History of Iran

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The History of Iran, historically known to the West as Persia, stretched back to 600 BC. For recent events see Iran.

Perdia was once a major empire in its own right, has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded by Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and others—and often caught up in the affairs of larger powers—Iran has always reasserted its national identity and has developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.


see Persian Empire

The sixth millennium B.C. saw a fairly sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centers. Many dynasties have ruled Iran, starting with the Achaemenid (559-330 B.C.) founded by Cyrus the Great. After the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic period (300-250 B.C.) came the Parthian (250 B.C.-226 A.D.) and the Sassanian (226-651) dynasties.

Muslim Conquest

The seventh century Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran was followed with invasions by the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols. Iran underwent something of a revival under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which was Shah Abbas, who expelled the Uzbeks and Ottomans from Persia. The conqueror Nadir Shah and his successors were followed by the Zand dynasty, founded by Karim Khan, and later the Qajar (1795-1925) and the Pahlavi dynasties (1925-1979).

Modern Era

Nasir Almolk mosque, Shiraz, Iran.

Modern Iranian history began with a nationalist uprising against the Shah in 1905 and the establishment of a limited constitutional monarchy in 1906. The discovery of oil in 1908 would later become a key factor in Iranian history and development.

In 1921, Reza Khan, an Iranian officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, seized control of the government. In 1925, having ousted the Qajar dynasty, he made himself Shah and established the Pahlavi dynasty, ruling as Reza Shah for almost 16 years.

Under Reza Shah's reign, Iran began to modernize and to secularize, and the central government reasserted its authority over the tribes and provinces. During World War Two the Allies feared the monarch close relations with Nazi Germany. In September 1941, following the occupation of western Iran by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became Shah and would rule until 1979.


During World War II Iran was openly partial to the Axis cause. A joint Anglo-Soviet military action began on 25 August 1941 when 40,000 Soviet troops entered Iran from the north and headed for Tehran. On the same day about 19,000 British Commonwealth troops, mostly in Indian brigades, entered from various directions. There was slight resistance on the part of Iranian troops but no force Iran could not have withstood the power of the occupying armies of British Empire and the Soviet Union, and German assistance by air was now as far away as Crete. On 30 August 1941 identical notes were submitted by the invading powers to the Iranian Government which accepted their terms on 9 September. On 16 September the Shah abdicated in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, and left the country. The next day Tehran was jointly occupied by the British and Soviet troops without show of military force.

The terms imposed by Tri-Partite Treaty of alliance signed on 29 January 1942 disavowed any designs against the territorial integrity of Iran or independence. Iran agreed to refrain from any act contrary to British or Soviet interests.[1]

Soviet political "agitprops," graduates from the Lenin Institute in Moscow, were dispatched to exploit whatever resentment and hostility toward the "imperialist warmongers" of the West they might encounter or stir up. The Tudeh party, founded early in 1942, at once began to lay the ground work for the Communist uprisings which followed World War II. The Tudeh party, guided by the Soviet officials who at the same time were supervising the movement of American lend-lease aid to the Soviet Union through Iran, began openly agitating against the Anglo-Saxon "exploiters." By 1944 Iran's mushrooming, Soviet-financed Tudeh press openly called the British and Americans "fascists," "reactionaries," and "imperialist." [2]


In 1949 the Angelo-Persian Oil Company negotiated an agreement with the Iranian government under which it would pay the government 25 to 30 per cent of its net profits, The British government controlled 52 per cent of the stock of the company. Under pressure from the Shia clergy and members of the Communist Tudeh party, the Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh did not ratify the agreement and on May 2, 1951, nationalized ownership of the oil industry. In October Britain shut down Abadan, the world's largest refinery, on the Persian Gulf, and boycotted Iranian oil for the next two years. 30 per cent of Iran's national income previously came from oil exports. Iranian production fell from 424,000 barrels a day in 1947 to 59,000 in 1954, while Saudi Arabia rose from 246,000 barrels to 953,000, and Kuwait from 45,000 barrels to 953,000.

