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Iran Modern History

Following a decision in Parliament to nationalize the oil industry, a military coup was carried out in which the Prime Minister was ousted in 1953, and the Shah became one-ruler. He focused on modernizing the country, but most Iranians remained poor. A growing opposition gathered leftists and religious forces, and in 1979 the Shah overthrew. Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini then became the leader of an Islamic "state of God" where there was little room for dissent. A devastating war raged against Iraq in 1980–1988. In the 2000s, the Western world tightened its sanctions on Iran because of suspicions that the country is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

When World War II broke out, Iran declared itself neutral but was occupied by Britain and the Soviet Union in 1941. Ruler Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza. The British troops left Iran in March 1946. The Soviet Union withdrew a few months later after pressure from the UN. At the same time, US oil interests had grown stronger. In 1947, a treaty was signed between Iran and the United States on military aid.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Iran. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

During a wave of nationalism and concern, the shah was forced to appoint Mohammad Mossadeq as prime minister in 1951. Mossadeq was backed by the Communist Party Tudeh and had broad support from the people. He broke the agreement concluded in 1933 with the British oil company Anglo-Iranian and nationalized the company's oil assets. Mossadeq was deposed in 1953 by shah-loyal soldiers who were assisted by the US intelligence service CIA. The oil crisis was resolved through an agreement that gave the Iranian state and a British-American consortium half of the oil revenue.

Contemporary History of IranAfter Mossadeq's fall, political power resumed with the Shah and the land-owning upper class. With the help of the army and the secret police Savak, the Tudeh Party was incubated. The Shah gradually acquired dictatorial power at the same time as he wanted to transform Iran into a modern industrial nation.

In 1959, Iran entered into military and economic cooperation with the United States, which contributed to extensive military armaments. But Iran also wanted to improve relations with the USSR in the north and therefore pledged in 1962 not to open its territory to foreign military bases.

The Shah began a comprehensive reform program, the White Revolution, from 1962 to 1963. Important elements were land reform and reading and writing education. Women were given increased rights, including voting rights. The distribution of land to the peasants caused the Shah to lose his former strong support of the land-owning class. At the same time, the Shah's close contacts with the United States and his efforts to reform Iran according to a Western model created opposition from the religious leaders. When the reform program was approved by Parliament in 1963, it triggered a brief but bloody uprising led by Shi'ite Muslim scholars. One of these was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He was arrested and expelled from the country.

Between 1965 and 1977, Iran experienced a seemingly stable period. From 1973 to 1974, oil revenues increased significantly. These used the Shah, among other things, for industrial investments and weapons purchases. Growth was high; there was even a shortage of labor. But it was only a few. The gaps in society increased. Unrealistic prestige projects devoured large sums, while neglected agriculture could not produce enough to meet the needs of the population. The peasants were hit hard by low agricultural prices, while violent inflation drove other prices up. In the cities, the merchants and craftsmen of the bazaars considered themselves to be disadvantaged by industrialization.

The mosques became natural rallying points for the opposition, which was brutally persecuted. In 1975, the Shah responded by dissolving the political parties and introducing one-party rule. The protests developed into a nationwide revolutionary movement. In January 1979, the ill-fated Shah felt compelled to leave Iran "indefinitely."

From his exile, Ayatolla Khomeini had become a unifying symbol for both religious and political opposition. On February 1, 1979, shortly after the Shah's escape, Khomeini returned to Tehran, where he was greeted by cheering crowds. Just over a week later, the military declared itself neutral in the conflict between the Shah's followers and Khomeini and the road was open to an Islamic revolution.

Following a referendum in April 1979, Iran was proclaimed Islamic Republic and ruled by a special Revolutionary Council, formed by Khomeini. Those who had worked for the overthrown ruler were imprisoned. Many were executed after summary trials. The Shah's ally the United States, "the great Satan," became the object of hateful propaganda. In November 1979, Iranian students stormed the US embassy and took the staff hostage. Only 14 months later, after intense diplomatic activity, the last 52 Americans were held hostage.

