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The A-Z of Iran: part 2

The <em>New Statesman</em>’s A-Z guide to the Islamic Republic of Iran — a complex nation’s rich history, culture, economy and politics.

Read Part I here.


N is for Nose Job

Iran has the highest rate of nose reshaping surgery in the world, which seems surprising, given the strict religious rules – especially for women – in the Islamic Republic. (According to one report, the nose job was officially sanctioned by Ayatollah Khomeini after he was consulted by a religious figure whose daughter was about to be operated on by a plastic surgeon.)

But it is no secret: women in Iran flaunt their still-bandaged, post-surgery noses. Some apparently wear plasters even when they haven’t had any work done. Business is booming. One Iranian plastic surgeon, Magid Navab, who trained in France and the US and is known as “the Michelangelo of Tehran”, charges $3,000 a nose (more newly qualified doctors charge a tenth of that). In a television documentary, Navab explained that 80 per cent of his patients come from overseas – wealthy Iranian expats who can afford the treatment. Many other Iranian surgeons have set up around the world with great success, notably in Los Angeles.

The reason for the popularity of the procedure is depressingly predictable – the model facial aesthetic for many Iranian women is embodied as the small, thin, western nose. So, what’s the fastest way to get from east to west? Change your nose.

O is for Oil

Iran is the world’s fifth-largest producer of oil, extracting 5 per cent of the global output each year. It ranks third in petroleum reserves and it counts Brazil, China and Japan among its clients.

Each day, 17 million barrels of oil pass through a narrow channel separating Iran from Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The Strait of Hormuz, still flanked in places by the date palm trees that gave it its name (hur-mogh in Farsi), is a crucial maritime link between the Persian Gulf and the rest of the world. Tankers carry 40 per cent of all Middle Eastern oil through the strait, which is less than 40 kilometres wide at its narrowest point.

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme (see U for Uranium) have only underlined the importance of this passage. Washington’s sanctions – which require countries to cut imports of Iranian oil as a condition for participating in the US financial system – are proving effective; from July, the European Union will be imposing its own full embargo. Iran’s vice-president Mohammad Reza Rahimi has warned that the country will respond to the sanctions by blocking the strait.

Washington has pooh-poohed the threat and yet, if it is carried through, the disruption could trigger a huge price spike and throw economies around the world into disarray.

In March, the US navy confirmed that it was doubling the number of its minesweepers in the region; the Pentagon has also asked for an additional $100m to expand its presence in the Persian Gulf. However, the Iranian navy claims that closing the strait would be “easier than drinking a glass of water”.

P is for Persian Garden

Some time in the 6th century BC, while Britons were still living in the Iron Age, Cyrus the Great was erecting a garden from which the word “paradise” would derive. Today it is a ruin: few stones from the fountains, temple and walkways remain; the land is patchy and dry. But the legacy of the Pasargadae Palace garden is not only lexical. Its architectural plan and engineering feats – not to mention its botanical delights – have influenced garden design in cultures across the world. Today’s best-known Persian garden in the traditional style is 3,000 kilometres away from Iran: that of the Taj Mahal, in northern India.

Unlike the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where plants purportedly cascaded from many stone tiers, the ancient gardens of Persia were designed according to an axial plan. In all of them, crossing aqueducts divided the space into lawn quadrants, with a fountain or reflecting pool at the centre, and an avenue of trees on either side leads the eye to a pavilion or temple.

The six styles of garden varied in form and function (from the classical to the casual, public or private) but all shared the formal aesthetic of symmetry. However, good looks were not the only impetus in Persian garden design. Trellises were relied on for shade in the dry heat, while sophisticated water systems were essential for irrigation. In Zoroastrian philosophy, too (see Z), water was prized as a source of purity and wisdom.

Still, for all their formality, these gardens were places of leisure and delight. The smells must have been glorious; flower beds were often filled with an exotic combination of roses, lilies and jasmine. Beyond the outer cypress groves, walls surrounded the gardens; hence their old Iranian name pairi-daiza – “walled enclosure” – that became paradisus in Latin. The most celebrated earthly paradise, Eden, with its four rivers flowing from a central spring, may share more than a little likeness to the ancient gardens of Persia.

