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Iranian Rial




Central Asia













Modern Iran is a Muslim country but the people are not Arabs. Their main languages are related to the main European and Indian languages of the Indo-European group.

Old Persia
Iran has an ancient history. The first Iranians known to history are the Persians reported in the Old Testament, and who attacked the Greeks in the 5th century BC. Ancient Persians followed the Magian religion, modified by the teachings of Zoroaster who flourished in Balkh in modern Afghanistan. Offshoots of this religion penetrated the Roman Empire as Mithraism and may well have been imitated by the early Christian church (hierarchies of priests, midwinter festivals, a good god and a bad one and other features). Old Persian language and religion can be seen to have some similarities to Hinduism which also spread from Afghanistan - and also with Celtic culture as far west as Ireland. The culture is said to be derived from ancient Ariana (near Balkh in Afghanistan or further north).

The ancient Persians had also conquered the area of Babylon and its advanced scientific culture - especially astronomy - which had influenced the ancient Greeks.

They occupied the land further west than the present Iranians, including modern Iraq - though the popular language of that area was Aramaic, related to Arabic. They also controlled much of what is now Turkey. The Persians at the height of their power tried to conquer the Greeks and, although they briefly occupied Athens, failed, thus giving rise to the myth of European separation from the "east". (In fact Greek and Old Persian are both Indo-European languages and the Greeks and Persians had many connections - Greek scholars studying in Babylon, for example.) The Empire occupied Egypt at one period. It was certainly the major Great Power of the area until the rise of Macedonia and Rome.
See this map

The empire was conquered by Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) which gave rise to a Hellenistic culture influenced by Greek, especially in Khorosan (northwestern Afghanistan) where the ruins of Greco-Buddhist temples can be found. Alexander was succeeded by his generals, Greeks who founded dynasties that ruled the states of the area for centuries afterwards. The Persian Empire became the traditional enemy of the Roman Empire, creating for centuries a bi-polar power system similar to the recent Cold War.

The state church of the Magian priests had a structure so similar to that of the Catholic and Orthodox churches of the Roman Empire that it seems likely to have been imitated in Rome. The Roman Emperors from Diocletian onwards imitated the court ceremonial of the Sassanian Emperors, so that, culturally, Persia conquered Rome. (But the west did not adopt the science, unfortunately.)

Muslim Iran
The Arab invasions in the 7th century converted the people to Islam and brought the ancient Persian kingdom to an end as part of the Arab Empire under first the Omayyad Khalifs in Damascus and then the Abbasids in Baghdad. Nevertheless the Abbasid regime was increasingly staffed by Persians who had learned Arabic for administrative and religious purposes. The character of this empire became more Persian and less Arab. Then after the time of Haroun Al Rashid the eastern provinces, Khorosan (Afghanistan), broke away and became more Persian in character. The language, Farsi (the dialect of Fars), grew by the influence of Arabic on ancient Persian (as modern English grew from Anglo-Saxon influenced by French and Latin) and became a great literary language used over a large area of the east including northern India and Afghanistan (where its most literary forms are found). Thus 13th century Farsi was a regional language with a similar status to modern English. The Classics of Hafiz, Jalaludin Rumi, Jami, Saadi and many other writers have great importance as part of world literature.

The dominant variety of Islam in the area became Shi'ism, which unlike the Sunni variety developed a hierarchy of scholar priests, structurally similar to western Christianity and the pre-Muslim religions. Thus the present day religious system seems to be structurally a continuation of the old religion - except for ritual and theology.

The whole area was devastated by the Mongol invasions in the 13th century which had the effect almost of a nuclear war in bringing civilization to an end.

Modern Iran
The 16th century Shah Abbas - founder of Isfahan - established an important Persian state, in contact with European powers looking, like him, for allies against the Ottomans. He made Shi'ite Islam the State Religion.

The present state has its origins in the 18th century. The Qajar monarchy was founded in 1779. (It is a myth created by the late Shah that the Persian monarchy was continuous with Darius and Xerxes.)

