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OFFICIAL NAME: Islamic Republic of Iran

LAND. total area 1.648 million sq km, land: 1.636 million sq km, water: 12,000 sq km. Approximataley the combined size of Great Britain, Germany, France and Spain. No significant rivers, highest point is Mount Damavand (5,610 meters, 18,405 feet). Largest City/Capital: Tehran (population 12 million).

PEOPLE. Population: 68,688,433 (July 2006 est.) Ethnic groups: Persians 51%, Azeris 24%, Gilaki-Mazandarani 8%, Kurds 7%, Arabs 3%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, Lurs 2%, other 1%(based on CIA data) Languages: Persian and Persian dialects 58%, Turkic languages 26%, Kurdish 9%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, other 2%. Religions: Shi'a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 9%, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Bahá'í 2%

EDUCATION AND HEALTH. BIRTH RATE: 17.1 births/1,000 population (2004 est.)DEATH RATE: 5.53 deaths/1,000 population (2004 est.)FERTILITY RATE: 1.93 children born/woman (2004 est.)

ECONOMY. GDP: $478.2 billion (2004 est.), based on petroleum, petrochemicals, textiles, cement and other construction materials, food processing (particularly sugar refining and vegetable oil production), metal fabricating, armaments,

EXPORTS: petroleum (80%), chemical and petrochemical products, fruits and nuts, carpets

IMPORTS: industrial raw materials and intermediate goods, capital goods, foodstuffs and other consumer goods, technical services, military supplies

CURRENCY: Iranian rial (IRR)

GOVERNMENT. Theocratic Oligarchy with limited democratic institutions, including national assembly (Majles) and directly elected President of the Republic. Capitol city Tehran.


Iran is primarily a high, arid plateau at the eastern edge of the Middle East as it is traditionally conceived. Light rainfall and hot summers, punctuated by snowy winters in many areas, mark the climate of the region, often referred to as the Iranian Plateau. In addition to these high elevations Iran is also marked by two prominent mountain ranges, the Zagros, which extend roughly north-south along Iran's western border, demarcating the line between Mesopotamia and the plateau, and the Elburz moutains, running east-west over northwestern Iran, diving the high plateau around Tehran from the fertile semitropical lowland around the Caspian Sea. Central Iran is marked by two prominent deserts, the Dasht-e Lut and the Dasht-e Kavir, which contain vast areas of desolate salt flats and are largely uninhabited.

Owing to these arid conditions, and the fact that Iran has no major rivers to speak of, Iranians have relied extensively on sophisticated water-reclamation systems in agriculture. The most ingenious of these is the Qanat, an system of underground channels and cisterns that actually connect mountain glacier runoff to lowland farming communities. Some Qanats are more than 2,000 years old, and in general this system has allowed Iran to have a long history of agriculture in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

Although Iran has vast maritime borders, it has not traditionally exploited its access to the Indian Ocean, for the simple reason that wood for shipbuilding has never been a widely available commodity. This has tended to make Iran a land-focused political entity down to the present, although significant economic activity does occur along the Caspian region, famous for its rice and sturgeon caviar.

The most significant Iranian resource is crude oil, along with potentially vast natural gas reserves. Most of this resource is focused in two areas: the southwest region of Abadan, close to Iraq, and the Caspian Sea area. The latter is problematic, because it is the richer of Iran's holdings yet cannot be easily brought to the Persian Gulf refineries for international export. In general, political conditions have kept Iran from developing its oil industry with much efficiency or infrastructural depth, despite the fact that it accounts for over 80% of Iran's current GDP and Iran possesses the world's third largest proven reserves.


The majority of Iranians are Persians, an ethnicity distantly related to the peoples of Pakistan and northern India and distinct from the Arabs to Iran's west; their language, Modern Persian, is the official language of the republic, and in its older form the literary language of Iran's vast literary and poetic canon. The numerous minorities of Iran are largely comprised of groups related to the Persians, including Kurds, Baluchis, Bakhtiaris, Mazandaranis, and Luris. Interestingly, many of these groups, especially Baluchis, Bakhtiaris and Luris, retain traditional nomadic modes of life, and are difficult to count in actual government censuses. The remainder of Iran is comprised of Turkish groups, particularly Azeris in the northwest and Turkmens in the northeast. Armenians, Arabs, and Jews form the rest of Iran's cultural patchwork.

Refugees form a major part of Iran's population: 1.5 million Afghans currently reside in the country, many of them as permanent aliens, as a result of that countries violent history. Iraqi refugees are also flooding into the country at present, and refugee services constitute a major financial burden on the Iranian government, leading to widespread resentment of these displaced persons, though the Islamic character of the Iranian government sees providing for these people as a religious duty and has overall been quite generous in accomodating these recent immigrants. Image:Esfahan-shah-sq.jpg

The majority of Iran's people are Shiite Muslims, and indeed, as a result of its recent history Iran has become the spiritual homeland of the Shiite faith, despite the fact that most of the faiths major shrines are in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Shiites (from the Arabic Shiat-Ali or "the party of Ali") constitute one of the two major branches of Islam, the other, larger branch being the Sunnis. Following the death of Muhammad, disagreement arose as to the necessary qualifications and exact function of his successors as leaders of the Muslim community. The Shiites are those who insisted that only members of the Prophet's clan, specifically, the descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, could qualify. Shiism emphasizes the spiritual function of the Prophet's successor, the Imam, in whom the Prophetic Light is ever present in this world. He is believed to be divinely protected against sin and error and to have an infallible understanding of the Koran, a supernatural knowledge of future events, and intercessory powers. Although Ali became (655) the fourth caliph, he was murdered in 661, and the majority recognized the governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya of Syria, as caliph. The Shiites, however, supported the claims of Ali's sons: Hassan, who died mysteriously c.669, and Husayn, who was killed by Syrian troops at Kerbala in 680 (Kerbala, in Iraq, became the major pilgrimage center for the Shiites). From the murder of Husayn onward, Shiism began functioning as the religion of outsiders and the dispossessed. In Iran, Shiite theology blended with pre-Islamic religious beliefs of the Iranian peoples, and today Iranian people identify strongly with the faith as part of their cultural heritage, though most do not approve of their faith's current relationship with the government.

