Country Briefing

Historically known as “Persia” and once one of America’s most reliable allies, Iran has more recently been characterized by President George Bush (II) as part of the “axis of evil.” The pro-western leader, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, was deposed in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to become the national religious leader of the new Islamic republic, based on fundamentalist Islamic principles. After Islamist militants seized the US embassy, 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Iran became the first modern state ruled by the Islamic principles of Sharia and precipitated the emergence of a growing fundamentalist, or Islamist movement. The Islamist movement has become the prime driver behind international religious terrorism. (It should be noted that Iranians are predominately Persian and Shiite Muslims, as contrasted with other Middle East states that are predominately Arab and Sunni Muslims.) 


In ancient times, the area of present day Iran was part of Mesopotamia and was influenced by rulers of various dynasties, until 549 B.C. when Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire.  In 333 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Persia but the Persians recovered their lands after his death and maintained control until the Arab conquest in 641 B.C. During this period Islam took hold, namely that of the Shia sect.

The region experienced a period of cultural and scientific progress, with noteworthy achievements in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, until falling to the Mongol invasion in 1258. The Mongols ruled until 1502 and were displaced by the progressive Safavid Dynasty that lasted until 1736 and was followed by a period of decline and conflict and growing influence of Russia and Britain. In 1909, a treaty divided the country into two areas of economic influence, one Russian, the other British. The British were granted the right to exploit the area’s oil resources.

After the revolution in 1921 Reza Khan established a military dictatorship and then installed himself as the Shah. He introduced a series of liberal reforms, cancelled treaties that gave Britain rights to Iranian oil and changed the country’s name to Iran. As Iran tried to remain neutral in WWII, the British feared they would support the axis powers and invaded to secure access to oil; the Shah was deposed and his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, took control.   

In the parliamentary elections in 1951, Muhammad Mossdagh became prime minister and nationalized the British controlled Iranian oil industry. Britain imposed an economic blockade and conspired with the American CIA to support monarchists in overthrowing Mossadagh and returning the Shah to power in 1953. The Shah resumed pro-western modernization and opened Iran’s oil reserves to western companies, while Mossadagh remained in prison until his death in 1967.


The Shah’s pro-western policy was popular with the wealthy urban classes, but provoked discontent among the rural, the poor and the religious traditionalists. One outspoken critic, Ayatollah Khomeini, was forced into exile to Iraq and later France.  The Shah used a brutal secret police force, the SAVAK, to repress dissent, which in turn motivated even greater protests and violence. As civil unrest grew, the Shah went into exile in early 1979, leaving a crony, Chaput Bakhtiar as prime minister. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and assumed power, amid widespread violence as religious militia forces killed thousands. The Iranian Revolution resulted in the first modern state ruled according to the fundamentalist Islamic principles of Sharia. 

States in the Middle East and Central Asia had no history or experience with popular chosen governments. In 1981, the Islamic Revolutionary Party won 90% of the vote and clamped down harshly on dissident, pro-western and other decadent elements of society. The revolution was important because it demonstrated the ability to establish a theocratic government that would operate according to Islamic principles and served as a model for Islamist movements in other countries (See: Algeria and Afghanistan).  However, the vast majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims and their success has challenged Sunni Muslims to achieve similar advances.

Islamist militants seized the US embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. A US rescue attempt turned into a disaster as helicopters crashed into one another while refueling before even reaching the hostages. The hostage situation helped deter the US from becoming involved in the Iranian Revolution and allowed the new government to consolidate power, without the threat of CIA interference. Meanwhile, the inability to resolve the hostage crisis, combined with effects of the oil crisis led to US President Carter’s defeat in the U.S. election. The subsequent secret deals (the Iran-Contra scandal) that swapped weapons for hostages, cash and ended up arming the Nicaraguan contras, nearly threatened the ensuing Reagan Administration. The US severed diplomatic relations with Iran and there has been little official contact since.

War with Iraq

In 1980, a dispute with Iran over access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway erupted into war as Iraqi troops crossed the canal blocking Iranian access. Although Iran’s population is three times larger than Iran’s, neither side made any significant military progress and the war lasted for 8 debilitating years, claiming over one million lives. Both sides were reported to have used poison gases. Iran was allied with Syria and Libya, while Iraq received support from Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Iran also strengthened its relations with China and North Korea, valuable suppliers of military equipment. The war ended in 1988, with both armies about where they began the fighting 8 years earlier.

