“” The American people have the greatest respect and admiration for the Iranian people. Your Kings from Cyrus and Darius are known among those famous monarchs who have advanced the cause of humanity. Your scientists have contributed to the foundations on which we have built our industrial society. Your philosophers and poets have enriched the culture of the West.
|—US president Dwight Eisenhower to Shah Reza Pahlavi.|
“”And so for all those Americans out there tonight who say, "You know what — taking on Iran is a good thing." I just told you if we take on Iran, we're gonna use nuclear weapons. And if we use nuclear weapons, the genie ain't going back in the bottle, until an American city is taken out by an Islamic weapon in retaliation. So, tell me, you want to go to war with Iran? Pick your city. Pick your city. Tell me which one you want gone. Seattle? L.A.? Boston? New York? Miami? Pick one. Cause at least one's going. And that's something we should all think about before we march down this path of insanity.
|—Former U.N. Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter in a town-hall discussion with Amy Goodman and Seymour Hersh on October 16th, 2006.|
Iran (Farsi: ایران Irān), officially the Islamic Republic of Iran (جمهوری اسلامی ایران Jomhuri-ye Eslāmi-ye Irān) and known as "Persia" by the West until the mid 20th century, is a large and populous country in the Middle East. As a Shia country in a region dominated by Sunnis, it has traditionally had hostile relations with most neighbors. These neighbors include Turkey, the Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the former Soviet Turkic republics, and the rowdy neighbors Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iranian national identity is closely tied to its status as the continuation of the ancient Persian civilization. One of those Persian dynasties, the Safavids, was largely responsible for Iran's mass conversion to Shia Islam. Iran's capital and largest city is Tehran.
Iran is one of the ancient cradles of civilization, being home to the Elamite kingdoms, the ancient Median culture, and the massively powerful Achaemenid Empire. The Achaemenids fell to Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE and were divided into several Hellenistic states. An Iranian rebellion established the Parthian Empire in the 3rd century BCE, succeeded in the 3rd century CE by the Sasanian Empire, a leading world power for the next four centuries. During this early period, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in Iran. In the 7th century CE, the Arab followers of Muhammad's fancy new Islamic religion conquered Iran and gradually converted it to Sunni Islam. Iran's rich culture permeated the Islamic world during the religion's golden age, but the end of that golden age coincided with Iran's conquest by first the Seljuk Turks and then the Mongol Empire. Not a culture that stayed down for long, the Iranians rose again. They established themselves as a state once more under the Safavid dynasty, during which many of Iran's modern characteristics came into being.
After having its heyday as a regional power, the Safavid Empire started declining rapidly due to constant wars with the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. The Safavid dynasty was replaced by the Qajar dynasty, and during this period, Iran adopted a modern constitution that limited the Shah's power and established a legislature. Unfortunately, Iran came under heavy foreign influence from Western powers seeking control of its formidable oil reserves. When one of Iran's prime ministers, Mohammad Mossadegh, tried to limit that foreign control, the CIA and British intelligence launched a coup against him in 1953. That coup ended Iranian democracy and saw the Shah take over as an absolute monarch. Although Iran was a staunch Western ally, the Shah treated his people like shit, and a revolution against him was inevitable.
Said revolution manifested in 1979 under religious leadership, and it established Iran as the theocratic Islamic Republic. That new regime was then strengthened when it immediately came under attack by Saddam Hussein; the Iran-Iraq War united Iranians against a common enemy and behind their new government.
Relations with the West soured after the revolution, and the US has been waging a proxy war on Iran for about 40 years now. The US support for Israel and Saudi Arabia makes Iran angry, while Iran's sponsoring of Shia militias and Hezbollah has pissed off the West. Iran is under heavy economic sanctions and is now surrounded on all sides by countries hosting US military bases. However, Iran still maintains its status as a regional power free from American influence.
About the name
In 1935 the Iranian government requested those countries which it had diplomatic relations with to call Persia "Iran", which has always been the name of the country in Persian (ایران). The suggestion for the change is said to have come from the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who came under the influence of the Nazis. Germany was in the grip of racial fever and cultivated good relations with nations of "Aryan" blood. It is said that some German friends of the ambassador persuaded him that, as with the advent of Reza Shah, Persia had turned a new leaf in its history and had freed itself from the pernicious influences of Britain and Russia, whose interventions in Persian affairs had practically crippled the country under the Qajars, it was only fitting that the country is called by its own name, "Iran". This would signal a new beginning and bring a new era in Iranian history to the world and signify the Aryan race of its population, as "Iran" is a cognate of "Aryan". The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a circular to all foreign embassies in Tehran, requesting that the country be called "Iran". Diplomatic courtesy obliged, and the name "Iran" appeared in official correspondence and news items. Iranian scholar Ehsan Yarshater regarded the naming change as "a grievous error based on a misdirected sense of nationalism."
When we say ancient history here, we mean ancient history. Various early hominids lived in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago, and humans started growing grains here at least 12,000 years ago. Iran was also the home of the world's oldest known wine jar, dating from 7,000 years ago. Iran is also home to one of the oldest cities globally, Susa, established around 4200 BCE and became one of the region's most important cities for millennia afterward.
By around 3000 BCE, the rest of the Iranian region followed suit and started urbanizing, giving rise to the Elamite civilization and culture. The Elamites were influenced by the nearby ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and they built the only known ziggurats that weren't associated with the Mesopotamians. Idiots might think that the existence of many ziggurats is somehow evidence of the inherent specialness of pyramids. That shape is just the most efficient way of piling rocks.[citation NOT needed] Mesopotamian influence on Iran became even stronger when it came under occupation by first Akkad and then Ur.
Other groups also migrated into Iran from further north, so during the ancient times, there were several groups of people in the region. First were the Scythians, nomadic raiders living in the Zagros Mountains. Then there were the Medes and the Persians, who settled as agrarian cultures and paid tribute to their more aggressive Mesopotamian neighbors. During the 7th century BCE, the Persians were ruled by Hakamanish, known as Achaemenes to the Ancient Greeks. One of his descendants would become Cyrus the Great, the man who united the various Iranian peoples into their first great empire.
“”Cyrus’s multiculturalism made an enduring imperial peace a real possibility at last and defined the way later empires sought to achieve stable rule.
|—Peter Davidson, Ancient History Encyclopedia.|
The Persian tribes started unifying through conquest, and they created something of a weak "empire" that would be inherited by Cyrus the Great. Around 1000 BCE, the priest Zoroaster started spreading his ideas about religion, specifically that there were only two gods. These were Ahura Mazda, the god of goodness and wisdom who should be worshiped, and Angra Mainyu, the god of evil and lies who should be appeased. Zoroaster's ideas were initially met with resistance from the traditionally polytheistic Iranians. However, he finally won support from one of the regional kings, and his religion became dominant by the time of Cyrus the Great.