Its slow development into a modern state started during the early years of the 20th century. In 1906 the first constitution, based on that of Belgium, was enacted after a revolution. But in 1921 a Persian Cossack army officer, Reza Khan, seized power, deposed the Qajar monarch (and the constitutional regime) and declared himself Shah (king) in 1925. He led a modernizing but authoritarian government with some similarities to Ataturk's in Turkey. However, the process of modernization alienated the extremely conservative clergy of the Shi'ite religious establishment. Oil was found in the early years of the century (1908) by the British who valued it as an important fuel for the Royal Navy to replace coal. The Anglo-Persian oil company - partly nationalised by Winston Churchill in 1914 - was possibly the most valuable company in the then British Empire.Was Reza Shah an ally of the British? It is not clear whether the British encouraged him to seize power but the Shi'ite Mullas may have believed they did.

(At the time many Iranians blamed the British for almost everything that happened - and some continue to do so. In 1907 the British and the Russians had signed an agreement to define their interests in Iran. The British were to control, informally, what went on in the regions adjacent to British India - Balochistan; the Russians to have the same influence in the north, including Tehran. The area between was considered neutral. This reflected a lessening of British fears that the Russian empire wished to expand into British India, and the beginning of the alliance that was to be active in the first world war.)

In 1941 Reza Shah was deposed by the British as being pro-German - sympathetic to the Nazis - and after he had resisted a British-Soviet occupation in order to supply the Soviet Union with war materials via the Gulf port of Basra in Iraq. Although Iran was not formally a colony, the British through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had great influence on the government and treated the Iranian workers in the oilfields as "natives".

Post Second World War
In the post-war years a democratically elected Nationalist and secular government under Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now BP) in 1951 but his action was premature (the colonial era was not yet over) and he was overthrown by the combined power of the British and Americans who re-installed the Shah.

The young Shah was restored to absolute power but was then seen by a large part of the population as a western puppet. He used the income from oil to carry on a rapid development program including education for women and land reform which took away land from the big landowners and the Mosques. Both of these policies were opposed by the religious establishment. He spent a great deal on weapons. He was incautious enough to lecture the western democracies on their weakness and moral laxity.

Islamic Revolution
In 1979 the combined hostility of: the Liberal nationalists, the heirs of Mossadeq, demanding a western model social democracy; and the Clergy, wanting restoration of fundamentalist Shi'ite Islam, forced the Shah to abdicate. The Clergy soon suppressed the Liberals and brought in a state dominated by themselves which they called an Islamic Republic. It was dominated by Ayatollah (Sign of God) Ruhollah (breath of God) Khomeini who had maintained the clerical resistance to the Shah first within Iran, then from exile in the Shi'ite city of Kerbala in Iraq, finally from Paris. Although hostile to the modern world he made use of sound cassettes and other modern technology to rouse a mass public movement.

When he came to power he set up a state in which he had the final say over all decisions.

Almost his whole period in power was occupied by a war with Iraq following an invasion of Iran by the government of Saddam Hussein. It ended when Khomeini allowed Iran to agree to a ceasefire in 1988, both sides being exhausted.

Before he died in June 1989 he declared a religious judgement (fatwa) that a British novelist, Salman Rushdie, was to be killed because of a novel which he believed hostile to Islam (though there is no evidence that he had read it). His successors say they do not have the power to lift this incitement to murder.

Iran announced its neutrality in the second Gulf War and at the same time regained from Iraq all territory which had been lost and also a favorable agreement on the border in the Shatt al Arab. The Iraqi air force fled to Iran to avoid being destroyed by the UN allies. This curious episode remains unexplained.

Following the destruction of Iraq's modern economy in the war, Iran has emerged as the strongest power in the region. But the recent governments (Rafsanjani and Khatami) appeared more concerned to rebuild the shattered economy than to undertake military adventures. They have been accused by the United States of developing nuclear weapons but the Iranian government claims to be merely developing nuclear power stations and the necessary fuel cycle, completing the policy of the Shah, as well as buying large quantities of conventional weapons.

The US operates an embargo, which makes it difficult to buy such things as spare parts for their airliners.

In the north of the country are Turkic speakers, the Azeris whose affinities are with Azerbaijan of the former Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union broke up and Soviet Azerbaijan became independent the two parts of the country may wish to unite. They may also wish to be attached to Turkey itself. In the south west (Khuzistan) are Arabs, who when briefly occupied by Iraq showed no wish to belong to Iraq but might be attracted by a less obnoxious regime there - especially if it is Shi'ite. Other minorities in the south east are Baluchis, most of whom live in Pakistan. This area was once part of Afghanistan.There are also Kurds in the north west. Many refugees from Saddam Hussein's genocide of Kurds and Shi'ites fled to Iran in April 1991. Under some circumstances (economic collapse) the state could break up.

