Country Profile: Iran

Life expectancy ★★★★

A traditional teahouse in Isfahan.

Patricia White/Alamy

The Western world’s image of Iran primarily as a threat and a progenitor of terrorist outrages has recently been reinforced by the third series of Homeland – a TV drama that is undeniably compelling but which sees the world from the vantage-point of the CIA. Small sense there of the diversity of this country – from the ski slopes in the north to the sandy beaches of the Persian Gulf – or of the appetite for peaceful coexistence among its people.

Women picnicking by the roadside in Shiraz.


On any public holiday the Chaloos Road in Tehran leading to the resorts on the Caspian Sea is always at a standstill, packed with cars full of people in search of fun. Families, rich or poor, are always seemingly equipped for an outing. Iranians could win Olympic medals in picnicking. Public parks are filled with people eating al fresco and it’s even not unusual to see carefree travellers picnicking in a bit of green at the centre of a busy roundabout.

At the other end of the country, Kish Island in the Persian Gulf has it all: sandy beaches, coral-edged clear lagoons, ancient structures that include an underground city, duty-free shopping malls and plush hotels. Prior to 1979, this was the exclusive playground of the rich, with a casino to boot. Gambling is now banned in the Islamic Republic, but the Dariush hotel, complete with columns inspired by the ancient Persian ruins of Persepolis, remains pure Vegas.

In any event, sanctions mean that international tourism to Iran remains untapped. Those sanctions derive from Iran’s status as one of the West’s main bugbears. Before 1979, Iran was seen as something of a strategic plaything of the Great Powers. In 1906, the strategic rivalry of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain saw them dismantle the constitutional government and thwart early Iranian aspirations for democracy. By 1953 Cold War agendas saw the US and Britain unite to overthrow the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh.

Selling fish in Kermanshah.

Ensie & Matthias

Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhori-Eslami’, or ‘Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic’, the nation chanted during the revolution of 1979 that instituted the rule of the mullahs, initially under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Before long, Iraq attacked Iran and a war ensued between 1980 and 1988 that led to over a million fatalities. Khomeini’s death in 1989 produced no change in the repressive nature of the clerical regime – he was replaced as Supreme Leader by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has retained firm control ever since, whoever has been elected President.

The re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 saw nationwide protests by those who believed that their votes for the moderate reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi had been stolen. The revolutionary élite, including Ayatollah Khamenei, openly sided with Ahmadinejad. In 2013, a new moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, secured a landslide election victory by almost repeating Mousavi’s promises of economic prosperity, democracy and an end to Iran’s international isolation.

It seems that Ayatollah Khamenei has now been compelled to back what he refused to entertain in 2009: namely, a reformist government that has promised greater freedom and rapprochement with the West. Only time will tell how this will play out, but the early signs offer some degree of hope: Rouhani and US President Obama recently became the first leaders of their countries to speak since 1979 and Rouhani’s government has signed an interim deal that might ultimately satisfy the West’s anxieties about the country’s civil nuclear programme spawning a nuclear-weapons facility.

In terms of wider social and political ambitions for reform, much depends upon progress in these negotiations leading to a loosening of sanctions – and to the economic resurgence that may result.

Burkina Faso

Students rioting in Ouagadougou on 23 May


Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, known to locals as ‘Ouaga’, retains the engaging feel of an overgrown village in a country still dominated by subsistence farming. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world but at the start of this year it seemed like an island of calm in a troubled region. While nearby countries in West Africa had undergone brutal civil wars, Burkina had sailed blithely on. After 24 years in power, President Blaise Compaoré was being billed as a regional peacemaker, despite his own distinctly murky reputation, and in the November 2010 election he won 80.2 per cent of the vote.

But then, out of the blue, Compaoré was hit by successive waves of opposition. The trouble started in February when a schoolchild was allegedly killed by police, setting off a wave of demonstrations by students across the country. In April the biggest mass protest for many years took place in the capital, over rising food prices partly derived from the ongoing conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.

