Iran's history is one of the region's greatest stories ever told. It is, above all, a story of civilisations, ancient and great, of Islam's complicated march, and of some of the most heroic names in world history, among them Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Fast-forward to the 20th and 21st centuries and Iran has again returned to centre stage and remains a key player in one of the world's most turbulent regions.
The Elamites & Medes
Elam was the lowland region in what is now Khuzestan province and the first organised settlements appeared as far back as 2600 BC. Elam was close enough to Mesopotamia and the great Sumerian civilisation to feel its influence and the two were regular opponents on the battlefield. The Elamites established their capital at Susa (Shush) and derived their strength through an enlightened federal system of government that allowed states to exchange natural resources unique to each region.
The Elamites believed in a pantheon of gods, and their most notable remaining building, the enormous ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil, was built around the 13th century BC and dedicated to the foremost of these gods. By the 12th century BC the Elamites are thought to have controlled most of what is now western Iran, the Tigris Valley and the coast of the Persian Gulf.
About this time Indo-European Aryan tribes began arriving from the north. These Persians eventually settled in what is now Fars province, around Shiraz, while the Medes took up residence further north, in what is today northwestern Iran. The Medes established a capital at Ecbatana, now buried under modern Hamadan, and first crop up in Assyrian records in 836 BC. Little more is heard of them until, according to Greek historian Herodotus, Cyaxares of Media expelled the Scythians in about 625 BC.
Under Cyaxares, the Medes became a formidable military force, repeatedly attacking the neighbouring Assyrians. In 612 BC, having formed an alliance with the Babylonians, the Medes sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and chased the remnants of this once-mighty empire into history.
The Achaemenids & the Rise of Cyrus
In the 7th century BC the king of one of the Persian tribes, Achaemenes, created a unified state in southern Iran, giving his name to what would become the First Persian Empire, the Achaemenids. By the time his 21-year-old great-grandson Cyrus II ascended the throne in 559 BC, Persia was a state on the up. Within 20 years it would be the greatest empire the world had known up until that time.
Having rapidly built a mighty military force, Cyrus the Great (as he came to be known) ended the Median empire in 550 BC when he defeated his own grandfather – the hated king Astyages – in battle at Pasargadae. Within 11 years, Cyrus had campaigned his way across much of what is now Turkey, east into modern Pakistan, and finally defeated the Babylonians. It was in the aftermath of this victory in 539 BC that Cyrus established a reputation as a benevolent conqueror. According to Herodotus in The Persian Wars, Cyrus declared he would ‘respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them… I will impose my monarchy on no nation...and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign’.
Cyrus colonised the old Median capital at Ecbatana, redeveloped Shush and built himself a new home at Pasargadae, establishing the pattern whereby Persian rulers circulated between three different capitals. Unfortunately for him, the Scythian Massagetae from the northeast of the empire decided he was indeed imposing his monarchy on them. Cyrus fully incurred the wrath of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, after he captured her son (who killed himself) and slaughtered many of her soldiers in a battle made especially one-sided because the Massagetae army were drunk on wine planted by the Achaemenids. Herodotus writes:
When Tomyris heard what had befallen her son and her army, she sent a herald to Cyrus, who thus addressed the conqueror: ‘Thou bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not thyself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice…it was this poison wherewith thou didst ensnare my child, and so overcamest him, not in fair open fight. Now hearken what I advise, and be sure I advise thee for thy good. Restore my son to me and get thee from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun...bloodthirsty as thou art, I will give thee thy fill of blood’.
Cyrus paid no heed to Tomyris, who gathered her forces for what Herodotus described as the fiercest battle the Achaemenids had fought. Cyrus and most of his army were slain. When his body was recovered Tomyris reputedly ordered a skin filled with human blood and, making good on her threat, dunked Cyrus’ head in it. Cyrus’ body was eventually buried in the mausoleum that still stands at Pasargadae.