The Iranian clerical establishment - not entirely the same as the Iranian government - wishes to influence the Farsi-speaking Tadzhiks of the Tadjikistan (in the former USSR), but these have more in common with Afghanistan. How far is Iran an attraction for the mostly Sunni Turkic speakers of the other CIS republics? Not much probably, as the signs are that they might wish connection with the modern western world represented by Turkey, rather than the Islamic fundamentalism of Iran.

Do the (clerical) Iranians pay to maintain the very aggressive Shi'ites of Lebanon and the Sh'ite minority in Afghanistan? Probably. On the other hand other Muslim fundamentalists (Egypt, Algeria) are more likely to get their money from Saudi Arabia. But they probably have aided the Bosnian Muslims (who are not Shi'ite). Probably, they do support the current dominant faction in Iraq.

Religious minorities
There are still followers of the pre-Muslim Zoroastrians, formerly the state religion of the Persian empire. There are also Christians (of several varieties, including the very ancient Aramaic speaking Nestorian sect) and Jews, both suffering discrimination from the religious establishment. The Jewish minority may well have been there since the times of the Old Testament. There are Bahais, followers of a 19th century preacher, who regard themselves as post-Muslim. These are persecuted far more than the others. It is possible that a reaction to the regime is an interest in other religions, or as in the west, a rejection of religion.

Travellers in Iran have noticed that support for Islam among ordinary people is weak, with the Mosques empty at prayer time. This suggests that when the regime falls the successors may be a pro-western system. (See Aatish Taseer here. It is an expected result of compulsory religion anywhere = Militant religion).

PDF file on Iran







Turki (Azeri)


Arabic (minority)







Islamic Republic
A concept invented by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to justify overthrowing the Shah. As the Quran is silent on the correct political form, it is unclear what the theological status of an Islamic Republic is. (That is, it is unlike any known past Islamic state.)

There is an elected President and Parliament, but only candidates approved by the religious establishment may stand. Supervising the political system is the Faqih - a religious judge who is the final authority. This office was held by Khomeini and since he died has been held by a cleric, Ayatollah Khameni, who was previously President. He is believed to have less religious authority and prestige than Khomeini. He is assisted by a 12 man Council of Guardians, all clergy. The Faqih is elected by the clergy only.

The former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is said to have disagreed with the more extreme views of the followers of Khomeini. As many parties are not allowed to stand for election Iran cannot be described as a democracy. Rather it is an oligarchy of the clergy because there is no single dictator, in contrast to Iraq.

Many Muslims outside Iran would argue that the regime is not properly Muslim.

  • 1) The Quran forbids the formation of a clergy. Strictly speaking, therefore, the ayatollahs are not clergy but religious lawyers, but in western terms they behave like preachers, and stand in the pulpit giving sermons which also function as political speeches.
  • 2) The regime persecutes Christians and other religious minorities - such as Baha'is, although the Quran forbids Muslims from doing so.
  • 3) The regime compels people to practice religion, although Mohammed said there should be no compulsion in religion. (Many dissidents predict that the longer term result will be popular hostility to religion, as compulsion always has this effect.)

To these are added the traditional practices of Shi'ism, a variety of Islam which split off from the main body when a group believed that the leader of all Muslims - the Imam - should be a descendent of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet. The majority of Muslims, following the Sunni branch, are uncertain as to whether Iranian Shi'ites are fully Muslim because of their veneration of Ali and his sons Hassan and Hussein and their ceremonies of self-scourging on the commemoration of the deaths of Ali and his sons. In any case, the person usually described as the senior descendant of the prophet is not a Shi'ite and does not wish to be Imam.

The behavior of crowds of Iranians rhythmically chanting slogans reminds many westerners uncomfortably of the mass rallies of the Nazis. The mass psychology appears to have much in common, as well as the concentration camps, torture and frequent executions. Some of these practices may have been improving under the recent leadership. However, it seems that describing the ruling group at present in power as "moderate" is a bit too soon, as it still maintains assassination squads to murder opponents abroad, including politicians in exile and the writer Salman Rushdie and his translators and publishers.

Within the choice allowed in May 1992 the voters chose Rafsanjani's more "moderate" candidates rather than the extremists, led by Khomeni's son. Candidates must stand as independents, though it is known there are tendencies to faction. Electors do not receive much information about candidates' views. No Social Democrats or other secular candidates were allowed to stand.