Rioters raise a poster of Mossadegh at the palace gates of the Shah in August, 1953.

In January 1953 the Iranian parliament extended Mossadegh's dictatorial powers. The following month, Mossadegh denounced the Shah for intrigues with "foreign interests". On February 28 the Shah announced he would abdicate "for reasons of health". Serious riots followed when the Shah's supporters clashed with Mossadegh's supporters in the streets. The Shah canceled his plan of abdication. Meanwhile, the United States ambassador presented proposals to end the impasse with the United Kingdom, one proposal was for a consortium of oil companies to replace Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and buy from Iran's nationalized industry. Mossadegh rejected the suggestion and continued to complain about the boycott.

On July 19 Mossadegh dissolved the Majlis and called for a plebiscite on August 2. The Tudeh party, which was staging violent demonstrations in the streets, by the end of July openly supported Mossadegh while the Soviet Union offered desperately needed economic assistance. Mossadegh received 99.4 per cent of the vote and on August 8 Soviet Premier Georgy Malenkov told the Supreme Soviet that the Soviet Union had been conducting negotiations with Iran since June and concluded a series of agreements on border, aid, and trade issues. The Shah, who still held the position of Head of State, asked for the resignation of the government and appointed a successor.

When Mossadegh received word, he began mass arrests. Two days of chaos ensued. Rioters smashed statues of the Shah and his father and screamed, "Death to the Shah!" With assurances from the CIA, the Iranian Army turned against the officers Mossadegh installed, and drove rioters off the streets. On August 19, Mossadegh turned himself over to the Shah's forces and was jailed along with Tudeh leaders. In December he was sentenced to three years in solitary confinement. The Iranian economy and living standards of the people gradually recovered as oil exports regained a market share which had been decimated during the previous two years. The Shah, who could not be seen as too close to the West because of Iran's domestic situation, nevertheless expressed his understating of the importance of Iran's position in the region, and the world, as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.

The Shah recognized and secured formal diplomatic relations with Israel and did he participate in the Arab oil embargoes during the Six Day War of 1967 and Yom Kippur War of 1973. The US and British Mediterranean Fleets were provided with oil by the Shah. During the Yom Kippur War the Shah deterred Sadam Hussein from playing any role by moving Iranian troops to the border, and with covert aid to the Kurds of Iraq which kept the Iraqi Army diverted.


For a more detailed treatment, see Islamic Revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini emerged as an active critic of the Shah's increasingly autocratic government. Khomeini was imprisoned and later exiled, but popular anti-government sentiment continued to spread.

During the Carter presidency, the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights was headed by Patricia Derian, who publicly deplored aspects of the Shah's rule, particularly SAVAK, and issued low ratings for Iran's and other pro-American government's treatment of dissidents. Aligned with Derian in a general way was President Carter's Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, who on one occasion had referred to the Ayatollah Khomeini as a "saint." The American Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, a veteran diplomat of many years experience and an acute observer of the stresses in Iranian society, sought to steer a middle course through the official U.S. debates on Iran. Nevertheless, when instructed, Sullivan also would remind the Shah of the State Department's concern (and presumably President Carter's) about the regime's treatment of its enemies.

By the fall of 1978, events in Iran were moving fast. The Iranian armed forces—whose officer corps had been carefully cultivated by the Shah and had sworn a personal oath of allegiance to him—witnessed the growing disorder and violence in Tehran. Knowing of the Carter administration's discomfort at attempts to repress it, the generals nevertheless urged the Shah to crack down. The result, enacted on the 7th of September, was "martial law" without exactly being martial law. Opponents of the Shah quickly found they could challenge their sovereign's authority and court the foreign media.