The northeastern regions of Iraq are home to large Kurdish populations, who had been promised a homeland after World War I – a promise that never materialized. Kurdish rebels have mounted regular operations against Iran, but with their people divided between Turkey, Iraq and Iran and split by factional discord, they’ve had little success against large and powerful regimes. 


An Evolving Iran

In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died. The US hoped this would lead to a new revolution against the fundamentalist regime. The Islamic Assembly of Experts appointed Ayatollah Khameini as the new spiritual leader. A new constitution created a functional, rather than ceremonial presidency and President Rafsanjani assumed elected office. Rafsanjani pursued a more liberal policy, repairing relations with Iraq and resuming diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Britain, and opening opportunities for foreign trade and investment. The Islamic revolutionary Guard was absorbed into the military, thus weakening Islamist pressure.

The break up of the Soviet Union opened new opportunities for Iranian trade and regional influence. Iran opened relations with the newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union. Of particular interest and concern to Iran is the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since one-fourth of the Iranian population are Azeris, Iran has lent support to Azerbaijan in its fight against US backed Armenia. (See: Nagorno-Karabakh) 

During the Gulf War between Iraq and the US coalition, Iran remained neutral in an effort to avoid any further adverse economic consequences, as it attempts to rebuild its economy. However, this has not deterred the Iranians from opposing US interests whenever and wherever possible. In 1992 Iran helped establish Hezbollah (the Party of God) which operates against Israel from bases in Lebanon and Syria, and continues to provide arms and financial support.

While the reformist Rafsajani had often been at odds Ayatollah Kameini, voters in 1997, elected another moderate president, Mohammed Khatami. This has been seen in the West as a signal that Iranians are rejecting strict fundamentalism and seeking a return to modernization. However, in these prospects were reversed by the 2004 elections when, according to the US State Department, reformist candidates were barred from competing. As a result, the 2005 elections hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected president.

As president, he has vowed to remove Israel from the map and is pushing forward with plans to develop nuclear weapons. Since 1979, Iranian leaders has prospered by confronting America, the so-called Great Satan, and the trend continues, with Ahmadinejad challenging President George Bush to debate and rattling Persian sabers at every opportunity.

Iran has acquired and tested medium range missiles, capable of reaching targets throughout the Middle East region and has raised concerns about possible intentions to develop nuclear weapons. In 2002, Iran and Russia announced plans to construct additional nuclear power plants and to complete the Bushear plant. These plans have provoked protests from the US and other Western states. However, Iran claims to have a severe power shortage. Iran’s neighbors, Pakistan and India, already have nuclear weapons, and its long-time adversary Iraq is believed to be actively pursuing a covert nuclear weapons program.

According to the U.S State Department, U.S. complaints about Iran include:

  • Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and other WMD
  • Involvement and support of international terrorism
  • Support for violent opposition to the Middle East peace process
  • Threats and subversive activities against its neighbors
  • Iran’s dismal human rights record

In October 2006, North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear weapon. US President Bush and other world leaders have called this a serious provocation and threaten some sort of punitive response. Although it may be too late to stop North Korea, the real target of any international or US response may well be Iran, the third member of Bush’s axis of evil. 

Iranian Mujahedin

Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) was organized as an armed, socialist-oriented group opposed to the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and carried out attacks against US interests in Iran. The MEK was marginalized when the Islamists assumed power and has since fought against the Islamic regime with considerable support from Iraq. The National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA, the militant wing of the MEK)  has operating bases in the Shiite regions of southern Iraq. MEK is believed to have several thousand members and a substantial base of financial support from Iranian expatriates.

In April 1992 conducted attacks on Iranian embassies in 13 different countries, demonstrating the group's ability to mount large-scale operations overseas. The normal pace of anti-Iranian operations increased during the "Operation Great Bahman" in February 2000, when the group claimed it launched a dozen attacks against Iran. During the remainder of the year, the MEK regularly claimed that its members were involved in mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids on Iranian military, law enforcement units, and government buildings near the Iran-Iraq border. The MEK also claimed six mortar attacks on civilian government and military buildings in Tehran.

Communist Party of Iran

Communist Party of Iran

Worker’s Communist Party of Iran

Democracy Network of Iran

Foundation for Democracy in Iran

National Council of Resistance of Iran

Radio Sedaye Iran


Mohammad Montazeri

Reza Pahlavi




Capital: Tehran
Area: 1,648,200 sq km
Slightly larger than Alaska
Population: 71,220,000
People: Persian (51%); Azeri (24%)

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