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Historians are still debating when the first inhabitants settled in what is now Iran, but archaeologists suggest that during Neolithic times small numbers of hunters lived in caves in the Zagros and Alborz Mountains and in the southeast of the country.

The elamites & medes

Iran’s first organised settlements were established in Elam, the lowland region in what is now Khuzestan province, as far back as the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Elam was close enough to Mesopotamia and the great Sumerian civilisation to feel its influence, and records suggest the two were regular opponents on the battlefield. The Elamites established their capital at Shush and derived their strength through a remarkably enlightened federal system of government that allowed the various states to exchange the natural resources unique to each region. The Elamites’ system of inheritance and power distribution was also quite sophisticated for the time, ensuring power was shared by and passed through various family lines.

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. They even managed to defeat the Assyrians, carrying off in triumph the famous stone inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, a battered copy of which is in the National Museum of Iran, the original having been carried off to the Louvre in Paris.

About this time Indo-European Aryan tribes began to arrive 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. But little more is heard of them until Greek historian Herodotus writes of how Cyaxares of Media expelled the Scythians, who had invaded from the Caucasus, in about 625 BC. According to Herodotus, whose histories are notoriously colourful, the Scythians were defeated when their kings attended a party and became so drunk they were easily disposed of.

Under Cyaxares, the Medes became a most formidable military force, repeatedly attacking the neighbouring Assyrians. In 612, 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. Exactly how the conquering powers divided the spoils of this heady success is uncertain, but it is believed the Medes assumed control of the highland territories. This meant that at his death in 575 BC Cyaxares is thought to have controlled an area that stretched from Asia Minor in the west as far as present-day Kerman in the east. Within a few years, though, this would seem very modest indeed.

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The achaemenids & the first persian empire

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, that of the Achaemenids. By the time his 21-year-old great-grandson Cyrus II ascended the throne in 559 BC, Persia was clearly a state on the up. Within 20 years it would be the greatest empire the world had known.

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 marked himself out as something of a sensitive, new age despot. Rather than putting the Babylonians to the sword, he released the Jews who had been held there and, according to Herodotus in The Persian Wars, declared, among other things, that 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. Each is free to accept it, 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 for himself a new home at Pasargadae, establishing the pattern whereby Persian rulers circulated between three different capitals. Unfortunately for him, the Massagetae from the northeast of the empire decided he was indeed imposing his monarchy on them and they didn’t like it. Herodotus writes that Cyrus incurred the wrath of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, after he captured her son and slaughtered many of her soldiers in a battle made especially one-sided because the Massagetae army were all drunk – on wine strategically 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, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae, bloodthirsty as thou art, I will give thee thy fill of blood’.

Cyrus paid no heed to Tomyris, who gathered all the forces of her kingdom 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 she ordered a skin filled with human blood and, making good on her threat, dunked Cyrus’s head in it. Cyrus’s body was eventually buried in the mausoleum that still stands at Pasargadae.

In 525 BC Cyrus’s son, Cambyses, headed west to capture 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. 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’s 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 unlikely 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 capital at Shush became the administrative centre, but Persepolis was the imperial showcase, extravagantly decorated to intimidate visitors and impress with its beauty. The Apadana Staircase, which depicts 23 subject nations paying tribute to the Achaemenid king, is arguably the artistic apex of the site. 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’s armies were defeated at Marathon near Athens. He died in 486 BC.

The subsequent defeat of Darius’s 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.

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Alexander the great & the end of persepolis

The end of the First Persian Empire finally came at the hands of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia. 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). By the time he arrived in Persia proper the end of the Achaemenid empire was almost inevitable, and it wasn’t long before the last remaining armies of Darius III were swept aside. 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 was burned to the ground. Even today experts argue whether this was the accidental result of a drunken party or deliberate retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes.

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 replaced Aramaic as the lingua franca, new towns were set up all over the region and Greek culture stamped itself on the older Persian one. However, ambitious satraps and feisty ethnic minorities were bucking the system, particularly the nomadic Parthians.

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The parthian takeover

The Parthians had settled the area between the Caspian and Aral Seas many centuries before. Under their great king Mithridates (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 – territories the Romans felt were rightly theirs. This largely ended, however, after the Roman general Crassus, who had defeated Spartacus 20 years earlier and was now one of three men controlling Rome, wrongly concluded his armies had the measure of their Parthian counterparts. In 53 BC Crassus saw his armies routed at Carrhae, in modern-day Turkey (he was then captured, had molten gold poured down his throat to mock his greed, and eventually lost 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.

