to Taqqiya


Introduction: The Weight and Substance of History

In 539 BCE, one of the most successful yet extraordinary sieges in the history of warfare was brought to conclusion when Cyrus the Great invested Babylon. Cyrus was an emperor of a mould that the ancient world had not witnessed. Rather than a head-on against an impregnable yet magnificent fortification, he chose not just the timing (to penetrate the city defences during a period of night long festivities and revelry) but also to harness nature by diverting the Euphrates as it coursed through the city and entering when the river level fell below its walls unchallenged. The city, historians report, fell without any significant resistance.[i] Babylon was the Jewel in Cyrus’s crown. His Achaemenid Empire now spanned from the Indus in the East to Sardis and Lydia in Asia Minor and Egypt in the West. What characterised Cyrus’ empire and gave it distinct features that set it apart from the empires of antiquity was its tolerance, its abhorrence of barbarity and pillage and most importantly the setting up of a humane organisational and administrative core. All this was embodied in training and Persian polity,[ii] which was sensitive to the historical and diverse cultural context within which the Empire flourished and drew sustenance.

 The golden period of Cyrus the Great was followed by a cycle of continuous turmoil when Persia was overrun frequently and had its territorial contours ravaged and reshaped through the centuries. Invaded and occupied by Greeks, Parthians, Sassanids, Ottomans, Arabs, Mongols and often drawn into and distressed by the affairs and struggles of great powers, Persia has tenuously held on to its past and its civilizational identity. The Islamic conquest of the land (633-656 AD), however, marked a turning point in the history of Persia for it not only vigorously introduced a new subjugating spiritual persuasion, but also influenced the rulers’ temporal right to make laws. Significantly it fractured the cultural soul of the people. The social dynamics that were set into motion were dominated by an abiding tension between the deep rooted Persian distinctiveness and the new Islamic identity; this stimulus is most apparent in its dealings with other nations and remains to this day.

  After a near millennium of occupation and political turmoil, the Saffavid dynasty (1501-1736 AD) reunified Persia proclaiming Shi’a Islam as the ordained religion of the Empire.[iii] Persia during this period underwent a revival; some historians credit the Saffavids for founding the modern State of Iran giving shape to its geographic frontiers[iv] and controlling the day-to-day influence of religion to an extent unknown in other Islamic lands.[v]

By the middle of the 16th century the Saffavid rule had passed its zenith. Lavish life styles, slowdown in economic activity, poor governance, uncontrolled rebellions, insecure frontiers and the territorial opportunities that Persia’s imperial rivals (Russian Czars and the Ottomans) saw in the anarchic situation within, all contributed to the disintegration of the empire. A warlord from Khorasan, Nadir Shah, restored some semblance of order when in 1736 he deposed the last of the Saffavids and crowned himself Shah. However his oppressive reign was short lived and once again gave way to a period of internal strife and civil war.


Scars of History on ‘National Character’

The ‘rhythm of a continuous civilization’ of cycles of disintegration and growth[vi] has not left Iran unscarred. The rallies and routs that its people have been witness to through history have had four significant effects:

  • Firstly it has left the body politic fractured between ‘Monarchists’, ‘Islamists’ and the ‘Nationalists.’
  • Secondly, it has generated abiding tensions between Persian and Islamic identities the former repelling the latter not only in the idea of an Islamic world state but also the distinction between Arab culture and Persian tradition.
  • The establishment of Shi’ism in Persia and the consolidation of Clerical power was a subtext to a dual system of authority.
  •  Lastly, the inability to reconcile the geographic fact of an ancient civilization surrounded by Arab States (more a result of recent colonial delineation consequent to the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire). This conflicting reality juxtaposed with periods of subjugation, works in contradiction with self images of past pre-eminence.

The factors discussed thus far have left an unerring impression on the Iranian psyche, their cultural values and indeed traits of “national character.” The focus of this article is to examine the impact of Iran’s “national character” as inferred (without meaning to create a caricature of a cultural stereotype and thereafter develop a theory found on it) on the current nuclear crisis and touch upon the larger strategic context that it is faced with and then flesh out an argument that would serve to prognosticate the future.


Prognostication as a Conclusion 

The perils of prognostication are palpable, yet one draws inspiration from Keynes when he suggested (while prognosticating) that he “…would rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong”.

The problem for Iran with a nuclear breakout using safeguarded facilities and rapid translation to attaining a de-facto nuclear weapon status is, the high probability of early detection, which would invite a military strike on all known nuclear infrastructure. One way to avoid a strike and yet persist with the programme is to maintain an entirely covert parallel programme. The other is to divert low enriched uranium from safeguarded facilities (Natanz) to a clandestine enrichment plant to achieve weapon grade fuel. The decision to go one way or the other will not be the outcome of deliberate decision making; on the contrary it may come as a desperate reaction to the worsening internal conditions or just be a populist act swayed more by historical swagger and visceral antagonism. In the latter eventuality, the Islamists, the Monarchists and the Nationalists may find common truck. It is this will to perceived self eminence that draws strength from the past.

