May 15, 2018
By Amir Taheri
That political life is full of surprises may be an old adage.
However, there are times when something so unexpected happens that one has to look beyond surprise to understand it.
One such event concerns the new campaign to portray Iran as an anti-Semite nation and the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, Reza Shah, as disciple of Adolf Hitler.
Trying to justify their anti-Semitism, expressed through an anti-Israel rhetoric, the ruling mullahs claim that they are continuing an old national tradition. To back that claim they trace their policy to Reza Shah, the man who founded the Pahlavi Dynasty and considered by many Iranians as the leader who halted centuries of decline.
In the popular uprisings of last January one frequent slogan was “Reza Shah! Blessed be Your Soul!”
The subsequent “discovery” in April of the mummified remains believed to be that of Reza Shah added a layer of mystery if only because it came bang on the anniversary of his 1925 coronation as King of Kings of Iran.
For Khomeinists, therefore, Reza Shah is the man to hit.
Thus FARS, the news agency run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, has run a long feature detailing what it claims are Reza Shah’s misdeeds including his promotion of “Aryanism” allegedly under Nazi influence.
The daily Kayhan, believed to express the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also offered articles echoing similar charges.
The same theme has been taken up by Islamic Republic lobbyists in the United States and Europe, often using as source an essay by Muhammad-Ali Ramin, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ideological guru.
All that isn’t surprising; Reza Shah and his promotion of patriotism was the polar opposite of Khomeini and his thinly disguised hatred of Iran.
What is surprising is that Khomeinist charges against Reza Shah are now repeated by a number of prominent supporters of Israel in Europe and the United States.
Singing from the same hymn sheet as Reza Shah’s Khomeinist foes, these gentlemen partly base their charge that Iranians are anti-Semites on the claim that under Reza Shah Iran changed its name from “Persia” to “Iran” because of Nazi influence.
The claim is expounded in “L’Empire et les cinq rois” (Empire and Five Kings), the new book by Bernard-Henri-Levy. A Marxist in his youth, Henri-Levy gradually found a new ideological home in social democracy and its Zionist version represented by Shimon Peres. Henri-Levi claims that in 1935 Reza Shah, presumably a disciple of Hitler, issued a decree ordering the name change for his kingdom.
The esteemed philosopher, however, demonstrates his ignorance of the Iranian historic and existential reality.
To start with Reza Shah was not the inventor of the name “Iran” which had been the appellation of the great plateau of Western Asia for at least 25 centuries.
Dating back to 2500 years, bas-reliefs in various parts of the country designate the Achaemenid Empire as “Iran”, and “the land of Aryans”. Darius the Great’s proclamation carved in a bas-relief rock says: “I am Darius, King of Kings, Aryan, son of Aryan”. The Greek historian Herodotus (born in 5th century BC) also designates the Iranians as Aryans (ariaoi). He is followed by other non-Iranian historians including the Roman Tacitus (2nd century AD).
In more recent times, Western philosophers and travelers to Iran knew exactly what they were talking about when they spoke of Iran and Aryans as synonymous.
The French diplomat Count de Gobineau (born 1816) who toured Iran at length knew exactly where he was, and who Iranians were, long before Hitler, Reza Shah or Henri-Levi were born. French philosopher Ernest Renan (born 1823 AD) saw Iran as “an Aryan soul” in “a Semitic frame”, meaning the Islamic religion.
Iran’s great national poet Ferdowsi (born 935 AD) saw himself as the epic bard of the Iranian nation and its Aryan heritage.
He wrote: “If there be no Iran, let my body also perish!
May there be not a single soul in this land!”
Consciousness of Iran and Iranian-ness has been a theme of hundreds of poets writing in modern Persian, the lingua franca of Iranian peoples, for over 1100 years. Many of them were born and lived in lands that are not part of present-day Iran and had as their mother tongues other languages of the Iranic or Indo-Iranian linguistic family; but all saw themselves as Iranians.