NOTE: To determine the relative rank of a Shiite cleric, Iranians use a number of honorific titles. These do not correspond to academic degrees or actual appointed ranks, as Catholic titles do, but are instead awarded upon a given cleric as he attains wider prominence in a community. Briefly, the ranks are: Mullah(preacher), Hojatesslam(mid-ranking cleric), Ayatollah(exalted cleric) and Marja(supreme Ayatollah). In theory, the Supreme Leader of Iran should be a Marja, indicating his religious excellence, but in fact the current Leader, Ali Khamenei, is only an Ayatollah, which has called into question the religious legitimacy of his office.


OVERVIEW: Iran's economy is marked by a bloated, inefficient state sector, over reliance on the oil sector, and policies that create major distortions throughout. Most economic activity is controlled by the state. Private sector activity is typically small-scale - workshops, farming, and services. Relatively high oil prices in recent years have enabled Iran to amass some $22 billion in foreign exchange reserves, but have not eased economic hardships such as high unemployment and inflation. Iran has almost 16% unemployment rate (by comparison, the US had about 20% unemployment during the Great Depression), and even though its citizens are well-educated by regional standards, the economy cannot absorb many highly skilled workers, which has resulted in a culture of Diaspora, where Iranian professionals have left the country in largest numbers for the west, further depriving this country of its technical elite.

The most salient feature of Iran's economy has been the total failure of the oil system, as a result of the government's longstanding animosity towards the US government. In a series of increasingly tight sanctions since 1979, US companies have effectively cut Iran out of the global petroleum economy. Much of Iran's strategic goals are linked to getting these sanctions lifted, though the US has made it very clear that it will not conduct any oil negotiations with the Iranian government in its current form. New international sanctions have been approved by th UN Security Council, and widespread fear of American military action has completely depressed foreign investment.


BRANCHES: Islamic Republic of Iran regular forces (includes Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force and Air Defense Command), Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) (includes Ground Forces, Air Force, Navy, Qods Force [special operations], and Basij [Popular Mobilization Army]), Law Enforcement Forces

AGE AND OBLIGATION: 18 years of age for compulsory military service; 16 years of age for volunteers; soldiers as young as 9 were recruited extensively during the Iran-Iraq war; conscript service obligation - 18 months (2004)

EXPENDITURES DOLLAR FIGURE: $4.3 billion (2003 est.)

Iran has a large military, and as a result of its eight year war against Iraq outside observers consider it to have a fairly well-trained officer corps. As a result of the former imperial government, much of Iran's military is actually US equipment, though the US maintains a vigorous sanctions regime to limit the amount of spare parts Iran can acquire for these weapon systems. Iran currently purchases most of its equipment from Russia and China, though it also has a moderately successful native arms industry.


The Iranian constitution, as outlined by Ruhollah Khomeini, is designed to enshrine the sanctity of Islam on the political level. All laws are meant to be in accordance with Shiite notions of Shari’ah, or Islamic law. Since much of public law and morality are thus religious in nature, Khomeini’s theory holds that the natural masters of this government must in turn be religious figures themselves. Thus the upper reaches of the Iranian government are dominated by Shiite clerics, who are ostensibly the experts on how to run a society in accordance with Islamic law.

The Iranian government is a unique system which places outwardly democratic features of representative government around an unelected center of councils, agencies, and appointments made by Iran’s Shiite clerical elite, who are educated in the holy city of Qom. This system results in an unusual governmental breakdown, where there are a large number of elected offices built around a much smaller number of unelected positions where most real power is located.

The Presidency

The president of Iran is directly elected every four years by popular vote. He is entrusted with upholding the laws of Iran and properly enacting the constitution. This is largely a ceremonial position, as the Iranian president does not retain the right to appoint his own cabinet, veto legislation, or serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The current president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the controversial former mayor of Tehran.

The Parliament

The Iranian parliament (Majles) is comprised of 290 MPs elected to represent districts for four year terms. There are a small number of seats set aside for religious minorities, including Jews and Zoroastrians. The parliament is technically empowered to draft, pass, and enact legislation, but in principle much of this power is curtailed by the Guardian Council.

Guardian Council

The 12 member Guardian Council is akin to a supreme court, in that it serves to assess the constitutionality of proposed legislation. Also like the US Supreme Court, it is an unelected body: 6 members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and 6 are appointed by the judicial system in cooperation with the Majles, though these are also approved by the Supreme Leader. This council combines broad legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and serves as the main instrument to enforce the Supreme Leader’s will on the parliament. It retains veto power over any parliamentary legislation, and has the power to disqualify any candidate in direct elections.

Supreme Leader

In keeping with Khomeini’s principle of ‘Rule of the Jurist,’ an elite cleric (Rahbar or ‘Supreme Leader’) sits at the apex of all political power in Iran. His powers are theoretically limitless, though conventionally the Leader imposes his will through the Guardian Council to limit the appearance of direct dictatorship. According to Khomeini’s theory this figure should also be the most learned and respected Shiite cleric in Iran, but the current Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was clearly chosen for his revolutionary links to Khomeini, not for his religious excellence. The Leader currently serves for life, though he could theoretically be deposed by the Assembly of Experts.