The episode of the 2007 American NIE on Iran and its divisive effect on the Islamic world is a telling occurrence in the clash between Persian distinctiveness and the Islamic identity. After all, which other historical event has brought the Arabs on the same side of the fence as Israel? Therefore to bank on the Islamic world to influence Iranian decision making is and will continue to be a pipe dream.

In 2008, with sanctions severely hurting, oil revenues at an all time low (which earlier contributed 80% of GDP) and practically all major global players ranged in opposition, or at least not with it, conventional wisdom would have suggested that the Ahmadinejad regime along with the clerical order was on the verge of imploding. But that did not happen despite the pressures and privations that inflicted the nation and the people. In fact, Ahmadinejad was re-elected to the presidency in 2009, the religious establishment came through unscathed and the Monarchists and the Nationalists were marginalised. The explanation lies in the separation and yet symbiotic relationship between Shi’ism and the political Islamist order, the two existing in mutual reinforcement against what was seen to be the common oppressor. This correlation goes back historically to the establishment of Shi’ism and how the consolidation of clerical power was a part of a dual system of the power of the State under the Saffavids.

The question of whether Iran will make the bomb is a vexed one. In balance are the unrelenting sanctions, the inexorable push to pariah status and the imminence of military action on the one hand, while on the other, is a chimerical power status that not only serves to satisfy civilizational urges but also fulfils its perceived destiny as the dominant regional player. And what of the other Gulf States and neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, which on 10th February 2012 gave notice of its elaborate nuclear programme and did not rule out a weapons agenda?[vii] While this may have a domino effect on regional proliferation, it could also develop into a deterrent relationship in-region through the removal of nuclear inequity (an idea whose time may well have arrived). The difficulty with a resolution that takes such a tack is the conflict that it will arouse with the status quo powers that are more than likely to ensure that the current balance is not upset even if it means resort to a conventional clash. The more pressing anxiety is the coming of the next nuclear age when erosion of proliferation regimes presents increased probability of clandestine networks delivering the bomb to non-state actors, at which time prevention and pre-emption,  are the only rejoinders.

Despite the Byzantine nature of things, Iran has persevered with the belief that the most credible way to counter and buttress non-intervention in regional affairs is to attain nuclear weapon status. Notwithstanding this conviction, she has skilfully avoided a head on situation with the USA. Iran has also observed certain clear redlines when supporting militias in the Middle East in terms of hardware supplied and the groups supported. In their nuclear policy, Iran has found the means to challenge the USA in the latter’s contradictory approach to countering proliferation; of invading Iraq, cutting a deal with Pakistan, imposing sanctions on Iran, seeking a regime change in North Korea and indeed, turning a blind eye to Israel. In this unpredictable setting, nuclear weapons or even an unambiguous break out capability not only provides balance to a strategic posture but would also extract more concessions and more incentives from America and the West. The fact that Iran has progressed uranium enrichment levels from 3.5% to near 20% and has stockpiled over 1000 kg of low enriched uranium,[viii] while within the stipulations of the NPT, would suggest that Iran may well build for itself an unremitting ‘break out’ capability stopping a step short of weaponising and yet at the same time giving notice of a looming potential.                                                                             

Download full article here: Shankar, The Course from Cyrus to Taqqiya

[*] From Shi’ite theology; would suggest deception for a just cause. Taqqiya in concept means to protect oneself or those under one’s care from harm. Similar ethical tenets are to be found in other religious texts including those of Hinduism, Judaism and Confucianism. The idea is driven by a non-binaristic approach to ethical obligations in extreme circumstances.

[i] ‘Cyropaedia of Xenophon; The Life of Cyrus the Great’. The siege of Babylon Book 7, Section 5 (7.5.1 to 7.5.70)

[ii] Ibid 1.2.15 “….Thus the elders form a college every member of which has passed through the full circle of noble learning; and this is that Persian polity and that Persian training which in their belief, can win them the flower of excellence”.

[iii] Savory R, ‘Iran under the Saffavid’s, Cambridge, UK, 1980.

[iv] Aksin, Somel Selcuk, Historical Dictionary of the Ottoman Empire, Scarecrow Press Inc. 2003, pg 306. Treaty of Zuhab 17 May 1639, was an accord signed between the Ottoman and Saffavid Empires demarcating and dividing disputed territories.

[v] Amir, Said Arjoman, ‘The Turban for the Crown’ the Islamic revolution in Iran, Oxford University Press, pg12.

[vi] Toynbee J. Arnold. A Study of History, Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by DC Sommervell pg 360-368. Oxford University Press New York 1950.

[vii] As quoted by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal in Webb, Susan, “Saudi Arabia going Nuclear—Why no Uproar?”, 10 Feb 2012.

[viii] Albright, David ; Stricker, Andrea and Walrond,Christina. “ISIS Analysis of IAEA Iran Safeguards Report, 25 May 2012”.