Iran, officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a relatively large and populous country in Western Asia. The region has been the ancestral home of the Persian people for almost three millennia, and it was the seat of power of some of the world’s largest and most influential empires. Iran’s rich history has meant that Persian culture, innovations, and teachings have had a major impact on the development of many Asian and European societies alike, as well as the evolution of Islam. Today, Iran borders seven other countries and occupies the stretch of land between the Middle East and Central and South Asia, as well as the coasts of the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the Caspian Sea, giving it a strategically important location. Additionally, factors such as its economy, energy industry, military, and religious influence mean that Iran is considered one of the leading geopolitical powers in Western Asia.
History of Iran
The territory of present-day Iran is one of the longest-inhabited and culturally rich in the world. The Achaemenid Empire (7th to 4th centuries BCE) was the largest of the ancient world (outside of China), at its peak it stretched from Greece and Egypt to India. Because of this, Persian innovations, knowledge, and culture played a fundamental role in the development of many ancient societies across Afro-Eurasia. After falling to Alexander the Great in 331BCE, these regions were split across various successor states, and Persian influence weaned until the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE, where Persian culture and science become a defining component of the Islamic Golden Age throughout the Medieval period.
In the 16th century, the Safavid Empire emerged, marking what many consider as the beginning of modern Iranian history, the foundation of Iran’s national identity, as well as the transition to Shia Islam. Iran’s power fluctuated over the following centuries, namely due to the expansion of the Russian Empire, while territorial concessions and forced expulsions in the Caucus region saw Iran’s borders and demographic composition shift greatly. Major famines in the 1870s and during both world wars each resulted in the deaths of several million people – estimates vary as population records are scarce. Iran declared neutrality in both world wars but became the staging ground for conflict between European powers in WWI, and was annexed by the Allies for its strategic importance in WWII. Throughout the 20th century, Western interest in Iran largely became tied to its fossil fuel reserves - Iran emerged as an “energy superpower” in the mid-1900s and was a founding member of OPEC in 1960.
The Iranian Revolution
After WWII, progressive and modernizing reforms put in place by the new Shah’s administration saw a dramatic improvement in the health, education, and living standards for much of the population, and the economy was among the fastest growing in the world. However, many religious, intellectual, and leftist groups had become critical of the king’s consolidation of power and his ties with Israel and the West, as well as perceived corruption and economic inequality on a much broader scale. When rising oil prices caused recession in the 1970s, opposition groups united – anti-government protests turned violent, with authorities attacking and killing protestors on several occasions. As conditions worsened in the late-1970s, protests grew larger and the Shah went into exile in 1979. There is no consensus on the death toll of the Iranian Revolution - Western sources put the death toll at a few thousand, while Iranian figures claim up to 60,000.
Revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini (exiled by the Shah in 1964) returned to Iran as the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The new administration took a hardline religious conservative approach to governing - previously-allied secular groups from the Revolution were ostracized, elements of Sharia Law were implemented that changed the rights and status of citizens, and ties with the West and Israel were cut. The Iran-Iraq War then broke out in 1980 - Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran as he was fearful of the spread of revolution and hoped to capitalize on the tumultuous situation. The eight-year war was fought on both sides of the border, resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand people (possibly 200,000 Iranians), and ended in a stalemate in 1988. Ruhollah Khomeini then died in 1989 and was succeeded by the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Stability returned to Iran in the 1990s, elements of the economy were privatized, and Iran’s influence in the Middle East grew.
Due to its nuclear weapons program, Iran has been the most heavily sanctioned country in the world in recent decades (but was overtaken by Russia in 2022), with the loss of foreign investment valued at several hundred billion dollars. While it is yet to develop nuclear weapons, its ambitions have been an area of concern for Israel and the West for some time – in 2015, Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear weapons program, but the deal collapsed with U.S. withdrawal in 2018. Tensions increased thereafter, and in the broader geopolitical sphere, Iran’s alignment with Russia and China has complicated reconciliation with the U.S and the EU. Additionally, Iran has been involved in proxy conflicts with both Israel and Saudi Arabia since the revolution – Iran does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the state of Israel, while its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is multi-faceted and relates to historical, economic, and geopolitical factors, as well as the fact that both countries view themselves as the leaders of their respective branches of Islam. There have been few direct engagements, but Iran funds and supports militant groups or regimes (such as those in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen) who have attacked both countries and their allies. In recent years, however, Israel and Saudi Arabia have slowly grown closer, creating an unlikely alliance that could weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East.
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