Q is for Qom

The city of Qom in northern Iran is one of the holiest cities in Shia Islam. It is home to the gold-domed shrine of the saint Fatima al-Masumeh, sister of the 9th-century Shia imam (or “leader”) Ali Ibn Musa al-Rida. Each week, thousands of pilgrims from across the Middle East flood into the city to pray and to pay their respects at her grave.

Qom is also renowned for its religious university the Hawza ’Ilmiyya, which is considered to be the biggest and one of the most prestigious centres for Shia scholarship in the world. The university’s best-known former student and teacher was Ayatollah Khomeini (see K). It was protests in Qom in January 1978 against an article attacking Khomeini in a government-controlled newspaper that culminated in the fall of the shah. Qom, therefore, lays claim to being the intellectual and spiritual base of the Islamic Revolution (see I).

The city also happens to be next to the Fordo nuclear plant, which some analysts in the west and in Israel believe to be an ideal facility in which to develop weapons-grade uranium. Fordo’s existence became known only in 2009; with approximately 3,000 centrifuges, it is big enough to produce nuclear weapons but too small to supply fuel for nuclear power. This year, it was reported that Fordo is enriching uranium to a concentration of 20 per cent – far higher than the 3.5 per cent level needed for a civil nuclear programme (see U for Uranium).

Intriguingly, Fordo, unlike Iran’s main uranium enrichment site at Natanz, is buried deep inside a mountain located about 30 kilometres north of Qom, and is thus difficult to bomb with conventional weapons. Would the Israelis or Americans risk harming one of Iran’s most sacred cities and provoking a religious uprising by dropping “bunker-buster” or even nuclear bombs on the nearby Fordo facility? That is the 64,000-rial question.

R is for Rumi

To read a verse of Rumi to the end for the first time is to catch one’s breath after a long and cooling submersion. The debate over which modern country – Iran, Afghanistan or Turkey – can lay claim to the 13th-century Sufi poet and theologian seems redundant, set against the vast body of his work. Besides the 65,000 verses that he wrote in Persian, Mevlana or Mawlana (“the master”), as Rumi is called in those nations, wrote significantly in Arabic and even produced some couplets of Turkish and Greek. But it is his particular order of Islamic mysticism – with its belief that music and dancing open one up to the divine and that God, who resides in the human heart, should be loved and never feared – that has made the poet ripe for celebration in the west as much as in the east.

Indeed, “Beware the New Agers!” has become the cry of today’s readers and scholars of Rumi, warning against the hijacking of his words by American pop culture’s spiritual sect. Intriguingly, he is the bestselling poet in the United States.

Love and longing are his main subjects, and much eroticism has been drawn out of his verse through translation into English. Identifying Rumi’s writings as merely passionate, however, is to simplify his far more intricate morality – one that all peoples of this century would do well to heed.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I will meet you there.

S is for Sex

In September 2007 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made what must be the most notorious statement yet about sex in his country: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals”. His regime’s response to these supposedly non-existent homosexuals is to criminalise them; gay sex is punishable by death. A recent report by Small Media and the Peter Tatchell Foundation collected the views of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iranians. They make for depressing reading. “If I said I saw myself as being part of this society, I’d be telling the biggest lie of my life,” a 26-year-old gay man in the city of Bandar-e Anzali said. A transsexual woman declared: “Nobody will employ me because of the way that I am . . . It’s as if I’m from another planet and they don’t want to be seen with me.”

As in other ultra-conservative societies, all aspects of behaviour in the bedroom are heavily policed. In an essay on “the regime’s curious fixation on sex” in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Karim Sadjadpour notes that Ayatollah Khomeini took an exceptionally detailed interest in the subject. “If a person has intercourse with a cow, a sheep, or a camel, their urine and dung become impure and drinking their milk will be unlawful,” he ruminated in 1961. Both premarital and extramarital sex can attract harsh sentences; only international outcry kept Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, convicted of adultery, from being stoned to death in 2010.

But as with so many other social challenges facing Iran, there is evidence that youngsters are more liberal about sex than their elders. Small Media’s report notes how important internet message boards are to young people, gay and straight. Smuggled satellite dishes evade official TV censorship. Perhaps, as the Californian anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi has argued, a “sexual revolution” is brewing inside Iran.