When Cyrus came to power, he completely redefined what it meant to be an empire. Cyrus took the title "Shah", or King, and he built his state on the principle of cooperation. He spared conquered rulers and sought their advice, and he allowed his people extensive religious and personal freedom. Cyrus didn't take the city of Babylon by force; instead, he convinced the people that he would be a better ruler than their king and was thus welcomed into the city on a metaphorical red carpet. Most unusual of all, Cyrus was even nice to the Jews. He freed the Hebrews from captivity in Babylonia and gave them money to rebuild their old city of Jerusalem. This was both kind and cynical, for Cyrus gained an unshakably loyal buffer state between himself and Ancient Egypt.
The Achaemenid Empire could have been something pretty great. However, Cyrus died, and his successor Darius I abandoned many of Cyrus' policies in favor of heavily taxing everyone to build a giant army and brutally putting down the resulting revolts. Darius also gave himself a new title, the grand "Shahanshah", or "King of Kings." Darius' son, Xerxes I, was even worse. Xerxes ignored the old multicultural policies, destroyed Babylon in retaliation for a revolt, and launched the famously failed invasion of Ancient Greece.
After this humiliation, the Achaemenid Empire slid into its period of decline as people were overburdened with taxation and wasteful spending, and local authorities increasingly ignored rulings from the capital. The empire was finally put out of its misery by Alexander the Great.
Despite this ignominious end, the empire should be best remembered for its great influence on future cultures and the modern-day. Darius revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage system. The extensive Persian trade network led to the propagation of Persian words worldwide. Some of these words made their way into the English language, including bazaar, shawl, sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach, and asparagus.
Seleucids and Sassanids
Alexander the Great was determined to rule and hold Iran. Alexander defeated the last Achaemenid Shahanshah at the Battle of Issus in 333 BCE, and he then ordered 10,000 of his officers and soldiers to intermarry with Iranian women. Alexander's plans would never be realized. He died young, and his vast empire was divided among his commanders. General Seleucus became ruler of Babylon and Persia, and he encouraged mass immigration of Greeks into the region. The Seleucid Empire was originally quite similar to Cyrus' original dream. It was a harmonious blending of eastern and western cultures with an effective bureaucracy and lucrative trade network. Like many empires before and after it, though, the Seleucid state eventually became too big to govern and fell apart.
One of the groups that rebelled against the Seleucid rule was the Parthi on the coast of the Caspian Sea. They were probably descended from the old Scythians. The Parthians first broke free from Seleucid rule and then conquered Persia for themselves in 247 BCE. The Parthians were pragmatists who ruled with a relatively light hand in exchange for their subjects' loyalty, and they also grew into a powerful state. They conquered the west and bumped into the Roman Empire, leading to a long series of wars between the two rival great powers. The Parthians did well for themselves at first by defeating Marc Antony. However, they lost conflicts against the Roman emperors Trajan and Lucius Verus and saw much of their land devastated by raids and warfare. They also tended to quarrel over who should claim the throne after a powerful ruler died, with one such period lasting thirty years!
The Parthians fell apart to be replaced by the Sasanian Empire in 224 CE. The Sassanids were native Persians, and they resented the long period of Greek rule. They sought to obliterate the influence of Greek culture, and they repeatedly clashed with the Greek Byzantine Empire. These long decades of warfare exhausted both empires, resulting in heavier taxation and more rural unrest. That tends to happen in forever conflicts. This all created the perfect opportunity for an outside force to take over.
Early Islamic era
“”These events have been variously seen in Iran: by some as a blessing, the advent of the true faith, the end of the age of ignorance and heathenism; by others as a humiliating national defeat, the conquest and subjugation of the country by foreign invaders. Both perceptions are of course valid, depending on one's angle of vision.
|—Bernard Lewis, British-American historian.|
After prophet Muhammad united Arabia, his successor, the first caliph Abu Bakr, decided to expand on these conquests by beginning simultaneous wars against Byzantium and Persia. By 641 CE, the Arab armies had wholly destroyed the Sassanid military, and the rest of Iran was quelled by 650. Although widespread Islamaphobia and modern terrorism have shaped the Western view of the early Islamic conquests, the Muslims were actually fairly benevolent rulers. This was by necessity, as they knew they couldn't control territory as large as Iran without the cooperation of the people. Thus, the Muslims respected local religions and cultures. Although conversion to Islam came with political and monetary benefits, conversion was pretty slow. Political elites converted pretty quickly, but the general peasant population didn't fully embrace the new religion until about the 9th century, about 200 years later. The Muslim conquerors adopted the Sassanid coinage system and many Sassanid administrative practices, and later caliphs adopted Iranian court ceremonial practices and the trappings of the Sassanid monarchy. Iranian men served in government, and Iranian artists and intellectuals had their works distributed across the Muslim world.
However, there was still trouble brewing. The Iranians took advantage of the waning power of the caliphs to win greater autonomy. There was also a community of people in southern Iraq who maintained that leadership of Islam following the death of Muhammad rightfully belonged to Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, and to his descendants. These people became called the Shiat Ali, meaning "the partisans of Ali", or the Shias. They were initially a minority in Iran, but they would gradually grow in power.
Turkish and Mongol invasions
As the Abbasid Caliphate waned in power, it relied more and more heavily on slave warriors brought in from Turkish areas to the north of Iran. The Turks became influential as a result, and they formed independent dynasties across Iran as the Abbasid state collapsed. These independent states didn't last too long before they were conquered by the Seljuks, who also adopted Persian culture and conquered themselves much of the Middle East. The Seljuks faced a severe internal threat from the Ḥashashiyan, or the Order of Assassins, a sect of Shia Muslims who spread terror throughout the Middle East by murdering Sunni and Christian rulers. They are the source of the modern English word "assassin".
The Turkish period came to an end when the Mongols rolled into town and started wrecking shit. The Mongol conquests were exceptionally brutal in Iran, and it's estimated that the wars and destruction killed about 75% of the Persian population, maybe 10 to 15 million people. Genghis Khan's empire collapsed as it was divided between his heirs. His grandson Hulagu Khan became the ruler of the Ilkhanate, which encompassed Iran and its surroundings. Although being hit by depopulation and the Black Death, Mongol rule integrated Iran into a continent-spanning trade network that brought in goods from China and India. The Ilkhanate eventually lapsed into many smaller dynasties before they were again conquered by the Muslim Mongol warlord Timur Lenk. The Timurid Empire controlled the region until the mid-1400s before meeting the same fate as the preceding Mongol rulers.
During the collapse of the Timurid Empire, a militant Shia order started to seize land for itself. The leaders of this order were the Safavids, and the head of the dynasty, Ismail, was crowned the first Shah of Persia in 1501. He was the first Persian to rule Persia in hundreds of years. Upon taking control of Persia, the Safavid dynasty almost immediately declared Shia Islam the state religion and began the process of mass converting Persians.
The Safavids accomplished this conversion by beginning harsh persecution of Sunni Muslims. Methods of forced conversion included massacres, destruction of Sunni mosques, and confiscation of property.
The Safavid state was nothing short of an absolute theocracy, as you can expect. The Shah claimed both temporal and spiritual authority, and he exercised control of religious affairs through the sadr, who was Iran's lead religious official. This religious emphasis put the new Persian state at odds with the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and wars between them were continuous. These wars proved to be the cause of the dynasty's later downfall, as military defeats effectively disproved the lie that the Safavid rulers were in any way divine.
