The Ghost of Cyrus: Iranian Potential for Reform in the Nuclear Age

Tomb of Cyrus II of Persia
Tomb of Cyrus II of Persia

(Originally published at Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, in a very good issue dedicated to Iran. It will give you a good overview of thinking in the American Jewish community right now on the slowly moving crisis with Iran)

Over the past 25 years I’ve developed relationships across the Middle East; in Syria, specifically, over the past five years. While I traveled as a peacemaker, to be cautious I would emphasize my role as a professor and only reveal my role as a rabbi when it felt safe. I never experienced any negative comments because I am a rabbi; rather I heard from some a longing to meet with old Jewish friends. Experiences with Syrians have given me confidence that similar inroads can be made in Iran. What Iran shares with Syria, most importantly, is a historical tradition of religious pluralism and progressive religious thinking. There is still severe prejudice against Baha’is and overt secularists, but Iran does have a historical tradition of interfaith tolerance. This may shock readers who look at Iran through the lens of Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power in 1979. But that oversimplifies Iran – its problems, its dangers, and also its potential promise for the region and the world.

As I read Abdolkarim Soroush, a great contemporary religious philosopher, I find an Iranian who is pioneering an understanding of how Orthodox religion could (and must) coexist with a secular state. Now, he is on the far left and quite suspect by the government, but his writings suggest that this is a country rich in religious thought, art, poetry, mysticism, and higher learning; once the radical revolution of 1979 runs its course, Iran may become a beacon of modern Islamic civilization.

This does not mean that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the president of the country are not problematic. And because the country is staking its defense and even national pride on the development of nuclear power and a nuclear bomb, it’s all the more reason to aggressively engage Iran now. If the U.S. were to engage Iran in serious, “grand bargain” negotiations to culminate in embassies, full recognition, and an end to all covert efforts to overthrow the government, Iran would likely join the table. This is exactly what happened with Libya and also with the former Soviet Union. It did not turn these countries into allies, but these gestures avoided the destructive course of war and saved countless lives.

President Barack Obama delivered a brilliant three-minute New Year’s greeting to the Iranian people and to the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has wisely acknowledged the state’s existence as a way to befriend the population and to perhaps encourage the elections in the direction of reform. Timing is everything in politics and conflict management. The Reformists were in power before, but not at a time when the U.S. was ready to acknowledge past mistakes and to bargain honestly about a new Iranian-American relationship.

Iran must deliver, as part of a “grand bargain” with the West, a serious commitment to move its clients globally in the direction of defense rather than offense, statecraft rather than militancy, participation rather than subversion. Its clients and allies, for example, must refrain from calling for the destruction of whole countries, and focus instead on the substance of their conflicts and policy differences with adversaries. Iran must distance itself and its clients from the language of total war and the covert terrorism that accompanies such language.

The Iranian people are among the most pro-American Muslims in the Middle East, and their government is the most democratic to a degree. But, until now the U.S. has mistakenly aligned itself only with Saudi Arabia, the least democratic. No one needs to abandon the Saudis, but neither does one need be held hostage to centuries of rivalry, hostility, and Wahabi prejudice toward Persians and Shi`ites. The Saudis have legitimate fears of Iranian uses of Shi`ite populations in the Gulf to destabilize regimes, but all factions of the Saudi family must acknowledge and accept the permanent presence of alternative forms of Islamic power and culture in the region and the world. The King of Saudi Arabia has moved in this direction, and with a decisive Western intention to weave together rather than drive a wedge between Sunni and Shi`ite, we may see a new beginning in the Middle East.

No matter how balanced a relationship the U.S. maintains with the Northern and Southern Belts of the Middle East, or with Shi`ites and Sunnis, Israel will not be accepted in the Middle East until it embraces the Palestinian people as equals, as peace partners. Both Iran and Syria could help by discontinuing to prop up Palestinian rejectionist elements. An effective peace process is completely interrelated.

All of this is possible; leaders across the Middle East and the U.S. are seeking a new relationship. We are living in an unprecedented historical moment of openness of both the Syrian and Saudi leadership to the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel. Serious plans have been offered but not responded to. The next crucial step is to elicit peaceful overtures from Iran toward a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Jewish community must do everything in their power, for the sake of their fellow Jews in Israel and Iran, to invite all parties to a table of peace. They must embrace all possibilities of peace at this rare moment of enlightened American leadership.

© Marc Gopin