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Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Usman Butt
Image © [caption id="attachment_11508" align="alignnone" width="566"] © Hamed Saber[/caption]   “Keep scratching and what you find at the bottom of Iran’s soul is a newfound taste for empire.” Former CIA official Robert Baer Iran is unquestionably a rising regional power and the world is taking notice of its ambitions. The Americans realized in 2006 that they could not run Iraq without Iran’s help. Iran’s rise has caused fear in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, as there is a feeling that Iran’s rise will come at their expense. Ali Al Shihabi is a Saudi political scientist and his new book ‘Arabian war games- cataclysmic wars redraw the map of the Middle East’ is currently a best-seller in the Arabian Gulf states. The book is a prediction of events in 2013, in the eyes of the author; there are two potential conflicts which will cause a ‘cataclysmic war’.  The first is the Arab-Israeli conflict in-which Israel, paranoid about demography and being outnumbered by Palestinians, decides to launch a war against Iran and in the ‘fog of war’  ethnically cleanse the West Bank, Gaza and Israel itself of all Palestinians. The Arab-Iranian conflict is the second one, in-which Iran, a country choking in sanctions, decides to launch a military invasion of the Arabian Gulf states. The popularity of this book reflects regional tensions and there is always the danger that these regional tensions will boil over into war. Whether or not as extreme as the above explanation is unknown. At the heart of this tension is the mythical sense of a long historic antagonism between ethnic Persians and Arabs. Iran itself is a multi-cultural society made up of Persians, Azeri Turks, Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Assyrians, Turkmens, Pashtuns and Georgians. To simplify Iran as merely Persian, does not gives us an accurate picture of the ethnically diverse place that Iran is. I decided whilst on this trip to explore the so-called ‘Arab versus Persian’ dichotomy. The opinions of Iranians as on this subject was diverse, interesting and often surprising. On a visit to the University of Tehran, I encountered a group of young students of both genders relaxing in the courtyard. I managed to strike up a conversation with them and we eventually turned to this subject. One student said to me “I study Arabic literature and language. I am a North Tehrani and this subject is unusual for somebody of my background to study. North Tehran is famous for its secular nationalist anti-Arab sentiment. When I tell my friends what I study, they always look so shocked. They say things like couldn’t you have studied Italian or French. But I will tell you something, Iranian attitudes towards Arabs is contradictory and to understand this you must first understand what Iranians mean by Arab. Iranians think of Arabs as being women in Black Burkas and men in flowing white robes. They have no culture and their countries are new. They are a product of European Colonialism. When Iranians think of Arabs they think of the Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. But they don’t think of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians or even Iraqis. They see them as different and they respect places like Syria and Egypt as being historic. If an Iranian wants to talk about a Syrian he will refer to him as a Syrian and not as an Arab.” Many young Iranians that I spoke to were very into Western films and music, but perhaps more surprisingly regardless of their views about Arabs, many enjoyed listing to Arabic pop music. Once whilst in a Taxi, the Taxi driver changed the music CD he was playing over from a Persian song to an Arabic song.  He then told me of his love of Arabic music. On another occasion, I was talking to a young guy about which countries I had travelled to. I mentioned Lebanon and he said “You went to Lebanon? Haifa Wehbe (Lebanese pop star)...Haifa she is so sexy. Lebanese women are beautiful I have seen pictures of them.” I later met up with the student of Arabic literature and I told him about what the young man had said to me and he responded “There is nothing unusual about this. As I explained to you a few days ago Lebanese is seen as different from Arab. But there is something else here too. It hard to imagine Iranian girls being like Britney Spears because she is American and western looking. But Lebanon is much closer to us in many ways. It hard to imagine an Iranian girl being like Britney Spears but it’s easy to imagine her being like Haifa Wehbe”. Whilst talking to young Iranians about political events taking place in the Arab world I was met with in-difference and apathy. One young guy said to me “I don’t like the regime (Iranian one). But I do not want a revolution to happen. Just look at Syria, do you think that all the slaughter was worth it?” another young guy said to me “I don’t understand the Syrian uprising. Has Bashar (Assad the Syrian president) left yet? I went to Syria three years ago and all the Syrians loved Bashar. I don’t know, maybe it is a foreign conspiracy but I am not sure.”  Some Iranian saw the Syrian conflict as a war of attrition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, other young people I spoke to were strongly in favour of the Syrian uprising. One young person said to me “you know these Arab uprising began in Iran. The Arabs saw the green movement and were inspired by it.” What these divulging views reflect is a complex social and cultural attitude towards Iran’s Arab neighbours. There seem to be a mixture between contempt and admiration amongst Iranians. Some felt no hostility towards Arabs others had never thought about it. I did encounter groups of people whose contempt towards Arabs can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war. As they would tell me of the relatives they had lost in the war, however Iranian society as a whole has moved on from the days of the war. It is clear that assumptions of Iranian society are perpetuated by popular media, however on the ground it is a country of variety and not as monolithic as supposed.

