Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israeli friendship ambassador.

Chinese Iranians and Arabs: Past and Present

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, at right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, as Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, looks on, at center, for a photo during a closed meeting held in Beijing, Saturday, March 11, 2023. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed Friday to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China lowers the chance of armed conflict between the Mideast rivals, both directly and in proxy conflicts around the region. (Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP)
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, at right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, as Wang Yi, China's most senior diplomat, looks on, at center, for a photo during a closed meeting held in Beijing, March 11, 2023. (Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP)

China has stepped into the role of mediator recently in the surprise rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional rivals in Middle East something that may be detrimental to the strategic interests of Israel and the recent Abraham Accord diplomacy.

Strategic experts say China is trying to replace the USA as the prominent power in the Middle East, but unlike USA, China tried to do this thousands of years before too, and failed terribly because of it’s excessively selfish foreign policy. When Ancient Iranians the Sasanids and the Arab Caliph’s army (Rashidun Caliphate) were fighting, Tang China sided with the Persians against Arabs but not wholeheartedly keeping it’s self interest as paramount.

While Iranians apart from the Shia Sunni divide have had a strong animosity as a nation against the Arabs who destroyed their major power status in the ancient world. As per Iranian intellectual Sadek Zibakalam, professor at the University of Tehran “Persians will never forget their defeat at the hands of Arabs in the Battle of Qadisiya 1,400 years ago. It is as if a fire keeps seething under the ashes and is waiting for the right moment to explode,”

Will the present role of China as a mediator between China and Iran be successful, that God only knows but we should try and learn from the past about the complexities of the relationship between the Chinese, Arabs and Iranians because those who know the past understand the present in a better way. 

Persian Grandeur

Faravahar symbol the symbol of Zoroastrian faith and ancient Iranian national identity, put up in the Zoroastrian museum in Udvada India. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami, author of this article.

The region which is now called Iran, was once the core and the heartland of Mazdaism, or as it is more commonly known, Zoroastrianism. This faith is considered to be one of the oldest monotheistic religions in history. Persia or Ancient Iran was the superpower of the Ancient world, about 2,300 years ago, the Parsi (From Pars or Fars province in Persia) empire covered over two million square miles and held nearly half the world’s population.

At a place called, Naqsh-e-Rustom near Persepolis  in Iran is the tomb of “King of Kings” Darius I, it has an inscription “parsa parsahya puthra ariya ariyachitra.” This statement is a reference to his Zoroastrian ancestry. It informs us that he is a Parsi, he is the son of a Parsi, and that he is also an Aryan and a descendant of an Aryan family.

Emperor Cyrus the great of Iran, not only freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity but also helped them return to Jerusalem and build their Temple there. Sasanian Emperor of Iran Shapur, defeated the mighty Roman Empire, and made Roman Emperor Valerian his prisoner for life. Boccaccio mentions in a manuscript directly to Valerian, telling him that he dishonoured the people of Rome and should have killed himself to avoid such humiliation. He says that Valerian deserved his fate because he had oppressed Christians, cursed the name of God, and persecuted the Church, while allowing pagans to worship false gods. 

From Greece to India and from Egypt to Central Asia, Iran was dominating as a world power. Sasanian Iran also controlled the semi-independent Arab kingdom of al-Hira (located to the north of the great swamp of lower Iraq) under the Lakhmid dynasty. Hira, the centre of the Lakhmid kingdom, was where the early Arabic alphabet was standardized as per Yasmin Zahran, in her book The Lakhmids of Hira: Sons of the Water of Heaven.

Rise of The Arabs

Arab commander Rashidun Caliphate Sayf, Allāh (Arabic: “Sword of God”) Khālid ibn al-Walīd who defeated ancient Iranians in several battles. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

The region which is now known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was home to several Bedouin tribes, that occasionally raided Persian and Byzantine territories. Then came Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and Islam united several Arab tribes together. The Prophet sent his companion Abdullah ibn Hudhafah with a message to Shah Khosrow of Iran, the Prophet mentioned “…….I wish to convey to you God’s call, for I am God’s Messenger to all mankind, sent with the task of warning all those who are alive that doom will befall the unbelievers. If you submit to God you will be safe. If you refuse, you shall bear the responsibility for the Magians.” When Khosrow read the Prophet’s letter, he tore it to pieces, saying: “How dare he write this sort of letter to me when he is my slave?” 

Khosrow sent his messengers to arrest the Prophet. When the Persian messengers met the Prophet he told them of the killing of their emperor and he also mentioned “…….tell him also on my behalf that my religion and my kingdom will replace that of Khosrow and will sweep all before it. Tell him also that if he accepts Islam, I will give him what he has now under his authority and will make him a ruler in the area he now governs.”