T is for Terrorism

Victims or perpetrators? Iranians have been both where terrorism is concerned. In 1978, the Cinema Rex in Abadan was set on fire by four Islamist revolutionaries in protest against the shah’s regime and the supposedly blasphemous art of film-making. An estimated 422 people died in the ensuing blaze, a loss of life from an act of terrorism unequalled in modern history until the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Since the Islamic Revolution (see I), critics have consistently accused Iran of being involved in international and, specifically, in anti-Israeli terrorism. Among the most vocal critics is the United States, which describes Iran as the “most active state sponsor of terrorism” (see E for Embassy). It is no secret that the Islamic Republic provides weapons, training and cash to militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Some US neoconservatives go further, accusing (Shia-fundamentalist) Iran of collaborating with (Sunni-fundamentalist) al-Qaeda. But the 9/11 Commission concluded that there was no evidence linking Iran to the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Nonetheless, in January 2002, citing its ties to terrorism, the Bush administration included Iran among the countries in its “axis of evil”. And in 2007, US congressional leaders took the unusual step of designating the Revolutionary Guard, the country’s 125,000-strong military elite, as a terrorist organisation, the first time a state body had been blacklisted. Then there is the long list of insurgent attacks on US and UK personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan which have been linked to Iran’s intelligence and security agencies.

Meanwhile, inside Iran, opponents of theocratic rule have attacked the regime for the murder and kidnapping of dissident intellectuals. The government denied responsibility for the 1998 “chain murders”, in which six writers and activists were killed in quick succession, but later claimed that an individual, Saeed Emami, had led “rogue elements” in the country’s intel­ligence ministry to carry out the killings.

Paradoxically, in recent years, the Islamic Republic has been the victim of several bloody terrorist attacks and, following the murder of four of its nuclear scientists since 2010, Iranian officials even accused the US and Israel of state sponsorship of terrorism. Washington has “categorically” denied involvement in the attacks. Suspicion has fallen on both the cultish, Marxist anti-regime terror group Mojahedin-e Khalq and, naturally, on Israel, whose military spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai declared on his Facebook page early this year: “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist [Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, killed in a car-bomb explosion in January], but I certainly am not shedding a tear.”

U is for Uranium

Peter Jenkins writes: Iran lacks extensive uranium reserves but has an ambitious nuclear programme, launched under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi when plans for 20 reactors were drafted with US help. Iran ordered the first of these from Germany in 1975.

The 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq war imposed a halt. The programme resumed in the 1990s when Iran gave Russia the job of completing the first reactor. Iran also turned to Russia for fuel but in 2000, as a sign of its longer-run intentions, it started to build a uranium conversion facility (UCF) – the first stage of the fuel cycle process by which uranium ore is turned into reactor fuel (the other two are uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication).

Iran’s nuclear programme first attracted widespread concern in 2002. Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an anti-regime terrorist group (see T), claimed that the country was secretly building an underground plant which, it said, would be capable of producing the highly enriched uranium needed for nuclear weapons.

A senior Iranian subsequently declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency Iran’s intention to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and promised to arrange for IAEA inspectors to visit the Natanz site, where an enrichment facility was under construction. In February 2003, during the IAEA’s first visit to Natanz, the plant was duly submitted to normal inspection. However, other activities that ought to have been, but had not been, declared came to light in the course of that year, notably the importation of nuclear material in 1991 and 1994, and its use for centrifuge machine testing and enrichment experiments.

It was these discoveries, plus a suspicion, no longer verifiable, that Iran would not have declared Natanz if MEK had not blown the whistle, which led western governments to believe that Iran is intent on manufacturing nuclear weapons. The absence of any pressing need for an enrichment capability seemed to point in the same direction.

Should such a momentous conclusion have had a more compelling evidential basis? Was the west too ready to discount Tehran’s assurances that it was opposed to nuclear weapons on religious grounds and had committed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? Should it have given more weight to Natanz being a logical successor to the UCF and accepted that Iranians were taking pride in the development of nuclear technology as a symbol of their reversal of centuries of decline?

Divining another state’s intentions is an imperfect art, often hampered by inadequate intelligence. And in this case, western distrust of Iran – a legacy of countless misunderstandings and historic clashes – combined with relentless pressure from Israel, hostile to Iran since 1992, as well as lobbying by US neoconservatives, and affected the assessment.

In any case, in 2003 western governments set out to eliminate all enrichment in Iran, initially through persuasion and then, after persuasion failed, by coercion (UN and bilateral sanctions) and even using the threat of (illegal) military action against the Islamic Republic.