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The sassanians & the second persian empire

Like the Achaemenids before them, the Sassanian rise from small-time dynasty to empire was nothing short of staggering. Beginning in their home province of Fars in AD 224, Ardashir I (r 224–41) led a push that saw the Sassanians 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 city of Bishapur, where Valerian was kept until he died, and bas-reliefs depicting the victory at Naqsh-e Rostam.

The Sassanians re-formulated Zoroastrianism into a state religion incorporating elements of Greek, Mithraic and ancient animist faiths. They then indulged in sporadic bursts of repression against other religions, including newly emerging Christianity. The Sassanians spoke their own language, Pahlavi, the root of modern Farsi. Several fire temples and other important and imposing structures remain from the Sassanid period. Among the most impressive are the largely intact Ardashir’s Palace at Firuz Abad; the crumbling adobe city at Kuh-e Khajeh; the city of Bishapur and the giant Statue of Shapur I in a nearby cave; and the Arg-e Bam, where investigations following the 2003 earthquake have revealed the outer walls and several other structures were built by the Sassanians. The Sassanian capital was at Ctesiphon in modern Iraq.

The Sassanians 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 Khusro II (590-628) recaptured parts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Turkey. However, after Khusro was murdered by his son in 628, 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.

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The arabs & islam

A crucial chapter in Persian history started when the Arabs defeated the Sassanians at Qadisirya in AD 637, following up with a victory at Nehavand near Hamadan that effectively ended Sassanian 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 happily forsook Zoroaster for the teachings of Mohammed without much need of persuasion. Only Yazd and Kerman (both of which clung to Zoroastrianism for a few centuries more) and a few isolated tribes in the mountains near the Caspian Sea held fast to their old religions. As they rapidly spread across the Middle East, the Arabs adopted Sassanians’ 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 Safarrids (868–903), the Tahirids (820–72) and the Samanids (874–999), who set up their capital at Bukhara and revived the Persian language.

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The coming of the seljuks

Inevitably, these local dynasties could not hold onto their power. The Samanids became fatally dependent on Turkish soldiers, one of whom soon elbowed them aside to found his own Qaznavid dynasty (962–1140); his son Mahmud spread the realm deep into India, introducing Islam as he went.

In turn they were ousted by the Seljuk Turks who pushed on through Persia, capturing Esfahan in 1051 and turning it into 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 across Iran, though they’re arguably at their finest in Esfahan’s Jameh Mosque.

The death of Malek Shah in 1092 marked the end of real Seljuk supremacy, and once again a powerful empire splintered into weaker fragments.

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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 by social pressures in Persia to adopt Islam. He called himself il khan (provincial khan or ruler), a name later given to the entire Ilkhanid dynasty (1256–1335).

Tragically, the Mongols destroyed many of the Persian cities they conquered, obliterating much of Persia’s documented history. Perhaps feeling guilty about all the violence, they became great arts patrons, leaving many fine monuments, including the wonderful Oljeitu Mausoleum (Gonbad-e Soltaniyeh), near Zanjan. During Mongol rule Farsi definitively replaced Arabic as the lingua franca and Marco Polo followed the Silk Road across Persia. In 1335 the Ilkhanid empire came to an end when the death of Sultan Abu Said left it with no successor.

The fragmented empire 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. Tamerlane managed to stop the constant warring in Iran and moved the capital from Tabriz 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 pattern of strong ruler, decline and the fragmentation of empire is a recurring theme in Persian history. The years following the Mongol and Timurid periods were no different, with the power divided and fought over by several blocs. Among the more notable groups were the Kara Koyunlu (Black Sheep) tribe, which managed to set itself up in Tabriz and grab power from the Mongols in eastern Turkey. Having held strong for almost two centuries (1275–1468), they, in turn, gave way to the Ak Koyunlu (White Sheep) tribe, which ruled the northeast until 1514.

