The Cyrus Cylinder has returned home to Iran. This time, however, it is not the pro-western secular Shah of Iran who is presenting it to commemorate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. Instead, it is the ultra-conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is lauding the cylinder as “the embodiment of human values and a cultural heritage for all humanity.” Made in 539 B.C. after the Persian conquest of Babylon, the cylinder is considered the world’s first charter of human rights. How is a president, under whom the worst human rights atrocities have occurred, so obsessed with the Cyrus Cylinder?
The British Museum recently loaned the baked clay cylinder to the National Museum of Iran for a four-month period. During the unveiling ceremony, Ahmadinejad boasted “the Cyrus Cylinder represents respect for human beings› greatness and basic rights and emphasizes that everyone is entitled to freedom of thought and choice and also underscores the necessity to fight oppression.” Emphasizing the last point, the president wrapped a Keffiyeh, symbol of the pro-government Basij militia, around the neck of a man dressed as Cyrus the Great. His highly controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, likened the ideas and status of the ancient king to those of the prophets. Hamid Baghaei, Iran’s vice president, took that sentiment one step further, calling Ahmadinejad “the Cyrus of our times.”
These statements are unprecedented in the 31-year history of the Islamic Republic. The government’s policy for the last three decades has been to disregard Iran’s pre-Islamic history. During the Iran-Iraq War, the regime never appealed to the nationalist sentiments of the populace. Instead, it used Islamic propaganda to garner support for the war. In 2004, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally requested the annulment of the celebration of the Persian New Year at Persepolis; and most recently, the Ministry of Education proposed to purge schoolbooks of the history of Iran’s kings.
Ahmadinejad’s attempts to co-opt Cyrus’ legacy in the face of last year’s disputed election, and the brutal repression and violation of human rights in its aftermath, have enraged many Iranians inside and outside the country. Nevertheless, it is important to note the government’s significant change of discourse on Iran’s historical heritage.
Some believe Ahmadinejad is trying to define his utopian vision of Iran’s role in managing world affairs in the image of the glorious Persian Empire. Others simply believe he is paving the way for his succession by appealing to a new constituency. Given the national discontent with the clerical establishment’s worn-out religious ideology, an alternative identity for the state is a plausible survival strategy. Mashaei’s role in advocating the new nationalistic stance has amplified the suspicion that Ahamadinejad wants to maintain his grip on power after the end of his second term in 2013, through a Putin-Medvedev style “Tandemocracy”. All of this is happening in the backdrop of stark disapproval from conservative factions in the Islamic Republic, comprised of Ahmadinejad’s main supporters. Both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been vehemently criticized by the conservative members of the parliament for their promotion of the “culture of Iran” instead of the established order of the “culture of Islam.” They have even been chastised for having royalist tendencies. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper, the official mouthpiece of Iran’s Supreme Leader, wrote in an op-ed “what does Mr. Ahmadinejad expect to achieve by replacing our beloved culture of Islam with the Cyrus Cylinder? This act will only put a sweat of shame on every Iranians forehead.” Using such a revisionist policy, Ahmadinejad may be able to gain the support of some nationalist Iranians, but at the price of losing part of his conservative constituency, diehard supporters in the Basij, and devotees in the revolutionary guards.
Another conceivable scenario is that this is a preemptive act by Ahmadinejad to deprive the opposition green movement of a powerful tool. Although the Islamic Republic is better categorized as a Sultanistic regime, many one-party systems (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland) were democratized by replacing imposed ideology with nationalism as the basis of the state. Leaders of the green movement, however, have not particularly emphasized on nationalistic aspirations of discontented Iranians. Their pledge instead has been to restore the Islamic and republican values of the revolution.
This is not the first time that an unpopular government is seeking to attain legitimacy by associating with one of Iran’s most venerated historical figures. The last Shah of Iran made Cyrus a key pillar of the Pahlavi dynasty’s legitimacy and associated himself personally with the Achaemenid king. His efforts were ultimately to no avail. The eagerness of both regimes to confiscate the ancient king’s bequest, nevertheless, has had one clear outcome: nationalization of Cyrus the Great. As an important heritage of the Iranian people, Cyrus and his cylinder are now guaranteed to be revered, independent of the nature of Iran’s government.