Start at the Beginning:
Iran stands apart from most other Middle Eastern countries thanks to its Persian heritage. In ancient times it was the heart of the Persian Empire – the largest empire the world had seen, stretching from Egypt across to Turkey and down into India in the 5th century BCE. It lasted just 200 years before falling to the Macedonian warrior-king Alexander the Great.
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In the 600s Muslim Arabs became the new conquering force, bringing with them Islam, which displaced Zoroastrianism (a monotheistic religion founded by prophet Zoroaster) as the main religion. However, the people did not adopt the Arabic language, sticking with their traditional Persian (also called Farsi), and favouring the minority Shi’a branch of Islam.
“… engaging directly with the Iranian government on a sustained basis, for the first time in decades, has created a unique opportunity – a window – to try to resolve important issues.”
US President Barack Obama, January 2016
And After That?
The country’s strategic position and plentiful natural resources had both Russia and Britain eyeing it from the 1800s. By 1913 the British government owned all the country’s oil and controlled its banks and Russia ran much of what was left. Britain decided to secure its interests and back a 1925 coup by military officer Reza Khan, who crowned himself Reza Shah Pahlavi. But in 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union forced him out and installed his son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in his place. A democratic movement gained ground but was squashed by vested international interests with help from the CIA. On the surface, Iran advanced under the Shah’s reformist programmes, but fearsome secret police kept the population in check.
What Happened Next?
The unhappy populace rioted and in 1979 the Shah fled and religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control. That November Khomeini supporters seized the US embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 hostages for 444 days. In 1989 the Ayatollah called on Muslims around the world to kill author Salman Rushdie for supposed blasphemy. Moderate forces within Iran were brutally repressed. In recent years Iran was designated a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, and major economic powers imposed trade sanctions. There was growing fear that Iran would develop its own nuclear weapons.
By the Numbers
- 79 million – population of Iran.
- US$6752 – annual average household income in Iranian cities.
Have Relations Improved?
Yes. After a decade of on-off diplomatic negotiations, a deal was reached last year between Iran and China, Russia, France, the US, the UK and Germany. Iran agreed to make changes so its nuclear facilities would be used for energy, not weapons, in return for the lifting of sanctions. Not everyone is happy: both Saudi Arabia and Israel mistrust the deal, but if it works it will have increased global security and given the Iranian people a chance to make economic progress.