Assembly of Experts

This is an elected body responsible for appointing the Leader, and serves as an oversight body after his appointment, ensuring that he is ruling in accordance with the principles of Islamic government as laid forth in the Velayat-e Faqih. The number of the Assembly fluctuates, and since most of their activities remain secret it is unclear how they actually interact with the Supreme Leader, or if their ability to check his actions has any basis in fact. The most recent elections for this body occurred in late 2006, when reformers completely swept the election, humiliating members of Khamenei’s circle of allies.

Image:Silencedwoman.jpgImage:Batebi.jpg SOCIAL ISSUES

As an “Islamic Republic,” religious morality is publicly enforced in modern Iran. This includes the wearing of veils for women, the segregation of non-married people of the opposite sex, and a complete ban on alcohol. While Iranians have been proud Muslims for more than 1000 years, this kind of enforced public morality is alien to Iranian society, and even religious citizens have come to regret the decisions which led to such a government in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. This situation is especially difficult for young people, who are forced to publicly act according to prescribed moral norms, while privately they and their families flout these rules within the home. This has led to a breakdown in much of society on a psychological level, and this, coupled with a moribund economy and the shock of a brutal 8 year war, has led to widespread disaffection amongst the Iranian people towards the Islamic Republic.

In 1999 this movement exploded into student riots, which the government brutally suppressed. Outside observers were convinced this would lead to the fall of the government, but the Supreme Leader deployed his supporters, paramilitary religious students, into the streets, and the regime survived. All the same, the current clerical government is in a truly precarious position; in 2006 elections to the Assembly of Experts anti-Khamenei reformist clerics swept the elections, and at a speech in December, Ahmadinejad was forced to flee a university campus as students chanted “Death to the Tyrant.” Even more dangerously to the regime, Iran’s youth, who make up more than 60% of the population, are very positive towards the west, in particular the United States, even though Iran and the USA have not had diplomatic contact for 27 years. This fascination with the west, combined with the huge numbers of Iranians who are permanently leaving Iran to seek prosperity elsewhere, has left the regime with literally no legitimacy, outside of a tiny core of fanatical supporters. The only thing keeping the Islamic Republic afloat is the threat of brutal repression against the first person to challenge the clerics openly.

Image:Necro.jpg HISTORY

Next to China, Iran is heir to the oldest continuous civilization on the planet. Humans speaking some form of the Persian language have been living on the Iranian plateau for close to four thousand years, and by the 6th century BCE they had coalesced under the emperor Cyrus into the world’s first large scale multiethnic empire, stretching from the frontiers of India up to the Nile valley. Due to contact (and conflict) with the Greek civilization, this culture has come to the west by the name of Persia. Over successive centuries the fortunes of Persia waxed and waned, but from the third through seventh centuries CE the Sassanian dynasty of southern Persia succeeded in challenging the Romans for dominion over the entire Middle East. Decades of military conflict ultimately sapped this empire of its vitality, and the Persian empire improbably fell to the Arab warriors of Islam in 641 CE.

Over the next millennium successive waves of Arab, Turkish and Mongol conquerors rode over the Iranian plateau, but throughout this process of invasions and counter-invasions the Persians held onto their language and culture, though they eventually adopted Islam and incorporated many Arabic terms into the Persian language.

Early Modern Persia

In 1501 a fourteen year old conqueror named Ismail rode out of the Armenian highlands with an army of Turkish mystics, and by 1510 had established himself as the Emperor of Iran, establishing the Safavid dynasty, the first power to rule a united Iran since the 9th century. To clearly distinguish himself from his rivals, the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, Ismail and his successors adopted Shiism as their imperial faith, and aggressively promoted the sect throughout their empire. As a result, to this day Iran is a Shiite island in the middle of the Sunni world, and for 500 years Shiites from Lebanon, Iraq, Arabia and Yemen have traveled to and from Iran to receive religious instruction and escape persecution.

The Safavids reached the apogee of their power during the late 1500s, when a strong emperor named Abbas established Persia as the preeminent controller of the world’s silk trade. After Abbas, mercantile adventurers proceeded to whittle away pieces from the Persian state as they pursued new trade venues for their European masters, and by the 19th century Persia had faded into a pale shadow of its former glory, dominated by corrupt and hedonistic Afghan kings that turned the country into little more than a pawn in the struggle between Russia and Britain for mastery of Central Asia.

The era of Iranian feudalism came to an end in the Middle East’s first constitutional revolution, which swept through Iran in the first decade of the twentieth century. As a result, by 1911 Iranians enjoyed a free press, vast personal freedoms, and the right to elect a parliament (Majles) with legislative powers guaranteed by a written constitution, the based on the model of Belgium. This movement was seriously weakened when Russian troops invaded Iran and shelled the parliament house itself to force Iran’s compliance with tsarist policies, and finally met its death in 1925 at the hands of an Iranian colonel, who seized the Iranian throne with Britain’s blessing and christened himself Reza Pahlavi Shah.