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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 Savafi, a distant descendent of Safi od-Din, was eventually to conquer all the old Persian imperial heartlands, from Baghdad to Herat. He ruled as Persian Shah (r 1502–24) and although forced out of western Iran by the Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, at the disastrous battle of Chaldoran, 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 oversaw a renewed flowering of Persian art and architecture. Abbas moved the capital to Esfahan and promptly set about rebuilding the city around what is today Imam Sq. The splendour of the Safavid court can still be seen in the fantastic frescoes of the Chehel Sotun Palace. Shiism was enshrined as Persia’s state religion, bringing it into direct conflict with the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

European powers began looking on Persia as a market. English companies were given business concessions, although the Portuguese, who had controlled Hormoz Island in the Persian Gulf, were eventually expelled.

The death of Abbas was the signal for the predictable period of bickering and infighting, which eventually left the door wide open for the Afghans, who invaded in 1722. The Afghans besieged Esfahan and eventually took control of the city, slaughtering thousands but sparing the architectural wonders. The first Afghan ruler, Mahmud, went mad and was murdered by a member of his own army.

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Nader shah & karim khan zand

The Safavids were briefly rescued from oblivion by a soldier of fortune, Nader Shah, who in 1729 scattered the Afghans, along with the Russian and Turkish forces that were encroaching in the north. Nader Shah ruled Persia in all but name until 1736, when he grew tired of the pretence and installed himself as 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. He was 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 in the National Jewels Museum. His constant warring rapidly wore out the country and it was a relief to everyone when he was assassinated in 1747.

A Lor from western Iran, Karim Khan Zand (r 1750–79) grabbed power. Almost uniquely, he had little interest in warfare. Instead he is remembered for moving the capital to Shiraz, where he built the impressive Arg-e Karim Khan and the Regent’s Mosque.

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The qajars & the constitutional revolution

The Qajar dynasty was a disaster for Iran, transforming more than 2000 years of empire and influence into an international laughing stock in just a few decades. Following Karim Khan’s death in 1779, bitter and twisted eunuch Aga Mohammad Khan united the Azari Qajars and created a new capital in the village of Tehran. By 1795 he had wrested control of Persia from Lotf Ali Khan, but just a year later Aga Mohammad Khan was murdered by his own servants.

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. He sired hundreds of princes, all of whom took from the national treasury at will. Inevitably, the Russians asserted control over northern Iran while the British ran things in the south.

The Qajar shahs spent so much on luxuries – such as the Golestan Palace – that the treasury needed constant topping up through hasty sales of 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 all 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 its absurdity 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.

Worried that such a helpful shah was being weakened, Russia persuaded him to backtrack on his promises. The Majlis was attacked with artillery and in 1908 martial law and dictatorship were introduced by his ruthless son Shah Mohammad Ali, leading to an uprising in Tabriz in 1909. Shah Mohammad Ali was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, who was still a child. The furore soon died down and in 1911 Shah Ahmad quietly abolished the second Majlis.

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.

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The pahlavis

From the moment in 1921 that Reza Khan staged a coup d’etat 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 neglected and were pathetically underdeveloped. Like Atatürk, Reza Shah aimed to improve the status of women and to that end he made wearing the chador (black cloak) 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 the subtlety of Atatürk 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 22-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 that 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 USA 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 he could do so with impunity. The shah reacted by banishing Khomeini, who fled first to Turkey and then to Iraq.

In 1971 the shah organised lavish celebrations for the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, hoping to make himself more popular by fanning 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 and became a rallying call for opposition groups.

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 vast new wealth 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. The public was not happy.

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The revolution

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 other people did most of the organising. Among the most prominent was Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, a popular Islamic reformist whose ideas were considerably less fundamental than Khomeini’s.

As the economy faltered under the shah’s post oil-boom mismanagement, 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 horrific reputation for torture and killing. In November 1978, he imposed martial law and hundreds of demonstrators were killed in Tehran, Qom and Tabriz. America’s long-standing support began to falter and in December the now-desperate shah appointed veteran opposition politician Shapur Bakhtiar as prime minister. It didn’t work. On 16 January 1979 (now a national holiday), Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his third wife, Farah Diba, finally fled. He died in Egypt in 1980.

Khomeini’s frequent broadcasts on the BBC’s Persian Service had made him the spiritual leader of opposition. But at 77 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’.

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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 and his government. But once the shah was safely out of the way they were swept aside. People disappeared, executions took place after brief and meaningless 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. Leaders such as Ayatollah Taleqani were sidelined or worse. Taleqani is still revered as a hero of the revolution, but many Iranians believe he died because Khomeini refused him the asthma inhalers he needed to survive.

