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History of Iran

Ancient history

The ancient nation of Iran was historically known to the West as Persia until March 21, 1935 (see also History of Persia, History of Levant). Once a major empire in its own right, it has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded by Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and others--and often caught up in the affairs of larger powers--Iran has always reasserted its national identity and has developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.

Archeological findings have placed knowledge of Iranian prehistory at middle paleolithic times (100,000 years ago). The earliest sedentary cultures date from 18,000-14,000 years ago. The sixth millennium BC saw a fairly sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centers. Many dynasties have ruled Iran, the first of which was under the Achaemenids (559 - 330 BC), a dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great. After the Hellenistic period (300 - 250 BC) came the Parthian (250 BC - AD 226 ) and the Sassanid (226 - 651) dynasties.

Before the First World War

The seventh century Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran was followed by conquests by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and Tamerlane. Iran underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas. The conqueror Nadir Shah and his successors were followed by the Zand dynasty, founded by Karim Kahn, and later the Qajar (1795-1925) and the Pahlavi dynasties (1925-1979).

Modern Iranian history began with a nationalist uprising against the Shah (who remained in power) in 1905, the granting of a limited constitution in 1906 (making the country a constitutional monarchy), and the discovery of oil in 1908. The key to the region was the British discovery of oil, see William Knox D'Arcy and British Petroleum. Control of the region was disputed between Great Britain and Russia, codified in an agreement of 1907 dividing the region into spheres of influence.

World Wars

During World War I the country was occupied by British and Russian forces but was essentially neutral. In 1919, Britain attempted to establish a protectorate in Iran, aided by the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1921. In that year a military coup established Reza Khan, an Iranian officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, as dictator and then herediatry Shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty (1925). Reza Shah Pahlavi, ruling for almost 16 years and installing the new Pahlavi dynasty, thwarting the British attempt at control, and pushing to have the country developed.

Under his reign, Iran began to modernize and to secularize politics, and the central government reasserted its authority over the tribes and provinces.

During World War II, Iran was a vital link in the Allied supply line for lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. In August, 1941, a combined British and Soviet force occupied Iran. In September Reza abdicated in favour of his son Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979.

At the Tehran Conference of 1943 the Tehran Declaration guaranteed the post-war independence and boundaries of Iran. However when the war did end the Soviets supported a revolt in the north which created the People's Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kurdish People's Republic in late 1945, both effective Soviet puppet regimes. After World War II, Soviet troops stationed in northwestern Iran not only refused to withdraw but backed revolts that established short-lived, pro-Soviet separatist regimes in the northern regions of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. These were ended in 1946. The Azerbaijan revolt crumbled after U.S. and UN pressure forced a Soviet withdrawal and Iranian forces suppressed the Kurdish revolt.

Soviet troops did not withdraw from Iran proper until May, 1946 after receiving a promise of oil concessions. The Soviet republics in the north were soon overthrown and the oil concessions were revoked.

The Shah

In 1951, Premier Mohammed Mossadeq, a militant nationalist, forced the parliament to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. Despite British pressure, including a economic blockade which caused real hardship, the nationalization continued. The National Front leader, Muhammad Mussadegh, was briefly forced from power in 1952 but quickly returned and forced the Shah to flee. The Shah returned in mid-1953 and again forced Mussadegh from office on August 19 with U.S. CIA support, Mussadegh was arrested and a new president was appointed.

In return for the US support the Shah agreed, in 1954, to allow an international consortium of British (40%), American (40%), French (6%), and Dutch (14%) companies to run the Iranian oil facilities for the next 25 years, with profits shared equally. In other words, 0% of control or profits went to Iran. There was a return to stability in the late 1950s and the 1960s. In 1957 martial law was ended after 16 years and Iran became closer to the West, joining the Baghdad Pact and receiving military and economic aid from the US. The Iranian government began a broad program of reforms to modernize the country, notably changing the quasi-feudal land system.

However the reforms did not greatly improve economic conditions and the liberal pro-Western policies alienated certain Islamic religious and political groups. From the mid-1960s the political situation was becoming increasingly unstable, with organisations such as Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK) emerging. In 1961, Iran initiated a series of economic, social, and administrative reforms that became known as the Shah's White Revolution. The core of this program was land reform. Modernization and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fueled by Iran's vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the world.