Khomeini returned from exile in France to Teheran on 31 January 1979. On 11 February the Shah fled, and mobs armed with machine guns attacked the U.S. embassy. Iran's armed forces did not respond. On 3 November 1979, the American embassy was stormed again, and 66 U.S. personnel were taken prisoner. Thirteen were released in a few days, but the remainder stayed captive in Iran until 30 minutes after Jimmy Carter had turned the White House over to Ronald Reagan at noon on 21 January 1981.[3]


In 1984 the Reagan administration as part of its policy of Containment, and in seeking to secure an ally for Israel, sought to repair the breach that occurred with a longtime ally in 1980. Oliver North of the National Security Council staff was dispatched to Tehran with a proposal to reconcile the United States and Israels differences with the Shia Islamic regime. The proposal entailed sales of Tow missiles to help Iran break the deadlock in the trench war with Iraq. The United States and its allies feared a militarized Iraq could pose a threat to the region, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, if Iraq emerged from the war as victor.

Iran needed the weapons after US arms sales were cutoff in the wake of the break in diplomatic relations. Iraq had invaded the majority Arab Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran in September 1980. The ensuing Iran-Iraq War lasted until 1988, when some naval operations by the United States against Iran impressed the impossibility of their position upon the Iranian leadership. Iran finally signed an armistice which ceded to Iraq the Shatt al-Arab waterway, the latter country's main war aim. Less than three years later, Iraq ceded it back to guarantee Iranian neutrality in the Gulf War against the United States.

After the war, Iran continued to support Hezbollah, the most powerful Shiite militia in Lebanon, which had waged war against the United States during the latter's intervention to end the 1982 Israeli invasion. With Iran's assistance, Hezbollah launched terrorist attacks even against such clearly inoffensive countries as Argentina, which seems to have been attacked because there were Jews there. The head of Iranian intelligence during the early 1990s, Ali Fallahian, was indicted along with various Hezbollah operatives and an international arrest warrant was issued for him in March 2007, which the Iranians immediately appealed. This and the Iranian role in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing prevented any normalization of relations, even after Mohammed Khatami became President of Iran in 1997 and made this one of the principal goals of his administration.

Khatami was seen by some in the West as a possible Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev. The United Kingdom reestablished relations with Iran in 1999. His coalition was dominated by persons who clearly wished to make Iran a normal country. However, the limitations of the President in the Iranian system allowed Iranian conservatives to marginalize his supporters and close media outlets friendly to his policies. Although he won reelection in 2001 and cooperated with the United States to some extent against their mutual enemy the Taliban, his supporters were not able to take the next logical step that Boris Yeltsin and other anti-communist Russians did under Gorbachev, that is, unite to completely replace the existing political system. Because they had been able to outmaneuver him politically, Iranian conservatives also did not oblige with a corresponding coup d'état against Khatami. Normal relations with the United States probably will require just this sort of replacement of the existing Iranian constitution, but the popularity of Khatami and congruent popular distaste for his successor indicates that may be possible without war.


Iran is currently ruled by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the second theocrat of the country, who has been in office since the death of Khomenei in 1989. He is considered to have a less extreme anti-Western bias than his predecessor. It is governed on a day-to-day basis by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is suspected by several Western nations to be developing nuclear weapons to use against Israel and America. Domestically, however, he is facing questioning and possible impeachment by the Iranian Parliament, who see him as too extreme.

The Iranian constitution calls for a Presidential election once every four years (in practice, the year following Presidential elections in the United States). Candidates are selected by the Guardian Council, an unelected clerical body. Presidents are limited to two terms as in the United States. While since 1981 no Iranian President has been defeated for reelection, elections lacking an incumbent have been quite lively, as was the 2005 election, which Ahmadinejad only won at the runoff stage.

