The Trump Administration’s Weird Cyrus the Great Fixation
Ishaan Tharoor comments on the Trump administration’s weird interest in promoting Cyrus the Great to score propaganda points against the Iranian government:
For the Trump administration, though, the symbolism behind Cyrus goes a bit further. Both Pompeo and Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, have frequently invoked Cyrus as a foil to attack the current theocratic rulers in Tehran. The legacy of the Achaemenid kings — the powerful imperial dynasty Cyrus helped forge — was directly embraced by Iran’s U.S.-backed shah, and therefore viewed with somewhat less enthusiasm by the revolutionary Islamist regime that unseated him. In 2016, a commemoration at Cyrus’s mausoleum in the ancient ruins of Pasargadae in southern Iran saw some people chant anti-regime slogans, prompting Iranian authorities to clamp down on gatherings at the site. The Trump administration has since frequently invoked Cyrus to poke the Islamic Republic in the eye.
In September, Hook cajoled Iran’s rulers at a speech in New York to “lead their nation in the noble tradition of those who came before them” and scolded them for being “nothing like” Cyrus the Great. Last year, a State Department spokeswoman said “the Iranian regime should learn a few lessons from his leadership” and stop persecuting religious minorities in its midst.
Using the memory of Cyrus to beat up on modern-day Iranians is a strange thing for the Trump administration to do. For one thing, Cyrus (Kurush) is remembered above all for conquering the Near East and violently subduing the region to his rule. Cyrus has a reputation for being a just and tolerant ruler (a reputation burnished by positive portrayals in the Bible and Xenophon), but there is no question that he was also a brutal empire-builder. At the same time that they are praising Cyrus, the Trump administration is constantly berating Iran for daring to wield the slightest influence outside of its borders. One moment, Pompeo and Hook are telling the Iranian government that they have to be a “normal country” and give up their regional ambitions entirely, and the next they are celebrating the legacy of Cyrus, who took over one land after another through force. To call this a mixed message would be generous. “Follow the example of your greatest imperialist leader, except for the imperialism” would be hilarious if it weren’t proof of how incompetent and ignorant this administration’s Iran policy is. The absurdity of this rhetoric has been hard to miss:
Who writes these tweets for him?
The legacy of Cyrus the Great was a regional empire.
Rhetoric abt the supposed revival of that very empire is being used by the Trump administration to justify starving Iranians into submission. https://t.co/1VLgcnrLYC
— Mohammad Ali Shabani (@mashabani) October 29, 2019
Iran hawks invoke a pre-Islamic Persian ruler in order to use him as a bludgeon against the Islamic Republic, but I doubt very much that anyone in Iran likes to see foreigners weaponize one part of their history to attack another. There is something genuinely insulting and disrespectful about ransacking another country’s history in an attempt to justify hostile policies in the present. It is of a piece with the rest of the administration’s incoherent and dishonest Iran policy, according to which they profess to want to help the Iranian people prosper while doing everything they can to strangle them to death. The administration also pretends to respect Iran and its history as they try to use part of that history to distract from their relentless hostility against contemporary Iranians. It is little better than high-profile trolling, and all that it does is advertise how narrow and limited our government’s knowledge really is.