Cambyses & Darius
In 525 BC, Cyrus’ son, Cambyses, captured most of Egypt and coastal regions well into modern Libya. It was later recorded that Cambyses had quietly arranged the assassination of his brother, Smerdis, before he left. The story goes that while Cambyses was distracted in Egypt, a minor official called Magus Gaumata, who had an uncanny resemblance to Smerdis, seized the throne. Cambyses died mysteriously in 522 BC while still in Egypt – by some reports he and his entire army marched out into the Sahara on some unknown quest and not one of their number was ever seen again. With the king dead, Darius I, a distant relative, moved quickly and soon had ‘Gaumata’ murdered. This ‘justice’ was glorified in a giant relief at Bisotun, near Hamadan, where you can see Darius’ foot on Gaumata’s head. What we will probably never know is whether Darius rid Persia of the so-called ‘False Smerdis’, or whether he murdered the real Smerdis and cooked up this story to justify his regicide.
Darius had won an empire in disarray and had to fight hard to re-establish it, dividing his sprawling inheritance into 23 satrapies to make it easier to govern. The magnificent complex at Persepolis was created to serve as the ceremonial and religious hub of an empire whose primary god was Ahura Mazda, also the subject of Zoroastrian worship. The Median cities of Ecbatana and Shush became administrative centres, but Persepolis was the imperial showcase, extravagantly decorated to intimidate visitors and impress with its beauty. Darius eventually expanded the empire to India and pushed as far north as the Danube River in Europe.
It was the greatest of the early civilisations. Paved roads stretched from one end of the empire to the other, with caravanserais at regular intervals to provide food and shelter to travellers. The Achaemenids introduced the world’s first postal service, and it was said the network of relay horses could deliver mail to the furthest corner of the empire within 15 days.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. When the Greek colonies of Asia Minor rebelled against their Persian overlord, Darius decided to invade mainland Greece to make an example of those states that refused to subject themselves. It didn’t work. In 490 BC, Darius’ armies were defeated at the famous battle at Marathon near Athens. He died in 486 BC.
The subsequent defeat of Darius’ son Xerxes at Salamis in Greece in 480 BC marked the beginning of a long, slow decline that would continue, with glorious interludes, for another 150 years.
Alexander the Great & the End of Persepolis
Young and charismatic like Cyrus before him, it was Alexander the Great of Macedonia who finally ended the First Persian Empire. Having defeated the Greeks and Egyptians, Alexander saw off Persian armies at Issus in Turkey (333 BC) and Guagamela in present-day Iraq (331 BC), before sweeping aside the remaining armies of Darius III. Darius himself fled east to Bactria, only to be murdered by his cousin. In the wake of his victory, Alexander spent several months at Persepolis, before the finest symbol of Achaemenid power burned to the ground.
Alexander’s empire soon stretched across Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India, but after his death in 323 BC it was divided between three squabbling dynasties, with Persia controlled by the Macedonian Seleucids. Gradually the Greek language became the lingua franca, Greeks settled new towns and Greek culture stamped itself on the older Persian one. However, ambitious satraps and feisty ethnic minorities were bucking the system, particularly the Parthians.
The Parthian Takeover
The Parthians had settled the area between the Caspian and Aral Seas many centuries before. Under their great king Mithridates (r 171–138 BC), they swallowed most of Persia and then everywhere between the Euphrates in the west and Afghanistan in the east, more or less re-creating the old Achaemenid Empire. They had two capitals, one at what is now Rey, the other at Ctesiphon, in present-day Iraq.
Expert horsemen and archers, the Parthians spent much energy fighting with Rome for control of Syria, Mesopotamia and Armenia. In 53 BC, Roman general Crassus, who had defeated Spartacus and was now one of three men controlling Rome, took on the Parthians at Carrhae, in modern-day Turkey. Crassus saw his armies decimated before being captured, having molten gold poured down his throat to mock his greed, and losing his head. Extended periods of peace followed, though the Romans and Parthians were only ever an ambitious leader away from a fight.
More enlightened than later dynasties, the Parthians oversaw significant progress in architecture and the arts, though little remains today.
The Sassanids & the Second Persian Empire
Like the Achaemenids before them, the Sassanid rise from small-time dynasty to empire was nothing short of staggering. Beginning in the province of Fars, Ardashir I (r 224–41) led a push that saw the Sassanids replace the ailing Parthians in Persia and within 40 years become a renewed threat to the Roman Empire.
