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What makes Iranians tick?

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21 June 2012 09:33

In grand debates about foreign policy, we concentrate on leaders but often lose sight of the people and of what constitutes the 'national psyche'. Yet understanding the national psyche tells us a lot about the formulation of a state's policy and what impact certain actions may have. Sanctions, for instance, effect change not because they impact on leaders. Rather, they are designed to build pressure from below so leaders must react to their restive populations.

The difficulty is trying to determine the national psyche, particularly in heterogeneous countries. Where in Australia should you go to gauge the manner in which we identify ourselves? The War Memorial? The MCG on the first day of a Boxing Day Test? Perhaps a concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House? The reality is that we, like everyone else, are an amalgam and such visits can only provide snippets, parts of a complex whole. But these snippets can be revealing.

Yesterday I took the Tehran metro out to the second last stop on the red line (16 cents for a one-way journey anywhere on the system; magic) to the partially completed Imam Khomeini shrine. It is enormous and interesting in its own right, but what is more revealing is what lies near the shrine and comes with its own metro stop: Behesht-e-Zahra, the cemetery for the Iran-Iraq war dead.

Unlike our own serried ranks of headstones at Commonwealth cemeteries, those at Behesht-e-Zahra are individual shrines, with photos and mementos of the individual dead adorning the graves and plenty of people paying their respects on a holiday afternoon, not in a mournful way but complete with cups of tea ready to sit among the graves and talk with family or simply to sit silently with those who died 30 years ago but whose images, frozen in time, make them somehow more real.

What this place says of the Iranian psyche I am less sure. The Iran-Iraq war continues to be seen as a war of national survival. But Behesht-e-Zahra, with its individual shrines, also personalises those sacrifices in a different way to our cemeteries. Shi'a are different to their Sunni cousins in that they have a tradition of iconography, particularly as it relates to their early Imams. Behesht-e-Zahra is certainly in that tradition.

But I came away with another feeling. Australia has no war cemetery like Behesht-e-Zahra dedicated solely to those who died saving the country from a foreign invader. An equivalent would be a huge Australian war cemetery in Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra that consistently drew families. Instead, Australians must visit relatives' war graves in far-off places such as Gaza, Thailand or France, where they can contemplate the futility of war and Australia's willingness to send its soldiers overseas to fight. 

Behesht-e-Zahra is a powerful symbol for Iranians and a reminder of the need for eternal vigilance against external aggressors. How widespread that feeling is cannot, of course, be gauged but it is an interesting snippet nevertheless.

Speaking of iconography, the highly visible shrine of the person who oversaw the war effort dominates the skyline. It says something about the role of religion in general and clerics in particular in Iranian society, but that will be for a later post.

Photos by Rodger Shanahan. 

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