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Iran - a history

Origins 3500-600 BCE

Iran’s rich history stretches back to the dawn of civilization in the fourth millennium BCE. The Elamite civilization, eventually focused on the city of Susa in what is now eastern Iran, rivalled its near neighbours first in Akkad and Sumer, then in Babylon and Assyria, for more than 2,000 years. Elamite cultural influences survived even once other peoples had come to dominate the region. The Medes, a people from the mountainous north of the region thought to have been among the ancestors of today’s Kurds, were the first to build a significant empire, from the seventh century BCE. Mede king Cyaxares destroyed the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 BCE; Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar held off the Mede threat by marrying Cyaxares’ daughter, for whom he built the Hanging Gardens.

Cyrus the Great 550 BCE

The Medes were overcome in 550 BCE by the Persians, whose king Cyrus II merited the accolade ‘the Great’. Cyrus was a conqueror, extending the Persian Empire to absorb Lydia (now western Turkey) and Babylon. But his ‘greatness’ derives more from his reputation for benevolence. When he took control of Babylon – apparently without excessive violence – he issued a decree (recorded in cuneiform script on a cylinder) which has been called the world’s first human rights charter. In recent years extra modern-sounding text has been falsely attributed to Cyrus and may derive from propaganda by the last Shah, who was fond of stressing the greatness of the Persian monarchy. But Cyrus does seem to have respected local religions and was responsible for freeing the Jews from their slavery in Babylon, winning him reverence in the Old Testament Book of Ezra.


Cyrus may have come under the influence of Zoroastrianism; his successors Darius and Xerxes certainly did. The dates of Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) are disputed but linguistic analysis of his holy poems, the Ga-tha-s, suggest that they date from, give or take a century, around 1000 BCE – well before the Buddha or before the Jews first recorded their oral history, both in the sixth century BCE. Zoroaster saw the universe as a battle between good (represented by the supreme deity Ahura-Mazda) and evil (in the shape of Ahriman). He believed in the notion of ‘free will’and that if humans did not live well they would be damned at a final judgment. The Magi in the Christian nativity story were Zoroastrian priests. The Parsee people in northwest India still practise the Zoroastrian religion, while Baha’is accord Zoroaster prophetic status.

Imperial efficiency 330 BCE-226 CE

The Persian or Achaemenid Empire was one of the greatest civilizations in the ancient world, efficiently governed by 23 local authorities and connected by thousands of kilometres of paved roads, as well as by the world’s first postal service. Its original capital, Susa, was one of the world’s foremost cities, but Darius I erected a new ceremonial capital, Persepolis or Parsa, which was built in a range of different styles by artists and craftspeople from all over the empire. Its size and beauty dazzled visitors. Persepolis was destroyed by the Greek troops of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. One of Alexander’s generals then established the Seleucid dynasty, with its Greek orientation. After 200 years this was overcome by Parthian nomads from the Caspian.

Golden age 226-637

Neither the Seleucids nor the Parthians had full control of Persia, but their successors the Sassanids came from the Persian heartland of Fars, and their rule from 226 to 651 is seen as the second great phase of the Persian Empire. The Sassanid empire encompassed not only modern Iran but stretched from Arabia to Central Asia. It was acknowledged by Rome as a second superpower. The Sassanid period is revered in Persian literature– embodied particularly in the reign of the fifth-century king, Bahram V. Among the many contributions of ancient Persia to world culture are wine, peaches, windmills, backgammon, polo and ice cream.

Coming of Islam 637

When Islamic forces erupted from the Arabian peninsula following the death of Muhammad in 632, Persia was an inevitable early target. The new religion won its converts as much through its fervent simplicity as its naked force. It offered a readily accessible faith in one true God, unmediated by a priestly élite. Yet this was no simple colonization, since Persian culture was strong enough to influence Islam profoundly – especially during the Golden Age of the Abbasid caliphs between the 8th and 11th centuries. The great geniuses of this period – Al-Khwarizmi, who invented modern numbers and algebra, the medical pioneer Ibn Sins (Avicenna) and the poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam – were all Persians. And it was an obscure Persian library in the Fars region – the only one that survived the Muslim onslaught on ‘idolatry’ – that kept intact the great works of Graeco-Roman antiquity. They were later translated into Arabic and stored in Baghdad, whence they eventually percolated back into the Western world and fed the Renaissance.

From Mongol disaster to poetic genius 1219-1400s

Iran was ravaged by a series of invasions in the 13th and 14th centuries. Genghis Khan’s Mongol invasion not only resulted in mass slaughter but also many years of starvation due to the destruction of irrigation systems. The Mongols returned under Hulegu Khan in 1256 and so many millions died in the ensuing years that the Iranian population did not again reach its pre-Mongol level until the late 20th century. A century later there was yet another slaughter, at the hands of the forces of Timur, said to have left a pile of 70,000 heads in the square of Isfahan in 1384. Ironically, this dreadful period also saw an astonishing flowering of Persian poetry – the works of Rumi and Hafez in particular remain among the great works of world literature.