It is curious that the west has stuck to its goal of “no enrichment” years after it became clearer that Iran’s leaders might not be resolved to possess nuclear weapons. Since late 2007, US intelligence agencies have assessed that Iran has not taken a decision on nuclear weapons; instead,
it is assembling the tools it would need in the event of a decision. The IAEA has found signs of basic research into nuclear weapons technology but has not detected any diversion of the nuclear materials needed for weapons.

US assessments have also addressed, implicitly, the fear that Iran’s leaders are religious fanatics, ready to sacrifice themselves to inflict a holocaust on Jews. They have found that these leaders are rational actors whose decisions are based on classic cost/benefit calculations. What I have seen of Iranian ministers and senior diplomats inclines me to this view; the impression that President Ahmadinejad (see A) has so often given is misleading, an ill-timed gift to anti-Iranian propagandists. Educated Iranians are no less rational – or trustworthy, for that matter – than other mortals.

This, and the absence of hard evidence that Iran has breached the NPT since 2003, gives the west the option of changing tack. Instead of trying to stamp out enrichment, it can revert to treating Iran like other NPT parties. It can negotiate, agreeing to tolerate low-risk enrichment activities in return for Tehran offering the best possible guarantees that all its nuclear materials will remain in non-military use.

Such an outcome seems preferable to war, but it may prove elusive. Israeli politicians will lobby in Washington against allowing the Iran­ians to retain any enrichment capability. US congressmen are prone and are forming huge majorities to adopt anti-Iranian resolutions. Saudi Arabia won’t want its arch-rival to possess technology that the Saudis are decades away from mastering. French policy was harsh and inflexible under President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The western distrust of Iran is undimmed. Political infighting in Tehran has created obstacles to progress in past talks. And Iran tends to react unwisely to provocation. Still, renewed talks got off to a promising start in Istanbul on 14 April; war is not yet inevitable.

Peter Jenkins was Britain’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency between 2001 and 2006

The reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran.

The reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran. Photograph: Getty Images

V is for Vilayat-i faqih

Hamid Dabashi writes: If we were to translate “vilayat-i faqih” as “the guardianship of the jurisconsult”, as we should, the average English-speaking person would probably be confused. So was the average Iranian, back in the mid- to late 1970s, when encountering the phrase for the first time.

Vilayat-i faqih, a technical legal term drawn from the depths of Shia doctrine, denotes the principle that supreme political authority rests with a grand ayatollah. Ruhollah Khomeini (see K), the founder of the Islamic Republic, delivered a number of lectures on the term back in the 1970s while in exile in Najaf, Iraq. Shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (see I), his followers introduced the concept as a cornerstone of Iran’s new constitution.

Khomeini’s heir-apparent, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, published a two-­volume treatise on the concept of vilayat-i faqih that went into even deeper detail as to why the supreme political authority of a Shia-majority nation ought to be given to an ayatollah such as him.
Between the two of them, Montazeri and Khomeini had decided that a grand ayatollah, the highest-ranking jurist of the land, needed to assume executive power and political ­authority – precisely because he was a jurist. Many high-ranking Shia authorities had opposed the idea as outlandish and dismissed its political implications altogether. But the two grand ayatollahs who had crafted it were not producing the idea out of any magic hat; they had searched wide and far into the sacred sources of their faith and argued their case with juridical exactitude.

The origin of the idea is usually traced back to various verses of holy scripture, particularly to a celebrated phrase in the Quran (IV:59): “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.”

The Arabic phrase translated here as “those in authority”, “awlu al-amr”, contains the key tri­lateral root of “waliya” (WLY), which is evident (in its Persian pronunciation) in vilayat – meaning the persons who have legitimate authority and guardianship over the community. In addition to this Quranic reference, there is a statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in which he is reputed to have said: “The ulama [scholars] are the inheritors of the prophets.”

Considering that Khomeini had a long-standing engagement with Islamic philosophy, it is not too far fetched to suggest that his idea of vilayat-i faqih was also influenced by the notion of “the philosopher king”, which had come down to Islamic philosophy through Plato, Alfarabi, and even Moses Maimonides. This last considered the Prophet a political leader par excellence, by virtue of the phenomenon of “revelation”. That prophets were believed to have received divine dispensations became a marker of their superior moral and political authority.

