Are We Negotiating With Iran or Persia?

The country isn’t divided between ethnicities or religions like the rest of the Middle East but by a bipolar identity.

07.03.15 9:15 AM ET

What sounds more menacing: the Iranian Bomb or the Persian Bomb?

They would, in effect, be the same thing, but you never hear “Persian” linked to the now extended negotiations in Vienna dealing with the issue of whether the country’s nuclear program has a weapon as its ultimate purpose and, if so, what can be done to stop it. In the same way, you might go shopping for a Persian carpet but never for an Iranian carpet.

And, indeed, never has history given a country a more bipolar character. Here we have an acute choice in national branding between the hard and the soft—between, for example, theocratic hardliners maintaining the apparatus of a police state and a country that has always revered the delicate sensibility of one of its greatest poets, Hafez, lamenting that he valued the mole on his lover’s cheek as highly as the whole city of Samarkand.

Much more than a name is involved. In terms of a national state of mind the two identities sit side-by-side—but not quietly. “Iran” and “Persia” diverged a long time ago as cultural and political concepts but one cannot exist without the other—and wishing won’t make the harsher one go away.

How and why could this happen?

Persia was renamed Iran in 1935. It was a calculated move by Reza Shah, the father of the Shah deposed in the 1979 revolution.

In 1921 Reza Khan, as he then was, took power in a military coup and in 1925 became Shah, dissolving the previous dynasty and, with inventive genealogy, creating a new one for himself called the Pahlavis. Before that he had toyed with the idea of following the example of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and forming a secular state but this was sacrilege to the keepers of Persia’s Shia faith in the holy city of Qum. They summoned Reza Khan and told him that they would share power with a Shah but not with a secular president, and he caved.

Nonetheless the new Shah was a modernizer who felt Persia was in the grip of terminal lassitude. It had a population of 12 million, predominantly rural and many of them nomadic.

“It is not becoming that you, the sons of an ancient country with an illustrious historical civilization, should wander over desert and mountain like predatory animals,” he told the tribal leaders. “You must give up the nomadic and tent-dwelling life.”

The “illustrious historical civilization” he referred to was the great Persian Empire of antiquity. But these memories also came freighted with a somewhat effete “Persian” mindset with a love of idleness and sensual pleasures. Reza Shah had no such sensibilities and he decided that idleness and Oriental passivity had to be eradicated.

Thus the rebranding. “Iran” was an impersonal and essentially topographical term. It described the vast mountain-skirted plateau from which, in the sixth century B.C., Cyrus the Great launched an empire that eventually embraced 2 million square miles of the Middle East with a population of around 10 million people, from Greece to Ethiopia, from Libya to India—all administered in a common language, Aramaic.

“Persia” was derived from the Greek name for the part of the plateau where Cyrus was born, the province of Pars, and was also linked to what eventually became the Persians’ own language, Farsi—through transliteration Pars was also Fars.

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In the year he changed the name Reza Shah brutally put down an uprising by the Shia faithful against his reforms. He had particularly incensed the ayatollahs by sending students to Western universities and military academies. In 1936 he banned women from wearing the full-length chador as part of tentative steps toward the emancipation of women, although the ban was never totally effective.

The reality was that in terms of its power the new Iranian state was little better than a vassal of Western interests. Before Reza Khan’s coup it had narrowly escaped the kind of carve-up that fashioned the Middle East to the will of the European imperial powers, largely because the Russian Revolution removed Russia’s influence in northern Persia and left the country to the mercy of its other predator, Great Britain, which had discovered the Middle East’s first oil field near the Persian Gulf, built a vast refinery at nearby Abadan and intended to keep control of it.

Even though treated like a colony, Persia kept its name and territory intact on the map. And that escape from the Western imperialists turned out to have enormous consequences that shape today’s Iran.

Like Egypt and Turkey, Iran has a territorial and ethnic continuity and an identity that overrides tribe and sect. Fatally, Western constructs like Syria and Iraq can’t shake off the centrifugal forces of tribe and sect that were ignored when they were created after the fall of the Ottomans. Saudi Arabia is held together largely by the hubris of the single warrior tribe that created it in the 20th century in cohabitation with a severely orthodox religious theocracy, Wahhabism.

