Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Israel, Iran, and Yearning for Cyrus

As things continue to trundle inexorably towards military conflict in the Middle East...again...the inevitability of war is desperately frustrating.   As we bumble along in our aimless way, distracted by Kardashians and kontraception and zombie melodrama, America isn't paying attention.   The question seems to be not if there will be a conflict, but when.

A significant war in the region would involve someone, likely a nuclear-neo-holocaust-haunted-Netanyahu, going big-time preemptive, followed by a semi-prolonged exchange of medium-range ballistic weaponry.  Tel Aviv and Tehran would burn, but I think it'd be more than than.

There's no love between Tehran and the Arab world.  Iranians are Persian, not Arab, after all.  They share the faith of much of the rest of the Arab world, but they do so in the same way that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland shared Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century.   If a few Ghadr-110s and Shahab-3s found their way to the massive Yanbu refinery complex in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn't be surprised.   Four dollar a gallon gas will seem a bargain then, I'd suspect.

The way to defuse conflict between two parties is to find common ground or common interest, and that ain't easy in this one.  Iran isn't the most genial of nations lately, being unpleasantly prone to oppression and all the bad things that happen when faith uses the power of the state to enforce itself.  In the face of real existential threats, Israel has chosen for herself some highly aggressive far-right leadership.  On the one hand, you don't have to worry about Netanyahu being willing to go to war.  On the other, well, if war is the primary skillset of your leadership, then that's what you're likely to get.

Still and all, there is common ground.  You just have to go waaaay back to find it.  That common ground comes in the deep past, in the person and ethic of the greatest ruler of the Persian empire.   Cyrus the Great is a remarkable figure in world history.  He was an empire-builder who spread the influence of his people.  He was a warrior-king, who lead his armies into battle not from the confines of a desk, but on the battlefield itself.  What president or prime minister does that these days?  That's not what makes him most significant, though.   Warlords were a dime a dozen back when sword and bow and horse were the tools of the trade.

What made Cyrus the Great so great was that he was a remarkably gracious ruler.  He was, in the classical sense, a liberal.  His official policy towards other peoples was to tolerate their religious practices, to permit them great latitude in their cultures, and to be generous towards them.   His approach to other peoples was rather different than that of Ahmedinajad and the ayatollahs who rule Iran today.

But Persians haven't forgotten him over the millennia.  He's a significant part of their history.  One their oppressive leadership struggles with, particularly as he was likely a Zoroastrian.  But they can't forget him and maintain their identity as a people any more than we could forget Washington and maintain our identity as a nation.

Neither has Israel forgotten Cyrus.  The Tanakh sings his praises, both in the Prophets and in the Writings.  He was, after all, the one who Isaiah celebrated, who not only liberated the Hebrew people from Babylonian captivity but also bankrolled the rebuilding of Jerusalem.   Nehemiah worked for Cyrus, after all.

Folks in the Middle East have long memories.  It's just a pity those memories are so selective, seeking out the pain and discord and not going back to places of grace and hospitality.  You'd think the fact that the greatest Iranian leader encouraged Jews to rebuild Israel would be something you'd remember.