The Safavid dynasty reached its peak during the reign of Shah Abbas I, known as Abbas the Great. Abbas went on a mosque-building spree to show off his personal piety, but he also allowed a gradual separation of religion from state affairs. His reign saw many military victories against Persia's enemies like the Ottoman Empire and the Uzbeks. Abbas also led a military campaign that ousted the Portuguese from Bahrain, but he invited other Europeans to participate in Persia's vibrant trade network. He used that wealth to patronize the arts, encourage education, and build a new capital at Isfahan.
After Abbas I, the Safavid Empire started to decline. It suffered from a succession of weak rulers, high taxation, and lost wars. The Safavid rule ended with an invasion by Afghanistan and then the rise of the short-lived Afsharid dynasty.
Qajar dynasty and the Constitutional Revolution
The Afsharids decided to immediately embark on many costly foreign wars that destabilized their rule and plunged Iran into a civil war between various factions. War, you see, is stupid. Warlord Agha Mohammad Qajar came out on top, declared himself the new Shah, and decided to revive the old tradition of the Shah claiming holy authority. That wasn't the state's biggest problem, though.
The Qajars' biggest problem was that they had come to power at just the wrong time, for they were sandwiched between two huge empires and were in the crosshairs of a third. The Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire both aimed to conquer large tracts of Iranian land, and the British Empire wanted to shore up British India's western border. Cue a series of lost wars in which Russia and the Ottomans seized control of the Caucasus while the British landed troops in Iran to control its trade and ensure the Qajars stayed away from Afghanistan.
The bureaucracy became corrupt and inefficient, and the Qajar shahs knew that something needed to change if Iran would survive into the modern era. In 1896, Mozaffar ad-Din became the new Shah, and the public was pissed off at him because he borrowed money from foreign creditors to prop up his own extravagant lifestyle. He also let Westerners run roughshod all over his country and people in exchange for bribes. By 1905, a nationwide protest movement developed to curb the Shah's authority and establish the rule of law. After government troops shot a sayyid, a descendant of Muhammad, protests turned into uncontrollable riots that finally forced the Shah to agree to a constitution in 1906.
The new constitution provided, within limits, freedom of the press, speech, and association and security of life and property. It also limited royal power in favor of an elected parliament and gave the Shah a parliament-appointed cabinet. Unfortunately, Muzaffar finally died right at the moment when that was a bad thing. His successor unleashed a reign of terror in his attempt to rescind the constitution, sparking a quasi-civil war that ended with his defeat and exile in 1909.
Even with the old shah gone, Iran was still a stomping ground for foreign powers. That sore point got a lot worse in World War I when Iran became a battleground between the British and Russians and infiltrators from the German Empire, despite being a neutral country. After the war, the German Empire was dismembered, and the Russian Empire got sucked into its own revolution, freeing the way for the British to make Iran into a protectorate in 1919.
Once in control of Iran, the British decided to do some remodeling. They encouraged a coup in 1921 that swept the Qajar dynasty out of power and swept the Pahlavi dynasty into it.
Reza Khan became the new Shah, and he almost immediately used his now limited powers as shah to modernize Iran. He built up the military and used it to forcibly settle Iran's tribes, and he then set about establishing secular schools and universities. The Shah's primary project soon became breaking the religious hierarchy's control over Iran. He ended the clerical monopoly over education, pushed through a secular code of law, created a secular judiciary, and placed state controls on the clergy. However, the Shah had ultimately overruled the parliament's authority in accomplishing this. The Shah decided that he quite liked having absolute power, so he became just another dictator by ordering his cops to beat the shit out of his political opponents and jailing people arbitrarily.
He also came to resent British control over much of Iran's economy. Back in 1908, British prospectors discovered a shitload of oil under Iran. They created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, controlled by the British government and didn't share much profit with the Iranians. The Shah unsuccessfully tried to renegotiate the oil agreement and then opened trade with Nazi Germany out of spite. Germany was Iran's largest trading partner by World War II.
Despite being neutral, Iran was occupied by the British and the Soviets during World War II. They did this to secure Iran's oil fields and ensure that Iran could be used as a secure pathway to route foreign aid to the Soviets. The Allies forced Reza Khan to abdicate for being a Nazi sympathizer during the occupation. He was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza.
The democratic years
“”In a twist of irony, America, fearing communism, swung its big old freedom stick and hit the innocent young Persian democracy.
From 1949 on, sentiment for the nationalization of Iran's oil industry grew. Iranians knew quite well that the profits from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company were not being distributed equally between the two powers, and they wondered why the British should get almost all of the pie when the oil was under Iranian soil and being drilled by Iranian workers. The 1949 parliamentary elections were centered around oil, and Mohammad Mossadegh became prime minister on the promise to nationalize Iran's oil.
Negotiations with the British fell through, so the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the oil in 1951. Oil production came to a virtual standstill as British technicians left the country and the British government embargoed Iran. It froze its assets, and the International Court of Justice agreed to hear the dispute in 1952. By a majority decision, the Court decided that Iran's oil reserves were Iran's business rather than the Court's or UK's, which only makes sense. That should have been the end of things. But it wasn't.
Riding high on his international legal victory, Mossadegh decided that the British would be barred from having any involvement in Iran's oil industry. That was unacceptable to the British, so they appealed to the Dwight Eisenhower administration for help while claiming that Mossadegh was opening Iran up to Soviet influence. The US predictably got a Cold War boner. What followed was a disgraceful series of events. In early 1953, CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt Jr. bribed the Iranian press to circulate anti-Mossadegh propaganda, convinced the Shah that Mossadegh was a leftist radical, and tried to kidnap Mossadegh at his home. Mossadegh was too smart and managed to avoid all of that, so it was back to the drawing board. The CIA met up with General Fazlollah Zahedi, a Shah loyalist. They cooperated to instigate a series of "communist" riots, which gave Zahedi the pretext he needed to take over the government. He placed Mossadegh under arrest and invited the Shah to become Iran's absolute monarch.
The Shah's new regime was a staunch Western ally, and he immediately received a US aid package to the tune of $45 million. He also invited the British back into the country to help run Iran's oil industry. Hooray for economic imperialism! Iran was under martial law during this period, and parliament was often dissolved.
In 1963, the Shah launched a series of reforms called the "White Revolution". He redistributed land to the poor, increased investment into education, and gave women the right to vote. However, the program created high expectations that fell disappointingly short. Most rural families didn't get land, and those who did got barely enough to do anything with. The Shah responded to this by making criticism of himself or the White Revolution a crime, which didn't make people any happier.
Like the earlier Qajar shahs, Pahlavi believed himself divine and lived a lavish lifestyle. His playboy antics pissed off the poor and invited criticism from religious authorities. One of his harshest critics was Ayatollah Khomeini, who railed against the Shah being a lapdog for the West and ranted about the Shah's decadent living. The Shah arrested and sent Khomeini into exile, effectively making the man a figurehead for the opposition. This would have terrible consequences.