Reza Pahlavi was a modernist and an autocrat, ruling more like a dictator than a full-fledged emperor. He was greatly impressed by Attaturk’s reforms, and attempted to implement many of them in Iran, which resulted in massive public works projects, coupled with very deliberate acts to suppress Islamic public practice. Women were not allowed to wear any form of head covering, men were ridiculed for praying in public, and attempts were made to transliterate Persian solely into the Roman alphabet, as opposed to the Arabic script. Reza Pahlavi finally overstepped himself in 1941, when the governments of the USSR, UK and USA forced him to abdicate the throne in favor of his young son Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Reza Pahlavi had attempted to play both sides during the second world war, and during 1941 the Allies were in no mood to jeopardize the supply lines of Stalingrad by allowing a Nazi sympathizer to sit on the Persian throne. He was exiled to South Africa, where he soon died a broken man. His son, suddenly the monarch of Iran, took one important lesson from this: he refused to be exiled like a beggar.

Oil and Mossadegh

Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was a callow, weak ruler through the 1940s and 50s. In his stead the Majles began to reassert some authority, and the firebrand of this movement was a Swiss-trained lawyer named Muhammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh captured the feelings of his time, and in the time immediately after World War II, Iran felt like a European colony. Soviet forces had annexed northern Iran, American radar stations sat in the south, and Britain absolutely controlled Iran’s oil industry. This last issue was the most galling to Mossadegh and his supporters: while other nations (most notably Saudi Arabia) were enjoying arrangements which allowed them to received at least 50-50 compensation with international oil companies for their native supplies, the terms of an old concession allowed Britain to pump Iranian oil while sharing less than 20% of its profits with Iran’s government. In truth, it might have been even less than this—the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company never allowed outsiders to audit its books. In 1951 Mossadegh and his “National Front” movement made this the central issue in Iranian politics. Tensions with Britain rose precipitously, and by 1953 Iran had fully nationalized its petroleum industry. Britain responded by appealing to the American government, and the Americans, in an act of cold arithmetic, decided that they needed the loyalty of Britain more than they needed the respect of Iran.

Britain and the US proceeded to enact a compete embargo on Iranian oil, and Iran’s entire economy came to a screeching halt. Waves of street protests ensued by all possible factions, including nationalists, monarchists, constitutionalist, even Iran’s small communist party. For the Americans this last piece was the final straw: the Eisenhower administration was not about to allow the Soviets to annex Iran, since this would give them direct access to the Indian Ocean and threaten the oil fields of Arabia. With Britain’s enthusiastic support, the CIA launched a successful coup against the Mossadegh government, which culminated in the former’s consignment to house arrest and the return to power of Muhammad Reza as an absolutist monarch, now sure of his support from the West and fanatically afraid of communist aggression; in short, the perfect Cold War ally for the US during the age of the Red Scare.

Image:Shahwaving2.jpg The Pahlavi Regime

Muhammad Reza Pahlavi Shah ruled autocratically from 1941 until 1979, presiding over a mildly effective modernizing regime whose successes were overshadowed by the terrible repression it inflicted on Iran’s citizens. Flush with oil money, which he nationalized in any case during the 1970s, the Shah set about an ambitious modernization program to elevate the quality of Iranian life. This was perhaps a noble sentiment, but he coupled this progressive mentality with a paranoid personality, perhaps as a result of experiencing his father’s humiliating abdication as a young man. He could not tolerate dissent, and mobilized a massive secret police force, known by the acronym SAVAK, to guard against possible treacheries. In reality, the Shah initiated a torture regime on the level of brutality found in Baathist Iraq or Syria, where thousands disappeared into the depths of Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison: this kind of terror-state was made all the more unconscionable because of his strong relations with the West and ability to pay lip-service to democratic ideals at Washington dinner parties. From the 1970s onward, the meteoric rise of world oil prices allowed the Shah to also become the developing world’s number one arms purchaser, buying up military equipment which in some cases was so expensive that even the American military had passed it up. In 1972 he brashly declared that within ten years Iran would be as prosperous and progressive as anywhere in Europe. Unfortunately for him, many of his subjects did not want to be Europeans.

Image:Khomeini.jpg Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Ruhollah Khomeini was born in 1901 (approximately), and quickly rose through the ranks of Iran’s Shiite clergy until he attained the title of Ayatollah (Sign of God), the equivalent of rank of a distinguished professor-cum-supreme court jurist. His specialty was in Islamic mysticism, and his peers at the seminary of Qom (a shrine city two hours southwest of Tehran) considered him a brilliant, if unorthodox, thinker. His followers likewise became fanatically devoted to him, and by 1963 he had attained the rank of Marja-e Taqlid (Source of Emulation) making him one of the five or six most powerful and respected Ayatollahs alive. In the 1960s he became a strong opponent of the Shah’s modernization program, particularly his plan to grant extraterritoriality to American workers in Iran; this would have allowed Americans to effectively violate any law of Iran without being subject to prosecution from Iranian courts. Since many of Iran’s laws have been traditional religious laws, this was a special dig at the Shiite establishment. He called for the Shah to rethink his ways, calling him “boy” in public. Outraged, the Shah exiled him forthwith to neighboring Iraq.

Khomeini wrote his most famous and influential work, Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), in 1970 from the Iraqi city of Najaf. In this radical worked he proclaimed that before the coming of al-Mahdi, the Shiite messiah, only duly appointed religious scholars were qualified to rule the earth. Other Shiites disavowed this work, and Sunnis ignored it entirely, but a small body within Iran heeded the call, and began planting the seeds of revolution, which focused around smuggling audiotapes of Khomeini into the country, where Iranians voraciously consumed the sermons of the aging cleric who was quickly becoming their leader in exile.

