There are many ancient countries around the world with long, storied histories, many nations that take great pride in the accomplishments of their past. Of all the nations whose narratives stretch back several thousand continuous years, Iran is one of the most proud.
Despite lengthy, often unwelcome visits by Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, the Russians, the British and others, Persian/Iranian people have lived on the same land for about four millennia. They have maintained an essentially consistent language and developed groundbreaking art, science and other elements of culture, all the while adapting to people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds that either invaded Persia or, when Persia was in the conquering mood, found themselves as Persian subjects. If your nation did Persia wrong at any time in the past, Persians may be much more likely to forgive than to forget.

For about a thousand years before the mid-7th century arrival of Islam, Persia was the global center of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion, based upon the teachings of the “prophet” Zarathushtra, that pioneered many theological concepts that became central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, such as the existence of heaven (and its underworld opposite). Muslims invaded Persia in the 600s, leading to mass conversion to Islam (at the time, Sunni Islam) and an attempt to forcibly replace the Persian language with Arabic. Ultimately Persians kept their language and, ultimately, in the 1500s, after centuries of occupation by outside powers, when Persia unified as an independent state, it adopted Shi’a Islam as its official religion. (We’ll explore the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam in the regional overview I’m plan to send at some point during the session, though offers a basic primer.)

From the 8th century until about the 1200s and 1300s when Christian Crusaders from the west and Mongols from the east put an end to the party, Persians were at the heart of “The Islamic Golden Age.” During this period–one that coincided, by the way, with Europe’s so-called “Dark Ages”–Persian philosophers, doctors, poets, mathematicians and other artists, scientists and scholars led the world in open-minded, Enlightenment-style thought. For example, the still-revered Persian-language poets Omar Kayyam, Rumi and Hafez all wrote their great works toward the end of this period. In fact, according to Wikipedia’s

“Culture of Iran” entry, in their long history Persians are responsible for creating or at least pioneering many of the world’s great inventions, such as:

— bricks
— the lute
— wine
— banking
— peaches
— tulips
— backgammon
— polo
— the stapler
— taxes
— the domesticated chicken
— spinach
— refrigerators
— batteries
— cookies
— paper
— algebra and trigonometry
— air conditioning, and–why not?–
— ice cream.

(We should certainly take the entry with a grain of salt. Which, by the way, is one of the few things the Wikipedia page doesn’t claim to have originated in Iran.)

From the 1500s when the Safavid Empire rose in Persia until its decline in the mid-1700s Persian armies conquered lands far beyond Iran’s current borders; at one point the empire extended from Black Sea and Kazakhstan to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The Ottomans and the Russians fought back and by the mid-1700s, when the Qajars replaced the Safavids, the Persian empire began to shrink. The British soon entered the picture, and Persia became one of the most intensely contended nations involved in The Great Game, the 19th century Cold War-like struggle between the oil-seeking British and Russians to control Central Asia. Who won the game? Not Persia. In 1907 the Russians and British carved Persia up into a Russia-controlled North, a British-controlled South, and a somewhat autonomous middle. The middle muddled through a British/Russian occupation during World War I. After a military coup in 1921, a Persian military officer named Reza Khan became prime minister and eventually king, or “Shah.”

SHAH 1, SHAH 2 and the CIA

Reza Shah was an autocratic king who pushed Persia–or, as the Shah requested the country be called starting in 1935 to honor the name Persians used for their own nation, “Iran”–toward modern socio-economic structures during his 16 year rule. The Shah’s supporters credited him with firmly centralizing the government, establishing “law and order” by cracking down on dissidents and secularizing Persia’s public institutions such as its education system. The Shah’s opponents denounced him for firmly centralizing the government, establishing “law and order” by cracking down on dissidents and…you get the idea. (Refer to our featured country background e-mail from a couple weeks ago about Turkey to compare and contrast that nation’s push toward secularization with that of Iran.)

During World War II the British, the Soviets and eventually the U.S. invaded Iran, exiling the Shah and solidifying control of the booming Iranian oil industry. The occupying countries allowed Reza Shah’s pro-British son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to become king in 1941. The new Shah ruled the country during the war and also through tense years afterward during which the British, U.S. and Soviets all (officially) left. Throughout it all he remained pro-Western and pro-secular. His Islamist opponents became increasingly vocal and his political opponents became increasingly powerful. In 1951 a long-time progressive politician, and descendant of the Persian kingdom preceeding the two Shahs, Mohammad Mossadeq, became prime minister and quickly orchestrated the nationalization of the oil industry, which had been under control of British companies for over forty years. The British didn’t like that. The United States didn’t either. In 1953 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup (called “Operation Ajax”) that overthrew Mossadeq and installed a prime minister who the supported the Shah. Let’s say that move didn’t fill the majority of Iranian people with love for the U.S. Neither did the next 26 years of the Shah’s American-backed rule. [Read about “Operation Ajax” here. Read about the Shah’s 1963 “White Revolution,” during which he worked with American and British interests to economically modernize the country–and give women the right to vote–here.]

