Iran’s 2,500-Year War with the West
The lessons of our long history of engagement with Persia


Jim Lacey

Iran is at war with the West!

Even as Western politicians remain oblivious to the threat, it has not escaped the notice of Arab governments. A few weeks ago, Saudi armored formations entered Bahrain to help that nation’s government defeat a Shia rebellion. While it is tempting to view Bahrain’s revolt as part of the greater upheaval challenging governments throughout the region, that is only part of the story. In reality, Iran is bidding to extend its influence throughout the Persian Gulf oil-producing areas. By infiltrating Shia organizations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and southern Iraq, Iran is working to destabilize neighboring governments. Even as it drives toward possession of nuclear weapons, Iran is conducting a shadow campaign as part of a long-term war to dominate a region vital to the West’s economic survival.

Despite what is happening before its very eyes, the Obama administration and other Western governments remain set on negotiating with Iran. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Iran’s aims. In the administration’s defense, however, the West has never understood Iran, nor Iran the West. In fact, our mutual 2,500-year track record since Persian civilization first encountered the West is one of nearly unrelenting conflict.

History never presents a clear roadmap of the future, and its lessons are often clouded in mist. Still, policymakers ignore history at great peril. For even the most enlightened persons still view the world though historical and cultural prisms established centuries ago.

Today, the West is pulling out all the stops in hopes of engaging Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and enter into a lasting peace. Unfortunately, two and a half millennia of history demonstrate that the prospects for a resolution short of conflict or Western surrender are bleak.

When Iran, then called Persia, first sent an army to conquer the West 2,500 years ago, it was met by merely 10,000 hoplites, most of them Athenian. Sent by the Persian king, Darius, to extinguish an infant Western Civilization, the Persians outnumbered the Athenians by as much as five or six to one. Miraculously, the Athenians won the day at Marathon, saving not only their own city, but also the ideas of democracy, freedom, and open markets, which have so long underpinned what it means to be part of the West. Unfortunately, this first violent clash of civilizations did not end matters. The Persians returned and were again driven back only a decade later, beginning a pattern of East–West conflict that has raged in many incarnations for well over two thousand years.

One is tempted to dismiss the notion that this first clash of civilizations was a contest between political and economic systems, and not just another attempt at conquest by a dominant power over a perceived weaker one. However, the words of Darius’s predecessor, Cyrus the Great, the creator of the Persian Empire, betray the true underlying motives. Cyrus, after being warned by a Spartan envoy to desist from attacking any Greek cities, inquired of his advisers about the relatively unknown Greeks. When he had learned more about them, Cyrus replied to the Spartan, “I have never yet feared any men who had a place set aside in the center of their city for meeting together, swearing false oaths, and cheating one another.” Here, over 25 centuries ago, is encapsulated the first recorded instance of an Eastern ruler expressing his contempt for the just-emerging democratic and market-oriented values of Western society.

Cyrus’s statement of contempt marked the start of a Persian policy of conquest, intended to exterminate such foreign ideas. It marks the beginning of an East–West cultural divide that still roils global affairs today. We live in a world that has been shaped for centuries by this divide and the conflicts born from it.

In no small measure, Rome proved unable to resist the barbarian invasions from the north because its strength was sapped fighting off invading Iranian (then called Parthian) armies. Later, when Iran became the Sassanid Empire, its constant attacks on Byzantium so weakened that great empire that it was incapable of resisting invading Arab armies fighting under the banner of Islam. Then, as part of (or in alliance with) the Islamic caliphate, Iran provided troops and treasure to aid in an almost constant assault on the West.