Image:Khomeini_revolution.jpg The Iranian Revolution

In the middle of 1978, the Shah was secretly dying of cancer. As he attempted to hide his condition from his many enemies, mass protests began to rock his regime. Iranians of literally all walks of life began to rebel against his repression: it is estimated that more than 10% of the entire population of Iran took part in these events, which makes it, proportionately, the largest revolution in human history. The Shah’s armies spent the rest of 1978 in a series of losing battles with these street protesters, until the Shah himself fled Iran on January 16, 1979. Within days, Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile, landing in Tehran to the roars of a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands. He refused to swear allegiance to the interim government the Shah left behind him, and began consolidating power for his own bloc of supporters from the shrine city of Qom.

Khomeini spent the rest of 1979 harnessing the revolution to his own vision, introducing a draft constitution in July and encouraging his followers to mobilize neighborhood militias and revolutionary courts to execute collaborators and quell internal dissent. This was an incredibly violent period, when Islamists loyal to Khomeini, parliamentary democrats, and communists waged street warfare against each other for control of the new revolutionary state. It resulted in a massive exodus from Iran of those people now branded as enemies of the regime, including most of Iran’s professional class. In the long term, this has led to the development of an international Persian culture-in-exile, in which secular Iranians have become one of the world’s wealthiest and most prominent expatriate communities, especially in the cities of Los Angeles, Berlin, and Tokyo.

One of Khomeini’s most prominent traits was a deep distrust of the west. He blamed the US for the Shah’s crimes, since they had supported the monarch and had always known about his terrible human rights policies. He fanned this anti-western rhetoric throughout the revolution, and in October 1979, when the Shah sought cancer treatment in America, the situation exploded. Tehran students stormed the US embassy, taking its staff hostage out of fear that the Shah’s asylum in America was a prelude to another CIA coup like that against Mossadegh in 1953. US president Jimmy Carter demanded their release, but Khomeini, who initially had no control over this event, quickly turned it to his advantage. He refused to release the hostages, which in turn magnified the aggressiveness of America’s stance and actually culminated in a failed military assault on Tehran to free the hostages. As a result of this affair Iran and the US completely severed their relationship, and the 1980s saw these two forces compete against each other throughout the Middle East, with America funding anti-Khomeini elements and Iran funding Shiite insurgencies throughout the region to harm America and its allies. Khomeini declared the events of Iran “The Islamic Revolution,” and threatened to bring this revolution to every kingdom in the Middle East, all of whom were America’s allies and, additionally, the suppliers of most of the world’s oil. For good or ill, Time Magazine named Khomeini 1979’s Man of the Year.

Image:Iran-Iraq Mural.jpg Iran-Iraq War

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, with the intention of overthrowing Khomeini and becoming the dominant leader in the Arab world. He was motivated by fear that Khomeini’s revolution would spread to his own Shiite population and overthrow his Baathist regime. He invaded with America’s blessing; though the US had no illusions about Saddam Hussein’s regime, they were willing to bring down Khomeini by any means necessary. For two years, Saddam’s forces bogged down in southwest Iran while Khomeini’s regime further consolidated its power. By 1982 the Iranian army, largely comprised of religious volunteers from the ranks of Khomeini’s fiercest supporters, had completely repulsed Iraqi forces. Khomeini chose to carry the fight into Iraq, claiming that he would overthrow the godless Hussein regime and reclaim the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Fearing the collapse of its entire strategic policy for the Arab world, America began supplying massive quantities of weaponry to Saddam Hussein, including chemical weapons that he used to stop Iran’s suicidally brave Revolutionary Guard.

The fighting continued until 1988, when Khomeini, unable to bring the war to a winning conclusion, bitterly signed a peace deal which reset the international to its prewar location: nothing had been accomplished, millions had died, Iran’s entire economy had collapsed as a result of military overspending and crippling US sanctions, yet for Khomeini this was not a total loss: he was able to rally the Iranian people around him during this conflict, and as a result quelled all internal opposition to his rule. While the war was being fought he officially enshrined his new government as the Islamic Republic of Iran, creating a unique political system ruled by Shiite clerics, all serving under him in his role of Supreme Leader (Rahbar). He died shortly thereafter, but his system lived on.

Succession and Stagnation

The Assembly of Experts appointed Ali Khamenei to be Khomeini successor as Supreme Leader, despite the fact he had little clerical credibility (he was a prominent revolutionary, but clearly not a brilliant religious thinker). From his election onward, as Iran slowly began healing from its wartime woes, popular support for the Islamic Republic waned dramatically. Under Khomeini the system had been unassailable, but without his unmatchable charisma, or the threat of Iraq, the deep flaws of “Islamic” government became impossible to ignore. While religious police attempted to regulate public morality, behind closed doors the average Iranian cursed the government, and flouted religious law. All of this coincided with an increasingly desperate economic situation; American sanctions on Iran continued to increase, effectively freezing development of the Iranian oil industry to less than 2/3 of production levels under the Shah. A reform movement under President Muhammad Khatami attempted to introduce greater levels of freedom to Iranian society from 1997-2005, but continual opposition from the clerical establishment proved that democratically elected officials were no match for Iran’s small clerical elite.