Reporters inside Iran observe that there is a high level of hypocrisy in that many people do not accept the religious observances of the ruling clergy. Perhaps the regime will collapse at some time in the future and use the actual constitution to evolve into a more conventional democracy.

The election of the apparently liberal President Khatemi appeared to be a step along this path. The democratic side of the regime appears to be in constant battle with the clerical side. Possibly the democratic side was gaining at that time but when his term was over the Clergy, acting through the Council of Guardians, disallowed candidates suspected of liberalism.

In June 2003 there were demonstrations in the street of people demanding an end to clerical control of the government. These might have been the prelude to the downfall of the Mullas. However, the elections of 20 February 2004 showed that the Mullas controlled the Council of Guardians and prevented the Reformers from standing in the election for parliament by disqualifying their candidates. Elections for president in June 2005 resulted in two rounds (using the French system). Rafsanjani, running for a second term, lost to Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a man described as a "hardliner" or Conservative. He seems to have the support of the voters who have not gained from the oil wealth as he promised to redistribute the wealth more fairly. Would the Mullas allow him to do so? Probably he has little real power to act for himself. He is not a Mulla or Ayatollah.

Thus in a western country he might be perceived as leftwing (in the same way Hitler pretended to be "socialist"). Either way he is unlikely to be welcomed by the United States.

He may be wanted as an accessory to murder in Austria, and therefore could not visit any European Union country without danger of being extradited to Austria. Some of the American hostages at the Embassy takeover in 1980 claim he was one of the student leaders. Others say he was not.

In December 2005 he made inflammatory speeches demanding that Israelis be relocated to Europe or Alaska and denying that Jews had been massacred by Hitler. Thus he is repeating the Nazi-inspired beliefs of the Revisionist historians. He sponsored a conference of holocaust deniers in Tehran. It now seems inconceivable that any western country will negotiate with him. In January 2007 there are stories that the clerical establishment disagree with his extremism and are trying to rein him in.

(But the US, desperate to find a way out of Iraq, is hinting that it hopes Iran will help them leave Iraq.)

The US imprisoned some Iranians found in northern Iraq. The Iranian government claimed they were "Diplomats" whereas the Americans say they were Revolutionary Militia and assisting the guerrillas in Iraq. Possibly in return the Iranian militia captured some Royal Navy personnel who were inspecting ships in the Gulf - whether in Iranian or Iraqi waters is disputed, as is the sea boundary. These were later released, as were the diplomats.

There were elections for president and assembly in 2009. Former president Khatami announced that he would stand (if the Ayatollahs let him - but they didn't). He disappointed many of his supporters last time, as his powers are limited by those of the Council of Guardians and the Supreme religious leader.

The presidential election in June 2009 saw a huge turnout - over 80% - but the official result was suspected when it showed 62% of the vote for the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Reports from before the election showed a great deal of support for one of his opponents whom the mainly younger voters saw as a possible moderate or reformer. The result was announced suspiciously soon after the vote and the question was whether the votes had in fact been counted as no vote observers were permitted. It is true that pre-election reports showed genuine support for the incumbent, especially among the poorer and rural population, but the result remains difficult to believe. The opposition candidate Mir Hossein Musavi claims that he was told he had won by the Faqih, before the result was announced officially that he had lost.

Huge demonstrations in the streets suggest that the result may have to be changed, or the election run again, with a more open method of counting the votes. It may even be the end of the control by the clerical oligarchy.

The following day the Guardian Council announced there could be a "re-count" of the votes (though surely there had been no first count). However, they announced that not enough irregularity had been found to change the result and Ahmedinajad was declared the official winner.

Outside observers think it likely the election result was not the actual will of the people. Ahmedinejad was declared elected, though the results from many districts are difficult to believe - opposition candidates doing especially badly in their home districts. There have been many mass demonstrations against the result, continuing into December 2009. Ahmedinejad behaves as though he has won, but it looks as though his real support comes not from the people but the apparatchiks of the regime.

Demonstrations continued into December 2009, with people shot by the security forces resulting in funerals with further demonstrations. This was the pattern which led to the fall of the Shah. Perhaps this time the result will be the democracy people were calling for in the 1970s, instead of the clerical dictatorship. The December demonstrations began at the funeral of Ayatollah Montazeri who had declared the Islamic Republic unislamic and denounced the regime.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State (Foreign Minister), has suggested the regime is becoming a military dictatorship, as power may be shifting towards the Basij - the religious militia, probably better armed than the army. Should the dubious elections of 2009 be considered an autogolpe?

