TEHRAN, Iran — Iranians have long been proud of their ancient history and culture, and they always speak of the Achaemenid Empire (circa 550-330 B.C.) with pride. Since the kings of this empire, and particularly Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, ruled with benevolence and tolerance, they enjoy a particular affection among Iranians. Darius, in his famous prayer, wished for the empire to be protected from enemy armies, drought and lies. Though some historians doubt the authenticity of the prayer, its narrative has nonetheless been accepted by most Iranians.
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad correctly picked up on this sentiment among Iranians and gradually moved away from his radically conservative views toward more nationalistic tendencies. In an unprecedented statement, originating from his close friend and adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, he even called Cyrus’ actions a continuation of the conduct of divine prophets. The statement was strongly criticized by fellow conservatives and those who had previously supported him. Ahmadinejad’s September 2010 unveiling of the exhibition of the famed Cyrus Cylinder, which was on a four-month loan to the National Museum of Iran — the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — was met with criticism, too. Mashaei was notably also present at the opening ceremony. However, both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei faced a public that did not trust the sincerity of their supposed respect for Cyrus and Iran’s ancient legacy. Indeed, many Iranians interpreted these measures as political maneuvering, leaving Ahmadinejad and Mashaei with little success in their endeavor.