The Persian Difference

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

Catalog of the exhibition edited by John Curtis and Nigel Tallis
an exhibition at the British Museum, September 9, 2005–January 8, 2006.
University of California Press,272 pp., $49.95


Tony Blair said recently that the Islamic Republic may pose a “threat to our world security”; he also mused that he might one day be called upon to “do something” about Iran. Other Western leaders have criticized Iran’s development of an ambiguous nuclear program, its influence in Iraq, and its venomous language toward Israel, and concluded that the Iranians have ambitions outside their borders.1

If Blair and others are right, and Iran has expansionist intentions, this would be a fascinating change. Since 1600, the Iranians (or Persians, as the Europeans knew them) have been largely confined to the same plateau, located between several mountain ranges, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, that they occupy today. As nationalist ideas arrived from Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Persians proved to be the best prepared of all Middle Eastern peoples to build a nation-state on the Western model, and among the least likely to invade their neighbors.

Now, despite periodic displays of unhappiness by Iran’s Kurdish and Arab minorities, there is a strong belief among many modern Iranians that they, as Persian-speaking Shia Muslims of Indo-European descent, have a unique identity. (Iran’s biggest minority, the Azeri Turks, are better integrated into mainstream society than the Arabs and Kurds.) Since the Muslim Arab conquest of the mid-seventh century, Iran has been repeatedly invaded. To a striking degree, the Persians’ cultural identity helped them to avoid being assimilated by successive occupiers, but it also restricted their ability to expand their own political orbit to include neighbors who do not share the same identity.

The last time that Iran was a world power was when it was ruled by the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty, who came to prominence at the beginning of the third century AD. They installed Zoroastrianism as the state religion, and were overthrown in the seventh century by the Arabs. In important ways, the Sassanids were successors to the greatest Iranian empire of all, the Achaemenid empire, which stretched, at its peak around 500 BC, from the Indus to North Africa. The Achaemenids’ administration was both multicultural and multilingual; its provincial governors, called satraps, tended to promote religious diversity. In fact, it is hard to see much common ground between the sprawling Achaemenid empire and the centralized, doctrinaire state of Iran in this or the last century, either before or after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The closest that the Islamic Republic has come to empire-building has been in its efforts to export its revolution to other Muslim countries in the 1980s, and these have failed badly. Not surprisingly, the revolutionaries found it hard to sell a political philosophy that is based on Shia exclusiveness and informed, despite Iran’s claims to be advocating supranational ideas, by Persian chauvinism.

One of the strengths of Neil MacGregor, the well-regarded director of the British Museum, is his interest in exploring ideas of continuity and change. He has said that an “Enlightenment institution” such as the British Museum should aim…

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