Is the Islamic Republic of Iran the rising superpower in the Middle East? If so, why is it relevant to you today?
Iran’s military supports Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, arguably the only reason he is still in power. Iran equips Lebanon’s Hezbollah party with weapons and financial support. Iran backs Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. Iran-backed Shia tribes overthrew the government of Yemen last month. Iran’s influence continues to expand in Afghanistan as U.S. military presence retreats. Bahrain may be next on its agenda.
Why is Iran escalating its military and economic power across the region?
George Friedman has made popular the concept of “metanarrative,” an overarching purpose and agenda that drives countries, organizations and people. According to Friedman, if we can understand the metanarrative behind a nation’s behavior, we can better predict its future decisions. For example, many believe that Turkey is seeking to rebuild the Ottoman Empire, while Russia is working to resurrect the Russian Empire along the lines of the U.S.S.R.
And it seems clear that Iran seeks to recreate the Persian Empire, once the dominant superpower in the world.
What was the Persian Empire?
The First Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great (600-529) in 550 B.C. This dynasty is often called the Achaemenid Empire, to distinguish it from smaller empires to follow: the Parthian (247 B. C. to A.D. 224) and the Sasanian (A.D. 224-651).
In 539 B.C., Cyrus defeated the Babylonian Empire. Soon thereafter he released the Jews to return to their homeland (Isaiah 45:1, 4; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). At its height, his empire spanned the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. It included the modern territories of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, much of Egypt, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman and the UAE.
At its peak, the Persian Empire ruled 44 percent of the world’s population, the highest percentage for any empire in human history. It was defeated in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great and his Greek Empire.
While the Persian Empire would never again achieve such global dominance, the Iranian people continued to be known as Persians. They spoke the same language, and embraced the same culture. After the rise of Islam, they became part of the Shia branch of Muslim civilization. (For more on Sunni and Shia Muslims, see my The Islamic State: What You Need to Know.)
Why is Persia now called Iran?
The country we call Iran continued to be known as Persia until 1935. At that time, its government asked countries with which it had diplomatic relations to call the nation “Iran.” Why? “Iran” is a cognate of “Aryan.” The Iranian ambassador to Germany reportedly sought to cultivate good relations with the Nazi regime, which identified the Aryan race as supreme. Thus the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the move to rename the nation.
But Iranians have always been Persians. They remember when their civilization was the most dominant in the world and ruled the Arab peoples who now oppose their ascent. They remember when forces from the West destroyed their empire. And many want to recreate that empire today.
Why? One reason is economic—the more Iran can control the Middle East, the more it can control energy reserves that still influence much of the world. A second reason is political—any regime that can appeal to nationalistic pride will enjoy popular support at home.
A third is religious—many of Iran’s Islamic leaders believe that they are advancing the global dominance of Islam. Supreme Leader Khamenei continues to call for Israel’s destruction, in part because he apparently believes that such a move would hasten the return of the Mahdi, a Messiah-like figure Shia Muslims long to see and serve. (For more, see my book, Radical Islam: What You Need to Know.)
What can we expect?
If Iran is seeking to rebuild the Persian Empire, what future steps can we expect it to take?
One: it will continue building Shia-led political and military coalitions around the region. The more it expands its power in the Middle East and beyond, the more it realizes the economic and political benefits of such advance.
Two: it will escalate conflict with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), seeking to prevent this Sunni-led coalition from becoming a rival superpower. IS threatens the stability of Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq, and opposes Iran’s Shia-centered vision for global Islamic dominance.
Three: it will develop nuclear power in its quest for economic supremacy in the area. As we will see below, such advance would change global geopolitics in significant ways.
Four: it will seek nuclear weapons. Presumably not because it would deploy such weapons, as its leaders know they can expect immediate retaliation from Israel and nuclear powers in the West. Rather, to use these weapons as a deterrent and support for Iranian proxies. One of the reasons Israel developed nuclear weapons many years ago was as a weapon of last resort against its enemies. If these enemies could counter with nuclear weapons of their own, Israel’s security would be significantly weakened.
