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Youssef was slouched happily in a faux-leather chair in the offices of his publisher, munching tiny green grapes while musing about why Iranians are the way they are. As much as anything else, he thought, it was the geography, for when the Iranians were being overrun time after time, "where could they go—the desert? There was no place to run and hide." They stayed, they got along, they pretended and made taarof. "The tree here has very deep roots."

Superpower Nostalgia

The legacy from antiquity that has always seemed to loom large in the national psyche is this: The concepts of freedom and human rights may not have originated with the classical Greeks but in Iran, as early as the sixth century b.c. under the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great, who established the first Persian Empire, which would become the largest, most powerful kingdom on Earth. Among other things, Cyrus, reputedly a brave and humble good guy, freed the enslaved Jews of Babylon in 539 b.c., sending them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple with money he gave them, and established what has been called the world's first religiously and culturally tolerant empire. Ultimately it comprised more than 23 different peoples who coexisted peacefully under a central government, originally based in Pasargadae—a kingdom that at its height, under Cyrus's successor, Darius, extended from the Mediterranean to the Indus River.

So Persia was arguably the world's first superpower.

"We have a nostalgia to be a superpower again," said Saeed Laylaz, an economic and political analyst in Tehran, "and the country's nuclear ambitions are directly related to this desire." The headlines are familiar: A consensus report of key U.S. spy agencies—the National Intelligence Estimate—concluded last December that a military-run program to develop nuclear weapons in Iran was halted in 2003. Iran continues to enrich uranium, insisting that it wants only to produce fuel for its nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium is also a key ingredient for a nuclear bomb. As a deterrent, the UN has imposed increasing economic sanctions. But Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative hard-liner, is giving no ground while at the same time making frequent threatening remarks about nearby Israel, denying the Holocaust, and, according to the U.S. government, sending weapons and munitions to extremist militias in Iraq that are being used against Iraqis and U.S. forces there.

"At one time the area of the country was triple what it is now, and it was a stable superpower for more than a thousand years," said Saeed, a slender, refined man in glasses and starched shirtsleeves rolled to three-quarter length, sitting in his elegant apartment next to a lamp resembling a cockatoo, with real feathers. The empire once encompassed today's Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and the Caucasus region. "The borders have moved in over the centuries, but this superpower nostalgia, so in contradiction to reality," he said, "is all because of the history."

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