Shi’as & Safavids 1400s-1600s

The great split in Islam between Sunni and Shi’a took place early on, in the lifetimes of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali and his grandson Hussein, whose valuing of social justice over tradition is among the core principles of Shi’ism. Hussein married the last Sassanid princess before his death at Karbala in 680 and thus linked Persia to Shi’ism, yet the Shi’a faith did not take hold in Iran until much later. In the 15th century a mystic order called the Safavids, from present-day Azerbaijan, started to gain a following, embracing Shi’ism even as they formed their own army. From 1493 onwards they spread south in a holy war. As in the earlier Muslim invasion, mass conversion followed due to the potent combination of military force and the promise of social justice. The greatest Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas, came to the throne in 1588 and not only made Shi’ism the state religion but connected it to ancient ideas of Persian kingship. He secured Iran’s borders and presided over another great flowering of art and architecture, including the magical mosques of Isfahan.

Stagnation and the Shahs 1700s-1800s

Previously always at the hub of world events, Iran drifted into stagnation during the age of the Western industrial revolutions. Afghan invaders who deposed the Safavids were expelled by a megalomaniac ruler with the appropriate name of Nadir. His excesses plunged the country into civil war, which was followed by the Turkish Qajar shahs, who presided over the massively corrupt, casually repressive and politically frozen period of the 19th century. In 1872 Nasir ed-Din Shah sold off all Iran’s industries, mineral resources and even its national bank to a British entrepreneur, Baron Julius de Reuter. Iranians were so outraged that he cancelled the deal, at huge cost. Again in 1891, to fund a European jaunt for him and his harem, the Shah sold the entire tobacco industry to British Imperial Tobacco. There was universal consternation: farmers would have to sell their whole crop to the British and smokers would be forced to buy from British shops. Mosques also benefited from tobacco sales, and the leading cleric of the day proclaimed a fatwa (religious injunction) against the sell-off. The Shah was again forced to renege on the deal and was assassinated five years later.

Constitutional Revolution 1905-1911

In 1905 the arrest and torture of merchants protesting sugar prices sparked mass opposition. Intellectuals, clerics and traders demanded a constitution that would limit the power of the Shah. Shah Mozzafar al-Din was eventually forced to concede, signing the new constitution on his deathbed, and the first Majlis (parliament) was opened on 7 October 1906. A free press began to operate. The new assembly was dogged by difficulty, not least as differences emerged between liberal intellectuals and Shi’a clerics. But support for the new constitution was passionate and when the new Shah bombarded the Majlis with artillery and arrested key constitutionalists in 1908, civil war ensued. After a year of resistance, rebels took control of Tehran and forced the Shah into Russian exile. The Constitutional Revolution was ultimately derailed by foreign powers. In a bold attempt to confront the country’s economic crisis, the Majlis appointed an American financial adviser who urged it to collect revenue countrywide. This angered the Russians and British, who had by now divided Iran into ‘spheres of influence’. An ultimatum demanded the adviser’s dismissal and, as Russian troops advanced toward Tehran, the new Shah’s regent dissolved the Majlis in December 1911.

Reza Shah 1920s to 1940s

A middle-ranking army officer, Reza Khan seized control of Shah Soltan Ahmad’s bodyguard in 1921, marched into Tehran and arrested the entire Cabinet. In the ensuing years he put down a Bolshevik rebellion and reasserted central control of wayward provinces, winning the status of a saviour. When the clinically obese Shah went abroad for medical treatment, the clerical establishment in Qom encouraged Reza to take the throne; he duly became Shah in 1925. He was a ferocious modernizer, building a vast railway from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, constructing roads and factories, making education compulsory for girls as well as boys. He even made it illegal for women to wear the veil in public. The mullahs were simply overridden – and in 1936 Reza’s soldiers machine-gunned a crowd protesting his attacks on Shi’ism, killing at least a hundred. His ruthless authoritarianism had much in common with fascism and his overt support of Hitler led British and Soviet forces not only to occupy Iran during the Second World War but also to oust him, placing his son Muhammad Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne.

Mossadegh and the CIA 1950s

Iranian oil rights had been given away to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later BP) in 1901. By the 1950s resentment over British control of this vast resource was seething. The hitherto dormant Majlis sprang back to life, led by a brilliant politician, Muhammad Mossadegh. As the campaign for a better deal hotted up, the British pressurized the Shah to bring the Majlis to heel. His clampdown, together with a blatantly rigged election, provoked urban riots. Mossadegh led a protest to the palace gates and refused to move until free and fair elections were promised. The Shah gave way. Mossadegh became head of Iran’s first major political party, the National Front. He told the Majlis he would only take the job of prime minister if it agreed to the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain reacted by blockading Iranian oil exports, sabotaging equipment and withdrawing all its technical staff. When US President Eisenhower took over at the start of 1953, he was receptive to British allegations that Mossadegh – by now ruling under emergency powers – favoured communism. The CIA was given orders to oust Mossadegh – Operation Ajax. A few months and millions of dollars worth of covert activity later, the CIA team, led by Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of President Theodore), achieved their goal. Mossadegh remained under house arrest until his death, but remains the great hero of many Iranians.