Image:AhmedinejadUN.jpg Ahmadinejad, Nuclear Weapons, Israel

In 2005 Iranians elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency. As a development-friendly politician from Tehran he was expected to work on rebuilding Iran’s infrastructure and improving the economic status of the lower classes, but controversy arose almost immediately. Reformers claimed that his election was statistically impossible, citing government corruption and vote-rigging on the part of the religious establishment. This allegation became more damning when information surfaced that Ahmadinejad might have been a Baseej, or Religious Volunteer, during the revolution. Baseej were the most virulent of Khomeini’s supporters, charged with killing “revolutionary enemies” in the streets of Tehran and volunteering for suicide squadrons during the war with Iraq. Americans personally accused Ahmadinejad of being one of the embassy hijackers from 1979. Whatever the case, he soon become a highly controversial figure, and during the years 2005 and 2006 he emerged as one of the world’s most inflammatory speakers, most notably for claiming that Israel “should be erased from the page of history.” While this was a quote from old revolutionary sources, and therefore most likely not a literal statement, the sheer audacity of such a declaration caused an uproar in Israel, Europe, and North America. Since then he has made numerous other anti-Semitic remarks, and has attracted several of Iran’s most virulently anti-Israeli figures into his inner circle. He publicly denies the Holocaust, and subsequently hosted an infamous “international conference” designed to promote debate over the issue. This forum amounted to little more than an internal assembly of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic figures, including representatives of the Ku Klux Klan.

While Ahmadinejad does not wield nearly as much power as outsiders commonly assume, his statements about Israel are magnified in importance because of Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program. Revealed by expatriate scientists in 2002, Iran has, since the 1990s, quietly begun developing a number of nuclear facilities throughout the country, ostensibly for the purpose of enriching uranium. The irony here is that many of these facilities were actually constructed late in the reign of the Shah, and as such Khomeini opposed nuclear power in general and nuclear weapons in particular. All the same, this has undoubtedly become the gravest international issue Iran faces at the present: Iran has not provided full disclosure for its nuclear program, and its circumspect nature has therefore made most westerners assume that this program is the precursor to nuclear weaponry. Iran spent the majority of 2006 engaging in public diplomacy in support its nuclear program, arguing that Iran retained the right to civilian nuclear power as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Whether this right exists or not, Iran has been notoriously unwilling to compromise on this issue in any significant way, despite concerted efforts by Russia and the EU to find a way to allow Iran access to nuclear power without giving it the ability to use this program to develop nuclear weaponry. Israel and the US have taken this issue particularly seriously; in 2006 Israel purchased a number of first strike nuclear submarines from Germany, publicly proclaiming them an instrument of deterrence against Iran. Late in 2006 the United States successively pressured the UN Security Council into imposing limited sanctions against the Iranian regime until they suspend all uranium enrichment and allow international inspections of their facilities to resume. Iranian officials scoffed at they sanctions, referring to the UN regime as “a torn piece of paper” and insisting that nuclear power is Iran’s indisputable right. European attempts to mediate this dispute have failed, and as of January 2007 additional US Navy vessels were deployed to the Persian Gulf as a show of strength against the Iranian regime.


The Islamic Republic is one of the world’s most diplomatically isolated nations, partially due to Iran’s longstanding distrust of foreign meddling in its internal affairs, and partially due to Iran’s recent history of aggressively subverting its rivals through armed militant groups. Iran’s foreign policy is therefore not a series of allegiances, but rather a laundry list of animosities and potential military rivals, the most serious of which include:

The United States: After a brief attempt at rapprochement during the Khatami era, the US and Iran are once again archenemies. Briefly stated, the most important current sources of this rivalry are Iraq, oil, and nuclear weapons. The US has accused Iran of funding Shiite insurgents in Iraq and attempting to bring down the US-backed government, with the intention of turning Iraq into an Iranian client state. Iran in turn sees that it is currently surrounded by American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is funding political parties and militias in both countries in the interest of defending its national security. Note that Iran does not necessarily want to expel US troops from either Iraq or Afghanistan: if US troops were to leave either country, the American military would then have the capability to more freely fight a war against Iran. Iran would like to see the US continually bled in Iraq until the American government loses the stomach for military adventurism in the Middle East, which would effectively secure Iran against a possible military strike. Bleeding America, of course, must be done very circumspectly, to keep America from seizing on any blatant Iranian action and turning it into a cause of war.

Oil and nuclear power form the other crux of the American-Iranian rivalry: Iran needs to end American sanctions to reinvigorate its oil industry, and the US refuses to invest in Iran until the hated Islamic Republic is overthrown. Analysts believe this is the true rationale for the Iranian nuclear weapon program: Iran is going to build nuclear weapons not to attack Israel or the US, but to use as a bargaining chip for the total repealing of American oil sanctions against Iran. While this explanation might sound ludicrous, it is an exact model of North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy, which for 15 years has worked very successfully to help the North Korean government repeal western sanctions against its regime. The problem with this model, however, is the fact that the US discovered Iran’s program far earlier in the nuclear enrichment process than the west did with North Korea: it is highly unlikely that the US will allow Iran’s nuclear program to proceed that far. This has made Iran doubly interested in finding non-nuclear ways to deter the American military. This deterrence imperative forms the basis for much of Iran’s current Middle East policy, and amounts to a series of hostage-scenarios: if the US attempts to attack Iran, Iran will leverage its resources to harm American interests in the region so badly that the international blowback for America will be catastrophic. This is seen most clearly in Israel and Lebanon.

Image:Zarif-Rouhani.jpg Foreign Minister Javad Zarif with President Rouhani

Israel: as part of Iran’s strategy of deterring America by threatening its appendages, Iran under Ahmadinejad has ratcheted up its threatening rhetoric against Israel. Israelis, for their part, now acknowledge Iran as their deadliest regional rival, since Iran is actually the backer for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, Israel’s most proximate threats. Islamic Iran has a long history of anti-Semitic rhetoric, but with the exception of funding Hezbollah from 1983 onwards, the Islamic Republic until recently did not actually do much to hurt the Jewish state. This has changed since 2000, when Israelis intercepted an Iranian arms shipment to Hamas at Haifa, and it became provable that Iran was actually providing massive material support to the al-Aqsa Intifada. Since then Iran has continued to smuggle money and material to Palestinian groups by whatever means necessary—a glaring example of this occurred at Yasser Arafat's funeral in 2004, when a shadowy Iranian operative named Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur surfaced from hiding and met with each major Palestinian faction following Arafat’s burial. Mohtashami-Pur is believed by many to be the founder of Hezbollah, and is currently the head of Ahmadinejad’s “Intifada Conference,” an Iranian charity blatantly committed to funding Palestinian resistance groups.