Between 241 and 272 Ardashir’s son, Shapur I, added Bactria to the empire and fought repeatedly with the Romans. In one of the most celebrated of all Persian victories, Shapur’s armies defeated the Romans at Edessa in 260 and took the Roman emperor Valerian prisoner. You can still see the cities of Bishapur and Shushtar, where Valerian was held, and bas-reliefs depicting the victory at Naqsh-e Rostam.
The Sassanids developed small industries, promoted urban development and encouraged trade across the Persian Gulf but eventually they, too, were weakened by seemingly never-ending conflict with Byzantium. Ironically it was in its last years that the empire was at its largest, when Khosrow II (590–628) recaptured parts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Turkey. However, after Khosrow was murdered by his son, at least six rulers, including Persia’s only two women monarchs, came and went in the following five years. Persia was in no state to resist when the Arabs attacked in 633.
The Arabs & Islam
A crucial chapter in Persian history began when the Arabs defeated the Sassanids at Qadisirya in 637, following up with a victory at Nehavand near Hamadan that effectively ended Sassanid rule.
By the time of Mohammed’s death in 632 the Arabs were firm adherents of Islam. The Persians found plenty to like in Islamic culture and religion, and readily forsook Zoroaster for the teachings of Mohammed. Only Yazd and Kerman (both of which clung to Zoroastrianism for a few centuries more) and a few isolated mountain tribes held fast to their old religions. As they rapidly spread across the Middle East, the Arabs adopted Sassanid architecture, arts and administration practices.
The Umayyad caliphs initially governed Persia from their capital in Damascus, but in 750 a Shiite rebellion led to the elevation of the Abbasid dynasty, which set up its capital near Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphs presided over a period of intellectual exuberance in which Persian culture played a major role. Persians also held many high offices at court, but the Arabic language and script became the norm for day-to-day business.
During the 9th century Abbasid power crumbled and, one by one, regional governors established their own power bases. In eastern Iran these new Iranian dynasties included the Tahirids (820–72), the Safarrids (868–903) and the Samanids (874–999), who set up their capital at Bukhara and revived the Persian language.
The Coming of the Seljuks
Inevitably, these local dynasties could not hold onto their power and eventually were ousted by the Seljuk Turks who pushed on through Persia, capturing Esfahan in 1051 and making it their capital. Within a few years they had added eastern Turkey to their empire and, despite numerous rebellions, managed to maintain control with a large and well-paid army.
The Seljuk dynasty heralded a new era in Persian art, literature and science, distinguished by geniuses such as the mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. Theological schools were also set up throughout Seljuk territories to propagate Sunni Islam. The geometric brickwork and elaborate Kufic inscriptions of Seljuk mosques and minarets can still be seen, particularly in Esfahan’s Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque).
The death of Malek Shah in 1092 marked the end of real Seljuk supremacy, and once again a powerful empire splintered into fragments.
Genghis Khan & Tamerlane
In the early 13th century, the Seljuk empire came to a final and bloody end when the rampaging Mongols swept across the Iranian plateau on their horses, leaving a trail of cold-blooded devastation and thousands of dismembered heads in their wake.
Under the leadership first of Genghis Khan, and then his grandsons, including Hulagu, the Mongol rulers managed to seize all of Persia, as well as an empire stretching from Beijing (China) to İstanbul (Turkey). Eventually they established a capital at Tabriz (too close, as they later found out, to the Turks). It was Hulagu Khan who put an end to the stealthy power of the Assassins, destroying their castles around Alamut. After a flirtation with Christianity and Buddhism, Hulagu was forced to adopt Islam by social pressures in Persia. He called himself il khan (provincial khan or ruler, deputy to the great khan in Mongolia), a name later given to the entire Ilkhanid dynasty (1256–1335).
The Mongols destroyed many of the Persian cities they conquered, obliterating much of Persia’s documented history. But they also became great arts patrons, leaving many fine monuments, including the wonderful Oljeitu Mausoleum at Soltaniyeh. During Mongol rule Farsi definitively replaced Arabic as the lingua franca.
The empire fragmented when Abu Said died without a successor, and soon succumbed to invading forces from the east led by Tamerlane (Lame Timur), who swept on to defeat the Ottoman Turks in 1402. Tamerlane came from a Turkified Mongol clan in what is now Uzbekistan and moved the capital to Qazvin. He was yet another of the great contradictions who ruled Persia over the years: an enthusiastic patron of the arts and one of history’s greatest killers (after one rebellion 70,000 people are said to have been executed in Esfahan alone).
