Mahatma Gandhi had hoped that after independence India would be the conscience of the world, boldly practising peace and non-violence and courageously speaking the truth to friends and foes alike. Nothing would gladden the soul of Gandhiji more than our ticking off the Iranian President and silencing his bellicose tongue.
For most of its history, Iran was known in the West by its Greek name of Persia. It was after the 1920s that it began to be known as Iran. Interestingly, Persia and Iran conjure up rather different stock images. Talk of Persia, and many people get an instant picture of a dreamy, ancient, glamorous empire — a land of beautiful magic carpets, secret, fountain-filled gardens, roses and Shiraz grapes, luxurious fabrics and harems where dark-eyed beauties lounge around. The Persians in this image may be given to sensual pleasures, but are of course, immensely civilised and polite. Talk of Iran, however, and many people instantly think of a dour, rabidly puritanical country led by fanatical, black-clad mullahs, all too ready to urge destruction on non-believers. Yet, Persia and Iran are the same country, and there is a grain of truth in both these contradictory images. Sensible Iranians are proud of the fact that their country is one of the oldest in the world. Its roots date back through a 2,500-year line of kings to Cyrus the Great, who unified the country in the 6th century BC, and many Iranians today proudly acknowledge their descent from the first Persians. All over Iran are wonderful ancient buildings, from the great ruined city of Persepolis to the wind-towers of Yazd. The great square and mosques of Isfahan are among the greatest historical sites in the world.
On the tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae is the following inscription: "Welcome, pilgrim, I have been expecting you./Before you lies Cyrus, King of Asia, King of the World./All that is left of me is dust. Do not envy me."
This is a glimpse of a highly civilised people's nation. King Cyrus had a reputation for justice and wisdom unmatched in the ancient world. For the whole of his empire he promised respect for tradition, customs and religions. He would never let any governor or official look down upon or insult any of his people. He even promised that he would not impose monarchy on any nation in his empire. Each was free to accept it or reject it; he would never reign through imposition.
The Iranians today are predominantly Shias. In the 7th century Islam came to Iran and while it was getting gradually Persianised, came Islam's great schism. It arose directly out of the chaos following the Prophet's death. Many Muslims saw great virtue in Hazrat Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law. Ali stood for peace and social justice. Speaking to one of the governors in Egypt Ali said: "You must be just, and the serving of the common man must be one of your prime objectives. The gratification of the aristocracy is insignificant and can be ignored in the face of the happiness of the masses... Look after the deprived (mahrum) and dispossessed (mustazaf) who need food and shelter. They deserve your help. Give to them generously from the bait-al-mal (public fund). It is your duty to protect them and their families".
Ali was finally chosen as the fourth caliph. Unfortunately, five years later, Ali was brutally murdered. The Shias reject caliphs previous to him as usurpers. The Sunnis, however, consider the Shias to be heretics. The division has become embedded in the tragedy of Karbala, in which Ali's son Hussain, an inveterate champion of social justice, was cruelly slain by the army of Yazid.
The Persians have produced dazzling kings and poets like Rumi, Saadi and Hafez. These Sufis were mystics who relied on their inner resources to capture God's love and to create work of spiritual beauty.
Iran witnessed what is known as the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs took over, and soon Iran became the principal champion of the PLO, which was launching its attacks on Israel. The main group sponsored by Iran now is Hezbollah, which has been linked with what is generally called Islamic terrorism. The Cyrus spirit of peace and Ali's promise of social justice have both evaporated. Besides, the Islamic Republic is now as corrupt as any other. Desperate Iranians elected Ahmadinejad as their President to eliminate this corruption. He started his regime with dangerous comments about Israel and Jews. He told a huge rally in Tehran that "Israel should be wiped off of the map of the world". This was followed by the denial of the holocaust. He later modified his view, saying that Israel should be shifted to Alaska. He has lied to the United Nations and continued to enrich uranium beyond the need for civilian use. While the Americans are convinced that Iran is a serious danger to peace, the Chinese seem to be helping Iranian nuclear ambitions. China does not feel endangered, but the rest of the world does.
India has affection for Iranians and respect for their ancient civilisation, but it is not in the interest of world security that Iran should possess a nuclear bomb. It is better to deal with Iran now before it acquires the bomb and places it in the hands of Hezbollah.