To Iranians, the concept of Aryanism, as Renan showed, was never an ethnic or racial shibboleth. Aryanism denoted a cultural state of being and open to anyone who wished to join its space regardless of ethnic, tribal, racial and religious origins.
To be sure, Iran was not alone in claiming an Aryan identity.
The overwhelming majority of people in Northern India also see themselves as Aryans and are related to Iran through linguistic links and ancient forms of Aryanic religions (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism among others.) In early 20th century, Irish nationalists also defined themselves as Aryans, choosing the name Eire (Aryan) for the independent republic they created in the southern part of their island.
In His “The Outline of History” poublished in 1920, British novelist H.G. Wells speaks of the Aryan peoples referring to many nations that speak one or another of the vast family of Indo-Iranian languages. Wells was echoing both Renan (cited above) and the German linguist Max Mueller whose book published in 1888 echoes the Iranian position that Aryanism is a cultural and philological, not racial, term.
Thus Iran’s “Aryanism” has nothing to do with Hitler and his Nazi party who hijacked the term “Aryan” and tried to turn it into a racial concept and ultimately a tool for genocide. German “nationalists” discovered the concept of Aryanism late in the 19th century, gradually using it as an alternative to Teutonic identity. The Nazis, therefore, imported “Aryanism” from Iran and India and twisted it into an ugly ideology.
Fast forward to the claim that Hitler inspired Reza Shah.
Henri-Levi isn’t alone in making the absurd charge.
The American author Kenneth M. Pollack, also a passionate supporter of Israel, made it in his book “The Persian Puzzle” published in 2004. A similar claim was made in the recent book “Nazis, Islamists and The Making of the Modern Middle East” by Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz.
That charge is based on three claims.
The first is that German Nazis inspired Iranian nationalism.
That is absurd.
Iranian nationalists, in the modern sense of the term, first gathered around Seyyed Zia-Eddin Tabatab’i, a journalist who created the so-called “National Tradition” (Ananat Melli) circle in 1919, long before Hitler and his Nazi party appeared on the scene.
By 1920, Reza Khan, as he then was, had secretly joined the circle and offered the support of the Cossack Brigade, the only organized military force in the country, which he command. A year later, the circle staged a putsch and, backed by Reza Khan’s troops, imposed Tabataba’i as Prime Minister. Reza became Minister of war.
In 1923, at a time that Hitler was an obscure troublemaker languishing in jail in Munich, the nationalists around Reza Khan created the Ancient Iran (Iran Bastan) Society to promote him as arbiter of the nation’s destiny. Their periodical magazine of the same name promoted Aryaism and the concept of Iranian-ness (Iraniyyat). Their original aim was to turn Iran into a republic with Reza as President.
However, the National Assembly (Majlis) refused the republican option and insisted that Reza become King of Kings. The slogans around Reza’s rise included “The Aryan Nation is Rising Again” and “Reza: The Successor of Cyrus.”
The operette “Iran” became a smash hit and the song by Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri (Daughters of Cyrus) resonated throughout the land. The poet Muhammad-Taqi Bahar’s paean to Surena, the Parthian general who defeated and killed Crassus, one of the all-powerful Roman trio, was an ode to Iran and Aryanism.
The new national anthem, introduced in 1928, insisted on Iranian identity:
Long Live Our King of Kings (Shahanshah)
Eternal be the homeland from his grace.
Thanks to Pahlavi the realm of Iran
Has become hundred times better than the ancient epoch
O, Iranians! Be always joyful!
And may God be his protector always!
Iranian-ness was further emphasized in another and more popular national hymn first performed in 1929:
O Iran! Land full of virtues!
Whose soil is the fountainhead of arts!
May evil thoughts be far from you!
And may you be everlasting, eternal!
All that was long before anyone in Iran had heard of Hitler and his Nazi Party. The first time the Nazi Party was mentioned in Iranian press was in 1929 in a brief account of the forthcoming German general elections in the daily Ettelaat. By the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the nationalists around Reza Shah, who had been crowned in 1926, had nothing to learn from German Nazis.
