Iran and the USA square off

The Iranian people are being held hostage by the confrontation between America and the regime in Tehran. Stefan Buchen considers in his essay whether the country's culture can still continue to flourish in the face of this latest 'high noon'

Essay by Stefan Buchen

We rarely find continuity like this. An ancient, a medieval and a modern Iran exist side-by-side. Although the country's history reaches back more than 5,000 years, today's society still derives its culture from the early days. In some ways, Iran has remained the same since the very origins of civilisation.

This is an idea that may well drive dogmatic anti-essentialists to distraction. But the most revered contemporary Iranian historian and sociologist, Homa Katouzian, encapsulates this same notion in the concise title of his book from 2010: "The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran". In other words: somehow, over the millennia, the Persians have always remained the Persians.

This is all the more astonishing in consideration of how the country has endured several violent invasions and ruthless attacks by foreign powers: Alexander's Greeks, Arabs who had recently embraced the Muslim faith, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur), the Turkish Seljuks, and British and Russian imperialists – just to name the historically most significant aggressors.

Every invasion left its mark, changing the country and society. And yet, as epoch-making as the invasions were, there was always a counter-movement as the country's inhabitants reasserted their identity. The most well-known and arguably most consequential instance of this self-assertion was the preservation of the Persian language following the Arab-Islamic conquest. Although the new ruling class converted to Islam and introduced the Arabic of the Koran for religious rites, the language of the country remained Persian, now written with Arabic characters. The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, Ferdowsi's epic poem recounting the legends of the Persian Empire, not only embodies this cultural self-assertion; the poem is what accomplished it in the first place.

Spiral of cyclical escalation

So what is different today? The pattern of confrontation with the United States of America, which has worn on for 70 years – caught up in a spiral of cyclical escalation ever since the deliberate overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh by the CIA in August 1953 – is new and has thus produced a new class of consequences.


Outright American invasion has yet to happen. Washington sent spies in 1953; in 1980, after the successful popular uprising against the pro-American Shah, Saddam Hussein was sent in; and in the summer of 2003, George W. Bush shied away from a march straight from Baghdad to Tehran, which would have created a continuous swathe of U.S.-occupied territory from Iraq to Afghanistan. Instead, the USA launched an economic war, a blockade that cut Iran off from normal foreign trade. Iranian nuclear researchers died mysteriously from time to time on their way to work, American-Israeli malware caused hundreds of uranium enrichment centrifuges to literally spin out of control, and in early January this year Qassem Soleimani was killed in a drone attack.

How has Iran reacted to this confrontation? One can only speak of a collective, more or less uniform reaction in terms of the commemoration of Mossadegh, the revolution of 1979, and the willingness to go to war against the Iraqi troops who invaded the southwest shortly thereafter. Soon after the revolution, however, large sectors of society became alienated from the new state leadership with its Islamic theological legitimisation. Many people did not feel that they were represented by the Shia clergy who took over, especially not in the cultural sense.

The mullahs and ayatollahs may have been part of Iranian culture for centuries and their role in society was widely accepted, but that they should now be the nation's new rulers, and furthermore enjoy unlimited power, seemed increasingly absurd to a majority of citizens, because it was a notion that was so out-dated.

A fundamental conviction that many Iranians share and that is ingrained deep in their consciousness is that belonging to an ancient culture does not mean being hostile to progress. Few nations on earth can make similar claims. But living by this basic tenet is proving impossible in the Islamic Republic.

The country's supreme jurist and supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, preached on 17 January that the nation is now witnessing "days of God". In these "days of struggle for Allah", as the term from the Koran can arguably be more readily understood and translated, the Iranians have no choice but to stand together against the American aggressor. But only a minority of the population is taking Khamenei's call to heart, consisting largely of those who are socially provided for by the regime.

The majority, by contrast, are forced to look on as the self-assertion that is equally important to them as well – in particular against Donald Trump, his functionaries and generals – is upheld by leaders who have proven themselves to be failures and have gambled away their legitimacy.

