Iran (known as “Persia”) has a long and rich history as a powerful kingdom and an influential center of knowledge in early history. In the modern era, Persia was occupied by various European powers. These occupations were largely due to Persia's strategic location on the Persian Gulf (which was also called the Arabian Gulf), as well as the discovery of oil. In 1906, it was divided into two spheres of influence under Russian and British command.
In 1921, however, Reza Khan, an officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, seized control of the government. In 1925, Reza Khan declared himself shah, ruling as Reza Sh ah Pahlavi for almost 16 years and installing the new Pahlavi Dynasty. Under his reign, Persia's name was officially changed to Iran, and the country began to modernize and secularize. In September 1941, following the Allies' occupation of western Iran in World War II, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became Shah of Iran and ruled until 1979.
During World War II, Iran was a vital link in the Allied supply line for lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. Iran remained an important ally of the West, especially Great Britain, with whom it had oil contracts. In 1951, Premier Mohammed Mossadeq forced the parliament to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. Although a British blockade led to a virtual collapse of the oil industry and serious internal economic troubles, Mossadeq continued his nationalization policies. The Shah and the Prime Minister remained at odds over other political issues as well, and a political fight ousted Mossadeq briefly out of power in 1952.
The administration of United States (U.S.) President Truman had initially been sympathetic to Iran's nationalist aspirations, but under the Eisenhower administration the U.S. came to accept the view of the British government that no reasonable compromise with Mossadeq was possible, and that he even was making probable a communist-inspired takeover. The Cold War atmosphere and the fear of Soviet influence in Iran also shaped U.S. policy. The Eisenhower administration approved a British proposal for a joint Anglo-American operation to overthrow Mossadeq. On August 19, 1953, pro-shah army units and street crowds defeated Mossadeq's forces. The shah returned to the country, and Mossadeq was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for trying to overthrow the monarchy. A prime minister friendly to British and American interests was installed.
In 1954, Iran allowed an international consortium of British, American, French and Dutch oil companies to operate in Iran. By joining the Baghdad Pact, Iran established closer relations to the West, and received large amounts of military and economic aid from the U.S. until the late 1960s.
Iran experienced an oil boom in the 1970s, which brought in enough money for the government to fund major development programs. The influx of money also created an unequal distribution of wealth and led to a variety of social problems in Iran. Discontent with government policies was spreading through various segments of Iranian society. By the winter of 1978, major demonstrations became increasingly common in Iran's major cities. Citizens demonstrated against the hated internal security and intelligence service, as well as against the priviledged status of foreigners. The Anglo-American coup against Mossadeq was also a rallying cry for the opposition.
On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran. On February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned. Ayatollah Khomeini directed a revolution that resulted in a new, theocratic republic guided by Islamic principles. Back in Iran after 15 years in exile, Khomeini remained Iran's national religious and political leader until his death in 1989. Immediately following the Revolution, the American Embassy in Tehran is seized and 52 American hostages are taken. President Jimmy Carter authorizes a secret rescue mission five months into the hostage crisis, which fails and results in a domestic spike in popularity for the Iranian regime. The hostages aren’t released until nine months later, after 444 days of imprisonment. Sensitive documents detailing American interests in Iran are also made public. The regime uses the documents, as well as the failed rescue attempt, in a public relations campaign to link Iran’s problems back to the United States.
From 1980 to 1989, Iran and its neighbor, Iraq, were embroiled in a cross-border war. The war followed a long history of border disputes, and was motivated by Iraq’s fears that the Iranian Revolution in 1979 would inspire insurgency among Iraq's long-suppressed Shia majority, as well as Iraq's desire to replace Iran as the dominant Persian Gulf state. The conflict began with an attack on various territories in Iran by Iraq, and escalated when Iran began to regain its lost territories and infiltrate Iraq. Iraq, an oil-rich state and an ally of the even richer country of Saudi Arabia, was given limited support by the United States during the conflict. The conflict ended on July 18, 1988, when Iran complied with United Nation Resolution 598 in which the original sovereign territories were restored.
The war cost both sides in lives and economic damage: half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers, as well as civilians, are believed to have died, with many more injured; however, the war brought neither reparations nor changes in borders. The conflict has been compared to World War I in terms of the tactics used, including large-scale trench warfare and extensive use of chemical weapons such as mustard gas by the Iraqi government against Iranian troops, civilians, and Iraqi Kurds. Iran also experienced civil unrest in the 1980s, as left-wing groups protested against the war and were violently suppressed by government forces.
Iran-U.S. relations remained poor after the war. The U.S. instituted a policy not to sell U.S. arms to either Iran or Iraq, and to prevent all arms transfers to Iran. The Reagan administration violated this policy by attempting to trade arms to Iran for American hostages held in Lebanon. The resulting scandal became popularly known as "Iran Gate" or the Iran-contra affair.
Other wars rocked the region: the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) was the first, sparked by Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. The Gulf War was a war waged by a U.N.-authorized coalition force from 34 nations led by the United States against Iraq. The Second Persian Gulf War, or the Iraq War, began in 2003 when the United States and an international coalition invaded Iraq over allegations of an illegal biological and nuclear weapons program. Following the initial successful military operation, which ousted Saddam Hussein from power, Iraq was destabilized and the U.S. and coalition forces were drawn into a war of insurgency defined primarily along religious (Shi’a versus Sunni) lines. In 2007, U.S. officials allege that Iran, a majority Shi’a country, was supplying weapons to Iraqi Shi’a militias and helping to fuel the insurgency. A similar claim was made about Afghan Shi’a milita groups. This - coupled with President Bush identifying Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” or a country that was supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons - further strained relations between Iran and the U.S.
The struggle between would-be reformers and fundamentalist hard-liners has defined Iranian politics since the Islamic Revolution. However, in June 2013 a moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, was elected President. This may herald a new era of moderate politics in Iran, as Rouhani has pledged greater engagement with Western governments, including the United States. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, is still the highest power in the land, however. He appoints the head of the judiciary, military leaders, the head of radio and TV and Friday prayer leaders. He also confirms the election of Iran's president. It will be difficult to make major changes in Iran without his consent.
Excerpted and adapted from:
Balaghi, Shiva. “A Brief History of 20th-Century Iran.” Grey Online. New York University. n.d. Web. 3 September 2013.
“Iran-Iraq War.” Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation. 3 September 2013. Web. 3 September 2013.
“Iran: History.” CountryWatch. CountryWatch, Inc. n.d. Web. 3 September 2013.
“Iran Profile.” BBC News. The BBC. 11 June 2013. Web. 3 September 2013.