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Strange Times in Persia: A Travellers account – Reflections on a country at a crossroads

© Hamed Saber

 

“Keep scratching and what you find at the bottom of Iran’s soul is a newfound taste for empire.” Former CIA official Robert Baer

Iran is unquestionably a rising regional power and the world is taking notice of its ambitions. The Americans realized in 2006 that they could not run Iraq without Iran’s help. Iran’s rise has caused fear in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, as there is a feeling that Iran’s rise will come at their expense. Ali Al Shihabi is a Saudi political scientist and his new book ‘Arabian war games- cataclysmic wars redraw the map of the Middle East’ is currently a best-seller in the Arabian Gulf states. The book is a prediction of events in 2013, in the eyes of the author; there are two potential conflicts which will cause a ‘cataclysmic war’.  The first is the Arab-Israeli conflict in-which Israel, paranoid about demography and being outnumbered by Palestinians, decides to launch a war against Iran and in the ‘fog of war’  ethnically cleanse the West Bank, Gaza and Israel itself of all Palestinians. The Arab-Iranian conflict is the second one, in-which Iran, a country choking in sanctions, decides to launch a military invasion of the Arabian Gulf states.

The popularity of this book reflects regional tensions and there is always the danger that these regional tensions will boil over into war. Whether or not as extreme as the above explanation is unknown. At the heart of this tension is the mythical sense of a long historic antagonism between ethnic Persians and Arabs. Iran itself is a multi-cultural society made up of Persians, Azeri Turks, Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Assyrians, Turkmens, Pashtuns and Georgians. To simplify Iran as merely Persian, does not gives us an accurate picture of the ethnically diverse place that Iran is. I decided whilst on this trip to explore the so-called ‘Arab versus Persian’ dichotomy. The opinions of Iranians as on this subject was diverse, interesting and often surprising.

On a visit to the University of Tehran, I encountered a group of young students of both genders relaxing in the courtyard. I managed to strike up a conversation with them and we eventually turned to this subject. One student said to me “I study Arabic literature and language. I am a North Tehrani and this subject is unusual for somebody of my background to study. North Tehran is famous for its secular nationalist anti-Arab sentiment. When I tell my friends what I study, they always look so shocked. They say things like couldn’t you have studied Italian or French. But I will tell you something, Iranian attitudes towards Arabs is contradictory and to understand this you must first understand what Iranians mean by Arab. Iranians think of Arabs as being women in Black Burkas and men in flowing white robes. They have no culture and their countries are new. They are a product of European Colonialism. When Iranians think of Arabs they think of the Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. But they don’t think of Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians or even Iraqis. They see them as different and they respect places like Syria and Egypt as being historic. If an Iranian wants to talk about a Syrian he will refer to him as a Syrian and not as an Arab.”

Many young Iranians that I spoke to were very into Western films and music, but perhaps more surprisingly regardless of their views about Arabs, many enjoyed listing to Arabic pop music. Once whilst in a Taxi, the Taxi driver changed the music CD he was playing over from a Persian song to an Arabic song.  He then told me of his love of Arabic music. On another occasion, I was talking to a young guy about which countries I had travelled to. I mentioned Lebanon and he said “You went to Lebanon? Haifa Wehbe (Lebanese pop star)…Haifa she is so sexy. Lebanese women are beautiful I have seen pictures of them.” I later met up with the student of Arabic literature and I told him about what the young man had said to me and he responded “There is nothing unusual about this. As I explained to you a few days ago Lebanese is seen as different from Arab. But there is something else here too. It hard to imagine Iranian girls being like Britney Spears because she is American and western looking. But Lebanon is much closer to us in many ways. It hard to imagine an Iranian girl being like Britney Spears but it’s easy to imagine her being like Haifa Wehbe”.

Whilst talking to young Iranians about political events taking place in the Arab world I was met with in-difference and apathy. One young guy said to me “I don’t like the regime (Iranian one). But I do not want a revolution to happen. Just look at Syria, do you think that all the slaughter was worth it?” another young guy said to me “I don’t understand the Syrian uprising. Has Bashar (Assad the Syrian president) left yet? I went to Syria three years ago and all the Syrians loved Bashar. I don’t know, maybe it is a foreign conspiracy but I am not sure.”  Some Iranian saw the Syrian conflict as a war of attrition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, other young people I spoke to were strongly in favour of the Syrian uprising. One young person said to me “you know these Arab uprising began in Iran. The Arabs saw the green movement and were inspired by it.” What these divulging views reflect is a complex social and cultural attitude towards Iran’s Arab neighbours. There seem to be a mixture between contempt and admiration amongst Iranians. Some felt no hostility towards Arabs others had never thought about it. I did encounter groups of people whose contempt towards Arabs can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war. As they would tell me of the relatives they had lost in the war, however Iranian society as a whole has moved on from the days of the war. It is clear that assumptions of Iranian society are perpetuated by popular media, however on the ground it is a country of variety and not as monolithic as supposed.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.



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