Hostages twice over

Iran's revolutionary leader Ali Khamanei (photo: Reuters)
Solidarität mit Vorbehalten: Revolutionsführer Ali Khamenei, hat am 17. Januar gepredigt, dass die Nation nun "Tage Gottes" durchmache. In diesen "Kampftagen Allahs", wie man den koranischen Begriff wohl verständlicher und sinngemäßer übersetzt, bleibe den Iranern nichts übrig, als zusammenzustehen gegen den amerikanischen Aggressor. Ohne Vorbehalte nimmt sich nur eine Minderheit der Bevölkerung, die wiederum weitgehend deckungsgleich mit den vom Regime sozial Versorgten ist, diese Aufforderung Khameneis zu Herzen.

A population of around 80 million people that is rapidly becoming impoverished is now being held hostage twice over. They have been put in this dilemma both by their own leadership with its discourse oozing with a readiness to die for the cause, and by the neo-imperialists in Washington. Meanwhile, the climatic conditions in the country are also deteriorating, requiring a completely different kind of resilience. Heat waves, sandstorms and devastating floods are becoming more and more frequent and intense. Geography is reasserting itself with a vengeance, reminding us that no culture can rise above its geographic conditions.

More and more Iranians are reacting to the confrontation by distancing themselves physically. They are emigrating – fleeing – under conditions that are becoming more and more difficult with amendments to consular and migration law. A steady stream of exiles already started up in the days of the Shah. But the stream has now swelled into a veritable exodus, especially of the academic classes.

The negligent shooting down of the passenger plane on 8 January by the "elite" troops of the Revolutionary Guard was therefore not only fatal for the 176 people on board and devastating for their relatives and friends. It also packed a depressing symbolic power. Because most of the passengers were Iranians who had chosen to go into exile or who were visiting relatives abroad. The regime is thus murdering those who seek to evade its authority. Or at least that's how it feels to many people.

What cultural connection will the many Iranians who have settled in areas ranging from Vienna to Vancouver, Stockholm to Rome, Melbourne to Tokyo still feel with their homeland in the coming years or – we should probably ask – the coming generations? Will they even feel any connection at all? It is as if a weak point is emerging that could eventually tear, one that in any case will not be easy to heal.

Iran – global capitalism's final frontier

 Trump, Pence and Pompeo in the Oval Office (photo: Getty Images)
Der neoliberalen globalen Verwertungslogik zu Diensten: "Kein Zweifel kann daran bestehen, dass die US-amerikanische Regierung den Sturz der Führung in Teheran will. Seitdem es in Myanmar Investitionsmöglichkeiten für globale Unternehmen gibt, seitdem die an Rohstoffen und Agrarflächen reichen Staaten Brasilien und Äthiopien von evangelikalen Präsidenten regiert werden - der äthiopische sogar ausgezeichnet mit dem Friedensnobelpreis - ist Persien so etwas wie 'global capitalism's last frontier', günstig gelegen auf der neuen chinesischen Seidenstraße", schreibt Buchen.

One can hardly put any faith in the promises that are broadcast daily by Persian-language stations in the UK and America. Since Trump took power, these stations, including Voice of America and BBC Farsi, have shed any pretence of integrity and descended to the level of pure propaganda channels preaching the imminent overthrow of the regime in Tehran, which will then of course be seamlessly replaced by a liberal democracy governed by the rule of law. These Western information sources are nothing but the unpalatable flip side of the Iranian state-controlled media.

There can be no doubt that the U.S. government wants the regime to fall. Ever since investment opportunities for multinational corporations have opened up in Myanmar, ever since the agriculturally and resource-rich nations of Brazil and Ethiopia have been ruled by evangelist presidents – the Ethiopian head of state has even been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – Persia has been something like global capitalism's final frontier, conveniently located on the New Chinese Silk Road.

It is as if the value creation opportunities in Big Data's virtual expansion space were no longer to be trusted. The added value that can be achieved with fossil fuels, on the other hand, has proven to be solid and sustainable in the past. So perhaps people only want to rely once again on what is tried and tested.

In any case, the duel that is taking place under the conditions of rapid modernisation and the no less fast-paced postmodern era is lasting longer than any of the assaults and conquests of the old days. Only the naive can hope here for a happy end. But to at least avert a very bitter ending, we may hope that the principles of the classic Iranian film may rule: an open-ended, somewhat unclear outcome.

Stefan Buchen

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Stefan Buchen works as a television journalist for the ARD magazine "Panorama".