In contrast, Iran/Persia has never lost its sense of ancient statehood, continuity and territorial integrity. Nonetheless, this stability is tempered by an inherent and ancient polarity. The sense of statehood has always involved a tricky balance of allegiance—to both a religion in which the Persians forged by blood and theology their own distinct sect of Islam, Shi’ism, and to a determinedly non-Arab ethnic culture, the idea of Persianism with its own rich resources of aesthetic and intellectual pleasures.

In this search for intellectual identity poetry became the bedrock of Persian exceptionalism… and one work stands above all others, a national epic by the 10th-century laureate Firdausi, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. Thirty years in the writing and the longest such narrative poem in the world, it spread rapidly not in print but orally (and powerfully) from generation to generation.

This heroic national narrative finally erased the shame of a humiliating defeat centuries earlier. Between 636 and 645 A.D. the Persian Empire collapsed. All the great cities of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia fell to rapidly advancing Bedouin armies galvanized by the gospel of Muhammad.

Firdausi’s epic restored Persian self-confidence. He purged Arabic from his language and created a new “purified” Persian, at the same time damning the Arab invaders: “There will be tyranny of soul and tongue. A mongrel race—Iranian, Turkoman, Arab—will come to be and talk gibberish…”

Under a succession of dynasties with repressive instincts, the Persian people acquired great allegorical skills. Poetry and literature were full of coded critiques of abusive power. This continued into the 20th century under Reza Shah and his son, the last Shah, when it included a new generation of talented moviemakers who buried subversive messages in their art. (This is one reason for the popularity of Shakespeare in Iran—the Bard managed to explore royal villainy in depth by backdating it to other ages.)

Dissembling was essential to survival—and to transactions. My Daily Beast colleague Christopher Dickey has pointed out that Persians were playing bluff-based card games 250 years before the United States was born. Poker in all its forms, from card games through business deals to diplomatic negotiation, is a natural part of the Persian DNA.

But the bipolarity of Persian society, of the iron fist of its rulers and the felicity of its art, goes back to the distant mists of the ancient world and to the single most consequential Persian architectural innovation, one that became fundamental to Islam’s most sacred space—the dome and the open courtyard.

Four centuries before the Arabs arrived, the first king of a new dynasty called the Sasanians built a palace, the Qaleh-i-Dokhtar, overlooking a deep gorge in the southern province of Fars. Its architects made a brilliant discovery. They solved the problem of how to resolve the geometry of plane and bowl with the invention of the squinch, in which the curves at the base of the dome fuse seamlessly into the square of the base.

Somehow, in one of those mysteries of how ideas got transmitted in the days of antiquity, this novel trick eventually traveled from its remote origins to the rest of the world and instructed the construction of every dome in the Islamic world—and of Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the 15th-century dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and therefore also of all the Christian cathedrals that adopted the dome rather than spires.

Amazingly, the hollowed-out remnants of that palace remain, although long since ruptured by earthquakes, and I found them while in Iran in the early 1970s making a series of films on Persian history with a team of archaelogists and historians.

The place was so inaccessible that the only way we could film it was by helicopter. From that dimension the ego of its builder was very apparent. The dome was gone, leaving just a hole in the roof of the royal chamber beneath, but there was no doubt about the magnificence of its site and its message. Beyond the chamber the outline of what was once a vaulted hall opened up into a courtyard, just like the precinct of a mosque.

This was the theater of power on a new scale. To reach the site, the king’s subjects had to climb a steep track up the gorge, bringing tribute with them.

The dichotomy of character could not have been more clear. On the one hand there was the harsh, unforgiving landscape—the quintessential Iranian combination of desert and mountain. On the other hand there was the opulence of the palace at the summit in which art and ego had mingled into something more sensuous and entrancing.

Visitors find the richness of Iran’s culture engaging and disarming. And it surely is. They often end up hoping that a people with a heritage like this will, in the end, reject the hardline theocrats and their totalitarian grip on the country. But so far those hopes have had little encouragement in reality.

Iran? Persia? As Secretary of State John Kerry has discovered, you never know which one to expect.