The Shah was thoroughly unable to deal with these problems because he was an idiot. The US Embassy in Tehran noted from the very beginning of his reign as absolute monarch that he had a tendency to meddle in affairs that he knew nothing about, and he also had a perpetual inability to make decisions under pressure. He was effectively the guy who butts in to stop people from being productive just so he can flatter himself and say nothing of substance.
Despite Western attempts to legitimize his reign, the Shah was a typical Middle Eastern dictator who ruled with brutality and incompetence. He had a secret police unit called the SAVAK (Sāzemān-e Ettelā'āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar, meaning "National Organization for Security and Intelligence") which arrested, disappeared, and tortured thousands of people. In 1976, Amnesty International published a range (citing foreign journalists and Iranian exile groups) of between 25,000 and 100,000 detainees held throughout the country in various prisons run by SAVAK. Torture methods detailed by surviving political prisoners include beatings, rape, electric shocks, and ripping out teeth and fingernails. Other more extreme methods included cooking prisoners alive on a heated metal table or forcing a hot metal rod through the face, burning the prisoner's entire mouth. Holy shit. Many Iranian people feared and hated SAVAK and regarded it as a cruel organization.
People got even angrier in 1975 when an economic recession hit and caused many to lose their jobs and homes. All of that went down while the Shah partied in his palace by day and fucked prostitutes by night.
Under the Shah's cruel and frivolous reign, something was bound to break. In 1977, mass protests and riots rocked the nation, organized by a strange alliance of secular liberals and hardline Islamists. Matters reached a critical point in mid-1978 when some unknown group burned down a movie theatre with about 420 people inside it. The Shah blamed the protesters, and the protesters were convinced that the Shah's secret police were responsible.
As protests paralyzed Iran, the Shah declared martial law. Despite that, a vast crowd assembled in Tehran's Jaleh Square to celebrate Eid-e-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. Government military police responded with extreme violence, firing on the protesters with live ammunition. Between 400 and 900 people died, and 4,000 were injured. Whatever loyalty the Shah might have had from the Iranian people was shattered instantly. The Shah realized that he fucked up badly, so he ordered his military forces not to interfere with protests. Martial law was no longer enforced, and a general strike shut down the oil industry.
Those strikes destroyed Iran's economy and severed the Shah's last lifeline, as, without oil money, his state had no power at all. The Shah fled to the United States, Khomeini returned from exile, and a series of referendums in 1979 transformed Iran into a theocratic republic under Khomeini's leadership.
The US really pissed off the new Iranian regime by allowing the Shah to seek protection on American soil. Khomeini demanded that the Shah be returned to face trial, and the US refused, probably and justifiably fearing that the Islamic regime would just execute him. Meanwhile, it became clear that Khomeini's control over his most radical young student followers was tenuous at best. Those student radicals are the ones who organized themselves and launched a rapid takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking 69 hostages. After the fact, Ayatollah Khomeini voiced his support for the takeover, calling it a "second revolution," and demonstrations in support of the action took place around Iran. Khomeini had initially opposed the violent action but within a day came around to the idea that the embassy takeover was a brilliant tactic to unite the Iranian people and intimidate foreign adversaries.
Initially, the students had intended to occupy the Embassy for only a few days, but this outpouring of national support made it clear that matters had gone out of control. The students released 13 hostages, the women and African-Americans, and they prepared the rest for the long haul. President Jimmy Carter broke off relations with Iran and froze the nation's assets. He also launched a rescue attempt called Operation Eagle Claw that failed miserably due to equipment malfunctions and bad weather; 8 US servicemen died, and Khomeini got to call it divine intervention. This tragic humiliation was probably one of the main causes of Jimmy Carter's election loss.
In 1980, Iran finally came to the negotiating table, as the Shah had died from cancer and Iraq was making war threats. In exchange for some promises by the US not to interfere in Iranian affairs (which the US has broken repeatedly), Iran released the hostages. Iran waited until Carter was just out of the office to let them all go, just as one final "fuck you" to the president they blamed for supporting the Shah.
Meanwhile, in Iran's neighbor Iraq, Saddam Hussein had been a longtime enemy of the Shah and was quite happy to see him go. Khomeini, however, knew that Iraq had a significant Shia minority and was eager to turn Iraq into another theocracy allied with Iran. To this end, he encouraged Iraq's Shiite minority to launch a revolt against Saddam's rule, and he frequently instigated violent border clashes between the two nations. Khomeini also called for a Shia revolution in Iraq, which scared the shit out of Hussein's government since Hussein really was treating the Shiites like shit.
Hussein also had ambitions of making himself into a rich regional power. He now hoped to do this by annexing Iran's oil-rich region of Khuzestan directly across the border. Iraq thus launched an all-out invasion of Iran, and they were soon supported by various Sunni Arab states. The United States under Ronald Reagan also pitched in for the team by sending Saddam raw materials to help him construct chemical weapons.
The war ended in 1988 with a costly and bloody stalemate that resulted in no border changes. Iran, though, decisively came out on top. Rather than leading to a collapse of the Khomeini regime like Saddam had hoped, the war actually helped strengthen Iran's fledgling Islamic Republic. Even cultural, ethnic, and religious minorities rallied behind the government to protect it from Hussein's attack. During the war, Iran also reformed its military into a capable fighting force and helped it turn the Revolutionary Guard Corps into the powerful and radical organization it is today. Iranian military deaths are estimated to be around 160,000, and civilian casualties around 16,000.
Even with the resurgence of national unity after the war, Khomeini still apparently figured that he needed to do some housecleaning. In 1988, barely after the war finished killing tens of thousands of people, Iran's Supreme Leader issued a fatwa calling for the murder of tens of thousands more. According to secret documents smuggled out of Iran, Khomeini emptied Iran's prisons of political dissidents by simply executing them en-masse. The two-month purge saw 30,000 people executed by hanging from cranes, including children as young as 13. Shortly after, Khomeini died of poor health, to be succeeded as Supreme Leader by the equally hardline Ali Khamenei.
After that, Iran sat around for a while, supporting terrorist groups against Israel and undergoing a brief but aborted attempt at liberalization. In 2005, Iran made international headlines again by voting for the deranged extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. He immediately started freaking people out by pushing forward with Iran's young nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad also managed to further demolish Iran's image in the eyes of the world with his antisemitism and brinksmanship. In 2006, his government looked on cheerfully while a Holocaust denial-themed national cartoon contest went on in Tehran. Ahmedinejad's repeated rants against Jews drew international condemnation. One of his harshest critics was Fidel Castro, who put the Iranian leader on blast for slandering the Jews while still making it clear that Cuba was still no friend of the US or Israel.
The 2009 Iranian election was heavily disputed, and a mass protest called the Iranian Green Movement called for Ahmadinejad's removal as president.