More disturbing still for Compaoré was the mutiny in April by police and soldiers – including many from the élite presidential guard – protesting that the government had not paid their housing allowances. In Ouaga, 43 people were wounded by gunshots, women were raped, shops were ransacked and hotels were attacked. The home of presidential guard commander Gilbert Diendéré was razed to the ground. The mutiny spread to other cities – to Pô, Kaya and Tenkodogo – before Compaoré agreed to their demands and sacked his own government, appointing himself Minister of Defence.

But his troubles were by no means over. Traders whose property had been damaged by the rioting soldiers took to the streets, setting the ruling party’s headquarters on fire, and attacking the National Assembly and other key public buildings before their demands for compensation were met. In May, teachers entered the fray, striking in protest at the government’s failure to respond to their long-held grievances over allowances and overcrowded classrooms. Students took to the streets in support, and at one point offices in the education ministry were ransacked. In this case, too, the government eventually acceded to all the teachers’ demands.

Flag of Burkina Faso

Resentment has always bubbled beneath the surface in Burkina. Independence from France in 1960 was followed by a bewildering series of military coups that did little to help the country’s battle against chronic poverty. In 1983, however, the latest of those coups turned into one of Africa’s most promising revolutions, led by the inspirational Thomas Sankara, who is still revered well beyond the continent for his wisdom and idealism.

Sankara was assassinated in 1987 by his former friend and comrade-in-arms, Compaoré, who seized the presidency and proceeded to curry favour with the West by doing its neoliberal economic bidding. An inevitable byproduct has been a harbouring of massive wealth by a rich élite, many of whom, like Compaoré himself, now live in opulent mansions in a newly built section of the capital called Ouaga 2000. Corruption is an ever-growing problem – the newspaper Le Reporter uncovered huge loans secured by ministers from the nation’s social security fund to build themselves these ‘futuristic villas’. Sankara’s renaming of what used to be Upper Volta is beginning to seem like a curse – Burkina Faso means ‘land of the incorruptible’.

Compaoré has governed through patronage and the shrewd distribution of Western money while actively cultivating political apathy – in the November election only 1.6 million Burkinabès voted, out of a total population 10 times that size. But the genie of protest is now out of the bottle and Compaoré’s aura of invincibility has been shattered. Politics in Burkina has at long last come alive again.

Murder exhumed

The murder of former Burkina Faso President Thomas Sankara in 1987 is at last being considered by the country’s courts – though they may still strangle a proper investigation at birth. Four years ago Sankara’s widow Mariam filed an action in the common-law courts seeking an investigation that would identify those responsible for the assassination. The State has tried to ensure throughout that the case would be heard in military courts (in conditions of complete secrecy) rather than in open court in full scrutiny – and Mariam Sankara’s appeal against this to the Supreme Court, backed by an international team of lawyers, is now to be heard on 15 May, just after we go to press.


Thomas Sankara was one of the most principled, radical and charismatic leaders Africa has ever produced. His four years as President of Burkina Faso (1983-87) were unique in their attempt to chart a revolutionary development course that put the rural poor first (see *NI 179*, *268*, *323*). His personal probity was legendary: he refused to use the air conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was unavailable to any but a handful of Burkinabes. When he died his most valuable possessions were a car, four bikes, three guitars and a fridge: he was the world’s poorest president.

He was murdered as part of the coup d’état that brought Blaise Compaoré to power – and Compaoré remains President to this day, having taken Burkina down a standard free-market, IMF-adjusted road. Compaoré has bought off or suppressed opposition as well as enriching himself and his cronies. He was censured by a UN report for accepting illegal diamonds from Angolan warlord Jonas Savimbi.

A free and fair trial in open court would be a key step towards breaking the impunity that has reigned in Burkina since 1987. An international campaign has been trying to raise funds to support the presence of the greatest number of lawyers at the vital hearing.

Contact the Justice for Sankara campaign at Group for Research and Initiative for the Liberation of Africa, PO Box 55005, CSP Fairmount, Montreal, Quebec H2T 3E2, Canada. Tel: 514-845-7731. Web:

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