Javad’s Saga: Epic Poetry and the Iranian Nuclear Deal

July 10, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s new Military History in the News, a weekly column from the Hoover Institution that reflects on how the study of the past alone allows us to make sense of the often baffling daily violence, not by offering exact parallels from history, but rather by providing contexts of similarity and difference that foster perspective and insight — and reassurance that nothing is ever quite new.



As the denouement of the operatic nuclear negotiations with Iran approaches (although who can be sure about those won’t-get-off-the-stage divas, John Kerry and Javad Zarif), the drama diminishes: Wagnerian epics have loud endings, not plot surprises. It is the job of the libretto to turn the Fat Lady loose.

The Iranians want to make this a song of the Persian nation, not the Islamic Republic. Not only does this calm the United States and its western European partners — though it means we must endure daily “Why the Ayatollah Wants a Deal” op-eds — but it also would seem to have some value in Tehran.

Thus it was interesting to note the closing note in Zarif’s “eleventh-hour” aria from Vienna this past weekend, quoting the Persian poet Ferdowsi: “Be relentless in striving for the cause of Good.” I am no student of classic Persian poetry, but I know a diplomatic dog-whistle when I hear one. Foreign ministers, however suave and erudite they may appear, don’t make obscure references without a good reason. Seemingly vapid citations can be especially dangerous.

Even a cursory Google search helps to explicate an otherwise opaque message. Hakim Abu ‘l-Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi’s Shahnameh or The Persian Book of Kings — at 60,000 verses, the longest-ever epic poem by a single author — is the national epic of “Greater Iran.” Composed between c. 977 and 1010, it celebrates the mythical roots of the Persian empire and laments the collapse of the Sassanid dynasty to Muslim conquest. The Pahlavi family, the last shahs of Iran, were Ferdowsi enthusiasts, and they established a university in his name at Mashhad in the northeast province of Khorosan.

It is no accident, comrades, that Zarif should think of Ferdowsi — “Bring the spring, you must; banish the winter, you should” — at a moment when Iran sees a new era of greatness in sight. At face value, this sounds innocuous in a Yoda-esque way; Zarif knows how to charm Westerners. But the majority of the Shahmaneh describes a “heroic age” of Persia prior to its conquest by Alexander the Great. For Iran, nuclear weapons have been a path to greatness, a means not an end. When President Obama declares Iran can be “a very successful regional power,” they agree.

Indeed, there has been a long academic debate about whether the Islamic Republic is vehicle for Shi’a millenarianism or Persian nationalism. While it would, one supposes, be preferable if Iran were simply imperial rather than apocalyptic, Zarif’s Ferdowsi moment provides a reason to be wary. After all, “Greater Iran” stretching from the Euphrates to the Hindu Kush does not sound charming to Arabs or Afghans. And operatic Fat Ladies often share the stage with corpses.


Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst, is the codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of numerous articles, essays, and books, including Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama and Clash of Chariots: A History of Armored Warfare. He is currently at work on Empire of Liberty: The Origins of American Strategic Culture. From 1995 to 1999, he was policy group director for the House Committee on Armed Services. Donnelly also served as a member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and is a former editor of Armed Forces Journal, Army Times, and Defense News.


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