Throughout the 1970s the Shah of Iran consolidated power by outlawing all political parties but his own and having his internal security forces brutally attack his opponents. He also faced a more and more vocal Islamic opposition whose leader, the

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had been living in exile in Iraq since 1964. By 1978 the situation had become critical, and by early 1979…really critical.


Throughout 1978 anti-Shah street protests grew from a January march of several hundred students (which the Iranian army crushed, resulting in many casualties, thus inspiring more protests) to a December 10/11 march of several million. Though by far the most powerful and popular opposition group was Khomeini’s Shia Islamic movement, the millions who marched against the Shah weren’t all conservative Muslims. Iranians of all political and religious orientations opposed the Shah’s human rights abuses, detested the corruption and extravagance of his regime and felt the effects of the nation’s increasing gap between rich and poor. The minority that supported the Shah’s policies of secularization and economic modernization were less and less able to justify his continued rule.

As the protests grew, U.S. diplomats in Iran told the Shah the U.S. would back him in case of revolution, but by January of 1979 the Shah realized no substantial support was coming. The Shah fled to Egypt–he left officially for a “vacation”–on January 16, 1979. He never set foot in Iran again. On February 1, 1979, an estimated five million Iranians greeted Khomeini when he returned from exile. The monarchy fell on February 11.

Over the next several months Khomeini, who portrayed his movement as not only pro-Islamic but also anti-Western, anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist, actively consolidated power. By the end of the spring of 1979 Iran’s citizens had voted to declare the nation an
“Islamic Republic” and by the end of the calendar year Iran’s newly theocratic constitution declared Khomeini “Supreme Leader.” We’ll learn a bit more about the role of “Supreme Leader” below. [Read about life in Iran during the Iranian revolution as seen from the perspective of a little girl in Marjane Satrapi’s extraordinary graphic novel, “Persepolis.”]

In September 1979 Iranian student leaders began to plan a takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran to strike yet another symbolic revolutionary blow against America. By most accounts the original plan called for the occupation to be non-violent and temporary. On November 4, 1979, however, when several hundred students captured the U.S. Embassy and took 63 hostages (diplomats, CIA operatives, staff members and military support), Khomeini, theocratic conservatives and even non-religious anti-colonialist Iranians praised the move with such vigor that the students stayed. Hostage-takers added three more Americans they found at the Foreign Ministry Office. Claiming sympathy with “oppressed minorities,” they soon released 13 women and African-Americans, and in mid-1980 freed one other hostage due to illness. That left 52 hostages. (In what came to be called “the Canadian Caper,” six diplomats dramatically evaded capture in the early days of the siege and eventually flew to safety in the West using fake Canadian passports, pretending to be a film crew scouting locations in Tehran. In real life film gossip, George Clooney owns the rights to the story and has tapped Ben Affleck to direct a film about it.)

The students who orchestrated the takeover, calling themselves “The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” not only demanded the U.S. return the Shah, who had recently begun medical treatment in America, to Iran for trial and execution, but that the U.S. government apologize for its role in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq. The U.S. did neither. (The Shah passed away in the U.S. in July of 1980.) Instead, the Iran Hostage Crises lasted a gut-wrenching 444 days, during which hostage-takers paraded their captives in front of cheering Iranian throngs and the U.S. famously botched a helicopter rescue mission. (Read about “Operation Eagle Claw” here.) A common analysis is that the Hostage Crisis both united patriotic Americans in public opposition against Iran and was a primary factor in President Carter’s losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan who promised to face Iran with strength. Iran released the hostages minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President. (October Surprise? Or not?)

Speaking of surprises, eager to take advantage of the perceived chaos in post-revolution Iran, to consolidate power in the region and perhaps to thwart a potential Shia revolution against his own Sunni-based leadership, a newly-U.S.-supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered a surprise Iraqi invasion of Iran in October, 1980. The conflict we now call the “Iran-Iraq War” was brutal, costly (in lives and money), long–it lasted eight years–and ultimately resulted in no change in borders.

Today Iran is still a functionally a theocracy with a firm hierarchy of leadership.

