Known as Persia until 1935, Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world.
- While its borders expanded and contracted over its 4000-year history from ancient empire to modern nation-state, Iran’s leaders experimented with different ways of ruling the different people who inhabited its topographically diverse land.
- From the enlightened rule of Cyrus the Great to the autocracy of the Shahs to the theocracy of today’s Ayatollahs, Iran’s history is complex; it is punctuated by periods of conquest and rule by foreign powers from the Greeks to the Mongols to Arab tribes.
- Unlike much of the Middle East, Iran was never colonized by modern Western countries. Yet, its geographical location and plentiful oil reserves drew significant attention from Britain, Russia, and the United States in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Iran’s internal politics continue to be greatly influenced by its international relations.
- The story of politics and power in Iran is marked by tension between conservative and liberal, religious and secular, autocratic and democratic, and elite and populist elements. From its ancient and Shia Islam influences to its particular brand of nationalism, theocracy, petrocracy, and oligarchy, the forces shaping modern day Iran are unique.
Iran is the world’s first and only proclaimed Islamic Republic. Its Constitution dates to the Revolution of 1979, when the Pahlavian monarchy was overthrown by a coalition of clerics, merchants, intellectuals, and students.
- Fed up with the corruption, suppression of civil liberties, ill-conceived modernization programs, and Western loyalties which characterized the rule of the Shah, revolutionaries in 1979 completed what had been attempted under the leadership of reformist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951.
- Mossadegh’s revolution had been stymied in 1953 by a US and British-led coup that removed him from power and restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne after a period of instability and protest against him and his Western patrons.
It was not the express intent of the 1979 Revolution to replace the monarchy with an autocratic theocracy such as that which developed by 1981. In the chaos of the post-Revolutionary years, and against the backdrop of the US-Iran hostage crisis, conservative clerics under the leadership of the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini prevailed over other elements of the coalition and ushered in the current system.
- Although clerical governmental institutions were developed to oversee and exist side-by-side with the existing secular institutions, the clerical institutions became dominant.
- The Supreme Leader, elite mullahs, and new security services assumed control of policymaking, the economy, and the daily lives of Iranian citizens.
Under Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, Mohammad Ali Khamenei, a brief window of reform appeared with the election of Mohammad Khatami as President of the Islamic Republic in 1997.
- A reformist, President Khatami rolled back many cultural and political restrictions and took steps to end Iran’s isolation from the international community.
- However, disillusionment with the incremental and halting nature of reforms, combined with resistance by hardline clerics, ousted the reformers and led to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Today, Iran’s government is led by religious conservatives who favor principles of Sharia law and Shia Islamic fundamentalism. Opposition and dissent are strictly controlled; power is consolidated in opaque institutions.
Though internal divisions exist, the regime is, by most accounts, stable and secure. Significant momentum for reform has largely abated as reformers have run up against censorship and public apathy. Economic hardship created by international sanctions and general underdevelopment strains the mandate of the mullahs somewhat, but nationalism and anti-Americanism is often employed to distract the Iranian people from their bread and butter concerns.
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