As America prepares to watch the final Presidential debate prior to Election Day, the focus has shifted to American foreign policy – particularly on Iran. It was just announced that the Obama Administration is seeking to meet one-on-one with Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions. But as we consider Iran, recent events across the rest of the Middle East should remind us of what happened between the years 602-651 when all eyes then turned to Persia (ancient Iran).
The map above depicts Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East around the year 600. By this point, Germanic and Eastern European tribal peoples had swallowed up a sizable piece of the old Roman Empire. The east, now known as the Byzantine Empire, continued until its conquest by Islam in 1453. Though the Byzantines seem to have a rather vast empire, it found itself pressured between a resurgent Persian Empire to its east and the tribal peoples to its west and north. While the Germanic tribes proved a grave threat from the 4th-5th centuries (indeed the Visigoths had even killed a Roman emperor in battle in the year 378), from 602-621 the Persians were the fiercer foe.
During the first two decades of the seventh century, the Persians conquered Byzantine Syria and Armenia before advancing on Egypt. Capturing Jerusalem along the way to Alexandria, the Persians to the dismay of Christians claimed the True Cross as a war trophy. These conquests, however, placed a heavy strain on the Persian coffers and soon the treasuries of Ctesiphon (Persia’s capital) were running low. The Byzantine Empire took this as an opportunity to pool its own dwindling supply of money and manpower for a last-ditch counter offensive. From 622-627, Byzantine armies marched through the territories conquered by Persia, winning a string of impressive battlefield victories. Soon the Byzantines set out to capture the impregnable fortress city of Ctesiphon. They no doubt carried with them the hope for peace along with the sobering memory of Emperor Julian the Apostate – who died in battle upon retreating from the walls of Ctesiphon in 363. Before they arrived at Ctesiphon, however, the Persians sued for peace. With the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630, it seemed that both sides could lick their wounds and begin rebuilding.
The peace, however, was short-lived.
What neither the Byzantines nor the Persians knew was that the Arabs to the south were emerging in the seventh century united by Islam. Two years after the Cross was returned to Jerusalem, Muhammad died having unified the Arabian Peninsula. In the following years, Muhammad’s successors showed that Arabia was only the beginning. In 633 the Arabs invaded the Persian Empire, and by 637 they had accomplished what neither Julian nor his Byzantine descendants had achieved: the capture of Ctesiphon. What followed was the conversion of Persia to Islam and the spread of Islam across the Christian near east, North Africa, and Spain. The Byzantine Empire was itself eventually swallowed up in the Islamic tidal wave.
Today all eyes are once more trained on Persia. As the map above shows, the Islamic civilization is now divided between the Persian Shiites (Iran) and the Arab Sunnis. Unlike the Byzantines who could never have predicted the rise of Islam in Arabia, we must pursue a foreign policy regarding both Shiite Persia as well as the Shiite leadership of Syria wide-eyed to the rise of Arabian Sunni Islam which could very well result if we choose to intervene in either Syria or Iran. There’s a reason why the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia have given Israel airspace to strike Iran and why the Sunnis of Turkey are inching closer to war with Syria. Al Qaeda, the chief terrorist organization which we have spent more than a decade fighting, is Sunni not Shiite.
As Libya and Egypt are signs that the Arab spring is approaching winter, we must recall the fate of Byzantium before we rush headlong to defeat the Persians.