The current president is Hassan Rouhani, who won the 2013 presidential elections by portraying himself as a moderate. Rouhani agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal with US President Obama to limit Iran's ability to refine weapons-grade nuclear material. Relations between Iran and the United States worsened after the US elected Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
Iran's economy still suffers from sanctions, and the Iranian people seem tired of the constant stand-offs with other countries. The 2019–2020 Iranian protests started over fuel price rises and rationing due to the sanctions and turned violent when the government murdered about 1,000 people. They were the most severe instance of unrest in Iran since the revolution and, unlike previous protests, spread beyond the urban middle class into rural areas and the poor. Eventually, they were brought under control by state violence and financial assistance to the poor.
There is also continuing tension with the US and Israel: the US assassinated senior military figure Qassem Soleimani by a drone strike in January 2020, while Israel assassinated Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. Iraq also shot down a Ukrainian airliner by mistake in January 2020, fearing another American attack, but killing 176 people. Joe Biden had suggested more conciliatory policies towards Iran but soon after taking office, launched an airstrike on Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
Presidential elections are due in June 2021, with hardliners expected to do well due to Rouhani's failures at home and abroad. The frontrunner is Ebrahim Raisi, the Chief Justice of Iran, infamous for executing political prisoners during the late 1980s after the war with Iraq. Raisi already lost to Rouhani during the 2017 election, and analysts believe Raisi, should he win, has a solid chance to become the next Supreme Leader.
The Supreme Leader of Iran is where the country's true power lies. It was initially filled by Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He appoints the head of Iran's judiciary, most of the Guardian Council, is the commander-in-chief, and hosts Friday prayers on radio and television. He also has to approve the president's election, meaning that he can veto all of the people of Iran. Since he controls the military and most of the government, the Supreme Leader alone can declare war or peace.
According to Iran's Constitution, the Supreme Leader is responsible for delineating and supervising "the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran," which means that he sets the tone and direction of Iran's domestic and foreign policies. Also under the Supreme Leader's control are the "foundations", or bonyads. These are state-run corporate alliances that control about 40% of Iran's economy and most of the country's core industries. Should the Supreme Leader die or be dismissed, a "Provisional Leadership Council" is mandated to carry out the responsibilities of the supreme leader. The PLC would then be made up of the incumbent President, the incumbent Chief Justice, and one of the clerics of the Guardian Council, who is selected by the Expediency Discernment Council, an advisory assembly appointed by the Supreme Leader to settle disputes between the Guardian Council and the Majlis.
The Supreme Leader is appointed by the Assembly of Experts, a body of Iran's highest religious authorities who make sure to appoint a religious fanatic like them to the country's highest office. Only Shia Islamic clergy can be members of the Assembly, and they are officially endowed with the right to dismiss the Supreme Leader, but they predictably never have. All candidates for the Assembly must have their candidacy approved by the Guardian Council, where 50% of its members are appointed unilaterally by the Supreme Leader, and the other half is subject to confirmation by the Majlis after being appointed by the head of the Iranian judiciary, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.
The current Supreme Leader is Ali Khamenei, president from 1981 through 1989. He has ruled the country for over three decades, most of the Islamic Republic's existence, but talk of his ailing health, impending death, and potential successors is verboten and straight-up illegal; many have gotten arrested for discussing such things even in private. There have only been two Supreme Leaders: Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, and Khamenei, who has led the country since.
There used to be a Deputy Supreme Leader under Khomeini, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's designated successor. However, the two had a falling out in 1989 due to Montazeri criticizing Khomeini's policies which Montazeri felt infringed on people's rights and freedoms. Ayatollah Montazeri was placed under house arrest by Khamenei for criticizing Khamenei's policies. Still, he was allowed to speak his mind when it came to his disagreements with the regime, thereby serving as a focal critic and unofficial leader of the opposition to the Islamic Republic till his death of old age. While he was a firm believer in an Islamic state, Ayatollah Montazeri argued in favor of Baháʼí rights, civil rights, women's rights, and democratic rights and freedoms. He felt Iran was not an Islamic state because it was not respecting people's rights. One wonders how Iran would have been had Ayatollah Montazeri taken over instead of Khamenei. Predictably, Khamenei has not elevated anyone to be his deputy, which is why talk of his succession is so unpredictable.
The president is the second-highest-ranking official in Iran. He's high profile internationally, but he doesn't do a lot since the constitution limits his powers and officially subordinates him to the Supreme Leader. The president does not have the power to veto and cannot dismiss or reinstate cabinet ministers; only the Supreme Leader can. The president does not have the authority to make foreign policy decisions by himself, although the Supreme Leader often lets him. The president is directly elected, but he can be dismissed for any reason by the Supreme Leader. Surprisingly, this had not happened yet, even when Iranians chose reformist presidents. This exemplifies Iran's bizarre political system and culture.
There was undoubtedly chaos in the early years of the presidency. Elected in January 1980, Abdolhassan Banisadr, the first President of Iran, was not a cleric and, in fact, publicly opposed clerics having any political power at all. Executive power was shared between the president and the prime minister, but he always wanted a stronger presidency. While he was appointed commander in chief by Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq War, that was more to do with his competence than his loyalty to the regime. Banisadr, whose top supporter was Deputy Supreme Leader Hussein-Ali Montazeri, was a firm believer in democracy and hated the idea of an Islamic Republic; he even said clerics should not run for positions in the government. The Majlis immediately impeached Banisadr in his absence on 21 June 1981, allegedly because of his moves against the clerics in power, particularly Chief Justice Mohammad Beheshti, then head of the judicial system. Khomeini himself may have instigated the impeachment, which he signed the next day. But even before Khomeini had signed the impeachment papers, the Revolutionary Guard had seized the Presidential buildings and gardens, executed several of Banisadr's closest friends, and imprisoned writers at a newspaper closely tied to Banisadr, who went into hiding. Protected by the People's Mujahedin of Iran, originally a leftist organization founded by anti-Shah students, Banisadr tried to organize a non-monarchist resistance against Khomeini, but after Mohammadreza Saadati, a People's Mujahideen member, was assassinated, Banisadr deemed too dangerous to stay in his home country and fled for France, now living as an exile and the oldest living Iranian ex-president.
Mohammad Ali-Rajai, prime minister under Banisadr, became the second President of Iran, choosing Islamist hardliner Mohammad-Javad Bahonar for prime minister. When Banisadr was impeached, Rajai was chosen by Khomeini to be on the Provisional Presidential Council, allowing Rajai to nominate himself to be president, which he did after winning 91% of the vote. On 30 August 1981, President Rajai held a meeting of Iran's Supreme Defense Council and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar. But then Massoud Keshmiri, a member of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, infiltrated the Prime Minister's office, disguised himself as a state security official, brought a briefcase into the conference room, set it between the Rajai and Bahonar, then left the room without saying a word. Another person opened the case, triggering a bomb that set the room ablaze and killing Rajai, Bahonar, and three others. Ali Khamenei became president in October 1981, finally ending this age of turmoil for the presidency, but that was mainly due to Saddam Hussein giving Iranians a common enemy to rail against and a government thereof to rally around. Khamenei was president throughout the war with Saddam. Still, he was essentially a figurehead while Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi took up most of the spotlight and administration as a war-time leader. Khomeini would later die, and Majlis Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would recommend Khamenei be elected by the Assembly of Experts to be Supreme Leader. A noted moderate, Rafsanjani sought to make the presidency more powerful after Khomeini's death, Mousavi's retirement, and the prime minister's office being abolished. Rafsanjani would become President of Iran in 1989 all the way through 1997.
