Expertise on Iran

Photo By Fabienkhan

In the very early hours of Wednesday, when a war between Iran and the USA seemed inevitable, I was unsure I could teach my two classes as if nothing had happened. One being on Iranian history and the other on Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, there was no easy way to connect the teaching to the political events of the day. I had woken up to the news of Iran having fired missiles at US military bases over in Iraq. The development was not entirely unexpected, but I was shocked and could sense the signs of that familiar feeling of paralising anxiety that comes with the expectation of a bloody conflict that I have known since the Iranian revolution of 1979, when I was younger than my youngest son is today. A couple of decades and more violent conflicts later, I am unsure, I will ever be old and wise enough to understand violence of this sort.

I asked myself what I should do in the face of yet another war within my lifetime? Remain emotional, call the classes off in protest at an impending war and post on Twitter? Start running to Cologne where my parents were on that day to warn them not to go back to Iran? I know. But I always feel the need to run if there is a threat of imminent conflict. The thought of a call does not calm me the way the image of me running hundreds of kilometres in panic and out of breath does. Or, should I open up the sessions to a discussion about the recent developments? I also considered staying home, closing down my brain just to weep. I was too confused, too many worries to make a decision. So, I worked on my introduction into Sasanian history that was the topic for the first session and decided that none of the above were an option. At work, I saw a couple of people, calmed down and went into the classroom. We always have some young students who connect with Iran in different ways. Most are second generation Iranians who hope to find out more about their country of origin. It would be insensitive, so my thinking, to teach Sasanian history when some of us were worrying about what was about to happen to our country, to our families and friends. I was also thinking about my sons, who love to see Iran, but do not know the country. One of them has never been. Will they ever have the chance to see the country if there is a war? How would they feel about a war?

So, I offered to hold an open discussion after the delivery of the lecture. To my surprise, the session related to the day’s events in more ways than expected, particularly the following passage from the inscription of Šābuhr I at Naqš-e Rostam:

§30. Und die Menschen, die Wir aus dem Reich der Römer, aus Nicht-Ērān im Raub wegführten, innerhalb Ērānšahr, (nämlich) in der Persis, (in) Parthien, Xūzestān, Asūrestān und (in) den anderen (Ländern), Land für Land, wo Wir und (Unser) Vater und (Unsere) Vorfahren und Urahnen Krongüter hatten, dort siedelten Wir Sie an.

Huyse (1999: 43)

There, the Sasanian king describes the resettlement of prisoners of war from Roman Empire (hrōmāyīn šahr) into various districts of Iran, or his Ērānšahr. Reading about the movement of those prisoners of war within the geographic confines of today’s Syria, Iraq and Iran felt strange. Although the relocation policy of Šābuhr may have ultimately resulted in an enriching cultural exchange, perhaps paving the way for the development of philosophy in the Islamic world, it was the resemblance of the geography of that late antique conflict to the current confrontation’s political borders that struck me as odd. But it was not history that my students were interested in. They were seeking guidance on how to understand the most recent developments. Did I have background information or analysis that would help explain the situation? To their disappointment, I did not have such knowledge, insights or information. And to be honest, I believe many so-called, self-styled experts do not have either. I have opinions, suspicions and speculation, but do not offer those in any official capacity.

Not too long ago I was approached by Iran International. I admit of being so apolitical and weary of news organisations that I had no idea who they were, what they did and where they stood. But I did not need to know, as I generally stay away from political commentary. I declined, but offered expertise on dead languages, Zoroastrian manuscripts and old texts. Not surprisingly, they politely declined.

Seeing that this video has been making the rounds on Twitter, it seems that the question of authenticity, reliability and trust are the most burning questions in the landscape of political commentary:

Has it really come to this? Do we feel the need to define expertise on a country in about 90 seconds? The video does well, but why do we seek ever more simplistic responses to highly complex questions? Why do we have to warn our readers of fake experts? In the past few days, I have seen some recommendations as to whom to follow on Twitter, where to receive sound expertise on Iran. I know some of the recommended people and read some of the articles. I have personal knowledge of the production of such expertise partly through the experience of living with one expert. Many of these journalist experts are children of the diaspora, at times struggling to understand some of the basic concepts of daily life in Iran. I do not say this to discard their contributions based on place of birth, nor do I want to apply my negative assessment to all, but have on occasion found their search for identity, at times coloured by romantic or orientalist notions, at the forefront of their writing and research. They are incredible and talented writers, express themselves beautifully, can produce emotionally charged pieces that reflect people’s fears in times of stress. But many times I fail to see the substance in these writings. Many have not travelled to Iran in a very long time and are completely disconnected from the reality on the ground. In one particular case, I also know the writer’s mendacious, deceitful approach to Iran. I often find those analyses most reliable that are offered by academics with a sound knowledge of the country’s recent past, who offer political commentary detached from emotional electricity, who do not resort to binary oppositions in their writing.

Reflecting on Wednesday’s discussion with my students, I realised that I had not at all responded to the questions about the conflict. I had instead asked about the roots of the pervasive preference for simple solutions, for a reliance on others to provide answers, processes which, in my view, have significantly contributed to recent developments in the political landscape in Europe and the USA. The ever growing power of social media and the distribution of misinformation tailored by way of mined, leaked or harvested user data is truly frightening. We seem to know the problem, but our reliance on social media for news and political analysis, makes finding a solution difficult if not impossible. Fake accounts, obscure background organisations play tricks on our minds without us even knowing. I increasingly feel trapped in the Matrix, like Neo. In our Matrix, highly complex data-driven analyses of our personality offer simple and unambiguous solutions to complex problems. Viewed in a time lapse, we will soon lose our ability to think complex questions through and lose appetite for open and honest debates, pondering and generating insight. Thomas Bauer, a scholar of Islamic Studies, pleads in his “Die Vereindeutigung der Welt” for a culture of ambiguity and complexity and against the tendency to simplify and disambiguate culture and thought, drawing parallels with the loss of biological diversity in the recent years. But perhaps no one can express it in a more succinct way than Immanuel Kant in his short text on enlightenment:

Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen. Selbstverschuldet ist diese Unmündigkeit, wenn die Ursache derselben nicht am Mangel des Verstandes, sondern der Entschließung und des Mutes liegt, sich seiner ohne Leitung eines andern zu bedienen. Sapere aude! Habe Mut dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen! ist also der Wahlspruch der Aufklärung.

Kant (2017)


  • Bauer, Thomas. 2018. Die Vereindeutigung der Welt: Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt. Stuttgart: Reclam.
  • Huyse, Philip. 1999. Die dreisprachige Inschrift Šābuhrs I. an der Kaʿba-i Zardušt (ŠKZ) (Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum). Vol. 1 of 2 vols. London: School of Oriental and African Studies.
  • Kant, Immanuel. 2017. Denken wagen: Der Weg aus der selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Stuttgart: Reclam.