IE School of International Relations hosts the conference “Iran: Ideology & Nation-Building” by Dr. Ali Ansari, Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University (UK)
In his engaging and timely presentation last week, Prof. Ansari discussed how ideology, nationalism and Iranian mythology were intricately intertwined. The Persian civilization is several millennia old and Iranians are immensely proud of their heritage. Indeed Iranian nationalism today is just as much about Islam as it is about Iranian mythology and early civilization. Prof. Ansari mentioned the important historical figure of King Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire in around 600 BC. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. King Cyrus, was obviously, not Muslim.
Prof. Ansari also mentioned the mythical figure of Kaveh, a blacksmith who led a popular uprising against a ruthless foreign ruler, Zahhāk. Kaveh is still today very much part of the Iranian identity, even though, again, he has nothing to do with Islam.
What is interesting is to see how Iranians today try to reconcile their mythical, historical and Islamic identities into one Iranian identity. It is not always easy to do so, and often some stretches of imagination are required. But all three elements are fundamental aspects of who an Iranian is today.
Prof. Ansari answered questions from the public with humor and candor. When asked about the window of opportunity that is currently being opened as a result of the rapprochement between President Rouhani and President Obama, he answered that this represented an opportunity but that one should be realistic. His recommendation to negotiators on both sides was that “one should not invent a person you want to talk to. Talk to the person you have in front of you.” He seemed a bit sceptical about the “tectonic shifts” some observers claim are taking place in Iran and US relations Regarding the desire for nuclear power in Iran, Prof. Ansari asserted that unlike popular belief, Iranians were much more preoccupied about Pakistan having the bomb than Israel.