Every country had its moments in history where it has less than shined. It is hoped that we learn from the darker times and later, become better and wiser for it. But there are some that seem destined, or cursed, to keep repeating their errors over and over. Is one such, the country of Iran?
First it might help to address another question: what is Iran? Meaning, is it the country, is it the government and institutions, or is it the people themselves that constitute the identity of what is truly Iran? This is important because often a concept - perhaps one presented even by an enemy - can come to be identified as the true nature of a place, as unfair as that may seem. To a previous leader of the United States, Iran is the “Axis of Evil”; to a previous leader of Iran, the US is the “Great Satan”. So what is Iran?
For the Imams and religious factions, the answer would no doubt be “God and Islam that are the heart and soul of Iran”. But there are a multitude who would put forth a much different answer and often include those who have traveled to Iran from countless foreign countries and came away with an image of a deeply warm and hospitable people. It is difficult, and most likely impossible, to reconcile these images and experiences with the current reality.
Iran’s (or Persia as it was known then) history is of one the oldest civilizations in the world and also one that has seen extreme conflict, from within and without. One can only imagine what your own country would look like today if it had been subjected to these same pressures. The Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BC), founded by Cyrus the Great, was the first true global superpower.* Later came such historically famous conquerors as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. As if there had not been enough bloodshed and loss, the constant conflict and strife carried forward into the modern era.
In 1941 there began the period of rule in Iran of the Shas, beginning with Mohammad-Reza Shah. These leaders were widely viewed as puppet rulers under the control, and pay, of British Petroleum and the United States. The Shah’s rule was often brutal and turbulent and was eventually overthrown in 1979 in what’s known as the Iranian Revolution. This resulted in the formation of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a radical cleric and one of the leaders of the revolution.
This formation of an Islamic republic under authoritarian, religious control is widely viewed as the pivotal turning point for modern day Iran from a more secular and tolerant society into a religious, intolerant one.
Central to the political thought of Khomeini is the idea that religion is the prevailing principle of government and that Islamic clerics should not only hold religious authority but also political power. According to Shia theology, which dominates Iran, leadership over the Islamic world belongs to the Shia Imams who were all descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. These Imams ruled based on the infallible knowledge given to them by God pertaining to spiritual as well as worldly matters. Unfortunately, the Twelfth and last Imam went walkabout in 939 AD and since then the Muslim community is a bit at a loss of who is to rule over them all.
Since then, leaders in the form of kings and shahs have ruled Iran but that ended with the Islamic Revolution when the last shah of the Pahlavi dynasty was ousted and Khomeini came back from exile to take power.
Since the Revolution was brought by a populous movement, it was expedient for Khomeini to draw up a constitution that included democratic elements such as an elected parliament. According to Khomeini the people loved the clergy, had faith in the clergy, and wanted to be guided by the clergy. So they wouldn’t mind that a Supreme Leader would oversee the democratic institutions to make sure they didn’t infringe on Quranic Law. The Supreme Leader of Iran, by the way, is the self-appointed head of state and both political and religious authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The army, the judiciary and the state television are all subject to the Supreme Leader. So good luck with democracy.
Shortly after the revolution in 1980, neighboring Iraq saw its chance and invaded the country which resulted in a prolonged and traumatic war that killed around 200,000 Iranians, many of them young men that served in the military. It didn’t help that Khomeini actively espoused the doctrine of Istishhad or martyrdom and did not hesitate to describe the war as ‘a hidden gift from God’. Many of the Western powers supported Iraq, and Iran was effectively isolated. Without a clear winner of the war, a peace agreement was signed in 1988.
Because Shia leadership was not confined to Iran, Iranian leaders sought to export their Islamic revolution to other Islamic countries and indeed the world at large. It saw some success in Lebanon where Hezbollah, politically affiliated with Iran, conducted widespread suicide bombings which led to a victory in Lebanon. This was later emulated by Hamas in Palestine.
Since Khomeini’s death many leaders have sought legitimacy by claiming his legacy and emulating / implementing his ideology.
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 struggle. - Khomeini
In order to do so he effectively declared war on Zionism, Capitalism and Communism.
In this war it is most effective when the general populace is kept in the dark. Information is power and with the spread of internet access primarily among the younger population this is becoming more and more difficult for the regime to control.
The recent tragedy of the government shooting down their own passenger jet and then lying about it is a prime example. This travesty has contributed significantly to a continued loss in belief that the current government can ever be trusted.
It is more than a little ironic that Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950’s with assistance from the United States under their "Atoms for Peace" program. After 1979 and the revolution this cooperation ended, along with most of the international community. In the 1990’s Russia offered to provide Iran with nuclear experts and technical information which helped them move forward with their program to create a nuclear bomb. This stated intention was one of the pivotal causes for tension between the Islamic regime and the United States and their allies. The religious leaders of Iran have made it clear that they wish to possess nuclear weapons with which to defend themselves but the concern is that such weapons might be used to attack their stated enemies; primarily Israel and the United States. The political tensions and ins and outs of subsequent negotiations, threats and even military action in Iraq could fill a book but suffice it to say it has led to the United States leading an economic assault on the Iranian economy with devastating results.
Political leaders of all forms, elected representatives, hereditary monarchs, and even despotic dictators all have one thing in common: they believe they are the best at ruling their people and have a right to do so. The current Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei has held his position of absolute power since June 4, 1989, more than 30 years. Despite his widespread control he is facing increasing protests and pressure to step down from the general population. More and more it is becoming evident that the government of Iran is not the people, nor does it represent them.