The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the oldest nations in existence today. It was a contemporary of the ancient Greek and Mesopotamian empire in an earlier incarnation, and has been known by numerous names throughout its over 6,000 years of existence, most notably as Persia and Eranshahr (Kingdom of the Aryans) of the Partho-Sasanian era, which is the origin of its present name.
At its peak, the Persian empire encompassed practically the whole known world at the time, ranging from Western Europe to Eastern Asia, and the Urals to Northern Africa. The ancient Greek philosopher, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484BC-425BC), wrote in his famed 'Histories' that the Persians were of the Pasargadae ancestry, whose roots can be traced back to the kingdom of Ansan of King Cambyses the Elder, who themselves were descendants of the Sumerians and Akkadians of ancient Mesopotamia.
“Now the Persian nation is made up of many tribes. Those which Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the principal ones on which all the others are dependent. These are the Pasargadae, the Maraphians, and the Maspians, of whom the Pasargadae are the noblest. The Achaemenidae, from which spring all the Perseid kings, is one of their clans.”
Herodotus’ The Histories (circa 420BC), translated by George Rawlinson (1812-1902, the Professor of Ancient History at Oxford)
2. The Now
Iran is the eighteenth largest country in the world, measuring approximately 636,296 square miles in size, just 5% smaller than Alaska's 663,267 square miles. It is inhabited by a multi-ethnic, but predominantly Muslim (Shiite), population of 78 million. The mountainous land shares its borders with seven countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and is fenced by the Persian Gulf on the South, the Gulf of Oman on its South East, and the Caspian Sea on the North. The capital is Teheran, an ancient, sprawling city of eight million that is the political and commercial hub of the nation.
The resource-rich nation is headed by a Supreme Leader, which is the most powerful position in the country. The office is presently held by Ayatollah-Ozma (The Great Sign of God) Ali Hoseyni Khāmenei, who heads the 12-man Council of Guardians that, for all intents and purposes, is the de facto ruling body of the nation. The position has no term limitation, and its appointment (and dismissal) falls under the responsibility of the 86 elected members of the Majles-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts). The Supreme Leader is by default the leader of the country’s Islamic faith and commander in chief of the armed forces.
A popularly elected president heads the country’s executive branch and manages its day to day affairs. The current president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, contrary to popular belief, has a very limited executive authority in determining the nation’s domestic or foreign policies.
Iran’s main source of foreign income is from petroleum. It produces approximately 4 million barrels of oil a day, accounting for 5% of global production, only behind Saudi Arabia. It has the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world (137 billion barrels), and second largest proven natural gas reserves (30 trillion cubic meters). Nevertheless, oil production has been decreasing from its pre 1979 Revolution peak. A combination of international sanctions, lack of local and foreign investments, restrictive exploration and developmental policies, and a conscious attempt to keep a tight rein on any OPEC quota increase have been cited as some of the main reasons for the almost 40% drop in production.
The country’s economy is still primarily an agrarian one, with a quarter of the population employed in the sector. The Iranian Central Bank forecasted 3.5% growth for the 2011 calendar year, following a tepid 1% growth in 2010.
The Iranian leadership has long been accused of state-sponsored terrorism. There have been documented and anecdotal evidence that their military, one of the most experienced and battle hardened in the region, harbor/recruit and train members of terrorist organizations, such as the Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as providing munitions and logistical support. However, their armed forces suffers from endemic and long term infrastructural neglect, and require a huge amount of reinvestment to bring it up to par to other countries in the region - neighbors Turkey and Pakistan, for instance. Their major source of weaponries in recent years have been the Chinese and Russians.
Intelligence agencies have revealed the Iranians of attempting to embark on a high-tech weapons program, including nuclear, which has led to an international outcry, resulting in severe sanctions being placed on the country. Iran continues to deny these allegations and insists that their nuclear program is designed purely for energy generation purposes. Ironically, their nuclear program has its roots in the American-sponsored Atoms For Peace program from the 1950s.
3. How We Entered The Picture
Our relationship with Iran is much more complex than what the media commonly portrays, and would probably take the next hundred pages to be explained conclusively in its entirety. However, three significant post-World War II events are attributable to the current state of affairs between the two nations.
a. Event 1: The Coup
In 1953, both the CIA and MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) engineered a coup in Iran that saw to the ouster of democratically elected Iranian Premier Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq from power. The coup d’etat was a direct result of Dr. Mossadeq’s decision to nationalize the Iranian oil industry at the expense of their former colonial master, Britain. The country’s oil industry was until then under the control of the British government, chiefly through Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (a precursor to British Petroleum, BP).
The operation, code named TPAJAX, remained largely a secret until a FOIA lawsuit by the National Security Archive against the CIA in the late 1990s resulted in the release of over 200 pages of documents that detailed the covert actions undertaken by the two intelligence agencies, in collaboration with the Iranian monarch (King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), a segment of the Muslim clergy, and members of the Iranian military. The operation, funded with a reputed $5m off the books' budget, was headed by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of our 26th President, Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt Jr., chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa Division (Directorate of Plans) at the time, would later reveal in his 1979 book, Countercoup, that he was inserted in Iran using the assumed identity of James Lockridge, a tennis-playing embassy jock. Aided by a lone handler, he needed two coups to successfully overthrow Mossadeq, in what many would later termed as two of the most complex and daring coup ever organized.
Roosevelt Jr. also explained that the coup was necessary to counter the growing threat posed by Army strongman, General Fazlollah Zahedi. Zahedi, a critic of the Mossadeq administration, was believed to be actively courted by agents representing the Soviet Union. He eventually threw his support behind the Anglo-American coup after being promised the Premiership, but was ultimately left shortchanged after constitutional changes shifted the balance of power back to the palace. Mossadeq, meanwhile, was sentenced to death for treason shortly thereafter by the Zabedi’s administration, but the sentence was commuted to a three-year jail term, and upon his release, he was confined to house arrest until his death in 1967.
Event 2: The Revolution
In the decades following the elevation of King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran, successive American administrations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford) worked towards transforming the country into a modern democracy, and in the process, establishing another long term ally in the Middle East.
However, as the years progressed, the Shah of Iran became increasingly despotic and authoritative. Using the dreaded state secret police, SAVAK (National Intelligence and Security Organization), the Shah effectively governed the country with imperial decree and railroaded any opposition with jail time, torture and in some cases, assassination. An argument could be made that these actions were, in fact, perpetrated by a small palace hierarchy, consisting of sycophants and opportunists with vested personal interests, holding enormous influence over the executive and legislative branch. Either way, the Palace lost the support of the ruling elite and gradually, the populace.
The King, nevertheless, played his part well, presenting himself as a benign and progressive monarch to their great ally, the United States, and the international community. He cemented his growing reputation as a statesman by introducing the White Revolution, signaling the arrival of a slew of reforms, primarily in the economic and social sector. The United States, to a certain extent, understood the gamesmanship of the King, but their hands were tied. Withdrawing their support of the Shah could potentially cripple the government and accord the opportunity for the socialist-leaning opposition to take advantage of the situation. With the world still in the thick of the Cold War, the United States could not allow the Soviet Union with the opportunity to gain a foothold in the region.
However, unbeknownst to both the King and the United States, the reforms were looked upon critically by the powerful religious class. The introduction of voting rights for women and family protection laws were a particular source of anger for the Muslim clerics, as it challenged the supremacy of the Sharia’ law and conveyed the idea that women possessed the same rights as men. The sight of a rising number of working women walking around in Teheran without a veil or a male escort, mingling with their male counterparts, greatly angered the Muslim fundamentalists.
Criticisms of the White Revolution reached a crescendo over a failed land reform act. Plans for vast hereditary and tribal lands to be redistributed to the rural farming population failed spectacularly. Middlemen, cronies and corrupt officials skewed the process, raising the ire of the affected landowners and the general population, especially after revelations that extended members of the royal family were also among the recipient.
The United States, long viewed as the patron of the King and the palace, received a share of the blame too, and were increasingly being portrayed in public rallies by clerics and the opposition as the villain of the play, accused of forcibly attempting to indoctrinate the citizens with immoral Western agenda. The CIA, incredibly, failed to accurately predict the strength of the opposition movement, and the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy by Islamic fundamentalists took the Carter administration by surprise. A 15 month, topsy-turvy, bloody, and exiled-ridden revolution concluded in 1979 with the ascension of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the first Supreme Leader of a theocratic Iran.
Event 3: The Hostage Crisis
The venomous anti-American sentiment continued to grow in Iran, typified by the frequent and increasingly vitriolic demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Teheran. However, things took a turn for the worse when the United States allowed their deposed ruler, the ailing King Reza Pahlavi, to enter the country for medical treatment.
The former Shah’s arrival in New York on October 22, 1979, triggered renewed criticisms from Muslim fundamentalist groups in Iran and factions within the newly established revolutionary government. The increasingly aggressive protests at the embassy were headed and partly coordinated by the Muslim Students of the Imam Khomeini Line (MSIKL), an organization under the direct influence of the soon to be appointed Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The students, along with a number of transitional government leaders, publicly expressed fears that the United States was secretly engineering another coup, and the King’s presence on American soil was testament to this. Privately, however, the fundamentalists were using the incident to harness public sentiment into their favor and casting the United States into the role of bogeyman, the ’Great Satan’. The tide of public opinion also assisted the fundamentalist Muslims in their behind-the-scenes power struggle against the moderate and secular factions of the revolutionary government. The MSIKL, under the leadership of students with direct ears to Ayatollah Khomeini, demanded for the former Shah to be repatriated to Iran and all of his assets to be frozen and returned to the people. However, revelations over the last three decades have shown that even as the demands were made, plans were already underway for the storming of the U.S. embassy.
On the fateful morning of November 4, 1979, 3,000 demonstrators, with the tacit support of the Iranian police and army who were ’guarding’ the American embassy, easily overwhelmed the skeletal force of Marines present in the compound. A total of 90 people, including 66 American embassy officials (three American officials at the Foreign Ministry office were also detained and subsequently driven to the compound) and their families, were captured by the students. 38 of the hostages were released within the next two weeks on various grounds, leaving a final tally of 52 hostages. The students warned that any attempts to rescue the hostages would result in their immediate deaths.
The incident shocked Americans and the international community. Two of the most sacrosanct aspect of international diplomatic relations, the sovereignty of an embassy and diplomatic immunity, were blatantly violated. The Iranian government, after a lukewarm statement distancing themselves from the hostage takers, threw their weight behind the students soon after the resignation of provisional Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini defended the students and praised their courage on national T.V.
The hostage crisis lasted for 444 days, and was punctuated with a series of international sanctions against Iran, the death of the former Shah of Iran, a disastrous rescue effort by the Americans and perhaps most importantly, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Iran finally caved in to pressure, and facilitated by peacemaker Algeria, the Algiers Accord was signed on January 20, 1981. All the hostages were officially released the following day.
"Strong countries and strong presidents talk to their adversaries.
That's what Kennedy did with Krushchev, that's what Reagan did with Gorbachev, that's what Nixon did
I mean, think about it. Iran, Cuba, Venezuele - these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet
Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And
yet, we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union, at the time they were saying we're gonna wipe you
off the planet. And ultimately that direct engagement led to a series of measures that help prevent
nuclear war, and over time, allowed the kind of opening that brought down the Berlin Wall. Now, that
has to be the kind of approach that we take.
We shouldn't be afraid. You know, Iran spend one hundredth of what we spend on the military. If Iran
ever posed a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance. And we should use that position of
strength that we have to be bold enough to go ahead and listen. That doesn't mean we agree with them
on everything. We might not compromise on any issues. But at least we should find out are there
areas of potential common interest, and we can reduce some of the tensions that have caused us so
many problems around the world"