Following a referendum in March 1979, in which 98.2% of the population voted in favour, the formation of the world’s first Islamic Republic was announced on 1 April 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini became the 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 blessed by Khomeini. For the next 444 days the siege of the US embassy dogged US president, Jimmy Carter. Worse still, a Boys Own–style attempt to rescue the hostages ran aground quite literally when the helicopters supposed to carry them to safety collided in the desert near Tabas. Amid the crisis, presidential elections were held and Abol Hasan Bani-Sadr, Khomeini’s friend since the days of his Paris exile, was elected, with Mohammad Ali Rajai as his prime minister.

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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 and up to 500, 000 deaths on each side.

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 fanaticism fanned by its mullahs.

Fighting was fierce, with poison gas and trench warfare being seen for the first time since WWI. A group of Islamic volunteers called Basijis, many 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 forced the Iraqis back to the border, but rather than accept peace Iran adopted a new agenda that included occupying Najaf and Karbala, important Shia pilgrimage sites. The war dragged on for another six years, ending shortly after an Iranian airliner was shot down by the US Navy over the Persian Gulf.

During the war Iraq bombed nearly 3000 villages and 87 Iranian cities, virtually obliterating Abadan and Khorramshahr. 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 cease-fire was finally negotiated in mid-1988, though prisoners were still being exchanged in 2003. Iranians refer to the war as the ‘Iraq-imposed war’ and it remains a huge influence on the country. Pictures of martyrs can be seen in every city, and barely a day passes without TV broadcasting interviews with veterans.

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. By the end of 1982 all effective resistance to Khomeini’s ideas had been squashed.

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After khomeini

When Ayatollah Khomeini died on 4 June 1989 he left an uncertain legacy. Khomeini’s position as Supreme Leader passed to the former president, Ayatollah 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 and he could never be described as a liberal, but domestic policy took on a far more pragmatic tone. This included an aggressive campaign to curb sky-rocketing population growth through contraception. A greater focus on the poor brought electricity, running water, telephone and sealed roads to rural areas long ignored under royal rule.

On the international front, however, Iran continued to be unpopular. In 1995 the USA slapped a trade embargo on Iran on the grounds that it was a state sponsor of terrorism.

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Khatami & the reformists

In 1997 the moderate, reform-minded Ayatollah Hojjat-ol-Eslam Sayyed Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in a landslide. Almost everyone, and especially the ruling clerics, was shocked. 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. Suddenly, harsh laws on dress and social interaction were no longer being strictly enforced and women, especially those in Tehran and other major cities, embraced make-up, figure-hugging manteaus and hair-colouring products with unbridled enthusiasm.

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. It was an effective campaign. 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’.

By 2004 living in Iran had become significantly easier than it had been before Khatami’s election. Women had won greater freedoms, limited economic liberalisation had spurred economic growth, and art and cultural activities were (relatively) thriving. Huge amounts of money were being spent on infrastructure, with new roads, railways and, in four cities, underground railways. But many Iranians were disheartened. So many promised reforms – both economic and social – had not been delivered that they lost sight of what had been achieved. The Majlis elections in February 2004 saw more than 2000 mostly Reformist candidates, including 82 sitting members, barred from running by the Guardian Council and many chose not to vote as a means of protesting. The conservatives were swept back into power and for the last year of his presidency, Khatami was almost powerless.

Despite his religious conservatism, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's man-of-the-people image initially appealed to a population frustrated and angry with the new clique of clerics, military and their cronies that had become Iran's new elite and he was elected president, unexpectedly, in 2005. His initial promises of delivering prosperity were in reality 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. Ahmadinejad quietly replaced provincial governors and experienced bureaucrats with his own ex-Revolutionary Guard cronies.

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Iran today

Iran is a country under intense pressure. With the Arab Spring having felled regimes across the region, the isolation of international sanctions, dangerous levels of inflation, high unemployment and the ever-present threat of a targeted military strike, you could be forgiven for thinking something has to give. The Green Movement, launched in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial victory in the 2009 presidential election, was the sort of spontaneous uprising that Iranians had been predicting for 10 years. That it failed, followed by the ruthless efficiency shown in rounding up opponents, has left many people feeling hopeless and paranoid. With no sign that the stand-off between Iran and the UN and USA on the country's nuclear future will find a resolution, Iranians are bracing themselves for tough times.

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