The Twenty-Five Hundred Years’ War
From the March/April 2007 Issue
Persians have been at odds with the West and neighboring Asians since the battle of Thermopylae. Today’s nuclear showdown is history repeating itself. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson tells what we can learn.
If a no-nonsense Greek infantryman holding the pass at Thermopylae were to be told that, 2,500 years in the future, Western constitutional states would still be facing an apocalyptic struggle with a totalitarian government in Persia, he would hardly be surprised.
Persians, or Iranians as they’re called today, have been at odds with both the West and neighboring Asians since antiquity. In that sense, the bumper-sticker anti-Americanism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is nothing new. Neither was Ayatollah Khomeini’s virulent hatred of the Great Satan.
Darius I incorporated most of the Greeks of Ionia under the Persian Empire, and would have done the same in mainland Greece had the Athenians not stopped him at Marathon in 490 B.C. A decade later, his son Xerxes invaded Greece with a half million infantry and sailors, only to be ruined at Salamis and Plataia by the Athenian-Spartan alliance.
Westerners—including Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, the Spartan King Agesilaos, and Alexander the Great—sought payback against the imperial Achaemenids, who ruled over a Persian Empire that stretched from what is now Pakistan through Saudi Arabia to Egypt and north into Turkey. By Roman times, long after the fall of the Achaemenids, the Parthians—another Persian dynasty—continued the East-West struggle, destroying Crassus and nearly his entire Roman army at Carrhae. The subsequent Sassanid Persians fought the Byzantine Greeks constantly for control of Anatolia and the Levant, before themselves falling to the wave of Arab Islamic invaders.
Iran’s location explains much of this violent history. It is not only a bridge from the Orient to the West, but also a north-south clearinghouse between Russia and the Arab world. The Strait of Hormuz currently forms the bottleneck for global petroleum commerce, but even in the age of sail, the narrow sea passage always served as a means for Iranians to shut off all entry into the nearby Persian Gulf.
Persians, or Iranians as they’re called today, have been at odds with both the West and neighboring Asians since antiquity.
Much of Ahmadinejad’s apparent domestic appeal stems not from his posture as an Islamist who takes on Israel on behalf of the Palestinians but as a leader who seeks to restore a Persian and Shiite claim to Muslim greatness. The efforts of Iran to undermine the Iraqi government, overturn Lebanese democracy, finance Hezbollah, and use Syria to balance the Gulf sheikdoms are not so different from the management of shifting alliances and intrigue that enabled Cyrus the Great to cobble together the first Persian Empire.
So throughout the checkered history of Iran and the West there have been constant themes that suggest that our current rivalry with Tehran is neither new nor surprising. Fairly or not, Westerners have always viewed their relations with Persia in terms of freedom versus despotism, of individual citizens at Thermopylae fighting the coerced hordes of Xerxes’ subjects. Roman poets likewise depicted Romans fighting Parthians as free-minded Western infantry battling treacherous nomadic horsemen who shot arrows even as they seemed to ride away.
Religion, too, has been an old fault line. Zoroaster, founder of ancient Persia’s religion 600 years before Christ and a millennium before Mohammed, painted a binary world of light against darkness in an apocalyptic and all-encompassing belief system—a view not all that antithetical to subsequent Shiite Islam’s emphasis on struggle and martyrdom. Persians, it seems, have always embraced religion in terms of good believers versus all the rest—without the pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount.
But then again, Iranians have some reason to be paranoid about foreign interventionists and intriguers. We hear much from them today about the “den of spies” in the American Embassy 30 years ago, about the 1953 Anglo-American overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddeq, and about the joint Russian-American virtual takeover of Iran in 1941. So is Western conflict with Ahmadinejad’s restive Iran inevitable?
Not exactly, since there have also been periods of realist engagement between Persians and Westerners. Just as historian Xenophon, in the fourth century B.C., believed that Cyrus the Younger was a pro-Western reformer who might bring Persia into the Hellenic world, so, too, the modernizing Shah Reza Pahlavi and the reformer Mosaddeq in contrasting ways both wanted Iran to incorporate ideas from the West.
Long after Ahmadinejad and the Iranian theocracy are gone, a powerful and proud Iran will still emulate and rival, still befriend and distrust Westerners—captive to a history that is as illustrious as it is volatile.
Victor Davis Hanson, a classics scholar and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Image credit: Photo by Flickr user kiavash; modification by Darren Wamboldt