In response to Iran’s increasing role as a third party aggressor, the Israeli government has itself become quite public about its willingness to strike Iran directly. The US government has traditionally worked very hard to keep Israel from making these kind of statements, as they always incite strong passions in Israel’s neighbors, which only goes to show how far gone events have become concerning Iran, Israel, and the United States. While many American analysts have concluded that the Iranian nuclear program is a bluff, or at worst years from completion, Israel is treating the matter with deadly seriousness. In addition to buying the aforementioned nuclear submarines, Israeli officials have also unofficially commented that they are willing to use clandestine Turkish airfields to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities themselves if Iran shows even the barest signs of reaching a working nuclear weapon. The Israeli military might not actually be capable of this task, unless it uses its own nuclear weapons, but it is undoubtedly superior to Iran’s defensive systems; this truism has forced Iran to also develop third party groups to use against Israel, most notably the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Lebanon: In July 2006 Hezbollah guerillas attacked an Israeli army outpost, kidnapping 2 Israeli soldiers and killing several others. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared total war against Lebanon, vowing to destroy Hezbollah and punish the Lebanese government for not disarming the group itself. The war concluded in August 2006 with ambiguous results: Hezbollah survived, the soldiers had not been returned, yet much of Lebanon’s infrastructure had been destroyed. Analysts soon concluded that this war, in many respects, was much larger than simply a Lebanese-Israeli affair; it was a proxy war between the US and Iran. Israeli forces used American equipment against Lebanese cities, while Hezbollah shocked the world by retaliating with sophisticated Russian, Chinese, and Iranian missiles capable of not only disabling Israeli warships, but also striking Haifa, Israel’s most important port city. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt openly declared the war an Iranian power play, and in many respects he was correct. This was the most recent example of Iran using Hezbollah as a strategic threat to Israel, a dagger at their enemy’s throat.

Hezbollah emerged from this conflict as the most respected militia in the Arab world, and furthermore commanded respect amongst Lebanon’s numerous sects for resisting the Israeli invaders. In late 2006 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that his militia had been completely rearmed by Iran; as of December 2006 he is agitating for greater political power in Lebanon’s government, calling millions of loyal Shiites into the streets of Beirut. This is in line with Iran’s simply conceived, yet intricately carried out policy towards Lebanon: arm the Shiites, especially Hezbollah, and encourage them to press for enough political power to keep them from being disarmed by the Lebanese government. In the mean time, Iran must also ensure that Hezbollah maintains its aggressive stance towards Israel; Hezbollah has proven its ability to sustain losses and still inflict heavy casualties on Israel during what was in all reality a limited war: as long as Iran keeps Hezbollah armed via its allies in Syria, the threat of missile strikes against Haifa might be enough to limit any direct Israeli strike against Iran.

Syria: Syria and Iran first allied against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, when Syria was Iran’s only Arab ally. Since then the death of Syria’s former dictator, the ascension to power of his son Bashar al-Assad, and the American invasion of Iraq have tremendously complicated this relationship. Simply put, neither country is much use to each other anymore, but outside of this relationship both countries have no other regional allies. All that holds this alliance together now is Iraq and Hezbollah. As a result of their alliance against both America and Israel, George Bush’s government has made it clear that it would like to see both the Damascus and Tehran regimes overthrown. Frankly, the fact that American forces are tied up in Iraq might be all that keeps Washington from attempting to make either of these coups happen. As a result, it is in the combined strategic interests of Iran and Syria to collectively keep pressure on the American occupation forces, keeping them bogged down in intractable warfare until the American people lose their stomach for any further military involvement in the Middle East. Hezbollah fits into this equation similarly: Iran supplies Hezbollah with its money and equipment via Syria. Syria, in turn, can use Hezbollah as a force to agitate against attempts by Lebanon’s current government to completely sever their ties with the Syrian regime, which militarily occupied Lebanon until late 2005. Lastly, much like Iran, Syria is interested in keeping support flowing to Hezbollah because a powerful Hezbollah is a strong deterrent against American (or less likely, Israeli) direct action against the Syrian regime.

Saudi Arabia: As the most powerful country in the Middle East and the supporter of a strongly anti-Shiite form of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism), Saudi Arabia is Iran’s most natural regional enemy. During the Iran-Iraq war Khomeini openly threatened to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, which resulted in the deployment of US naval vessels to the Persian Gulf in defense of the House of Saud. Since then, Saudi Arabia and Iran have made substantial headway in repairing the friendly relations these countries had during the time of the Shah, but the occupation of Iraq and the Iranian nuclear program have seriously damaged these prospects for a closer relationship between Riyadh and Tehran. In late 2006 Saudi representatives openly accused Iran of funding Shiite militias that were ethnically cleansing Iraq’s Sunni community, and declared that if US forces leave Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will begin funding Sunni militias directly, to protect them against this supposed Iranian aggression.