When he died in 1405, Tamerlane’s empire immediately started to struggle. The Timurids in eastern Iran clung to varying degrees of power for several decades, maintaining their support of Persian art, particularly the miniaturists of Shiraz. Gohar Shad, the wife of one of the Timurid rulers, was responsible for the beautiful mosque at the heart of Mashhad’s Holy Shrine to Imam Reza.
The Safavids & the Third Persian Empire
A Sufi called Sheikh Safi od-Din (d 1334) was the inspiration for and progenitor of the Safavi, a powerful sect of Shiite followers from Ardabil. Ismail Safavi, a distant descendent of Safi od-Din, eventually conquered all the old Persian imperial heartlands, from Baghdad to Herat. He ruled as Persian Shah (r 1502–24) and despite defeat to Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim at the disastrous battle of Chaldoran (which started 41 years of warring with Persia losing control of eastern Anatolia and Iraq), his Safavid dynasty ushered in a great Iranian revival.
Under Ismail’s son Tahmasp (r 1524–76), the capital was moved from Tabriz to Qazvin, and European monarchs started to take an interest in Persia. The Safavids reached their peak under the brilliant Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great; r 1587–1629), who, with military advice from English adventurer Robert Shirley, finally crushed the assorted Turkmen and Turkish factions to create what is considered the Third Persian Empire.
The Safavids enshrined Shiism as Persia’s state religion, bringing it into regular conflict with the Sunni Ottoman Empire, and oversaw a renewed flowering of Persian art and architecture. Abbas moved the capital to Esfahan and promptly set about rebuilding the city around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq.
European powers began looking on Persia as a market. English companies were given business concessions and trade increased. The Safavid empire continued for almost a century after Abbas’ death, but it was a period of political infighting and internecine rivalries. In 1722 the Afghans besieged Esfahan and eventually took control of the city, slaughtering thousands but sparing the architectural wonders.
Nader Shah & Karim Khan Zand
The Safavids were briefly rescued from oblivion by a soldier of fortune, Tahmasp Qoli, who in 1729 scattered the Afghans, along with the Russian and Turkish forces that were encroaching in the north. He ruled Persia in all but name until 1736, when he grew tired of the pretence and crowned himself Nader Shah, thus ending once and for all the Safavid dynasty. To describe Nader Shah as a brilliant but war-loving mercenary is something of an understatement. History regards him as a megalomaniac who, in a show of supreme self-confidence, invaded India in 1738 and returned with loot that included the Kuh-e Nur and Darya-e Nur diamonds; see the latter diamond in Tehran’s Treasury of National Jewels. His constant warring rapidly wore out the country and his assassination in 1747 brought a welcome, if temporary, end to hostilities.
A Lor from western Iran, Karim Khan Zand (r 1750–79) grabbed power. He had little interest in warfare and is instead remembered for moving the capital to Shiraz, where he built the impressive Arg-e Karim Khan and the Masjed-e Vakil (Regent’s Mosque).
The Qajars & the Constitutional Revolution
The Qajar dynasty was a disaster for Iran, taking just a few years to turn the country into an international laughing stock. Following Karim Khan’s death in 1779, eunuch Aga Mohammad Khan united the Azeri Qajars and created a new capital in the village of Tehran. By 1795 he had wrested control of Persia from Lotf Ali Khan.
Both the Russians and British had their eyes on Iran. Russia was determined to gain access to the Persian Gulf and India, while Britain was equally determined to deny them. During the undistinguished reign of big-bearded Fath Ali Shah (r 1797–1834) Russia captured Georgia, Shirvan (today’s Azerbaijan), eastern Armenia and Daghestan, all semi-independent entities previously within Persia’s sphere of influence.
While responsible for a broad campaign of modernisation, Nasser al-Din Shah (r 1848–96) was generally more interested in collecting art, building museums and servicing his numerous wives. The Qajar shahs spent so much on luxuries that the treasury needed to hastily sell state assets. Foreign buyers were more than happy to pick up the bargains. In one notorious incident, Nasser al-Din tried to sell exclusive rights to exploit Iran’s economic resources (including all the banks, mines and railways) for a one-off sum of UK£40,000 to be followed by payments of UK£10,000 for the next 25 years. He was made to cancel the deal once news of it leaked out.