Beginning in 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush is reported to have signed a series of Executive Orders initiating covert operations aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime.[4] The CIA was authorized to supply communications equipment which would enable opposition groups in Iran to work together and bypass internet censorship by the clerical regime.[5] During the domestic unrest following the post-election protests in which opposition groups accused the regime of rigged elections, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Twitter networking service to keep the system running, leading to complaints from Iran's government. Protesters used Twitter to communicate amid the clampdown.[6]

In the Iranian presidential elections of 2013, the reformist Hassan Rouhani won.[7] Rouhani wants to improve the relationships with the US and Israel. But it does make no difference because the real power got Ali Khamenei.[8]

In 2015 President Barack Obama negotiated an Iranian nuke deal allowing Iran to build nuclear weapons in 13 years. In 2018 President Donald Trump rescinded the deal.

Further reading

  • Ferrier, R. W., ed. The Arts of Persia. (1989). 334 pp.
  • Irving, Clive. Crossroads of Civilization: 3000 Years of Persian History. (1980). 223 pp.
  • Katouzian, Homa. The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran (2009), scholarly survey
  • Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. (1996). 448 pp.


  • Allen, Lindsay. The Persian Empire (2005)
  • Holland, Tom. Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Katouzian, Homa. The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran (2009), scholarly survey
  • Stierlin, Henri. Splendors of The Persian Empire (2006), art abd architecture

Medieval to 1900

  • Morgan, David. Medieval Persia, 1040-1797. (1988). 197 pp.
  • Savory, Roger. Iran under the Safavids. (1980). 277 pp. covers 1501-1722 AD.
  • Foran, John. Fragile Resistance: Social Transformation in Iran from 1500 to the Revolution. (1993). 452 pp.

20th century

  • Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran Between Two Revolutions (1982).
  • Akhavi, Shahrough. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran (1980).
  • Amid, Mohammad. Agriculture, Poverty and Reform in Iran (1990).
  • Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran Since 1921 (2003).
  • Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown. The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1988).
  • Bayat, Mangol. Iran's First Revolution (1991).
  • Burke, Edmund, and Yaghoubian, David, eds. Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East (2nd ed. 2006).
  • Dabashi, Hamid. Theology of Discontent. The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1993).
  • Kamrava, Mehran. The Political History of Modern Iran: From Tribalism to Theocracy. (1992). 177 pp.
  • Keddie, Nikki. Roots of Revolution (1981).
  • Kedourie, Elie and Haim, Syvia G., eds. Towards a Modern Iran: Studies in Thought, Politics, and Society. (1980). 262 pp.
  • McDaniel, Tim. Autocracy, Modernization, and Revolution in Russia and Iran (1991).
  • Martin, Vanessa. Islam and Modernism (1989).
  • Moin, Baqer. Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (1999).
  • Schayegh, Cyrus. "Recent Trends in the Historiography of Iran under the Pahlavi Dynasty, 1921–1979" History Compass v.6 #6 (Nov. 2008) pp 1400–1406 DOI: 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2008.00558.x online

Primary sources

  • Alexander, Yonah and Nanes, Allan, eds. The United States and Iran: A Documentary History. (1980). 524 pp.

See also


  1. United States Army in World War II, The Middle East Theater The Persian Corridor and Aid to Russia, T. H. Vail Motter, Center of Military History United States Army Washington, D.C., 2000. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 52-60791. First Printed 1952-CMH Pub 8-1.
  2. The Yalta Betrayal, Felix Wittmer, Claxton Printers, 1953, pg. 20, 54.
  3. Grinter, Dr. Lawrence E. Avoiding the Burden: The Carter Doctrine in Perspective Vol. XXXIV, No. 2 (January–February 1983): 73-82.
  4. Reports Suggest Obama Faces Early Choice On Iran Covert Ops, Ron Synovitz, Globalsecurity.org January 13, 2009.
  5. Bush sanctions 'black ops' against Iran, London Telegraph, 27 May 2007.
  6. Hillary Clinton defends Twitter efforts for Iran, L.A. Times, June 17, 2009.
  7. https://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/06/15/early-results-in-iran-presidential-election-give-reformist-backed-rowhani-wide/
  8. http://frontpagemag.com/2013/davidhornik/the-islamic-republic-goes-to-the-polls/