2011 revolutions
Will these affect Iran. So far (1 March 2011) there have been demonstrations but not enough to threaten the establishment. Potential opposition leaders have been arrested (including the probable winner of the presidential election).

At the beginning of 2012 there are few signs that the Arab revolutions have affected Iran. However, there is clearly a large amount of opposition to the clerical dictatorship which could break out if conditions are right. No-one foresaw the Arab risings of 2011.

March 2012 Elections held for the Majlis (Assembly) allowed only candidates approved by the Faqih. It is said that the candidates supporting the Faqih himself did better than those supporting the president (apparantly considered slightly more moderate). Many people simply didnŐt vote as there was no-one they wanted to vote for.

Interesting reading

Jason Elliot
Iran's profound influence on the west.

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran

Persien - Gottes vergessener Garten. Meine Reise durch den Iran

Michael Axworthy - Iran

Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day

The Middle East for Dummies

Lipstick Jihad

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran

Persepolis - Marjan Satrapi
Graphic novel

Persepolis. Jugendjahre



Persepolis [2008] [DVD]

Christopher de Bellalgue - Patriot of Persia

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup
Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

Review of Bellaigue

Trita Parsi - A Single Roll of the Dice

A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran

How diplomacy might avert a disastrous war with Iran







The modern economy is based on oil, first exploited by the Anglo-Iranian oil company (now renamed BP) but much of the oil industry was destroyed during the war with Iraq. Abadan was said to have been the world's largest oil refinery. Much has been rebuilt since.

The traditional agricultural economy has suffered from the imbalance caused by the oil industry and was neglected during the time of the Shah.

The huge expenditure on rearming following the war with Iraq, and the legacy of that war itself, cripple the economy and prevent investment in civilian needs. There is high inflation and despite the claims of the ruling clergy a widening of the gulf between rich and poor. This may well be the failure which will cause the regime to collapse. Subsidies for the poor cannot be maintained if oil revenues fall. However, as the world nears the point of Peak Oil, revenues are likely to increase, especially with China's increasing demand. The price spike in mid-2008 increased revenue, but the subsequent fall in prices disappointed those who had gained. Thomas Friedman observes that "petro-states" become more democratic when the oil price goes down. See Democracy.







Are the Iranians really working on nuclear weapons? The American government likes to say they are but the evidence is dubious.

Iran was rumored to have acquired some former Soviet Nuclear weapons (but this does not seem likely) and to be trading in enriched Uranium with Kazakhstan.

Population has doubled since Khomeini came to power. (The Ayatollahs allied with the Pope at the UN Population Conference in opposition to contraception. However, they have relaxed the ban more recently and the birth rate is declining again.).

Despite the huge potential for solar power the regime is pursuing nuclear energy but in reality for weapons.





Human Rights

Bad civil rights.

The Clergy don't recognize western civil rights. Executions according to strict Koranic rules are common as well as torture, cutting off of hands, whipping for what in western countries are regarded as minor offenses. Many of these punishments are imposed after either no trial or a cursory trial without defense.

Amnesty International says 2010 official executions were 252+ It estimates at least 300 other executions, besides those officially acknowledged. Only China executes more people.

The situation of women which had been improving during the time of the Shah is not as bad as many other states in the Islamic world (laws about women are not actually Koranic, but a later development). There are many jobs barred to them. However, a majority of university students are women and women are influential in many non-governmental positions. Sheer necessity to use their skills may force change on the clerical establishment.

Very young soldiers were used in the war with Iraq and told that martyrdom was the highest good (higher than training). Believers in other religions are persecuted, especially Baha'is who have been executed as recently as 1993.

Since the coming to power of Rafsanjani and Khatami there were some improvements, but Iran cannot yet be regarded as a state of law in the western and UN sense. Sporadic random arrests for errors in women's clothing continue. These amount to a classic reign of terror of typical totalitarian style. Despite Mohammad's advocacy of toleration for Christians and Jews, non-Muslims are persecuted, especially former Muslims who converted to other religions.

With the election of Ahmedinejad the human rights situation worsened again.

Maziar Bahari - Then they came for me

Then They Came for Me: A story of injustice and survival in Iran's most notorious prison

A Newsweek journalist's experiences in Evin prison.

Climate effects

An already arid country may get even less rain.

Last revised 9/03/12

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