When news broke of an attempt to sell the tobacco monopoly, discontent boiled over into revolt. In 1906 the third-last Qajar shah, Muzaffar al-Din (r 1896–1907), was forced to introduce an embryo parliament, the first Majlis, and a constitution. It became known as the Constitutional Revolution.
However, the Majlis didn’t appeal to ruthless new shah Mohammad Ali, who attacked it with artillery and, in 1908, introduced martial law. This led to an uprising in Tabriz in 1909. Shah Mohammad Ali was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, who was still a child.
During WWI both Britain and Russia occupied parts of Iran while the Turks ravaged the partly Christian northwest. Inspired by the new regime in Russia, Gilan (the west Caspian area) broke away in 1920 to form a Soviet republic under Kuchuk Khan. The weak Qajar shah seemed unable to respond, so Britain backed charismatic army officer Reza Khan, who swiftly retook Gilan before ousting Shah Ahmad.
From the moment in 1921 that Reza Khan staged a coup d’état to, in effect, end Qajar rule, the poorly educated but wily soldier was king of Persia in all but name. Initially he installed a puppet prime minister, but in 1923 he took that role himself and in 1925 crowned himself, Napoleon-like, as the first shah of the Pahlavi line.
Reza Shah, as he became known, set himself an enormous task: to drag Iran into the 20th century in the same way his neighbour Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was modernising Turkey. Literacy, transport infrastructure, the health system, industry and agriculture had all been badly neglected. Like Atatürk, Reza Shah aimed to improve the status of women and to that end he made wearing the chador illegal. Like Atatürk, too, he insisted on the wearing of Western dress and moved to crush the power of the religious establishment.
However, Reza had little of Atatürk’s subtlety and his edicts made him many enemies. Some women embraced his new dress regulations, but others found them impossible to accept. Even today, some older Iranians talk of how their mothers didn’t leave home for six years; too scared of prosecution to go outside wearing a head-covering, too ashamed to leave home without one.
Despite being nominally neutral during WWII, Reza’s outspoken support of the Nazis proved too much for Britain and Russia. In 1941 Reza was forced into exile in South Africa, where he died in 1944. The British arranged for his 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza, to succeed him. In 1943 at the Tehran Conference, Britain, Russia and the USA signed the Tehran Declaration, accepting the independence of Iran. The young Mohammad Reza regained absolute power – under heavy influence from the British.
By now the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) was churning out petro-dollars by the million and there were calls for it to be nationalised. When prime minister Ali Razmara was assassinated in 1951, 70-year-old nationalist Dr Mohammad Mossadegh, leader of the National Front Movement, swept into office on the back of promises to repatriate the generated money. Mossadegh succeeded in nationalising Anglo-Iranian as the National Iranian Oil Company, but in 1953 he was removed in a coup organised by the CIA and Britain.
With Mossadegh gone, the US government encouraged the shah to press ahead with a program of social and economic modernisation dubbed the White Revolution because it was intended to take place without bloodshed. Many Iranians remember this period fondly for reforms including the further emancipation of women and improved literacy. But for a conservative, mainly rural Muslim population it was all too fast. The religious establishment, the ulema, also took exception to land reforms depriving them of rights and electoral reforms giving votes to non-Muslims.
By 1962 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then living in Qom, had emerged as a figurehead for opposition to the shah. In 1964 the shah approved a bill giving US soldiers in Iran complete immunity from arrest. Khomeini responded by claiming the shah had ‘reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog’, because if anyone ran over a dog in America they would be prosecuted for doing so, but if an American ran over an Iranian in Iran he could do so with impunity. The shah reacted by banishing Khomeini.
In 1971 the shah organised lavish celebrations for the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, hoping to fan the flames of nationalism. More than 60 international monarchs and heads of state came to the party, held in a purpose-built tent city at Persepolis. The news coverage brought Iranian culture to the world, but at home it encouraged those who saw the shah as wasteful.