Since the Islamic Republic's inception, no incumbent has lost an election post-revolution. No election has been overturned. Despite fraud and election rigging allegations, not a single president has been sacked. The president carries out the "functions of the executive" as outlined in Iran’s constitution, ranging from signing bills into law, appointing ambassadors and cabinet ministers, to planning and executing the national budget. While still second fiddle to the Supreme Leader, the power of the presidency has grown over the decades, and many within Iran recognize the president is far stronger de facto than it is de jure. This goes back to President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was why Khamenei even became Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani's charisma and personal relationship with Khamenei allowed him to enact a vast chunk of his policies, such as free-market liberalization, rapprochement with the west, and attempted reconciliation with Iran's Arab neighbors, and support for negotiations with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. Rafsanjani, a founding father of the revolution, was described by many as the most powerful figure in Iran, even with Khamenei as Supreme Leader. However, it would not be made public until decades later that Rafsanjani was the reason for Khamenei's election to Supreme Leader. When he was elected in 1981, Khamenei operated in the shadow of Ayatollah Khomeini and "remained a weak and uncontroversial president," with his prime minister Mousavi earning acclaim for his skilled leadership instead. Rafsanjani's ability to diffuse crises and mediate disputes proved valuable in juggling the various factions within the Islamic Republic. But Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, did not have the same close relationship with Khamenei, and during the reform era, the presidency was much weaker. Ahmadinejad restored the presidency's power back to how it was under Rafsanjani, with Khamenei even allowing Ahmadinejad more leeway on domestic affairs than he did with Khatami. Even Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who won because the conservatives split the vote in 2013, was given much freedom to forge a nuclear deal with Barack Obama by 2015. While Donald Trump later rescinded the deal by issuing sanctions against Iran, Rouhani was still allowed to negotiate with Joe Biden to restore the nuclear deal before his successor, Ebrahim Raisi, was inaugurated in August 2021.
While the President is merely the head of government for Iran, they are still the highest popularly elected official. The cabinet does follow the president's lead as you would expect a functioning procedural democracy to operate. The president is generally the forger of foreign policy instead of the supreme leader, which is why multiple presidents were moderates or reformists who tried to engage with the West. But it wasn't until the destruction of the reform movement in the mid-2000s that the presidency truly became a power in itself. Beyond political appointments, the constitution also grants the president responsibility for "national planning, and budget and state employment affairs." Amir Taheri, author of The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, writes in the National Review that "by controlling the resources of the state, including the all-important oil revenues, and appointing thousands of high-ranking functionaries in a highly centralized system of government," the president is uniquely positioned to influence the direction of the regime. Ironically, the presidency was most powerful with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the helm. He was swept into power as a Khamenei loyalist. However, he had unbelievable delusions of grandeur that inspired him to turn the presidency into more of an executive body regardless of the Supreme Leader's wishes. By "inserting himself" in all of Iran’s "most contentious debates" and by asserting himself both on the domestic and international stage, Ahmadinejad "emerged as the focal point of Iran’s contemporary political landscape." Ahmadinejad, described as "bold" and "idiosyncratic," was heavily and publicly criticized by many Iranian factions, from the reformists to the conservatives, by his second term. No Iranian president faced "this much scathing and frequent attack from so many Iranian factions" or created so many powerful enemies over issues that "range from his imperious management style and eclectic economic policies" to "snooty gibes" from elite critics about lack of "intellectualism," analysts say. But despite all that, Ahmadinejad succeeded in increasing the power of his office, turning it into a post with "more influence and power than at any time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution." Iranian journalists said, "Ahmadinejad just broke all the rules," because whatever he does, "he's always giving orders, giving commands – it projects an image of power." His predecessors all sought counsel from the Supreme Leaders of their time, but he often made decisions without talking to Khamenei. He has made the presidency much more powerful but "made a mess with his power – administrative chaos, and allocating economic resources." Ahmadinejad believed himself untouchable because of a divided opposition. The only person who could do anything was Khamenei, who was reluctant to get into public spats with his own president. His early inaction caused a mini-political crisis among the regime's elite because they were desperate to slap Ahmadinejad down. Still, Khamenei never liked appearing like he was overly meddling in affairs despite his vast power as Supreme Leader. His early reluctance to act only served to make Ahmadinejad stronger.
President Ahmadinejad would call his opponents "traitors," often replaced critics with loyalists, and marginalized clerical rule in favor of nationalism and populist religious fervor. Ahmadinejad stacked the government with Revolutionary Guards, got into public spats with the Supreme Leader, actively tried to upstage Khamenei and had to be escorted away by his own bodyguards, and even fired a minister that Khamenei supported (and unilaterally reinstated as a minister). Things got so bad that there was talk of impeaching Ahmadinejad because disobeying and criticizing the Supreme Leader is constitutionally forbidden. In fact, Ahmadinejad made a habit of publicly criticizing government agencies, security apparatchiks, and intelligence officers, including the Revolutionary Guards of corruption, conspiracy, and smuggling of illicit goods. The Guards were divided between those loyal to Khamenei, those who supported Khatami, and those who supported Ahmadinejad, which is why he could get away with such remarks. Khamenei was so frustrated with President Ahmadinejad that he suggested abolishing the presidency and restoring the prime minister, who would be appointed by Khamenei. This proposal prompted stronger than usual criticisms from even Rafsanjani, who said the proposal "strongly undermines the ideal of an Islamic republic, in which the people elect their leaders." This public power struggle lasted for months, and it took Khamenei finally meddling in government to stop the bleeding before things broke apart for the regime's elites. Ahmadinejad turning into a "real power" was "unacceptable" to both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards, who took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Ahmadinejad throughout his second term.
Since 1981, every incumbent president has been reelected: Ali Khamenei (1981-1989), Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997), Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). Rafsanjani, a founding father of the Islamic Republic, was a renowned pragmatist, a skilled mediator, and a popular leader. He preferred to work with the West rather than live with Iran as a rogue state on par with North Korea. Khatami, a reformist who won in a shocking landslide, made moves to democratize and secularize Iran, laying the groundwork for an upgraded and relatively robust civil society under his presidency. Still, he was often fought against and undermined by the conservatives. Ever the hardliner, Ahmadinejad was a Holocaust denier, a far-right authoritarian, a batshit social conservative who banned dog walking and denied gay people existed, and an election stealer with a massive ego who defied all the norms and wrote his own rules. He empowered the Revolutionary Guard (of which he was once a member) by stacking the government with their members and allowing them to further entrench the Guards' hold on the country, which served to undermine and marginalize the power of the clerics who wanted theocracy to stay as the status quo. Rouhani, a nuclear scientist, was one of the drivers of the nuclear deal with the United States under Obama. A moderate, he won with the hopes of ending the sanctions, driving him to establish a nuclear deal with the United States. Still, his popularity fell amid failed reforms, the United States reneging on the nuclear deal under Trump, a less than favorable response to COVID-19, and a generally weak domestic policy where his limited powers and lack of relationship with Khamenei, combined with the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards, prevented him from reforming the country the way Khatami tried previously.
