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Iran is an Islamic country in the Middle East. Once called Persia by outsiders, its inhabitants have always called it Iran, meaning Land of the Aryans, or “noble people.” In 1935 the government formally requested that the world community adopt the name Iran. The region has one of the world's oldest civilizations, dating back to 2700 B.C.E.

Iran borders the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Persian Gulf, and Strait of Hormuz. The latter two serve as vital water routes for the transport of oil. Iran shares boundaries with several countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Paki-stan, and Afghanistan. The country has a mostly dry climate. The terrain consists of a rugged mountainous rim, high central plateau, and small plains along the coasts. Only about 10 percent of the land is suitable for farming. Crops include grains, fruits, sugar beets, and cotton. Iran has rich reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and minerals and relies mostly on oil exports for its economy.

In 2002 the population of Iran numbered 67 million. Around 90 percent are Shi'i Muslims, and most of the remaining Iranians are Sunni. The national language is Farsi, an Indo-European language now written in Arabic script. The present government, established in 1979 , is an Islamic republic, led by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. The capital is Tehran.

Early Dynasties

In 2700 B.C.E. the warlike Elamites dominated parts of present-day Iran. By 1300 B.C.E. Indo-Europeans from the west had gained control the region. Beginning in 559 B.C.E. and continuing for the next thousand years, a succession of three dynasties ruled Iran and surrounding areas. They were the Archaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians, and all of these civilizations contributed to the culture of present-day Iran.

Arabs Invade Iran.

The year 637 C.E. —the date of the Arab invasion—marks a turning point in Iran's history. Before the Arab conquest, people in Iran practiced Zoroastrianism, a religion centered around the idea of an unending struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Arabs brought Islam with them and influenced many Iranians to convert. The Iranian people, however, still kept many of their own traditions. They retained their language, although they added many Arabic words and the Arabic alphabet eventually replaced their own. For the next several centuries, Iran was governed as a territory of the caliphate. The Iranians made contributions to Islamic civilization in literature, art, philosophy, medicine, and science.

Rise of the Safavids.

Following the Arab conquest, many Iranians converted to Islam. When the Safavid dynasty gained control in 1501 , it instituted Shi'i Islam, which has prevailed in the region ever since. The 1500s also witnessed the emergence of the ulama (Islamic religious scholars) as an important social force. These clerics struggled to gain power in Iran from that time onward, eventually succeeding in the 1970s. Safavid rule collapsed in the early 1700s, to be followed by the rule of a military commander, Nadir Shah , (ruled 1736 – 1747 ) and the short-lived Zand dynasty. The Qajar dynasty took over in the late 1700s.

Problems During Qajar Rule.

Weak rulers, a failing economy, and foreign domination characterized the reign of the Qajar shahs. Throughout the early 1800s, Iran lost territory to the Russians and suffered two defeats by the British when the Qajars attempted to take over parts of Afghanistan. Iran narrowly escaped partition by Russia and Britain in 1907 and conversion into a British protectorate in 1919 . The Qajar shahs allowed European companies to dominate Iran's transport, banking, mining, oil, and tobacco industries. Competition with foreign investors forced many Iranian businessmen into bankruptcy.

Around 1900 , large-scale protests erupted in opposition to Iran's submission to the Europeans and the incompetence of the shah. Merchants, fed up with the influx of foreign goods and the privileges granted to foreigners, rose to challenge the Qajar ruler. Members of the ulama also spoke out against the Qajar government, backing the protests with their moral authority. By the time World War I broke out in 1914 , the Qajar dynasty faced constant challenges to its authority. In 1921 a military leader named Reza Khan seized power.

The Pahlavi Reign

In 1923 Reza Khan installed himself as prime minister of Iran. A few years later, he elevated himself to the throne as Reza Shah Pahlavi , thus beginning the Pahlavi dynasty. In 1941 his son, Muhammad Reza , succeeded him. Throughout their rule, the Pahlavi shahs stressed modernization, westernization, and secularism. They resolved to eliminate traditional practices and beliefs and replace them with new ones from abroad. Ultimately, these policies led to the dynasty's overthrow and replacement by a religious regime controlled by the ulama.