The Premier Hassan Ali Mansur was assassinated in 1965 and the internal security service, SAVAK, became more violently active. It is estimated that 13,000-13,500 people were killed by the SAVAK during this period of time, and thousands more were arrested and tortured. The Islamic clergy, headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who had been exiled in 1964), were becoming increasingly vociferous.

Internationally relations with Iraq fell into a steep decline, mainly due to a dispute over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway which a 1937 agreement gave to Iraq. Following a number of clashes in April, 1969, Iran abrogated the 1937 accord and demanded a renegotiation. Iran greatly increased its defense budget and by the early 1970s was the region's srongest military power. In November, 1971 Iranian forces seized control of three islands at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, in response Iraq expelling thousands of Iranian nationals.

In mid-1973, the Shah returned the oil industry to national control. Following the Arab-Israeli War of October, 1973, Iran did not join the Arab oil embargo against the West and Israel. Instead it used the situation to raise oil prices, using the money gained for modernization and to increase defense spending.

In the early 1970s, the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq organisation assassinated Tehran-based US military personnel and US civilians involved in military contracts, seeking to weaken the regime and remove foreign influence.

A border dispute between Iraq and Iran was resolved with the signing of the Algiers Accord on March 6, 1975.

However the economic improvements tended to only benefit a very small group and succeeded in disaffecting the vast majority of the population, culminating in widespread religious led protests throughout the late 1970s. There was widespread religious and political opposition to the Shah's rule and programs--especially SAVAK, the hated internal security and intelligence service. Martial law was declared in September 1978 for all major cities but the Shah recognized the erosion of his power-base and fled Iran on January 16, 1979.

Islamic Revolution

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France (after 15 years in exile there and in Turkey and Iraq) to direct a revolution resulting in a new, theocratic republic guided by Islamic principles, overthrowing the shah's government on February 11 and becoming Iran's national religious leader. The new government was extremely conservative. It nationalized industry and restored Islamic traditions in culture and law. Western influence were banned and the existing pro-West elite was quick to join the shah in exile. There were clashes between rival religious factions and brutal repression quickly became commonplace.

The Islamic Republic

Supported by Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, militant Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and held it until January 20, 1981 (see Iran hostage crisis). The Carter administration severed diplomatic relations and imposed economic sanctions on April 7, 1980 and later that month attempted a rescue. A commando mission was aborted on April 25 after mechanical problems grounded rescue helicopters and eight American troops were killed in a mid-air collision. Then on May 24 the International Court of Justice called for the hostages' release. Finally Ronald Reagan ended the crisis on the day of his inauguration, agreeing to nearly all the Iranian terms.

On September 22, 1980 Iraq invaded Iran, see Iran-Iraq War.

In 1981, Mujaheddin-e-Khalq detonated bombs in the head office of the Islamic Republic Party and the Premier's office, killing 70 high-ranking Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti (chief Justice), Mohammad-Ali Rajaei (President), and Mohammad-Javad Bahonar (Premier).

Following Khomeini's death on June 3, 1989, the Assembly of Experts--an elected body of senior clerics--chose the outgoing president of the republic, Sayid Ali Khamenei, to be his successor as national religious leader in what proved to be a smooth transition.

In August 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the speaker of the National Assembly, was elected President by an overwhelming majority.

During the Gulf War (1991) the country remained relatively neutral, restricting its action to the comdemnation of US and allowing Iraqi aircraft and refugees into the country.

President Rafsanjani was re-elected in 1993 with a more modest majority; some Western observers attributed the reduced voter turnout to disenchantment with the deteriorating economy. Rafsanjani was succeeded in 1997 by the moderate Mohammad Khatami. This led the country into a dangerous rift between a government seeking reform and moderate liberalization against a clergy still extremely conservative. Khatami was re-elected in June, 2001 but his efforts have been repeatedly blocked by the religious Guardian Council.

The country is in a poor economic state and its associations with both international terrorism and a potential nuclear capacity are unlikely to aid it. While certain European countries seek to normalise relations the US is still hostile. Average salary in Iran, is about 1200$/year.

Further reading