In contemporary Iran, power flows downhill from The Supreme Leader, through the Guardian Council which he essentially appoints, to the President and members of parliament who stand for popular election but who may only run with Guardian Council approval. The Supreme Leader–officially, “The Leader of the Revolution”–is formally Commander-in-Chief of Iran’s armed forces and appoints most leading officials in Iran, such as head judges, military commanders and, effectively all twelve members of the Guardian Council–six directly, all of whom are supposed to experts in Islamic law, and
another six indirectly (technically the Head of the Judicial Power appoints them, but who do you think appoints the Head of the Judicial Power?).

After the Supreme Leader, the next most powerful state authority is the President. Iran’s Presidents, like U.S. Presidents, stand for popular election every four years and may only be elected to two continuous terms. Though, as mentioned above, unlike U.S. Presidents, Iran’s presidential candidates can only run with Guardian Council approval.

Past Presidents of Iran: KHAMENEI, RAFSANJANI, KHATAMI, AHMADINEJAD…who are these guys?

When the Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989 the Constitutional Reform Council named Ali Khamenei the next Supreme Leader. Khamenei had been President for two terms before becoming Supreme Leader so he had already amassed a good deal of power. Since becoming Supreme Leader Khamenei may not have inspired as much revolutionary zest as Khomeini, but he’s been consistently conservative, solidifying control of the Guardian Council, denouncing Western political and cultural influences and maintaining a firm grasp on the Iranian military. Khamenei isn’t directly involved in the daily minutia of politics and he doesn’t grant interviews or travel outside of Iran–global leaders who want to meet with him have to come to Iran–but he does regularly interpret Islamic law to set what is effectively political policy in the nation. Take a look through Wikipedia’s entry on Khamenei, especially at the section on his interpretation of Islamic law, for a sense of the nuances of Iran’s official view on issues as as:

— nuclear weapons: he has stated “the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons [is] forbidden under Islam”
— fertility treatments and stem cell research (both allowed in certain circumstances)
— human rights: “he has attacked Western powers who have criticized the rights record of the Islamic Republic for hypocrisy by economically oppressing people in Third World countries and supporting despots and dictators” (though he hasn’t extended this notoin to people of the Bahá’í faith), and, most importantly for us,
— MUSIC EDUCATION FOR CHILDREN: Says Khamenei: “The promotion of music [both traditional and Western] in schools is contrary to the goals and teachings of Islam, regardless of age and level of study.” Oh no! Fortunately not all Muslims in Iran or elsewhere agree.

More information:
See what the BBC thinks of Khamenei | Visit Khamenei’s web site | Visit Khamenei’s Facebook page | Follow Khamenei on Twitter

Ali-Akbar Hashemi RAFSANJANI:
When Khamenei followed Khomeini as Supreme Leader in 1989, “pragmatic conservative” Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president. He has been a powerful figure in Iranian politics ever since, remaining a consistent advocate for free-market economic reforms (making him a favorite of wealthier Iranians who have benefited from his policies, especially while the country rebuilt after the Iran-Iraq War) and maintaining an open-minded stance on relations with the West (he advocated keeping Iran neutral during the 1991 U.S.-led War in the Gulf), while at the same time maintaining a hard stance against political dissidents.

Mohammad KHATAMI:
In 1997 Mohammad Khatami followed Rafsanjani as president and ushered in an era of relative reform. Khatami is an Islamic scholar who has also studied Western philosophy and has long advocated dialogue between Iran and Western powers. During his presidency he continued the free-market policies of Rafsanjani and supported political openness, including election reform. Hard-line conservatives opposed most of his initiatives and in 2004 the Guardian Council banned thousands of reformist candidates from running in parliamentary elections, temporarily squelching his movement. After his presidency ended in 2005 Khatami founded the International Institute for Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilization and has remained a vocal opponent of the man who succeeded him as president in 2005–Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had only been mayor of Tehran (appointed, not elected) for two years when he became president in 2005. Before becoming a politician Ahmadinejad was an engineer, teacher and, important to his appeal, a man of modest means. While mayor,
Ahmadinejad pursued Islamist policies and in his campaign for president positioned himself as a populist conservative who opposed relations with the West. As president, and reportedly with full backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei, he has firmly supported
Iran’s nuclear program (peaceful or not…who knows?, but we do know that it began with American support under the Shah) and outraged human rights advocates in 2009, severely cracking down on street protests by those who questioned the legitimacy of his reelection over reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Today Ahmadinejad remains a controversial figure both inside Iran and out, whose conservative policies may or may not last beyond 2013 when his second and final presidential term ends. (Learn where to see images of the 2009 protests below.)

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