Indeed the army of the Caliphate headed by an Arabs, went on to conquer Iran.  Caliph Abu Bakr dispatched an all-volunteer army of 18,000 under his best general Khalid ibn al-Walid (d.642 CE) into the region and after him Caliph Abu Bakr turned the campaign over to Umar ibn al-Khattab (c. 583-644 CE), another close companion of Muhammad both defeated Iranians several times.

To defeat the Arabs the Iranians and Romans(Byzantines) made a military alliance, but were decisively defeated at the battles of Yarmouk and Qadisiyyah in 636 CE. The last Zoroastrian emperor of Iran Yazgerd III fled to the east, while Ctesiphon fell in 637 CE after a three month siege. Arabs kept moving forward on their victory march defeating the Iranians. Emperor Yazdegard III was assassinated in Merv in Turkmenistan, most of the Iranians who still believed in Zoroastrianism fled as refugees to India where they still live known as Parsis and other Iranians converted to Islam. The Arab Conquest of the Sassanid Empire brought to an end a 400-year period of Persian rule. The Iranians became Muslims but did not become Arabs we need to remember that. The Safavid dynasty made Twelver Shiism official religion of a predominantly Sunni Iran which over the years became Shia and not just became Shia itself became the centre of Shia power that has been influencing Shias around the world and had turned into a regional rival of Sunni Arabs.

China Assured To Help Iranians Against Arabs

Tang Chinese, camel rider. Image Credits: I, Sailko via Wikimedia Commons.

In the military struggle to ensure their survival Sasanian Empire (Dynasty of Ancient Iran) hoped for help from Tang China against the Arab Caliph’s army (Rashidun Caliphate). When Arab commander Ahnaf ibn Qais attacked the Iranians at the Battle of the Oxus (651 CE), the Chinese never came and the result was a crushing Iranian defeat. After the Battle of the Oxus, Sasanid Emperor Yazgerd III escaped into Chinese territory. After Yazdegard III’s assassination in Merv by a lowly miller at the instigation of the governor of Merv in modern day Turkmenistan, Yazdegard III’s son Peroz III, and grandson, Narsieh, remained active in Tang China. Peroz III sent several embassies to the Chinese court requesting Tang intervention against the Arabs, but he could only manage to be recognized in 661 as the head of the ‘Persian Area Command’ (Bosi dudufu), whose capital was Zaranj. In 662 Gaozong accorded to him the title of ‘King of Persia’ (Bosi wang). 

Peroz III’s son Narsieh is said to have accompanied the Chinese general Pei Xingjian in order to rescue Persia from the Arabs around 679 but the Chinese left the Iranians before they tried to attack Ctesiphon their erstwhile capital now ruled by Arabs. Chinese were interested in subduing the Turks and Tibetans and after Pei Xinjiang the Chinese general who accompanied Iranian Narsieh to help him get his throne back from the Arabs, conquered the city of Suyāb/Ak Beshim, taking the Turks and their Tibetan allies by surprise, the Chinese interest was fulfilled and he went back to China not interested in helping his Iranian friend conquer Ctesiphon back from the Arabs. After the failure of his attempt to re-conquer Persia, Narseh went back to China around 707-9, to live the rest of his days as a respected member of the Tang court, and died from a disease. 

National Interest 

Chinese have shown in the past how to structure foreign policy on strictly national interest driven agenda. They in-fact were the quintessential realists of the ancient world, they utilised their diplomatic abilities to create goodwill abroad, but generally stayed away from getting into actual conflicts for their friends.

Israel occupying the space of peace maker in the Middle East when USA focuses more on the Indo-Pacific is not acceptable to China. If USA wants to establish it’s power near Chinese borders the Chinese want to establish their influence in Middle East a region that has long seen USA as as a hegemonic power not native to the region. Chinese diplomacy has focused on establishing it’s influence in Africa to an extent that it surpasses the influence of USA and Russia while China considers entire Asia to be it’s historical zone of influence which is an erroneous belief emerging from it’s  “Middle Kingdom” syndrome.

Now China wants to come again to the Middle East as a mediator and not as an Iranian ally, to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together, God only knows what will be the result of this Chinese initiative for mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But we know from the past one thing is clear for China it’s national interest is most important in international politics.

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is a lawyer by profession in New Delhi India, also a historian by training. He has studied history at the historical and prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi India, he has also read law at prestigious, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi ( India ) which has given one of the highest number of Judges to Indian Supreme Court. He has worked as a research consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje. Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior in India. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and Uzbekistan to explore and research about sites associated with Jewish Prophets.
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