By virtue of its size, location, and distinctive cultural orientation, the Islamic Republic of Iran qualifies for a special position among the nations of Southwest Asia. In area, it is the largest after Saudi Arabia, and second only to Turkey in population. As an imperial power since the 16th century, it has been an important factor in the Middle East, and with increased involvement of the western powers in the Persian Gulf, it is likely to play a significant role in the politics of the region.
Iran is unique in many ways, and quite distinct from the Arab nations. The adopted official language of the nation is Farsi or Persian which belongs to the Indo- European family and is distinct form Arabic or Turkish, and employs a modified form of the Arabic script.
But more importantly, Iranians adopted an independent stream of Muslim tradition, the Shiite branch that advocated a strong support for the house of Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law) and rejected the Sunnite majority’s injunctions, although such a course was considered heretical in the early history of the Islamic faith.
Despite the universal persecution of the Shiites by the mainstream Sunnites, the Shia faith was made the official religion of Iran in the 16th century that persists to this day. Iran proudly maintains a close link with its ancient heritage that goes back thousands of years.
Iran (formerly known as Persia) has a long and rich history. Traces of the world’s most ancient settlements have been found in the Caspian littoral and in the interior plateaus; village life probably existed there before 4000 B.C. The Aryans came into Iran about 2500 B.C. and split into two main groups, the Medes and the Persians.
The first known period of glory goes back to the 6th century B.C. when Cyrus the Great founded a large well-organized empire that included much of modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Afghanistan. The 2,500th anniversary of his empire was celebrated with great pomp in 1971 at Persepolis. After Cyrus, a succession of Greeks, Parthians, and the Sassanids ruled the country.
The Arab invaders occupied the capital, Ctesiphon, in 641 and brought Islam to Persia, and it was in Persia that the Shiite sect was developed. The Turks included Persia as one of the Turkish states in the 10th century, and were followed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Persia again reached great heights under Shah Abbas who ruled from 1588 to 1627.
Under him the society prospered through commerce and trade, and political
ties were developed with several countries of Europe and Asia. He built several public buildings, gardens, mosques, bridges, and roads throughout the country. The capital city of Isfahan under him was adorned with Persia’s finest and most graceful buildings and gardens, and became one of the most splendid cities of the world. Later, during the Zand dynasty in the 18th century, Shiraz was made the capital, and several fine buildings were constructed there.
Following the Zand dynasty, the country steadily lost territory to neighboring countries and fell under the increasing pressure of European nations, particularly Czarist Russia. Iran was forced to give up its Caucasian region in the northwest to Russia, and the city of Herat in the east to Afghanistan. A series of campaigns to reclaim the lost territory in the east ended with the intervention of the British and resulted in the recognition of Afghan independence in 1857.
The discovery of oil in the early 1900s intensified the British- Russian rivalry for power over the nation that culminated in an Anglo-Russian agreement (revoked later by Iran) dividing Iran into spheres of influence. The designs of Czarist Russia and the British Empire thus clashed in Iran.
Its growing importance as a major oil producer in the 20th century further highlighted the significance of its geographical position. Although Iran’s importance as a vital link in the east-west land route had by then substantially declined, Russia’s desire to move into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman remained a primary concern, at least until World War I, and Russia continued to interfere in the internal affairs of the country.
In the aftermath of World War I, the administration of the chaotic Iranian nation was overthrown by Reza Khan (later, Reza Shah) Pahlavi who abrogated the previous treaties with the British, reorganized the army, and introduced many reforms, somewhat similar to those carried out in Turkey under Ataturk.
The Muslim clergy were stripped of official privileges, and women were encouraged to participate in public affairs. Universal education was introduced, and a standard form of the Persian language was declared as the official medium of communication to help unite the country’s several tribal groups.
By the early 1940s, the Reza Pahlevi’s administration had grown dictatorial, and Britain again intervened (with the assistance of the U.S.) in the administration, partly to deny German access to the east, and partly to handle the delivery of war supplies to its ally, Russia. In 1943, the Declaration of Tehran which was signed by the U.S., Britain, and the U.S.S.R., guaranteed the territorial integrity of Iran.
However, the U.S.S.R., dissatisfied with the refusal of the Iranian government to grant oil concessions, fomented a revolt in the northwest, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Kurdish People’s Republic. In 1951, the oil industry was nationalized, and the National Iranian Oil Company was formed.
By the 1960s, the U.S. had become actively involved and Iran received substantial economic and military aid from the United States, and undertook a broad program designed to improve the economic and social conditions of the masses. Substantial industrial and commercial development followed during the 1960s and 1970s until the overthrow of the Shah government in 1979.
By the late 1970s, the masses were seething with discontent under the harsh rule of the government. Millions had flocked to the cities and oilfields for employment, but failed to find adequate housing and service, and were cut off from family, friends and the traditional lifestyle of their villages. The Shah held absolute power, and paid little attention to widening political participation and democratizing the administration.
Many were dissatisfied with the erosion of spiritual values, and the religious leaders (the “Mullahs”) whose role in society had been sharply reduced in the emerging Westernized social order, finally demanded an abolition of the monarchy and a return to spiritual traditions. Support for the Shah quickly vanished.
The Shah, no longer able to rule effectively and under mounting pressure, left the country in 1979 paving the way for establishment of a new administration. Iran now sought to identify with the fundamentalist tradition of Islam, and quickly revamped the civil and legal codes of the administration to conform to strict scriptural injunctions of the Muslim faith.