Incumbent President Ebrahim Raisi, former Chief Justice, is a longtime hardliner going back to the revolution, having previously lost in a landslide in 2017 to Rouhani. Raisi, infamous for presiding over mass executions of political prisoners, is thought to be the man most likely to succeed Khamenei as Supreme Leader.
Prime Minister (1906-1989)
For a time, Iran used to have both a president and a prime minister because the prime minister was a holdover office from the Shah's years which briefly survived into the Islamic Republic. Mehdi Bazargan, the 46th prime minister of Iran, was the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic as he was appointed right after the Islamic Revolution. This meant Iran had two heads of government with a left-leaning parliament, forcing Khomeini to compromise with liberals and democracy supporters. This was meant to divide the executive and prevent a counter-coup against the revolution. But the prime minister only lasted ten years into the Islamic Republic. Bazargan, who hoped for liberal democracy and accommodation with the West, resigned during the hostage crisis as a protest against the hostage-taking and acknowledging of his government's failure to release the American diplomats. Bazargan would remain in parliament as a prominent critic of the regime, penning a letter to the Speaker of the Majlis saying the Islamic Republic "has created an atmosphere of terror, fear, revenge and national disintegration."
When Abdolhassan Banisadr became president in 1981, he appointed education minister Mohammad Ali Rajai as prime minister, who didn't get to do much because Banisadr was impeached later that same year. President Rajai chose Mohammad-Javad Bahonar to be his Prime Minister. Bahonar, arrested for opposing the Shah, became a member of the Assembly of Experts, a founding member of the Islamic Republican Party, an original member of the Council of Revolution (designed to "manage" the revolution during all that chaos), and the new government's minister of culture and Islamic guidance in 1981, responsible for censoring any media disapproved by Muslim leaders in Tehran. He also directed a purge of all secular influence from Iranian Universities. But Bahonar, like his president, was also quite literally short-lived because Rajai and Bahonar were assassinated only a month into their terms. When Khamenei became President, he initially chose conservative right-winger Ali Akbar Velayati. However, he was voted down by the then left-leaning majority of the parliament, forcing their own preferred prime minister to Khamenei, namely Mir-Hossein Mousavi. As Khamenei represented the right-wing of the Islamic Republic, Mousavi represented the left-wing, and their eight years in power proved contentious throughout. Prime Minister Mousavi served throughout the Iran-Iraq War, guiding the country through Saddam Hussein's invasion, and he earned popular acclaim for his stewardship of the national economy, namely by a fair distribution of goods among the people through a bond-based economy, as well as his efforts to end Iran's international isolation. Mousavi played a key part in the Iran-Contra Affair, negotiating for the release of the hostages in return for the sale of the American weapons and spare parts that Iran's army badly needed for the war against Iraq.
Despite surprisingly strong support from Ayatollah Khomeini, Mousavi was still under hardliners' pressure. However, Khomeini generally protected Mousavi from the conservatives and gave him free rein in deciding actions for the economy. Mousavi resigned shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. However, Khomeini, who supported Mousavi, did not accept his resignation, and he served all the way up to Rafsanjani's inauguration as president. The prime minister was abolished in the 1989 constitution, held to a referendum vote, and now executive power lies with the president. As mentioned above in the president's segment, Khamenei and other conservatives have proposed restoring the prime minister while abolishing the president. Hence, the Supreme Leader becomes a full dictator. However, such a proposal has not yet been debated, let alone implemented.
Iran's most famous prime minister was Mohammad Mossadegh, during the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty, all the way back in the 1950s, almost thirty years before the Islamic Republic. At this time, the British owned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, so all the money from oil production went to wealthy white men half a planet away, even though it was Iranian oil from Iranian workers. Elected on a promise to nationalize oil, Mossadegh did exactly that and was overthrown in a coup by the British under Winston Churchill and the Americans under Dwight Eisenhower, with the CIA spearheading the push. His overthrow forever changed the course of Iran, as the Shah was installed as an absolute monarch who would later be overthrown by the Ayatollah, leading to modern-day Iran.
These guys are why Iran's reformists can't get any lasting change for the country. The Guardian Council has twelve members, and six are appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council puts the "Islamic" into the "Islamic Republic." It interprets the constitution to determine if parliament's laws align with sharia law. It also does background checks on presidential and parliamentary candidates to make sure that they are loyal Shia Muslims who will uphold shariah. Sorry, Iranian voters, but you don't really get a choice in your elections.
Islamic Consultative Assembly
Iran's parliament, officially called the "Islamic Consultative Assembly", is a unicameral body of 290 representatives who serve four-year terms. The parliament can pass laws, but those laws have to be vetted by the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader. The parliament's lack of power was demonstrated quite effectively in 2000 when liberal reformists won a majority. Their attempts at liberalization were nullified by the Council, and the reformists were later barred from running for reelection.
The parliament is also currently barred by the Supreme Leader from having any say in foreign policy or Iran's nuclear policy.
Revolutionary Guard Corps
The Revolutionary Guard Corps is distinct from the rest of the Iranian military. Despite having less manpower than the military, the IRGC is responsible for patrolling Iran's waters, overseeing its missiles, and supporting terrorist groups abroad. The force answers only to the Supreme Leader. The infamous and secretive Quds Force is part of the IRGC, and it currently has relations with armed militant groups in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The Quds Force was blamed for both the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut and the attack on barracks housing American and French service members, which claimed the lives of 307 people. The Quds Force was one of the most effective armed groups resisting DAESH expansion. Its leader Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by the United States at the order of Donald Trump.
The US and Iran haven't had official diplomatic relations since 1980, which isn't surprising since Iran violated diplomatic immunity with that whole embassy fiasco. At first, the 1979 Revolution really wasn't an anti-American revolution, since it targeted the Shah. However, the Iranian people couldn't help but notice that the Shah was a close friend/puppet of the US. The Jimmy Carter administration also made some foolish diplomatic missteps during this time. Carter invited the Shah to the US to express American support for him, and he rarely criticized the Shah's bad habit of having people murdered and tortured. Finally, Carter invited the Shah to the US for cancer treatment and to avoid arrest by the new Iranian authorities. None of that sat well with the Iranians.
After the severing of relations, the US has adopted a strategy of containment towards Iran by diplomatically aligning with Iran's adversarial neighbors and stationing US troops and bases on their soil. Hence the infamous map of the poor innocent Iranian state surrounded by US bases. The US also shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft in 1988, and George W. Bush referred to Iran as part of the new "Axis of Evil" in 2002.
The US has maintained economic and military sanctions against Iran since the revolution. Sanctions were lifted briefly after the nuclear deal but were reimposed by the Trump administration. Trump's strategy is currently one of "maximum pressure", hoping that the Iranians will capitulate. Unfortunately, the Iranians will never do that because they would rather face any consequence than return to the days of Western control and domination of their country.
