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At the foundation of which, again, is Cyrus, and in particular something called the Cyrus Cylinder—perhaps Iran's most exalted artifact—housed at the British Museum in London, with a replica residing at UN headquarters in New York City. The cylinder resembles a corncob made of clay; inscribed on it, in cuneiform, is a decree that has been described as the first charter of human rights—predating the Magna Carta by nearly two millennia. It can be read as a call for religious and ethnic freedom; it banned slavery and oppression of any kind, the taking of property by force or without compensation; and it gave member states the right to subject themselves to Cyrus's crown, or not. "I never resolve on war to reign."

"To know Iran and what Iran really is, just read that transcription from Cyrus," said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. We were in her central Tehran apartment building, in a basement office lined with mahogany-and-glass bookcases. Inside one was a tiny gold copy of the cylinder, encased in a Plexiglas box that she held out to me as if presenting a newborn child. "Such greatness as the cylinder has been shown many times in Iran," but the world doesn't know it, she said. "When I go abroad, people get surprised when they realize that 65 percent of the college students here are girls. Or when they see Iranian paintings and Iranian architecture, they are shocked. They are judging a civilization just by what they have heard in the last 30 years"—the Islamic revolution; the rollbacks of personal freedoms, particularly for women; the nuclear program and antagonism with the West. They know nothing of the thousands of years that came before, she said—what the Iranians went through to remain distinct from their invaders, and how they did it.

For instance, she said, after the Arabs came, and Iran converted to Islam, "eventually we turned to the Shiite sect, which was different from the Arabs, who are Sunni."

They were still Muslims, but not Arabs.

"We were Iranian."

In fact, the first thing people said when I asked what they wanted the world to know about them was, "We are not Arabs!" (followed closely by, "We are not terrorists!"). A certain Persian chauvinism creeps into the dialogue. Even though economically they're not performing as well as Arab states like Dubai and Qatar, they still feel exceptional. The Arabs who conquered Iran are commonly regarded as having been little more than Bedouin living in tents, with no culture of their own aside from what Iran gave them, and from the vehemence with which they are still railed against, you would think it happened not 14 centuries ago but last week.

I met a woman at a wedding who gave off the air of an aging movie star, her dapper husband beside her wearing his white dinner jacket and smoking out of a cigarette holder, and it wasn't five minutes before she lit into the Arabs.

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