In case you thought circumstantial evidence was the only thing telling us Iran’s leaders want to recover the imperial presence of yesteryear, a senior advisor to President Hassan Rouhani is here to set you straight.
Earlier in March, he made waves in the Middle East by proclaiming, in a talk in Tehran, the following:
Iran today has become an empire like it used to be throughout its history and its capital now is Baghdad and it is the center of our civilization, culture and identity, today as it was in the past.
So Iran is angling for Baghdad, at one time the capital of Persia. The official in question is Ali Younesi, who held various posts in the revolutionary government of Iran before becoming one of Rouhani’s top advisors. He didn’t stop with claiming Baghdad:
In his speech he said that “the geography of Iran and Iraq is not to be divided and our culture is not to be separated. That’s why either we fight together or become united” referring to the massive Iranian military presence in Iraq lately. …
Younesi who served as Minister of Intelligence in the government of President Mohammed Khatami, attacked all those who opposed the Iranian influence in the area. He said “all of the area of the Middle East is Iran, we shall protect all of the nationalities in the area because we consider them to be a part of Iran and we shall stand against Islamic extremism, takfirism, atheism, neo-Ottomans, the Wahhabis, the West and Zionism.”
But Baghdad is certainly where the rulers of modern “Persia” are, shall we say, announcing their presence with authority.
In this regard, there’s been an interesting sequence inside Iraq over the last few years. In 2012, observers reported that posters featuring Ayatollah Khamenei were beginning to pop up around the Shia areas of central and southern Iraq. The one on this billboard from 2012 shows a benign Khamenei next to martyred Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, father of the Ayatollah Muqtada al-Sadr (“Mookie”) who became notorious in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr appears to have a Shia shrine, the Imam Ali mosque of Najaf, Iraq, depicted behind him. The Imam Ali mosque (named after Mohammed’s first cousin, Ali, whom Shias recognize as the first imam and rightful successor) is considered one of the holiest of Shia sites, and the holiest one located in Iraq. The elder al-Sadr encouraged Shias in the 1990s by defying Saddam Hussein and delivering popular Friday sermons at the Imam Ali mosque, which is why Saddam had him assassinated in 1999.
By 2015, the posters had dispensed with the Iraqi ayatollah. The one seen in Tahrir Square in Baghdad a few days ago (feature image, above) has only Khamenei, depicted next to a silhouette of Iraq with the golden dome of the Imam Ali mosque rampant on it – and a warlike fist protruding from the top grasping a rifle.
But there’s also a poster showing not only Khamenei, the current ayatollah, but the first ayatollah of revolutionary Iran, Khomeini. This poster is the one on the billboard in Firdaus Square that obscures the position where Saddam’s statue once loomed over Baghdad. It’s popping up all over the city, according to a report from Friday, 20 March. And it, too, has the silhouette of Iraq with the gun-wielding hand protruding from the dome of the Imam Ali mosque.
It can hardly be accidental that the public imagery campaign has shifted from depicting an Iraqi religious hero, side by side with the current Iranian ayatollah, to presenting an appeal that overtly emphasizes, by implication, where Shia loyalties really should have been lying since 1979.
After Ali Younesi’s comments came out, Iranian officials scurried to walk them back almost immediately, claiming in part that his words had been mistranslated, and in part that he didn’t mean anyone’s borders should be menaced, but only that Iran and other nations had common interests and historical connections.
The Iranians are anxious, of course, to damp down the reflexive alarm such language as Younesi’s causes in the Arab world. I suspect they are equally concerned to not give the UN reasons to hang back from lifting sanctions, once America stops dithering and agrees to Iran’s terms for a nuclear “deal.”
But circumstance continues to bolster, not dilute, Younesi’s message. In another appearance in 2014, Younesi set off additional ripples inside Iran, with some strikingly Persian-sounding comments about the old national flag of the shah’s era, as well as about the capacities of women and the characteristics of non-Persian peoples.
In discussing Iraq’s Shia Basiji militiamen, for example, Younesi came off very much like an imperial official talking – in positive, approving terms, to be sure – about a subject minority.
His ruminations on how women perform in political roles are much more in the spirit of Persia’s history of strong, revered female political figures – queens regnant and even military leaders – than in the spirit of Islam. Of the pre-revolutionary Iranian flag, Younesi startled his audience by saying this:
The tricolour [Lion and Sun] flag of Iran has a very long history. This is a national symbol. Some thought that the symbol of the sun and the lion in the middle of the Iranian flag was a monarchic symbol, however this is not the case. The lion represents [the Imam] Ali and the sun the Prophet Muhammad, and only the crown was related to the monarch. If it were up to me, I would change the red crescent to the lion and the sun; although I also have respect for the red crescent.
He certainly appears to be a man with Persian imperial history on the brain. Nevertheless, it is clear that Iran’s modern radical leaders do have a specifically Shia triumph in view. Angling for Baghdad has Persian-legacy motives, but the armed fist sprouting from the Imam Ali mosque is pure Shia historical vindication.
Imam Ali was the fourth (and final) Rightly Guided Caliph after Mohammed’s death, and is considered by Shias to have been the rightful heir to Mohammed even during the rule of the first three caliphs. He is buried in the shrine at Najaf because he was killed in Kufa, immediately adjacent to Najaf, in A.D. 661.
Kufa itself was a township created from a military headquarters by the conquering army of Umar, the second caliph. Ali established himself there during the brief years of his caliphate (656-661), by which time Persia had been subjugated by the invading Muslim rulers. Ali was assassinated while at prayers in 661, and was succeeded as caliph by his enemy, Muawiyah, whom he had fought in the Battle of Siffin in Raqqa (yes, that Raqqa, the headquarters of Islamic State in Syria) in 657. Muawiyah and his successors carved out the history of Sunni Islam: the caliphates that spread rapidly, via armed conquest, through the Levant and across Northern Africa into Spain.
Muawiyah’s seat as caliph was in Damascus. He appointed a governor for Kufa, but it was something of a backwater until the Abbasid caliphate – which won out over Muawiyah’s Umayyad successors – adopted Kufa as its capital in 750. As noted in my post on ISIS last June, the historical legacy of the Abbasid caliphate, which eventually moved its capital to Samarra, Iraq, is particularly close to the heart of ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a native of Samarra. (The move to Samarra around 800 coincided, in fact, with the onset of Islam’s “Golden Age.”)
We can be certain that the import of Kufa and Najaf escapes neither Al-Baghdadi nor Iran’s Shia leadership. Basically, you can’t walk ten feet in Iraq without tripping over the site of a battle, or an incident of martyrdom or symbol of power, that someone wants to see vindicated or avenged.
The “history that should have been” is a powerful motivator for Islamic State’s “apocalypse boys.” It’s a motivator for the mullahs of Qom as well. The mullahs are also embedded in an ancient Persian culture that knows, or at least affects to know, how to do empire. That too is rearing its head, after lying dormant for centuries.
Another Fitna is underway in heart of the Islamic world, this one amplified by technology and an overheated apocalypticism on both sides. For the moment, the strategy of the West can be summed up, as symbolized by the American evacuation from Yemen, in two words: Run away! And to think that just a few years ago, we were musing over the end of history.