Ironically, the 1974 oil price revolution also contributed to the shah’s undoing. In just one year the income from oil shot from US$4 billion to US$20 billion, but the shah allowed US arms merchants to persuade him to squander much of this on weapons that then stood idle in the desert. As the world slipped into recession, oil sales slumped and several planned social reforms were cut.
Since the beginning of the Pahlavi dynasty, resistance had smouldered away and occasionally flared into violence. Students wanted faster reform, devout Muslims wanted reforms rolled back, and everyone attacked the Pahlavis’ conspicuous consumption.
The opposition came from secular, worker-communist and Islamic groups whose common denominator was a desire to remove the shah. Exiled Ayatollah Khomeini was an inspirational figure, but contrary to the official Iranian portrayal much of the organising was done by unionists, communists and ordinary middle-class citizens.
As the economy faltered the opposition grew in confidence and organised massive street demonstrations and small-scale sabotage. The shah responded with brutal force and his security agency, Savak, earned a reputation for torture and killing. In November 1978, he imposed martial law and hundreds of demonstrators were killed in Tehran, Qom and Tabriz. The USA’s long-standing support began to falter and in December the now-desperate shah appointed veteran opposition politician Shapur Bakhtiar as prime minister. It was too late. On 16 January 1979 (now a national holiday), Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his third wife, Farah Diba, finally fled.
Khomeini’s frequent broadcasts on the BBC’s Persian Service had made him the spiritual leader of opposition. But at 76 years old, everyone expected that once the shah was ousted he would assume a more hands-off, statesman-like role. They were wrong. On his return to Iran on 1 February 1979, Khomeini told the exultant masses of his vision for a new Iran, free of foreign influence and true to Islam: ‘From now on it is I who will name the government’.
The Aftermath of the Revolution
Ayatollah Khomeini soon set about proving the adage that ‘after the revolution comes the revolution’. His intention was to set up a clergy-dominated Islamic Republic, and he achieved this with brutal efficiency.
Groups such as the People’s Feda’iyin, the Islamic People’s Mojahedin and the communist Tudah had been instrumental in undermining the shah. But once the shah was gone they were swept aside. People disappeared, executions took place after brief and arbitrary trials, and minor officials took the law into their own hands. The facts – that the revolution had been a broad-based effort – were revised and the idea of the Islamic Revolution was born.
Following a referendum in March 1979, in which 98.2% of the population voted in favour, the world’s first Islamic Republic was formed with Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader.
Almost immediately, the Islamic Republic was viewed suspiciously and accused of adopting confrontational policies designed to promote other Islamic revolutions. In November 1979, conservative university students burst into the US embassy and took 52 staff hostage, an action later blessed by Khomeini. A US special forces rescue mission failed when the helicopters supposed to carry them to safety collided in the desert near Tabas. For 444 days the siege of the US embassy dogged US president, Jimmy Carter.
The Iran–Iraq War
In 1980, hoping to take advantage of Iran’s domestic chaos, Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein made an opportunistic land grab on oil-rich Khuzestan province, claiming it was a historic part of Iraq. It was a catastrophic miscalculation that resulted in eight years of war.
Ironically, the invasion proved to be pivotal in solidifying support for the shaky Islamic Revolution by providing an obvious enemy to rally against and an opportunity to spread the revolution by force of arms. Iraq was better equipped and better supplied, but Iran could draw on a larger population and a sense of righteousness and religious fervour, fanned by its mullahs (Islamic clerics).
Fighting was fierce, with poison gas and trench warfare being seen for the first time since WWI. Islamic volunteers (the Basijis) as young as 13 chose to clear minefields by walking through them, confident they would go to heaven as martyrs. By July 1982 Iran had pushed the Iraqis back to the border, but rather than accept peace Iran adopted a new agenda that included occupying Najaf and Karbala, important Shiite pilgrimage sites.
The war dragged on another six years. Millions of Iranians lost their homes and jobs, and some 1.2 million fled the battle zone, many moving permanently to far-away Mashhad. A ceasefire was finally negotiated in mid-1988, though prisoners were still being exchanged in 2003.
While war was raging, different factions within Iran continued to jostle for supremacy. In June 1981 a bomb blast at the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party killed its founder Ayatollah Beheshti and 71 others, including four cabinet ministers. A second bomb in August killed President Rajai and the new prime minister. The Islamic People’s Mojahedin, once co-revolutionaries but now bitter enemies of the clerics, were blamed. Despite this, by 1983 all effective resistance to Khomeini’s ideas had been squashed.
When Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 June 1989 his position as Supreme Leader passed to the former president, Ali Khamenei. The presidency, which had previously been a largely ceremonial post, was transformed with the election of the cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who began a series of much-needed economic reforms. Despite being widely seen as the richest – and most corrupt – man in the country, Rafsanjani was re-elected in 1993. Social and religious conservatism remained firmly ingrained in Iranian society but domestic policy took on a more pragmatic tone. This included an aggressive campaign to curb sky-rocketing population growth through contraception and a greater effort to bring electricity, running water, telephone and sealed roads to rural areas long ignored under royal rule.
Khatami & the Reformists
In 1997 the moderate, reform-minded Hojjat-ol-Eslam Sayyed Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in a landslide; Rafsanjani may have lost power but he would remain a key figure and political power broker until his death in early 2017. Almost everyone, and especially the ruling clerics, was shocked by Khatami's victory. Khatami was a liberal by Iranian standards, but he was also an insider. He had studied theology in Qom, had held important posts during the Iran–Iraq War and served as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance for 10 years until he was forced to resign in 1992 – for being too liberal.
His election sent an overwhelming message of discontent to the ruling Islamic conservatives and resulted in a spontaneous, unlegislated liberalisation. Khatami promised ‘change from within’, a policy of avoiding confrontation with the clerics and engineering change from within the theocratic system. When reformers won a large majority in the Majlis in 2000 and Khatami was re-elected with 78% of the vote in 2001, hopes were high. But what the public wanted and what Khatami and the Majlis were able to deliver proved to be very different. Of the hundreds of pieces of legislation the Majlis passed during its four-year term, more than 35% were vetoed by the conservatives on the Guardian Council.
The conservative backlash didn’t stop there. Reformist intellectuals were assassinated, students beaten for protesting, dozens of reform-minded newspapers were closed and editors imprisoned. With the reformers either unable or too scared to institute their promised reforms, the public lost faith in them and the idea of ‘change from within’.
With reformists barred from running and the public disillusioned with politics, former Republican Guard member and Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was unexpectedly elected president in 2005. Despite his religious conservatism, Ahmadinejad’s man-of-the-people image appealed to a population frustrated and angry with the clique of clerics, military and their cronies that had become Iran’s new elite.
Ahmadinejad’s promises to ‘put petroleum income on people’s tables’ went down well but in reality were not affordable. Fuel prices, inflation and unemployment rose, social crackdowns were more frequent, international sanctions over the nuclear issue became tighter and, particularly in urban areas, Ahmadinejad and his government were seen by many Iranians as incompetent. In the background, Ahmadinejad quietly replaced provincial governors and experienced bureaucrats with his own ex-Revolutionary Guard cronies.
In the run-up to the 2009 presidential election, opposition coalesced around reformist candidate and former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi. When Ahmadinejad was hastily declared the winner, the Green Movement staged massive street protests in Tehran and elsewhere, orchestrated on Twitter and by mobile phones. The ensuing crackdown claimed dozens of lives.
The Struggle for Iran
Ahmadinejad clung to power and the grinding weight of repression gradually overcame the opposition – the Green Movement dissipated or went underground. In the same year, the Iranian government confirmed international suspicions that it was building a uranium-enrichment plant close to Qom, although it insisted that its nuclear program was for entirely peaceful purposes. Whether it was the goverment's intention or not, the issue diverted attention away from the vexed questions of social and political reform to one of a beleaguered country at odds with the international community and determined to assert its sovereignty. In the years since, Iran's nuclear program and its relationship with the international community have kept the country in the headlines and on the margins of international respectability.
The reformist movement had been severely battered and bruised by the aftermath of the Green Movement's failure to win power in 2009. Even so, the unstable faultline that ripples through modern Iranian society – liberal reformers with an urban power base pitted against conservative clerics and their rural heartland – simply won't go away and is unlikely to any time soon. In 2013, the reformist-backed Hassan Rouhani won presidential elections as the pendulum swung back again in favour of those who would reform the Islamic Republic.