Continent of the Humanities
An Internal Affair
By Jennifer Jenkins
What the West interprets as provocation, is seen in Iran as proof of national sovereignty. Jennifer Jenkins on historical and recent nationalism in Iran as a cause of current conflicts.
News from Iran is currently hard to overlook. Headlines abound, pointing to the country's militant foreign policy and its climate of increasing domestic repression. From defiance in the face of United Nations sanctions regarding its nuclear programme, to reports on its intent to expand programmes of uranium enrichment, to its seizure of foreign nationals and Iranians accused of espionage, to purges of Persian academics at the University of Tehran and the increased policing of women and young men who transgress Islamic dress codes, the stories are as numerous as disturbing. On June 4, 2007, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a fiery speech at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary founder of the Islamic Republic. The occasion was the eighteenth anniversary of Khomeini's death. Ahmadinejad spoke on Iran's nuclear programme and stridently defended the existence and further development of Iran's nuclear ambitions in the face of United Nations sanctions, condemnation from the United States and strong opposition from the European Union.
One week prior to this event, the Iranian government charged three Iranians, who are also United States citizens, with espionage. They are currently imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the United States. In the past year such arrests have been occurring with increasing frequency, but this latest episode is notable for the open charges of espionage and the implication of more arrests to come. Interestingly, the announcement of the charges coincided with the first formal diplomatic exchange between Iran and the United States since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The talks on May 28, 2007, the first in over a quarter of a century, focused on specific measures for addressing the violence tearing apart Iran's neighbouring state of Iraq.
Nationalism is the bright thread
Headlines in February of this year were dominated by the dramatic seizure of 15 British sailors by Iran's Revolutionary Guard in the waters of the Persian Gulf. Accused of unlawfully moving into Iranian territorial waters, the British sailors were held captive in Tehran for an extended time before being released unharmed.
Often journalists and politicians, particularly those from the United States, claim not to understand Iran's actions, but analysis immediately shows that Iranian nationalism is the bright thread running through all of these events. It is the underlying force, of which these events are symptoms. It is the entity requiring illumination and explication. My project, an history of Germany and Iran in the twentieth century, explores the links between nationalist movements in the two countries during a historical period marked by imperialism, war and dictatorship. Nationalism is an historical entity not a timeless force, and it has recently changed and radicalised in Iran, hardening its focus on the issue of Iranian sovereignty. While Ahmadinejad's militant vision of Shi'a Islam and his foreign policy stance vis-à-vis the United States and Israel do not have a mass following in Iran, his promotion of Iranian sovereignty does. Students at the University of Tehran have demonstrated vociferously against aspects of the president's political programme, including his questioning of the Holocaust and his desire to "wipe Israel from the map." They have done so at considerable risk to themselves, as student protests have ended in arrest. But nationalism in any country is a complicated entity, and feelings of patriotism and love of homeland are a strong motivating factor in student groups as well. The language of sovereignty and national rights is a loaded and volatile one in this country, with its twentieth-century history of occupation, exploitation and partial colonisation by powers from outside of its borders. Correspondingly, Iranian nationalism is a complex and multivalent force, capable of going in multiple political directions.
One of the country's most important recent internal political developments is the transformation, mobilisation and militarisation of nationalism in Iran in the two years since Ahmadinejad's election in July 2005. Previously the main political language of opponents and critics of the Islamic Republic, who set secular understandings of nation against those held by the clerical establishment and articulated cultural and cosmopolitan understandings of Iranian traditions against the rigidity of offi cial religious programmes, nationalism in Iran has recently evolved in multiple ways. Driven by the war in Iraq, the foreign policy of the United States, and the current climate of growing Islamic radicalism, it has both expanded and hardened. In a dramatic shift from the more open situation under the previous President, the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, the language of nationalism now unites previous opponents - Shi'a clerics and secular reformers - around the issue of Iran's rights as a sovereign nation. The increased intensity around national sovereignty is expressed in different ways: from the Iranian government's insistence on its interpretation of the international boundaries in the Persian Gulf to the popular mobilisation supporting the country's possession of a nuclear fuel cycle.
“Analysis immediately shows that Iranian nationalism is the bright thread running through all of these events.”
Nationalism is an historical artefact, which historical study can do much to illuminate. On the topic of nationalism, Germany and Iran share a connected history, the knowledge of which could be of great use in navigating the present difficult international terrain. The roots of Iranian nationalism lie in the early twentieth century, in which the country was occupied and divided between the imperial powers of Great Britain and Russia. In the context of imperialist competition, the articulation and defence of Iranian national sovereignty became central to the country's complex historical relationship with Germany. Beginning in 1906, in the context of the Constitutional Revolution, in which Persian nationalists agitated for the establishment of a parliament and constitution on a Western European model, German businessmen, diplomats and academics promoted increased economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Occupied by Russia in the north and controlled by Great Britain in the south, Persian nationalists, in their fight against their own despotic government (the Qajar dynasty), looked toward Germany as a European country which did not have designs on their territory. They looked toward Germany as their potential national liberator, from both the Qajars and from foreign imperial powers. In the context of the period prior to 1914, they saw Germany as the country that would help them to modernise via the transfer of European knowledge and capital. Likewise Persia occupied a central position in early twentieth-century German Weltpolitik and its plans for imperial expansion. German nationalists, from liberals to the Pan Germans, clamoured for an increased German presence in the country.
Much of this history has been forgotten. When Mohammad Khatami, the previous President of the Islamic Republic, arrived in Berlin on July 11, 2000 for an official state visit, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spoke of re-establishing bilateral ties between the two countries. He expressed this as a wish to reinvigorate the "deep historical relationship" between Germany and Iran. If this reference registered with the German public at all, it most likely prompted it to ask in confusion "what historical relationship?" Schröder was not referring to the communities of Iranians living in Germany, nor to business interests in the Middle East, at least not directly, although these developments are after-effects of the historical relationship to which he alluded. While high cultural traces of the connections between the two countries have remained in Germany's collective memory - in his "West-östlicher Diwan" ("West-Eastern Divan") Goethe revered the poetry of the medieval Persian writer Hafiz, and the philosopher Hegel christened Persia a central transit point for the world spirit - the concrete twentiethcentury relationships between Germany and Iran were more numerous, fraught and political than oft en is remembered. To uncover such connections, my research goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The journeys and activities of scholars, diplomats, industrialists, engineers, physicians, military officers, politicians, and archaeologists testify to a cultural and political relationship between Germany and Iran, which fed nationalist movements in both countries in the first half of the twentieth century. Moving beyond diplomatic and political accounts of this relationship, my project explores the transnational traffic in people, models and ideas - the experiences of Germans in Iran and Iranians in Germany - from 1906 to 1979. In so doing it seeks to illuminate the interconnectedness of historical processes and, by extension, the connections between two national histories.
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