The word “vilayat” also has a mystical dimension, which means the political leader, in effect, becomes tantamount to a Sufi master – a spiritual guide who leads his followers to a moral life and other-worldly salvation. As a result, the term is deeply rooted in the communal experience of Shias as a minority of Muslims among other Muslims, who looked at them as a charismatic oddity deeply devoted to either present or occulted saints (known as imams).

In its more recent history, the term goes back to the 19th-century jurist Mullah Ahmad Naraqi. It gained currency at the start of the Perso-Russian wars of the early 19th century, when the clerical establishment began to cultivate a renewed political power for itself during the reign of Fath Ali Shah of the Qajar dynasty. It was Naraqi who first renewed the idea of the supreme authority of the jurist, and it was from him that Khomeini picked up the idea and decided to run with it.

The ayatollah took the term “vilayat” away from its original contexts – philosophy, law, mysticism and the Quran – and gave it an explicitly political meaning. This paved the way for a belligerent and authoritarian theocracy at odds with Iran’s cosmopolitan political culture. Islam in general – and not just Shiaism – is integral to the multifaceted Iranian political culture but it has never been definitive. There are both pre-Islamic (see Z for Zoroastrianism) and non-Islamic (literary, poetic, aesthetic – see R for Rumi) aspects to the country’s culture. Soon ­after he fell out with Khomeini in 1989, however, Montazeri set about dismantling the idea of vilayat-i faqih altogether in his speeches and writings, and he went to his grave in 2009 calling the Islamic Republic “neither Islamic nor a republic”.

Today, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (see K), vilayat-i faqih has sunk even further into a cult of personality, depleted of whatever moral authority it may have commanded at its inception. At its height, during the reign of Khomeini, it was contingent on the person who was occupying it. Right now, however, it amounts to a latter-day sultanism, trapped inside a garrison state, in conflict with the political culture it denies, represses and wishes violently to rule.

Hamid Dabashi is professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of “Shiaism: a Religion of Protest” (Belknap Press, £14.95)

W is for Wrestling

A backstreet somewhere in south Tehran; a green door with stone steps that spiral downwards. Descending the steps, the drumming and wailing reverberate louder. This zurkhaneh, or “house of strength”, where wrestlers meet for physical and spiritual training, is 300 years old. The traditions of the “sport of heroes” date back more than two millennia to the Persian empire (see X for Xerxes).

Below the streets, inside the zurkhaneh, is a domed ceiling, and underneath this is a hexagonal pit where 15 well-built men are exercising, gracefully rolling weighty wooden clubs over their shoulders and back to their barrel chests. The walls of the zurkhaneh are covered with framed pictures: images of Imam Ali, the holiest figure in Shia Islam, a warrior who used just one strike of his sword to slay his adversaries; paintings of Rostam, the wandering hero from the 10th-century Shahnameh or the “book of kings”; also, sepia photographs of 19th-century wrestlers with handlebar moustaches.

What they have in common is that they are all pahlavan, or heroic champions. They embody the masculine ideal of physical strength combined with javanmardi, or chivalry. These characters are what the Iranian man is supposed to aspire to: tough yet humble.

The zurkhaneh is oppressively hot and sweaty. Above the men on a podium is the morshed – their “guide” – who plays a drum and chants what sounds to foreign ears like a call to prayer. Next, each man takes his turn to spin, at speed, arms outstretched. It’s to prepare for dizziness in battle. The morshed chants salutations to Shia imams. At other points in the ceremony, the morshed recalls mythical characters and battles from ancient Persian literature. At another, he cries: “Iran will not give one inch to foreign powers!” It’s no wonder the national team has dominated Olympic-style wrestling for decades: Iran’s cultural heritage, its politics and its religion are bound up in the sport.

X is for Xerxes

In 2007, many Iranians were outraged by the box-office success of the US blockbuster 300. This was a computer-generated action movie that reconstruc­ted the 480BC Battle of Thermopylae, where a vastly outnumbered group of Spartans fought the invading armies of Xerxes, the Persian king. “Hollywood has opened a new front in the war  against Iran,” declared one newspaper – but Iranians were offended by more than the belligerent overtones.

The Persian Achaemenid empire that Xerxes ruled is generally seen as an illustrious period of Persian history. The Achaemenids were responsible for building the ornate city of Persepolis – and, unlike other imperial dynasties, they achieved this without using slaves. (According to cuneiform plates discovered by archaeologists, the kings paid their staff.)