The revolutionary movement that had driven the Shah away consisted of various political and religious forces. But Khomeini and the scribes soon learned that they were not prepared to share power. They eliminated rivals by striking down those who did not wholeheartedly support an irreconcilable line to the Western world. Liberals, socialists and Marxists were attacked, but also scribes who did not share Khomeini's political visions.

The situation also caused concern among the Kurds, who took up arms and demanded autonomy. In the Khuzestan oil province, there was a guerrilla movement among the Arab population, backed by Iraq. Border intermeasures with the Iraqis occurred more and more frequently. At the same time, the Iranian armed forces were in disrepair as it underwent bloody purges by officers who served the Shah.

In the outside world, many people believed that the Islamic Republic was near collapse. One of them was Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein, who in 1980 surprisingly attacked north of the Shatt al-Arab border. One of the reasons was the fear that Iran was trying to spread the revolution to the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq. Iraqi troops managed to conquer much of Khuzestan. However, Iran's armed forces and the Revolutionary Guard offered surprisingly tough opposition. After a few weeks, a deadlock had occurred along a 48-mile front.

Iraq's attack strengthened popular support for the Islamic Republic. But at the same time, leading politicians began to criticize elements of the revolution. There was no political reconciliation. In the first half of the 1980s, about 10,000 oppositionists are estimated to have been executed, many of whom were members of the Islamic Left Movement, the People's Mujahedin.

The war on Iraq continued to demand huge losses on both sides. Iraq also exposed its opponent to chemical warfare. In the spring of 1988, Iran was hit by backlash on the battlefield and interest in continuing the war waned. A political battle over who would succeed the aged Khomeini took off. In July 1988, Iran surprised the outside world by unconditionally accepting a UN resolution tabled a year earlier, demanding ceasefire and retreat from occupied land. So the war was over. Over one million people are estimated to have been killed or injured in the fighting, most Iranians.

At the same time, Ayatolla Khomeini acted so that conflicts arose with several countries. He issued a fatwa (religious judgment) against author Salman Rushdie with effects long after the Ayatollan's own death. For Khomeini, Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses appeared as a pagan and it reached far beyond Iran when the Ayatollah stormed the book. In Japan, the translator was murdered. The publisher who published the book in Norwegian was subjected to a murder trial in 1993. The Satanic verses are a novel, but the phrase hints at a very old story of false Qur'anic words that should have called for idolatry.

In June 1989, Ayatolla Khomeini died. As new spiritual leader, President Ali Khamenei was appointed, although he was not one of the foremost among the scribes. The presidential post was taken over by Parliament's President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

As President 1989-1997, Rafsanjani sought to pursue a pragmatic, balancing policy and to bring about economic reform and better relations with the Western world. Most reforms were watered down or stopped, either by conservative forces in Parliament or by the Guardian Council (see Political system).

The 1997 presidential election became a landslide victory for Mohammad Khatami, who was primarily active in culture and education. Many were attracted by his promises of a more open and more democratic society. But the Khatami government also came to face stiff opposition from strictly religious groups, which blocked disingenuous proposals. Harassment of reform supporters and newspapers continued. President Khatami nevertheless decided to stand for re-election in 2001, winning 77 percent of the vote.

Prior to the 2004 parliamentary elections, as in previous elections, "unsuitable" candidates were rejected. Nearly half of the 8,000 who signed up were rejected, including some 70 parliamentarians and other leading reformists. Over a third of the members resigned in protest, and most of the reform movement's groups decided to boycott the election. It helped the Conservatives gain strong dominance in Parliament. One year remained of President Khatami's term, but the reform work now stopped completely.

Khatami was the first true reformist in power in Iran, but his change of mind created tensions with other power agencies that almost made open revolt. Khamenei is considered to have been forced to curb the reform agenda so that the system would not collapse. The strengthening of the hard-working, uncompromising groups was also seen as a result of US more aggressive policies against Iran from 2002 (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

In the 2005 presidential election, the pre-drafted Rafsanjani won in the first round. But in the second round, he was unexpectedly defeated by Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became the first president of the Islamic Republic without religious education. The strictly conservative Ahmadinejad was supported mainly by the poor of the rural and metropolitan areas. During the election campaign, Ahmadinejad had promised to put a stop to liberalization and reintroduce "pure moral values" by returning to Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas.

