. . . Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the executive branch of Iran’s government increasingly reference secular Iranian nationalism. They recently celebrated an exhibition honoring Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago; they have also been known to castigate influential mullahs for diminishing Iran’s greatness, going so far as to encourage the separation of religion from the government. Meanwhile parliament speaker Ali Larijani and his legislative supporters present themselves as adherents to the fundamentalist traditions of Shiite Islam and as true believers in the velayat-e faqih, Iran’s system of governance by Muslim jurists.
Under the supervision of Lloyd Rudolph, I wrote my BA thesis on the rise of secular Iranian nationalism under the Pahlavi dynasty, its temporary destruction as a consequence of the Islamic Revolution, and its revival as a means to counter Saddam Hussein’s efforts to co-opt religious themes in his prosecution of the Iran-Iraq war. I write this post not only to revisit the days of my youth (how I miss them) but also to note that any effort on the part of Ahmadinejad to revive secular Iranian nationalism–especially through a celebration of Cyrus the Great that, however merited, might be uncomfortably similar to what the mullahs considered a royalist outrage–may only serve to further undermine Ahmadinejad’s political situation. Khomeini and the mullahs may have been able to get away with employing secular Iranian nationalism as a propaganda tool during the Iran-Iraq war, but he and they possessed sufficient theological and revolutionary credentials to have been able to afford doing so, and their employment of secular nationalist themes was excused as a means of rallying the people to preserve the revolution by preventing Iran’s defeat at the hands of Iraq. By contrast, Ahmadinejad’s invocation of secular nationalist themes cannot be said to serve any goal of national and revolutionary preservation against an external threat. Rather, it is an invocation that is meant solely and exclusively to bolster Ahmadinejad’s political power, at the expense of the mullahs.
The last major Iranian political figure to have tried to break the political power of the mullahs via the invocation of secular Iranian nationalism was none other than Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. We all know what happened to him. Wouldn’t it be funny if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met a similar fate?