Likewise, the Saudi government appears to be taking a hard line on the Iranian nuclear issue. While many Saudi officials have opted for a conciliatory, diplomatic route to dealing with Iran, a militant faction, headed by the powerful Bandar bin Sultan, has emerged in favor of supporting direct US military intervention against Iran. However this issue is resolved, one thing remains clear: if US forces were suddenly to leave the region, Saudi Arabia would instantly become Iran’s closest, and potentially deadliest, regional rival.

Russia: Most westerners tend to overlook the fact that Iran and Russia share a maritime border in the Caspian Sea, and these two nations enjoy a close relationship on a number of military and trade issues. In strictly military terms, Russia has lately become very interested in Iran simply because it is the most powerful of Russia's many neighbors. Russia and Iran have collaborated on some oil ventures in the Caspian region, and where possible Iran buys Russian military equipment, which is a major source of income for the once-vibrant Soviet arms industry. Most importantly, Russian technicians have supplied the majority of Iran’s nuclear technology, and although Russia voted in favor of limited sanctions against Iran under current circumstances, in a perfect world the Russian government would love to be the sole supplier for a peaceful Iranian nuclear program. Russia finds many of Iran’s regional stances extreme, and does not condone the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad in the slightest, but is still Iran’s closest friend on the Security Council, and its most powerful international ally, even though this alliance is currently weak, and moreover embarrassing, to Moscow.


Up until the 1979 revolution, Iran had always been a close ally of Israel. The two nations formed close ties with one another based around harmony in their strategic goals. Israel needed access to Iran’s vast oil supply, and Iran was in dire need of Israel’s advanced weaponry.

However, by the mid-1980s, Iran’s new government no longer recognized Israel as a state, and decided to support the Palestinian cause to gain back their homeland. Many within the nation came to resent Israel not only for their ties with the United States, but also for the threat they accused Israel of posing to Islam.

Through their support of various Islamic groups, most specifically, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Iran fully engaged the resistance against Israel with both military and political support. Iran’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and true desire to overthrow Israeli authority, was defined through three large events: The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) call for peace talks in 1988, the second intifada in 2000 and the election of Hamas in 2006.

The PLO had generally maintained close alliances with many of Iran’s enemies throughout the seventies, but relations between the PLO and Iran improved soon after the Islamic Revolution. Immediately following the 1979 revolution, PLO chief Yasser Arafat was allowed to enter Iran and establish a PLO presence in the country. However, this relationship was not long-lived. Not only were Arafat and Supreme Leader Khomeini on poor terms, but also the PLO supported Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980’s. These actions, along with Arafat’s attempts to initiate peace talks with Israel, led to the end of the relationship.

After the collapse of peace talks between the Arabs and Israelis at Camp David in 2000, the second Palestinian intifada erupted in an attempt to apply increased pressure upon Israel. During this intifada, Arafat released Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants. This action attracted the attention of Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini, who publically re-established his support for the Palestinian cause. It is believed that Iran worked to ship advanced weaponry to Arafat in an attempt to support his revolution and the overthrow of Israel.

All of these factors led to a renewed relationship between Iran and Hamas, who also wanted to see Israel replaced by an Islamic state. With the PLO working to make peace with Israel, Iran pledged to support Hamas through military and financial means. With this being said, relations between the two became most serious in 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian elections. Following this surprise victory, tensions soon grew among the Palestinians, leading to a civil war between Fatah and Hamas that led to Hamas taking control of Gaza while Fatah retained control of the West Bank. Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” in 2007, and together with the United States and the European Union put into place an economic blockade on Gaza. Tehran, in turn, demonstrated their support for the newly established government by rescuing the struggling government with a contribution of over $250 million in aid. Following this financial support, Iran began to provide Hamas with military equipment and training. This support proved to be instrumental in the 2008 Gaza War, as Hamas considered Iran its “partner in victory.”

In sum, Iranian relations with the various Palestinian factions were largely dependent on the direction of the peace talks. Since the 1980’s, Iranian leaders have largely opposed Israel, and all attempts at a peaceful solution. As a result of the power Iran derives from their vast oil reserves, the nation will be able to support Hamas and Hezbollah, and effectively stop all peace talks from occurring.

European Union:

Since the formation of the EU, relations between the group and Iran have been difficult. At times, the EU has found Iran to be just and manageable by its standards; however, there have been many times when the EU has found Iran to be difficult, or even impossible to negotiate with. Although talks between the two sides have generally concerned trade and human rights, in recent years these pressing issues have been overshadowed by the talks surrounding the purported Iranian nuclear arms programs. The EU adopted the same mentality as did the United States regarding Iran, a factor that inhibited talks between the two nations.

Following the American invasion of Iraq, and the first whispers of Iran’s secret nuclear arms program, the EU felt that they could establish themselves in the international community through working with Iran to diffuse the tension and concerns about the program. Since the start of Iran’s nuclear era, though, which began in 2002, the EU has joined the United States in placing trade restrictions and economic sanctions upon the state.

Following this decision, Britain, France and Germany worked with Iran to pass The Paris Agreement, a program that would allow for increased disclosure regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although this seemed to be a major turning point in international talks with Iran, there was significant backlash among Tehran’s political factions. Many Iranians were outraged by this agreement, as they believed it forced Iran to conform to western policies, and threatened the power and safety of Iran. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections and renounced The Paris Agreement.

Ahmadinejad’s election and leadership style deepened tensions, and has thrown Iran into the ring of fire as the most controversial nation in the UN. The EU is still committed to negotiations and to achieving a peaceful solution with Iran. However, Iran’s ability to compromise regarding human rights and the nuclear crisis will clearly define the talks.


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