Thursday, July 16, 2009


Some of you may recall that I run a regular column on the Nations of the World. Today's posting is especially timely, as the Islamic Republic of Iran has been much in the news lately, on account of disputes surrounding their presidential election.

As is often the case for Americans watching news stories about other countries, I was surprised at how little I knew about Iran. One blog post won't make up for everything, but it's a start...

The Islamic Republic of Iran:
Population: 66,688,433
Land Area: 636,294 square miles (slightly larger than Alaska)
Languages: 58% Persian, 26% Turkic, 9% Kurdish
Religion: 89% Shi'a Muslim, 10% Sunni Muslim, 1% other
Monetary Unit: Iranian rial
President: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (since August 2005)

Until the 1930s, the country was known abroad as Persia. Most of the terrain is rugged, and geologic instability has caused frequent earthquakes which have resulted in much property damage and loss of life throughout the region's history.

Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, conquered nearby Lydia and Babylonia (546-539 BC), and established Persia as a preeminent power in the world.
Darius I, who ascended the throne in 521 BC, pushed the Persian border to the Indus River, earning the title Darius the Great. From 499 to 490 BC, he led a crushing invasion of Greece until he was historically defeated at the Battle of Marathon.

Alexander the Great added Persia to his realm in a series of battles between 334 and 331 BC. His death resulted in a long struggle among his successors for the Persian throne, eventually resulting in the Parthian Empire, Rome's greatest eastern rival. The Roman Empire actually enjoyed relatively good relations with Parthia, although many emperors may have dreamed of conquering it.

After the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in 641, Iran became part of the Islamic world. The old Zoroastrian religion gradually vanished, and Iran became a Muslim country. The area soon became a major center of Shi'a Muslim culture.

In the early 13th century, Iran was conquered by the Mongols, and was ruled by them until 1502. Ismail I (1486-1524) founded the independent Iranian Safavid dynasty, and established the Shiite doctrine as the official national religion. He was regarded as a saint by Iranians, who proclaimed him the shah.

The story of modern Iran begins with the Qajars, a Turkic speaking tribal confederation which conquered the country piece by piece in the late 18th century. It's real power was restricted to the capital, most authority rested with local magnates. During this period, Britain and Russia struggled for hegemony in Iran.

The rise of foreign influence and weakness and corruption of the country's rulers led to the development of a nationalist movement in the early 20th century, which demanded a constitutional government and an elected Parliament. In 1906, shah Mazzafar ad-Din was at the center of a ring of corrupt officials, and had borrowed millions from European leaders. The Iranian economy was in shambles, inflation was rampant: in 1906 the cost of bread rose 90%.

Shah Mazzafar was forced to acknowledge the first Majlis, or national assembly, which drew up a liberal constitution. His son and successor, Muhammad Ali, attempted to destroy the constitutional movement by force, but was defeated and deposed. Meanwhile, a treaty between Britain and Russia divides Iran into "spheres of influence": between the two countries, challenging the nation's independence. Following World War I, Persia was recognized as an independent country, but was virtually a British protectorate.

US and British forces, anxious about their access to Iran's rich oil fields, deposed the democratically elected Majlis and restored power to the autocratic shah. Resenting his absolute power, financial mismanagement, and excessive use of his military secret police, Iranians ousted the last shah in 1979. Iran's dominant religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, came to power after years of exile in France.

After toppling the shah, Khomeini, supported by the clergy and the large conservative element in Iran, presided over the establishment of an Islamic republic. The regime ended the country's close ties with the US and Britain. Hundreds of the shah's supporters were executed. When the shah came to the US in 1979 for medical treatment, militant Iranians stormed the US embassy, taking 62 Americans as hostages.

The hostage dispute with the US dragged on: they were finally released on January 21, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan's inauguration. The next day the Ayatollah Khomeini took executive power. Another wave of executions followed.
Meanwhile, war with neighboring Iraq from 1980-1988 severely crippled Iran. Casualties are estimated from 450,000 to a million dead on both sides, and the war consumed nearly all of Iran's revenue from oil exports, leaving it bankrupt. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died.

Iran remained mired in economic and social stagnation, with evidence of popular discontent for years. In 1997, religious authorities gave voters their first genuine choice for a presidential candidate. They overwhelmingly chose modertae reformer Mohammed Khatami. Despite clerical opposition, Khatami reopened diplomatic relations with "the Great Satan" of the US.

In 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the popular mayor of Tehran, was elected president. He immediately began attacking Israel's existence, the US occupation of Iraq, and began pressing ahead with Iranian plans to develop a nuclear program. Ahmadenejad remains in power after an election of highly suspect authenticity in June 2009. Mass protests have followed, demanding a new election and an end to police attacks on peaceful protesters.

Few countries have advanced as quickly as Iran from wooden ploughs to a nuclear program. In 1900, the country had a population of less than 12 million, with a 5% literacy rate. Now its population is over 66 million, with an 84% literacy rate and 1.6 million enrolled in college.

For my previous posts on Nations of the World, click here.


Soren said...

Hey Hans,
Thanx for postin' 'bout my country...yeah.. I agree, it can't be summarized to a single post..excluding all the different periods of ancient Persia, its contribution to the history of arts and world civilisation, or the influence of mithraism on Abrahamic religions, so on....yeah, one post isn't enough but it's still so damn great :) ... a lil' bit of everythin'. Good job, man! I appreciate it. Especially in the current political bullshit & media propaganda that is meant to make any real fact about Iran look reverse.
Hope my country shines again & my people regain their most basic rights.. soon,
Big kiss from Tehran

Iain said...

Yes....and gay men and women are killed simply for being who they are. The President of Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.Some country to glorify on your blog! From wooden ploughs to nuclear weapons and back to wooden ploughs. You should be ashamed.

Hansisgreat said...

It is possible to be against a country's leaders and still love the country itself.

Anonymous said...

i appreciate ur affort to know about iran...most people go through the news..but don't even know where iran is