Reza Shah's Reforms.

The first Pahlavi ruler mounted military campaigns at the borders of Iran to strengthen his control over the territory. Within the country, he brutally suppressed unruly tribal groups, established a centralized state bureaucracy, and formed a loyal standing army. Reza Shah based his central administration on a French model and replaced the Islamic legal system with European codes. He modeled many reforms on those of the Turkish ruler Mustafa Kemal Atatürk .

Hoping to invigorate the economy, the shah took over several major industries. He used the revenue to build roads and railroads and to pay for his growing army. His economic policies did not have much success, however, and private enterprise failed to flourish. Reza Shah also remained unable to gain control of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), a major source of income for Great Britain.

Reza Shah Pahlavi's social reforms met with more success than his economic policies. The shah established state schools and training programs for teachers, as well as hospitals, clinics, laboratories for medicine and food testing, and vaccination programs for children. In 1934 Reza Shah opened Tehran University, the first institution in what would become a national university system. He also sponsored student trips to European universities to encourage the study of modern sciences and medicine. He had less success at implementing other reforms, such as abolishing the requirement that women wear veils, introducing Western-style dress, and reducing the influence of the ulama. In order to maintain his hold on the country, the shah exiled, jailed, tortured, and killed those who disagreed with him. One of the people he persecuted was Mohammad Mossadegh, future prime minister of Iran and leader of the Iranian nationalist movement.

As World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) approached, Reza Shah allied himself with the Germans. He was not sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but he hoped to reduce British influence in his country by helping their enemies. His plan backfired. In 1941 British and Soviet forces invaded Iran and forced the shah from the throne.

Muhammad Reza Struggles With Dissent.

Reza Khan's son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, took over in 1941 . Inexperienced and unsure of himself, he served as little more than a figurehead controlled by the British. Gradually, however, he gained the support of the army. He also created an upper chamber of parliament that supported him against his critics. Through these means, he gradually assumed a position of power.

In 1949 Mohammad Mossadegh formed an organization called the National Front. The organization pushed for the nationalization of the AIOC. Mossadegh gained widespread support, and public opinion forced the reluctant shah to appoint him prime minister. Mossadegh immediately acted to take control of the AIOC and became involved in a bitter dispute with the British. Highly popular among the people, Mossadegh engaged in some bizarre behaviors, such as wearing pajamas for public appearances, making speeches from his bed, and indulging in fits of weeping. Muhammad Reza attempted to unseat the minister in 1953 , but mobs forced him to flee to Rome. A few days later, however, groups backed by the United States and Britain overthrew Mossadegh.

The shah returned to Iran and began to rule as an absolute dictator. The Kennedy administration urged him to gain support among his people by initiating reforms. Although Muhammad Reza did not want to do this, he felt that he had no choice if he wanted to retain support from the United States. In the early 1960s, he launched a program called the White Revolution. The revolution introduced reforms in land ownership; construction of a centralized secular regime; and modernization of education and the economy along Western models. It also included a movement aimed at extending voting rights to women.

The clergy disapproved of the shah's policies, especially those involving land redistribution and women's rights. They joined with intellectuals and professionals who opposed the shah's autocratic rule. In 1963 major clashes broke out at Tehran University between student protestors and the army. The term gharbzadagi, meaning “dazed by the West,” became a powerful and widely used accusation against the Iranian government. A Shi'i religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini , publicly denounced the shah. The government planned to execute Khomeini but sent him into exile instead. Khomeini spent 14 years abroad but continued to protest Iran's dependence on the United States, its tolerance of Israel, and the suppression of the ulama.