Iran officially doesn't recognize Israel as a legitimate state, and Israel has turned into one of Iran's archnemeses on the global stage. Iran supplies weapons and goods to Hamas, a terrorist group in the Gaza Strip. Iran also supports Hezbollah in the same manner in Lebanon along Israel's northern border. Iran currently recognizes Jerusalem as Palestine's capital, in direct opposition to the US recognition of the city as Israel's capital.
For its part, Israel has adopted a strategy of deterrence that has manifested as extreme aggression. Israel has taken inflammatory measures like striking Iranian targets with rockets and threatening to attack Iran if it develops a nuclear device.
Even more so than Israel, Saudi Arabia is Iran's archnemesis in the Middle East. Much of the conflict is religious, as a Sunni theocracy and a Shia theocracy were never destined to get along very well. Iran hates that Saudi Arabia has aligned with the US and allows American soldiers to protect Islam's holy land.
In recent times, their "cold war" has heated up considerably. In many ways, Iran seems to be winning. The Yemeni Civil War still rages along Saudi Arabia's southern border, with the Shia Houthi rebels possibly receiving aid from Iran. Iran also has its proxy Hezbollah in charge of much of Lebanon, and its Shia militias used the war against DAESH to take over large swathes of Iraq. The Saudis have also mobilized their allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain to push back against Iranian power. Israel has also formed an unlikely common cause with Saudi Arabia, as Israel considers Iran a much more imminent threat.
Iran executes hundreds of people per year. Those high numbers are mainly due to Iran's horrifyingly harsh drug laws; before 2017, drug abuses came with mandatory death sentences. Although that law was amended, people are still executed for drug offenses, although in lesser numbers.
People may also be executed for crimes they allegedly committed as children, and judges have wide discretion to impose death in these cases. Iranian law considers acts such as "insulting the prophet," "apostasy," same-sex relations, and adultery as crimes punishable by death. More than 100 offenses, including drinking alcoholic beverages and extramarital sex, can be punished with flogging.
Iran is also one of the only countries to practice public executions, apparently with the idea that the display will deter other criminals. It doesn't seem to be working since so many people are executed per year.
Freedom of expression, association, and assembly
Iran does not respect the human right to freedom of expression or assembly. Most recently, Iran shocked and horrified the world by killing, arbitrarily arresting, and torturing thousands of people who participated in the 2019-2020 protests. That harsh crackdown was followed by days of mass arrests to terrify people into silence.
The regime also regularly sends people to prison for unreasonably long sentences for minor crimes. Many victims of this tactic are:
- Human rights activists.
- Labor rights activists.
- Environmental activists.
- Minority rights activists.
- Women’s rights activists.
- Anti-death penalty campaigners.
- People who ask the government to be truthful about the 1988 mass murders conducted by Khomeini.
Independent civil society and human rights groups are banned. All forms of media are censored, and foreign broadcasts are blocked.
Due process and mistreatment of prisoners
Iranian law enforcement regularly extracts confessions from prisoners by using torture, which is a notoriously unreliable method for getting an accurate view of the truth. Iran also denies prisoners access to legal counsel and denies medical care to prisoners even in cases of severe preexisting conditions.
Many people have died in prison due to torture. Prisons are inhumane, featuring conditions like overcrowding, prolonged solitary confinement, denial of medical care, denial of food and water, and insect infestations. In other cases, prisoners are punished with disfigurement. The Islamic Penal Code makes many crimes punishable by torture methods, including flogging, blinding, and forced amputation. In July, Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh was subjected to 100 lashes after being convicted on "drinking alcohol" charges. In October, a prisoner’s hand was amputated for theft in a prison in Sari, Mazandaran province.
As you might expect, women face severe discrimination. Women may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without written permission from the primary man in their life. Wearing the hijab is compulsory. In August 2019, Iranian civil rights activist Saba Kord Afshari was sentenced to 24 years in prison, including a 15-year term for taking off her hijab in public, which Iranian authorities say promoted "corruption and prostitution".
Women may be stoned to death for adultery, while men rarely get so severe a punishment for the same crime. Indeed, Iranian law recognizes a man's right to marry more than one woman at a time. Women, of course, do not get the same right. Men have the unilateral right to divorce women, a right women do not have.
However, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia's harsh laws maintained until recently, Iranian women have the equal right to drive, vote, do not need to be accompanied by a male member of their families in public places, and have surpassed men in university entrance exams unlike any other country in the region.
Discrimination against religious minorities
The Baháʼí Faith is a religion that originated in Iran between the years 1844 and 1863; it is not (as it is commonly misperceived to be) a branch or sect of Islam, but a new and independent religion that arose in a Twelver Shia Muslim context, the same way Christianity arose in a Jewish context and Buddhism arose in a Hindu context. Bahá’í law forbids cisgender gay and lesbian Bahá’ís to get married and requires transgender Bahá’ís to enter into “straight” marriages, and it also excommunicates people who break its unique “Covenant”, but aside from that, it is about as peaceful and universally loving a religion as could be imagined. Its prophet, Bahá’u’lláh (who is believed by the Bahá’í community to be the return of Jesus Christ “in the glory of the Father”), and his son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, taught that all human beings are worthwhile and that all religions should be respected. The Bahá’ís also refrain from partisan political involvement and civil disobedience. In other words, they’re about as threatening as a chihuahua puppy. But because they believe that Muhammad was not the last prophet in all of religious history ever (believing as they do that Bahá’u’lláh came after him and that more will come after Bahá’u’lláh’s era ends sometime around the year 3000), the Iranians treat them as dangerous criminals. Members of the Baháʼí community in Iran have been subjected to unwarranted arrests, false imprisonment, beatings, torture, unjustified executions, confiscation and destruction of property owned by individuals and the Baháʼí community, denial of employment, denial of government benefits, denial of civil rights and liberties, and denial of access to higher education.
Although other religions are free to practice, they still face restrictions. Non-Shia Muslims are still expected to live according to Iran's harsh religious laws. Only Shia Muslims may hold government positions or take certain jobs. A Zoroastrian named Sepanta Niknam faced harsh opposition when he ran for city council in the central city of Yazd in 2017, and Zoroastrians, who love and revere dogs, also often fall afoul of Iran’s harsh sharia rulings against them. Converts to Christianity from Islam are routinely tortured and imprisoned; only those born Christian can practice freely. There is a Hindu mandir in Iran, but the Hindu community is not legally recognized and has faced discrimination concerning the question of unequal sums of blood money paid in cases of murders of Hindus by Twelver Shia Muslim citizens. A practitioner of Eckankar and his wife, a non-Eckist translator of Eckist books into Farsi, were sentenced to death in 2017. Atheists risk arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for "apostasy". Iranian Jews generally live safely as long as they publicly support the Palestinian national cause and do not even gesture in the direction of supporting Zionism.
Discrimination against ethnic minorities
Ethnic minorities, including Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmens, face institutional discrimination. Challenges for them include lack of access to education and employment and perpetual government neglect of their communities, impacting their ability to access essential services. Ethnic rights activists are sentenced to unreasonably long prison sentences.
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