Shah of Shahs 1960s and 1970s

Restored to power, the Shah embarked on a new modernization programme dubbed the White Revolution, which included land reform and the enfranchisement of women. The land reform was badly managed, leading to the collapse of ancient irrigation networks, and by the 1970s Iran was no longer self-sufficient in food. The Shah vaingloriously crowned himself King of Kings in 1967. But he maintained control only by savage repression, embodied in his Savak secret police. The Shah’s most prominent opponent now was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A dedicated Islamic scholar for decades, in 1962 he denounced the seizure of the clergy’s lands; the Shah sent troops to the theological centre at Qom who killed two Islamic students. At their funeral Khomeini condemned the Shah so roundly that he was arrested, prompting mass rioting in which 86 people died. In 1964 Khomeini was exiled to Iraq but continued to lambast the Shah and lay out his vision of a country led by Shi’a jurists.

The Islamic Revolution 1979

When oil prices fell in the late 1970s, Iran’s economy was hit hard – and discontent mushroomed. Democrats, human-rights campaigners and clerics made common cause, united in their opposition to the Shah, who in turn responded with greater repression. Thousands of demonstrators were shot dead in street battles in Tehran, Qom and Tabriz, and in August 1978 Savak police burned down a cinema in Abadan containing 400 women and children. The wave of opposition became a tsunami, bringing in crowds of ordinary people and leading to mass desertions from the army. In January 1979 the Shah fled the country and on 1 February Khomeini returned from exile to a tumultuous welcome.

Clerical rule 1980s

In March 1979 the world’s first Islamic Republic was proclaimed. Mullahs appointed Khomeini Supreme Leader, supposed to have special access to Allah’s wisdom. Khomeini’s vision was of a society constructed entirely according to his own rigid rules and religious prejudices. Many were inspired by the concept of a Muslim state but many others were crushed by it. Vigilantes started patrolling streets and invading homes in search of ‘unIslamic’ Western elements; revolutionary tribunals condemned and executed ‘enemies of Islam’; women were forced to wear the chador. In November 1979 students, hearing that the Shah had been allowed into New York, occupied the US embassy – and held staff there hostage for more than a year, despite a bungled US rescue attempt. Khomeini denounced the US as the Great Satan and stepped up his Islamicization drive. When, in 1981, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a movement describing itself as Islamic Marxists, began a bombing campaign, the repression became even more intense and at one stage 50 people were being executed by firing squad every day.

War with Iraq 1980-88

By now, however, there was an external enemy against which to rally the people: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had invaded in September 1980. The fervour and sheer numbers of Iranian volunteer soldiers drove back the Iraqis but the war eventually lapsed into years of bitter trench warfare in which chemical weapons were widely used. The war was sustained by ruthless leaders on either side who placed no value on human life. Thousands of Iranian children enlisted as Basij (volunteers who went to the front in school holidays) and died walking through minefields clearing them for soldiers. But the war was also prolonged by direct US support for Saddam Hussein, which kept the two sides in a hellish balance. By the time the war finally collapsed in 1988, it had taken the lives of three-quarters of a million Iranians and maimed hundreds of thousands more.

Pragmatism ascendant 1988-97

When Khomeini was finally persuaded to accept peace with Iraq – a decision he described as like ‘drinking hemlock’, it was Majlis speaker Ali Rafsanjani who did the persuading. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Rafsanjani’s more pragmatic approach came to the fore. Khomeini was replaced as Supreme Leader by Ali Khamenei; Rafsanjani became President. Rafsanjani enforced Islamic law ruthlessly. But he abandoned Khomeini’s aim of exporting the revolution to other Muslim countries and concentrated on addressing the economic ruin at home. He tended to do so, however, via measures that hit the poor hard – slashing subsidies, for example – rather than by tackling the corruption of clerics who had creamed off the great houses of the Shah’s élite.

Reform and reaction 1997-2007

In 1997 the presidential election produced a major surprise, as the token moderate, Muhammad Khatami, won a landslide victory. People relished both his modest demeanour and his talk of reform: his supporters soon won control of the Majlis and he secured an even bigger majority in the presidential election of 2001. Encircled by the clerical establishment, however, even President and Majlis combined had little impact. Hundreds of reforms were introduced, only to be vetoed or hamstrung by the Council of Guardians. Khatami affected social atmosphere rather than political substance – there was greater freedom of speech, more room for women to manoeuvre, the educated young felt at last that they could breathe. But his impotence on the economy – and perhaps also the US refusal to encourage reform by relaxing its embargo – fatally undermined him. Many reformists were banned by the Council of Guardians from standing in the 2004 Majlis elections, with the result that hardliners took control. And in the 2005 presidential election, faced with the establishment choice of Rafsanjani or the maverick outsider Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, people overwhelmingly opted for the latter, without a clear sense of the abrasive, ultra-conservative package he was to present.

New Internationalist issue 398 magazine cover This article is from the March 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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