And some believe that Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei might develop nuclear weapons for an even more terrifying purpose. Last November, he tweeted that “there is no cure for Israel other than annihilation.” Some believe that he expects the Mahdi to reappear if Iran bombs Israel, and believes that he would protect Iran from nuclear retaliation.
What does Iran’s metanarrative mean for you?
Iranian ambitions to superpower status as a revived Persian Empire are enormously significant for the Middle East and beyond.
For Saudi Arabia, a revived Persian Empire is a nightmare. Such an empire would seek to control the Middle East and eventually the Saudi peninsula as well. As a result, the Saudis have fought Iran economically, producing oil in a time of oversupply to cause falling prices and pressure the Iranian government.
According to Bloomberg, Iran needs oil to be $136 per barrel to maintain its budget. Due in large part to Saudi production, the current price is below $50. Slumping oil prices and their effect on the American economy are just one practical result of Iranian ambitions today. The Saudis have also joined a coalition to fight Iran-backed Shia forces across the Saudi border in Yemen.
For Israel, a revived Persian Empire would unite Muslims in the Middle East against the Jewish State. Even if such an empire did not possess nuclear weapons, its economic, military and political resources would pose a grave threat to the Jewish people. With nuclear weapons, Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel’s existence.
For Russia, a new Persian Empire would be economically and politically damaging. Iran’s oil reserves could eventually compete with Russian energy resources in Europe and Asia. Its political ascent in Syria and around the region would lessen Russian influence as well.
For the U.S., a revived Persian Empire would present a conflicted future. On one hand, Iranian threats against Israel directly implicate America, as we are pledged to Israel’s security. On the other, Iranian energy reserves and political influence would weaken Russia’s power in the region at a time when Putin’s ambitions pose an increasing threat to our global interests.
This conflict helps explain the debate between the U.S. and Israel regarding the present negotiations with Iran. It is clearly in Israel’s best interest for Iran/Persia to have no pathway to a nuclear weapon. Removing its nuclear capability is the best way to achieve this goal.
However, it is in America’s best interest for Iran to escalate its economic and political power in the region, joining our opposition to radical Sunni groups such as IS and al-Qaeda, and counterbalancing Russia’s influence. As a result, we want Iran to have nuclear technology but not nuclear weapons. Israel believes the former guarantees the latter.
How is God at work in Iran?
Here’s the good news: God is powerfully at work in Iran today. Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and Habakkuk all lived there. Parthians, Medes and Elamites from Persia were among the first converts to Christianity (Acts 2:9, 11). Now God’s people are walking this ancient land in ever-increasing numbers.
Iranians are coming to Christ in countries such as Sweden, then returning to their native land to share the gospel. Television ministries are broadcasting the gospel across Iran. One such ministry records more than 3,000 conversions each month. Multiple ministries are working to get Bibles into the country. Others working for Christ in Iran report amazing receptivity to God’s word. As Muslims receive visions and dreams from Jesus, more are making Christ their Lord than ever before.
And the enemy is fighting back. Iranian Christians face extreme persecution today. Pastor Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned there for more than two years. Iranian authorities constantly seek out and break up Christian worship services and churches. Under Iranian Sharia law, defection from Islam is a criminal offense, with arrests and even executions common for Muslim converts to Christianity.
God calls us to pray for persecuted believers in Iran (see 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2). We need to pray for Muslims to come to Christ across Iran and around the world. We need to pray for Iran’s leaders to meet Jesus and become his followers and ambassadors. We need to pray for Israel’s safety and peace (Psalm 122:6). And we need to pray for world leaders to have wisdom in dealing with this rising empire.
Generations before Cyrus fulfilled this prophesy, the Lord said of the first Persian king:
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loosen the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
“I will go before you
and level the exalted places,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron” (Isaiah 45:1-2, ESV).
For what purpose?
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other (vs. 3-5).
This prophecy was fulfilled when Cyrus liberated the Jewish people in 538 B.C. Now imagine a second fulfillment today. Imagine the Persian people led by servants of God who support Israel and lead people to know “from the rising of the sun and from the west” that there is no God but our Lord.
This is God’s heart for Iran. Is it yours?