The pressure against oppositionists intensified after Ahmadinejad's entry. He cleaned out ministers and officials and highlighted younger followers. The purpose was, among other things, to boost the country's economy. When progress failed, new purges followed. But Ahmadinejad also turned out to have his own ambitions and he came on edge even with conservative forces. The Conservatives split in two parts before the parliamentary elections in 2008. Ahmadinejad's supporters became the largest group but did not get their own majority. The reform-friendly forces remained a minority.

In the 2009 presidential election, three approved candidates voted against Ahmadinejad. The reform-minded Mir Hossein Moussavi seemed to have a headwind and his followers were passing through Tehran with green flags. Reform-minded politicians hoped that many who boycotted the 2005 presidential election would now participate. When the news came that Ahmadinejad had won by far, many were convinced that it was election fraud. The early approval of Ayatollah Khamenei at an early stage increased suspicion.

Soon, street protests broke out. Despite demonstration bans, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters participated. The regime tried to impede transparency. Journalists were arrested, opposition newspapers were closed and both Iranian and foreign media were banned from reporting. However, thanks to social media, an international audience could see some brutal scenes. Moussavi and another defeated reform candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, refused to accept the election results. The protests continued during the year but then subsided. Perhaps a few hundred people died in what has come to be called the "green revolution". Several thousands were arrested and beaten or harassed and many human rights groups and media organizations were forced to close. The reformers were badly beaten.

Despite Khamenei standing on Ahmadinejad's side during the uprising, 2011 saw signs of a power struggle between their respective supporters. The contradictions between the two conservative camps also characterized the parliamentary elections in 2012. The forces around Khamenei won a clear majority, while the circle around Ahmadinejad declined.

During Ahmadinejad's time in power, Iran was isolated from the outside world. The US and EU sanctions hit the economy hard and led to hardship for the population. When a successor to the hard-headed Ahmadinejad was elected in 2013, the ground was prepared for a more compromise-oriented candidate. The Guardian Council approved eight of 686 who attempted to register. Among those who failed were former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. That Rafsanjani was not accepted attracted attention. He had held a leading role in politics since the 1980s, was president 1989-1997 and one of Iran's richest men, and chairman of the influential Medlar Council. Rafsanjani was also chairman of the Expert Assembly, but was dismissed in 2011 because of his support for the opposition to Ahmadinejad.

The contradictions exist along the traditional dividing line in Iranian politics, between strictly conservative forces and more liberal reformists. The power lies with the Conservatives. After the 2009 presidential election and the wave of protests that were crushed, many opposition supporters became disillusioned. Security was sharpened ahead of the 2013 elections. Internet surveillance increased and media, both domestic and foreign, were limited in their operating space. Several reformist parties had been banned and the two former opposition candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi were in house arrest.

Many reformists considered boycotting the election. Mohammad Reza Aref, the first Vice President under Mohammad Khatami, was the only reformist to pass through the Guard's Needle Eye. He was persuaded to withdraw. Both Khatami and Rafsanjani are believed to have been behind the request, which aimed to strengthen Rohani's chances. Of the six candidates who were present on Election Day, four were considered conservative and two as "moderate" middle politicians. The support of the reform friends gave Rohani victory already in the first round, he won by just over half the votes.

Many conservatives are also believed to have voted for Rohani, who was not seen by everyone as a "real" reformist, like Khatami, but more like a middle power. He belongs to a large extent to the establishment and was previously primarily known as a chief negotiator in the nuclear energy issue (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

Rohani talked about more dialogue and less confrontation with the western world. He advocated women's rights and reduced state intervention in daily life. Political prisoners would be released, freedom of the press respected and social media less controlled. The message of a more open society and increased exchange with the outside world struck the voters. At Rohani's entry in August 2013, foreign guests were invited for the first time to attend the ceremony.

2002

September

Nuclear reactor begins

Russian engineers begin construction of Iran's first nuclear reactor.

January

Bush: "The Shaft of Evil"

US President George W Bush said in a speech that Iran is one of three countries in the "axis of evil" and warns that the country is developing long-range robots.

2001

June

The President re-elected

President Mohammad Khatami is re-elected for a second term.

 
 

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