What is Iran?
If you pay attention to the news, you probably have heard lots of talk about Iran. It’s a place that everyone seems to have an opinion on.
In the West, Iran is largely demonized, viewed as a state-sponsor of terrorism and a threat to the so-called “Free World”. In the Middle East, this Shiite Islamist country has gained opposition from several Sunni Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, who fear Iran is gaining too much influence in the Persian Gulf. And Israeli leaders seem convinced that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb to threaten the existence of the Jewish state.
So what is Iran? Where is it located? And what is really going on with it?
Where is Iran?
Iran is a country located in West Asia. It is a large country, spanning over 636,000 square miles, making it the world’s 17th-largest (second-largest in the Middle East). It has a population of over 81 million, putting Iran at 18th-most-populous in the world.
Iran is bordered to the northwest by Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the north by Turkmenistan, to the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to the west by Turkey and Iraq. It is also bordered by three major bodies of water: the Caspian Sea in the north, and the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the south.
Iran is a mountainous and arid country. The capital city is Tehran, a sprawling metropolis near the Elburz Mountains. For much of its history, Tehran had been known for its architecture and gardens, though some of this notoriety has diminished in more recent years. Still, like Tehran, in many Iranian cities, you can find a combination of modern buildings and ancient landmarks; reminders of a long, storied past.
Iran’s history goes way back, to a time when the world’s first civilizations were starting to form. Among the oldest of these civilizations were the Elamite kingdoms, which began to form in western Iran around the 4th millenium BCE.
In the 7th century BCE, Iran would come to be unified by the Medes, an ancient people who originated in northwestern Iran. The following century, Iran would reach its greatest territorial extent as part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which was founded by Cyrus the Great. This empire stretched from the Balkans in Eastern Europe, to North Africa, and into Central Asia, eventually becoming one of the largest empires in history. At one time, 40% of the entire global population could be found in this empire.
The Persian Achaemenid Empire would eventually fall to Alexander the Great, splitting up into various Hellenistic states around the 4th century BCE. However, an Iranian rebellion would lead to the founding of the Parthian Empire, which in turn was succeeded by the Sasanian Empire in the 3rd century AD.
The Sasanian Empire would become a world power for the next few hundred years, until it was ended by the Muslim conquest of Persia which began in 633. Over the next couple centuries, Islam would take over Zoroastrianism as the predominate religion in Iran. These new Islamic rulers admired the achievements of the ancient Persian Empire, and sought to fit elements of previous Persian civilizations into their new Islamic society. Iran would play a major role in the Islamic Golden Age that followed, adding many contributions to the fields of art and science.
After a period of rule by native Muslim dynasties, the Turks, and the Mongols, Iran would be reunified by the Safavid dynasty in 1501. This was a major turning point for Iran, as Shia Islam was made the empire’s official religion. Iran entered into a period of relative stability which lasted until the 20th century.
Iran Today – Why is Iran the Enemy?
Today, as Iran has gained power in the Middle East, they face three primary opponents: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, who are all allies (though Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal relations, it has been reported that they cooperate behind-the-scenes in pursuit of mutual goals against Iran). How did this happen?
We have to go back to the end of World War II. Both the United Kingdom and Soviet Union invaded Iran, and removed monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi from power, replacing him with his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The new ruler enjoyed backing from the West, but soon after, a democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister named Mohammad Mossadegh would challenge the Shah’s absolute power. He passed laws limiting Pahlavi’s control, and he also nationalized the Iranian oil industry, of which the UK was a heavy investor. The UK viewed this as threat to their interests, and asked the American CIA for help.
In 1953, the CIA, with support from the UK, orchestrated a coup against Mossadegh, removing him from power and securing Pahlavi as the undisputed leader of Iran. Pahlavi would rule for over 25 years, and while he enjoyed support from the West, accusations of human rights abuses left him largely unpopular in Iran.
In 1979, an Islamic Revolution in Iran forced Pahlavi to flee. Iran’s Shiite Muslim clergy consolidated power, and placed the popular Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in absolute control. This ended 2,500 years of the Persian Shah monarchy.
Following the Islamic Revolution, and a highly publicized hostage crisis, Iran was hit by the first of many US-led economic sanctions. When Saddam Hussein led an Iraqi invasion of Iran, which would last eight years, the US sided with Iraq. However, the US also covertly supplied arms to Iran as part of an arrangement to release US hostages held by the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The money the US received for these arms was diverted to fund anti-communist Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. When news of this leaked, it caused a scandal known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
Tensions between the US and Iran would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US and Iran actually worked together to fight against the Taliban. Still, President George W. Bush put Iran in his “Axis of Evil” along with North Korea and Iraq in 2002.
The US and Iran again found themselves working together to fight the Islamic State (ISIL). However, they are on different sides in the war in Syria, with Iran backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Today, a mutual mistrust between Iran and American exists, but it important to remember that this shared animosity is relatively recent. Iran has never been a longstanding historic enemy of the US, despite what the media or politicians might try to tell you. Given this, it seems a peaceful ending is possible, if both sides are willing to work at it.