As mentioned above, while Iranians insisted that Aryanism was a cultural term, German Nazis saw is as a racial concept.
The two views clashed in 1936 when Hitler’s government tried to classify Iranian Jews as “Semites” and thus sub-humans. Iran protested and argued that as far as Iranian Jews were concerned Judaism was a religion not a racial term and that Iranian Jews should be regarded as Aryans. Iranians insisted that Cyrus the Great had liberated the Jews from bondage in Babylon 25 centuries earlier and that Iranian Jews had been Iranian long enough not to be divested of their identity.
Hitler set up a committee headed by his number-two Rudolf Hess to arbitrate. The committee’s secretary was a young Hans-Georg Kiesinger who was to become Chancellor of Federal Germany in 1966. (Matthias Kuntzel‘s magisterial book on Irano-German relations says much more about that episode.) The committee recommended that Iranian Jews be exempted from Nazi racial profiling, and Hitler agreed.
Henri-Levi has published a photo of a meeting between Hitler and a visiting member of the Iranian parliament (Majlis) Hassan Nuri-Esfandiari, accompanied by Iran’s Ambassador to Berlin in 1936 as “proof” of Nazi influence in Iran.
However, he ignores the fact that not a single high-level Iranian official visited Hitler’s Germany while the Nazi Fuhrer held court for top Western and Soviet leaders including British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslaw Molotov.
The second claim by Henri-Levi and his school concerns the swastika, an ancient Aryan symbol which denotes the four elements or four directions (Char-Akhshij in Persian). The Nazis took the symbol which has no racial or ethnic significance, twisted it, and used it as their emblem.
The swastika was present in numerous buildings in northern India and Iran long before the Germans appeared in world history as a distinct people. In Iran swastikas can be find in the remains of the Azargoshasp Fire Temple, dating back 2000 years, and several mosques including the Seljuk Mosque in Isfahan and the Jam’e Mosque in Yazd, both dating back to the 10th century AD. Again, that had nothing to do with Germany, Hitler or the Nazi Party. To show that they regard the Nazi version of swastika as fake, Iranians called it “The Broken Cross” (Salib Shekasteh) which had nothing to do with the old Aryan symbol.
The sub-theme of the swastika claim is that Iran under Reza Shah adopted the Nazi anti-Semite discourse, at least in part.
That is contrary to the reality of the situation under Reza Shah who abolished many of the last remaining restrictions against Jews and other religious minorities, a process that had started 50 years earlier under Nassereddin Shah.
It was in 1932 that the burial place of Esther, the Jewish Queen of the Achaemenid King Artaxerxes and her uncle Mordechai, was recognized in Hamadan and rebuilt on Reza Shah’s orders, a move that couldn’t have been influenced by Hitler!
Bernard Henri-Levy’s third claim concerns the decision by Iran to no longer accept mail addressed to Persia or Le Perse. He sees this as a decision by Reza Shah to change the name of the country from Persia to Iran with a Royal Decree.
To start with there was no Royal Decree.
The move came in the form of a letter from the Iranian Ministry of Post and Telegraph to the Universal Postal Union in March 1935.
The letter wanted the UPU to use the country’s correct, and ever abiding, name. The UPU had been formed in October 1874 and given an international legal mooring with the Treaty of Berne (Switzerland). Iran joined three years later, using its official name of The United Empire of Iran (in Persian: Mamalek Mahrouseh Iran). Thus,
Iran had never joined the union as “Persia” or “Perse” and the 1935 move was aimed at correcting the UPU’s error, not to please Adolf Hitler.
However, the episode was later used by Reza Shah’s enemies, including British Imperialists and Soviet Communists when they still existed, to sully the image of Iranian patriots by linking them to Nazis in Germany.
Today, too, those who campaign for military action against Iran are using that legend as an excuse and a justification. Great Britain and Russia used similar claims to justify their invasion of Iran in 1941 and the subsequent occupation that lasted until 1945. That is both a pity and a shame because it is libel against a nation that has always been proud of its unity in a diversity that has included, and still does, Jews for more than 25 centuries.