The key here is “patriot and nationalist.” Much has been written about the fiercely nationalist and prideful character of Iranians — all true. While other peoples can be equally nationalistic, Iranians take pride — ghoroor, or ezat-e-nafs — to a degree and place rarely seen in other cultures.
Perhaps it’s the character of a people who feel that their great civilization (and once-great empire) has not been given its proper due, or at least not to the degree that Rome, Egypt or Greece has been in the Western canon. Perhaps it’s the invasion that brought Islam to Iran — an Islam that Iranians worship differently from most of their once-conquering Arabs — that makes Iranians want to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, not only as the first nation-state in the region, but as racially and religiously separate from those who surround them.
So Trump’s recent threat to target “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” may have provoked even more anger in Tehran than the news of Soleimani’s assassination.
If there is anything that unifies all Iranians, whether they live in Iran or not, it is pride in their culture. Pride in their monuments that speak to a glorious past, all the more important today as they watch nations that were once empty desert surpass them in architecture, infrastructure and amenities. Pride in their history, manifested in their literature and in sites spread across the nation: from the Caspian north where one of the oldest churches in Christendom still stands, to the south, where Persepolis once stood as the world’s greatest capital, and points in between, where ancient Zoroastrian temples and pilgrimage sites dot the desert landscape. In Isfahan, Safavid kings built magnificent palaces and mosques in the 16th century as they introduced Shiite Islam as Persia’s state religion.
Targeting cultural sites is, obviously, prohibited under international law, and any such attack would be a war crime (and as such an order that any officer could refuse to execute). This was seemingly an unimportant detail for Trump, who, aboard Air Force One on his way back from Palm Beach, told reporters: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Monday that the Pentagon “will follow the laws of armed conflict,” which somehow sounds less reassuring when it needs to be stated aloud. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that “every effort that’s being made will always be conducted inside the international laws of war.” And Trump, asked in the Oval Office that afternoon, stated that he “likes to obey the law,” which, depending on your point of view, is either calming or terrifying.
But even if it wasn’t illegal, Trump’s threat would be a colossal mistake: It would turn what might be the Muslim Middle East’s most pro-American population, albeit ruled by the most anti-U.S. government, into the most anti-American people for generations to come. Alexander the Great, who burned Persepolis to the ground more than two millennia ago, is to this day a hated figure in Iran. (Can any ordinary American name the British general who burned the White House and Capitol in the War of 1812?)
Cultural protection wasn’t always a priority for the Islamic Republic, at least not at its inception. Pompeo seemed to point to that Tuesday, conflating the past with the present in a tweet mocking Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif: “No one has damaged Persian culture more than the Islamic Republic — disrespecting Cyrus and holidays like Nowruz, prohibiting dancing, and putting an end to religious tolerance.”
It is true that in the early days of the revolution, some clerics believed anything pre-Islamic in Iran should be banned, destroyed or forbidden. That included cultural sites. Fortunately, saner clerical minds — perhaps better acquainted with the Persian psyche — prevailed, and nothing was destroyed. While some cultural acts such as dancing in public or solo female singing were indeed banned (bans generally ignored by many, if not most, today), Iranians not only managed to protect their cultural sites and museums from overzealous clerics and their fanatic followers, but even preserved the hated shah’s palaces — with furniture and belongings — intact. And Nowruz is celebrated for a full 13 days by everyone in the country.
In the aftermath of the revolution, the war with an invading Iraq, which lasted eight years beginning in 1980, required Iran to rebuild its decimated and demoralized armed forces with young conscripts and recruits. Yes, Shiite ideology, which venerates martyrdom, was essential to that end. Still, Iran’s cultural sites remained protected despite the duress the country was under. Years later, despite the senior ayatollahs’ and the theocracy’s general discomfort with anything pre-Islamic, governments (and some clerics) seized upon the glory of Iran’s past to gain favor with a nationalist public weary of revolutionary slogans and their governments’ shortcomings. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was particularly adept at stirring up nationalistic sentiments, even more so while attempting a political comeback after his two terms in office. Most Iranian politicians today will show a fierce devotion to Iran’s cultural heritage, some because it is politically expedient but most — remarkably — because they share a genuine spirit of nationalist fervor some 41 years after a revolution that, at first and largely in response to a secular monarchy, swept away any notion of any identity other than Shiite Muslim.
How deep does that nationalist character and pride run? This deep: Ardeshir Zahedi, the former shah’s son-in-law, foreign minister, ambassador to Great Britain and the United States (twice), was partly responsible with his father (and the CIA) for bringing the shah back to his throne in the aftermath of the 1953 coup. He’s lived in exile in Montreux, Switzerland, since 1979, and he gave an interview to BBC Persian after the Soleimani assassination. Zahedi said he was proud of Soleimani, revered him as a patriot of Iran and respected the Islamic Republic’s government and its foreign ministry, and he wouldn’t budge when questioned why he would support those who drove him from his homeland. It needn’t be said how he, and many others not inclined to support the Islamic system under any other circumstance, would react if a heritage site was destroyed.
Trump claims he killed to prevent war. Pompeo took the Orwellian language further in declaring that the assassination was a de-escalation of tensions in the region. Black is white, up is down. (Someone might shoot a person in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and not lose any supporters.) It’s not clear what language Trump and Pompeo will resort to if the United States really does carry through the president’s threat. It’s not clear that any language will suffice. If the scenes from the funeral of Soleimani this week showed that Iranians have united in condemnation of the killing, the scenes the world will witness if the United States destroys a cultural heritage site — even accidentally, I should add — will make them look like an afternoon in the park.