Despite political instability, the Iranian economy boomed in the 1970s. Oil prices were high, and the shah became extremely wealthy. He spent millions of dollars celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy and buying expensive weapons and nuclear reactors. Critics became outraged by his neglect of the infrastructure. In the late 1970s, Iran experienced a dramatic decline in income due to falling oil prices, and economic problems led to public unrest and frequent protests. From his exile in Iraq and then France, Ayatollah Khomeini also criticized the shah and his policies, adding fuel to the fire.

Islamic Republic of Iran

In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and led a coalition of clerics, intellectuals, students, and other anti-government groups in the Iranian Revolution. Thousands of urban poor joined in the struggle, angered by land reform policies that had driven them from the countryside. Together, these forces overthrew the Pahlavi government and drove the shah into exile. In place of the monarchy, Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Khomeini's New Government.

The new Islamic government centered around the authority of Ayatollah Khomeini. He appointed a temporary government and designated himself as chief faqih (Islamic jurist), keeping the power in his own hands and those of the Revolutionary Council, made up of his supporters. He believed that clerics should rule the country and that Islamic law should be implemented in all aspects of Iranian life. Under Khomeini's leadership, the Islamic Republic undid many of the reforms of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Like the shahs before him, Khomeini set about eliminating rivals and critics. First, he went after intellectuals, liberals, and guerrilla fighters who had participated in the revolution, but who now threatened his regime with their own demands. When the main guerrilla group began to assassinate key clerics in the government to gain power for themselves, Khomeini unleashed a bloody reign of terror that lasted around four years. In addition to guerrillas and intellectuals, he executed hundreds of officials from the former shah's government. By the time elections took place in 1980 , no serious opposition existed to challenge Khomeini's candidates. Supporters of Khomeini took over the crucial institutions of the state and used their power to crush any remaining critics.

War With Iraq.

Almost immediately after the Iranian Revolution, Iraq attacked, marking the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq claimed that it needed to defend itself against Iran's revolutionary threats and regain its portion of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that it had been forced to give up under the shah's regime. The attack set off a bloody and expensive war between Iran and Iraq that lasted for eight years.

During the war, Iraq drew worldwide outrage by using chemical weapons. Nevertheless, the United States supported Iraq in this war with Iran, and U.S. companies sold them weapons. Iran, lacking modern equipment and tactics, enlisted countless numbers of its young men to fight the Iraqis, leading to some of the deadliest battles of the century. The conflict greatly affected the world economy and shipping in the Persian Gulf, leading to food shortages and economic hardship in Iran. Iran and Iraq finally accepted a United Nations peace plan, and fighting ceased in 1988 . Ayatollah Khomeini, who had once said that he had not engaged in the revolution to ensure material well-being, described the ceasefire as more bitter for him than a poisoned drink.

Iran at the Turn of the Century.

In 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died. A month later, the Iranian government amended the constitution to eliminate the position of prime minister and to give more power to the president and other nonreligious government officials. Religious leaders, however, retained control of key institutions, such as the military.

During the 1990s, Iran maintained a wary relationship with most of its neighbors. Some surrounding countries accused Iran of training radical Muslims to overthrow their governments and replace them with Islamic theocracies. Iran and the West remained unfriendly. In 1991 , when the United States and its allies fought Iraq in the Gulf War, Iran remained neutral despite its former hostilities with Iraq.

In 1997 Muhammad Khatami was elected president of Iran. He showed more tolerance of Western practices and beliefs than did his predecessors, and his election highlighted the growth of cultural, economic, and scholarly communication between Iran and the West. In 2000 the Iranians elected a liberal majority to parliament, and in 2001 , Iranians re-elected Khatami as president.

During this time, the position of women in society improved. Women became active in professional capacities and as elected representatives, appointed government officials, and judges. In 2003 the Nobel Committee awarded its prestigious Peace Prize to human rights lawyer and former judge Shirin Ebadi , for her efforts on behalf of women and children. Although reaction to the award was mixed in Iran—conservatives trying to ignore it and liberals hailing the committee's decision—the country is seen as one of the more progressive Muslim nations with respect to women's rights. See also Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal; Great Britain; Gulf States; Iraq; Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi; Safavid Dynasty.

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