Cyrus the Great, who founded the dynasty, is said to have issued the first recorded written declaration of human rights – aka the Cyrus Cylinder – which may come as a surprise to readers more familiar with modern Iran’s record (see L for Law). His descendant Xerxes led a vast army against the Greeks, winning at Thermopylae, but was eventually defeated in 479BC. Though his court was famed for its luxuriant velvet robes, Xerxes was portrayed as a semi-naked tribal despot through the Hollywood lens.

Y is for Yves Saint Laurent

In 1959, the 40-year-old shah of Iran married 21-year-old Farah Diba, whom he had met in Paris. At their splendid wedding, she showed off the largest pink diamond in the world, as well as a gown designed by Yves Saint Laurent, and she was widely pictured wearing the low scoop-necked gown, her hair uncovered. Such a style would now be unthinkable on the streets of Tehran. Since 1979, the law (see L) has dictated that women and girls over the age of nine must cover their hair and their bodies – an upheaval movingly documented in Marjane Sat­rapi’s bestselling graphic novel Persepolis.

While some Shia clerics promote the all- encompassing chador as the correct public apparel, many women are pushing the boundaries: wearing their headscarves further back on their heads, using make-up and hair dye, and choosing tailored coats. Iranians now spend roughly $2bn a year on cosmetics, including popular international brands such as Guerlain, L’Oréal and, yes, Yves Saint Laurent.

The interpretation of, and adherence to, the dress code has turned into a tense pas de deux between the adventurous, urban young and the moral police. In the latest crackdown in 2011, campuses were issued with notices banning tattoos, long nails and tooth gems.

Z is for Zoroastrianism

Samira Shackle writes: “An A-Z of Iran? Why not make it Z to A?” This was the standard ­response given to me by Iranian Zoroastrians when I told them about this piece.

Certainly an inverted A-Z would make chronological sense. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion. As its founder, Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), was born in north-eastern Iran, it is closely bound up in the country’s history. “You can almost say that Iran started with Zoroaster,” Shahrokh Vafadari, an Iranian Zoroastrian, says.

The prophet founded the ancient religion some time between 1000 and 1800BC. Zoroas­ter preached that human beings, who have free will, must side with the creator Ahura Mazda (or “wise lord”) against the devil Angra Mainyu (“angry spirit”), and that each soul faces judgement after death before entering heaven, limbo or hell. These principles of good, evil and re­surrection had a large and obvious influence on Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Zoroastrianism served as the national religion of Iran for many centuries, beginning to decline from around the 7th century AD, when the Islamisation of the country began. Today, the number of Zoroastrians in Iran – which has a population of roughly 75 million – is somewhere between 35,000 and 90,000. Worldwide, there are only about 190,000 Zoroastrians, with the largest community, the Parsis, in India, where many fled in the 9th century.

The dwindling size of Iran’s Zoroastrian population is no surprise: though they are theoretically protected as “people of the book”, they have faced centuries of forced conversion and religious persecution.

While their exodus dates back more than 1,300 years, large numbers left Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It is easy to see why: the United Nations subsequently ranked Iran as one of the world’s worst countries for religious freedom. In November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Council of Guardians (see K and L), described Zoroas­trians and other religious minorities as “sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption”. State media frequently disparages them as aatish parast or fire worshippers – an inaccuracy that originates in the importance of fire to Zoroastrian worship. Along with water, fire is viewed as an agent of ritual purity, and places of worship are known as fire temples.

The UK-based Iranian Zoroastrians to whom I spoke were all very guarded, afraid of repercussions or of jeopardising trips home. But they did mention the community’s schools being taken over by the government, and of problems getting jobs in teaching or the military.

Yet the wider population does not share this stance. In recent years, many Muslim Iranians have rebelled against the theocracy’s intolerance by reclaiming their ancient history, celebrating Zoroastrian festivals and symbols. This is despite the difficulty of obtaining books on Zoroastrianism. Members of the faith have been warned not to encourage such interest. “Quite a number outside the ruling class are very sympathetic and want to go back to their origins,” Vafadari says. “But [there has been] a political decision not to give too much air to these national values. The regime is ambivalent.”

In September 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (see A) arranged for the loan of an ancient tablet from the British Museum, the Cyrus Cylinder (see X for Xerxes), and praised Iran’s indigenous traditions. Unfortunately, this pride is not reflected in official equality for practitioners of the country’s oldest religion.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran