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Iran - Yesterday and Today
The history of Iran and it's modern realities must be reckoned with by the West.
In my lifetime, the Middle East has always been a source of conflict and contention. And from 1979 until today, Iran has been a locus of many of these clashes. From the civil war in Yemen, regime conflict in Iraq, or support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, there are straight lines of causation going back to the Iranian Islamic Republic. Though Iran’s role in these conflicts began with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the nature of the regime is rooted in Iran’s past.
One of the first aspects of Iranian history delves into what we may know better as Persia. At different points, Persia was not just one of the most prominent nations on earth but the leader in wealth, military prowess, and cultural achievement. Under the Achaemenids, who ruled from the 550s to the 330s BCE, they were the most powerful empire in the world. A later Persian Empire, the Sassanids (200s to 600s CE), were only rivaled by the Eastern Roman Empire and Tang China. Another dynasty, the Safavids, who ruled from the 1500s to the mid-1700s, were a rival to the fabled Mogul Empire.
The second key to understanding the Iran of today was the advent of Islam in the 600s. After their union under the new religion of Islam, Arab armies moved out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered far and wide, including North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. And from the beginning of Islam, there was a split. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers wanted the community of Muslims to determine who would succeed him. These were called Sunnis (named for Sunna or tradition). A smaller group thought someone from his family should take up his mantle. They favored Ali, who was married to Mohammad’s daughter, Fatimah. This group became known as the followers of Ali; in Arabic, the Shiat Ali, or simply Shia.
Not only did the Arab invasions bring Islam to Iran, but this also began a period where native Persians did not hold sway over their lands. A succession of rulers from Arabs, Turks, and even Mongols controlled the country. These rulers were almost always of the Sunni branch. Yet many overlords, including the Arab Abbassids, who ruled from the 700s to the 1200s, relied on Persians to run their empire, and several Persian scholars achieved great prominence. This period saw incredible Persian attainments in medicine, literature, and mathematics.
The third of our keys involves one of the dynasties we previously mentioned. It was under the Safavids that the primacy of Shia over Sunni was implemented by imperial decree. By designating Shia Islam as the official religion of the Persian Empire, it marked a turning point in the history of Islam. The Safavids were cultural leaders as patrons of fine arts and creating architecture of tremendous beauty.
Finally, there were intrusions of peoples, not from Asia as had been the norm for centuries, but from Europe. To the North, the Safavids began contesting with the expansionist Tsarist Russian Empire. And later, to the East, the British Empire began to make incursions and increasingly interfere with internal politics. The Safavids eventually fell in the mid-1700s and were replaced by the Qajars. It was under this dynasty that two significant events occurred. In 1906, responding to an attempted coup attempt, the Qajar dynasty created a constitutional government. In 1908, oil was discovered on Iranian soil. Internally, the constitution put curbs on imperial power for the first time in two and a half millennia. The discovery of oil meant that Western involvement in Iran substantially increased.
The Qajars were never an exceptionally stable dynasty, and they fell in 1925 to a soldier named Reza Khan Pahlavi, who was declared Shah, a word derived from the old Persian for King. Having extensive knowledge of Russia and Britain, it was Reza Khan who tried to modernize the Iranian state. He implemented the construction of railways, a modern judiciary and educational system, and the imposition of changes in traditional attire. It was this type of reform, that of the culture itself, that pitted the Shah against the orthodox leadership of the Iranian Shia clergy. A significant goal of Reza Shah’s modernization was to lessen the power and influence of the clergy over the state.
Eventually, Reza Khan was overthrown by an Anglo-Russian invasion. In World War II, anxious to preserve the oil reserves from Nazi Germany, and keep a valuable supply line open, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in 1941, deposing the Shah in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Like his father, Mohammad Reza attempted to modernize the nation along more Western lines and, mirroring the earlier Pahlavi, alienated the religious leaders. In one particular case, the Shah exiled an Ayatollah named Ruhollah Khomeini for agitating against the state. Yet Mohammad Reza faced the challenges of all rulers who had attempted to fast-march an ancient and medieval civilization into modern times. From Tsar Peter the Great to his own contemporary Chaing Kai Shek, the Shah’s modernization efforts were mixed.
It did not help that his incompetence meant rampant cronyism ruined the bureaucracy and divided the army. Because the clergy always opposed him, the Shah needed these other organizations for support. Pahlavi also cracked down on opposition groups, including the clergy but also those he thought might present a threat to his rule. And towards his final years, the Shah embraced the United States.
President Jimmy Carter in 1977 called Iran an “Island of stability” in the Middle East. Yet the Shah’s regime was tottering on the brink. When massive protests began in 1977 and 78, his attempts to maintain control were fraught. Eventually, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled the country, ending 2,500 years of monarchist rule.
Returning from exile, Khomeini began two different processes in Iran. The first was to establish a constitution that would leave the clergy clearly in charge of the state. The second was to eliminate opposition groups, including leftists who desired a socialist state and any supporters of the Shah left in power. For both purposes, he oversaw the creation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards IRGC. On March 30 and 31, 1979, a referendum was held over whether to replace the monarchy with an “Islamic republic.” Results showed that 98.2% had voted in favor of the Islamic Republic.
The final constitution, approved by December 1979, called for a president, but more importantly, included a more powerful post of guardian jurist ruler, or Supreme Ruler, intended for Khomeini, with control of the military and security services and power to appoint several top government and judicial officials. It increased the strength and number of clerics on the Council of Guardians and gave it control over elections and laws passed by the legislature. And just like the Shah, the Ayatollah used his control over the military and state security to crack down on any opposition to the new state, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Iranians. And once the consolidation of power was complete, Khomeini wished to spread his creation:
“We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be a struggle. All those against the revolution must disappear and quickly be executed.”
Throughout history, there are examples of states using the power of religion to cement control. The difference in Iran is that Khomeini wanted to use the power of the state to proselytize his religion. The imposition of a system of governance, culture, and even religion is familiar. We fought a World War and a Cold War to preserve our Republic from such a fate. But what Iran has is a combination of three factors: a spirituality so powerful that Iranian rulers believe their decisions are divinely sanctioned, material prosperity due to the value of oil profits, and an iron control by a military entity such as the Revolutionary Guards.
Khomeini died in 1989, but not before a successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was appointed as his successor as Supreme Ruler, a title still held to this day. And Khamenei’s views are very much in line with his patron’s. It was the reason he was chosen. Another legacy bequeathed by Khomeini was a deep animosity towards the United States bordering on the cosmic as he once denounced the US as “the Great Satan.” Part of the hatred stems from the US’s role as guardian of Western cultures.
Regarding women, Khamenei has said, “One of the greatest mistakes of Western thoughts about the issues of women is this sexual equality... Why should women be entrusted with carrying out male tasks? What kind of honor is this? I am sorry that sometimes women and ladies themselves show sensitivity over this issue.”
And the Islamic Republic view on gays? Khomenei once compared his execution of homosexuals to gangrene infecting the body and weeds amongst the wheat. Both needed to be cut out.
The mission around the spread of Islam, coupled with this view of Western thought, helps explain why Israel is so despised. Not only a Western state in concept and culture but the one non-Islamic country in the region. And this helps explain two new concepts that Khamenei has added—Iranian reliance on proxies rather than their armies and the pursuit of a nuclear device. In the case of Hamas alone, Iran provided $100 million to the terrorist organization. This money could be used for food, medicine, or heating. Of course, it is used to purchase weapons.
Today’s Iran is enthused not just with the ambitions of a single person, such as in Russia and North Korea, or the desires of a group of Oligarchs, as in China, but is something different. Conscious of a long history that they believe entitles them to regional, if not global, leadership, they are also fired up not just by religious zealotry but also by the certainty that their interpretations are the right ones, and even those of fellow Muslims are wrong. And they see the West as an impediment to the implementation of their goals.
Facing the zeal of the revolutionary, a clear Iranian policy needs to be articulated, debated, and implemented in the next few years, certainly before they obtain a nuclear device. And it cannot include appeasement. In the 1930s, having seen the horrors of a World War up close, the French and British bent over backward to avoid such a fate. But it was that appeasement that sowed the seeds for the next conflict. Just as with World War II, the overarching concern that we prevent the next World War may bring it on.
AD Tippet is the founder and Publisher of the Conservative Historian. Tippet has conducted extensive research in Political, Religious, Social, and Educational history across all eras and geographies. He has been writing and podcasting for over 12 years. In 2020, he published his first book, The Conservative Historian. He has degrees in history, education, and an MBA. @BelAves
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