Reportage | Iran

Iran: From the splendor of the past to the contradiction of the present

Country Insight by Michele Guerriero -

The journey of a country with a controversial history

Under the Shah, Iran was closely aligned with US interests, while the Ayatollah’s regime pursued a violent crusade against the West. Once held up as a model of reform, Iran under Khomeini’s Islamic Republic turned back the page of history, ending up with a trade embargo lifted only thanks to the recent compromise on the nation’s nuclear ambitions


Iran, the cradle of Indo-European civilization, has a long, controversial and at times contradictory history. It was the center of the Persian Empire established by Cyrus the Elder, and which Darius the Great sought to re-found and remake after his own fashion. Iran was the heart of Persia, and from the 16th century, under the Safavid dynasty, Persia came to be the beating heart of Shia Islam, and today, alongside Syria, Iran represents the Shia counterpart to Sunni powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The rivalry with Saudi Arabia, in particular, has always been marked by a struggle for supremacy that put at times one and at times the other in a position of advantage. With distinctly unique characters, both are major oil & gas producers, offering opposing visions of Islam. Iran in the 19th century put itself forward as an Islamic leader in the confounding Middle Eastern puzzle. In order to understand modern Iran, it is necessary to understand the history of the last century, the two world wars, the geopolitics of oil, and a series of efforts to build a secular society, frustrated by a succession of regimes, wars and revolutions.

The first and second shahs of Persia

Modern Iran developed under the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty. In 1925, Reza Khan deposed the reigning Qajar dynasty and had himself crowned as the shah of Persia. During the Second World War, the Allies, apprehensive about the shah’s apparent sympathy for Hitler, compelled him to abdicate, leaving his throne to his son, Mohammad Reza. In 1951, the latter opposed the nationalist scheme of prime minister Mosaddegh to nationalize the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which held the rights to virtually all oil extraction and commercialization in the country. The shah went into exile in Rome, only returning in 1953 on the strength of American support, permanently ending the Mosaddegh government. During the 1960s, the shah pursued a series of reforms (built on a pro-American foreign policy) that came to be known as the White Revolution. The reforms concerned agricultural policy, industrialization, education, health services and women’s rights. All this came crumbling down in 1978, following the revolution of 1977, the latter a result of a recession in ’76-’77. This was followed by the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile, and the 1979constitution by referendum of an Islamic Republic with Khomeini as Supreme Leader for life.

The Islamic Republic under Khomeini and the war with Iraq

The traumatic end of the shah’s 37-year reign over Persia also marked the end of the dream of Iran as a moderate Muslim country, like the one forged by Atatürk in Turkey. Khomeini took measures to suppress the country’s history up to that point, returning to a past before secularization and reform. The United States was defined as the “great Satan,” but still some Americans failed at the time to fully comprehend the meaning of this revolution. Such was the case of Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, who pushed for a coup d’état in the hopes of quickly reestablishing the status quo. But this proved impossible: Iran’s military leadership never considered the option, nor was President Carter ever completely won over to the idea. Khomeini’s reign was also characterized by a war with neighboring Iraq, ruled by Saddam Hussein, a conflict that lasted 10 years. Officially started over a border dispute, in reality the war was Baghdad’s attempt to forestall an Islamization of the entire Persian Gulf at the instigation of Tehran. In spite of a weaker military force, Iran nearly managed to invade Iraq and capture Basra. In order to prevent that, the United States formed a coalition with moderate Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia.

Missile and nuclear programs: from Ahmadinejad to Rouhani

Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs were started during the war with Iraq. For the missiles, the Iranians turned to North Korea, Russia and China. According to historians, it was in 1987 that the government started down the path to a nuclear program, establishing relations with Pakistan, the only Muslim country in possession of nukes. With Khomeini’s death in 1989, the title of Supreme Leader passed to Ali Khamenei. President Hashemi Rafsanjani implemented a policy of economic deregulation aimed at attracting foreign investments, but the “Iranian Spring,” as many referred to it, came to an end in 1997 with opposition by conservative elements at all levels of the Iranian society and economy, including the oil industry. The presidential elections of 1997 were won by moderate Mohammad Khatami, he too with a vision for a more open Iran, again with the opposition of conservative groups, which triumphed in 2005 with the election of then-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A member of an ultra-conservative family, and suspected of involvement in the American embassy hostage crisis of 1979, Ahmadinejad halted the reforms and undertook an isolationist policy. He also relaunched the country’s nuclear program and supported Shia parties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hassan Rouhani was elected to the presidency in 2013 after running a western-style campaign promising improved economic conditions for Iranian citizens. Rouhani had formerly worked as a negotiator in the diplomatic process over Iran’s nuclear program. He managed to secure the support of not only Supreme Leader Khamenei, but also the consensus of conservative groups that found Ahmadinejad’s policies too isolationist and harmful to the Iranian people. During a speech before the UN in September 2013, Rouhani declared that he wished for Iran to assume a central role in the international community. Considering the outcome of the nuclear talks, it’s fair to say that he delivered on this promise.

The re-election of Rouhani

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been nominated for this year's presidential election, but was rejected by the Guardian's Council, in charge of approving candidates candidacy, a decision that had already reopened the way for re-election of the acting president, Hassan Rouhani. Rohani was then confirmed to the presidency of the Iranian Republic for the second term, with 56.88% of the vote. The country has chosen the policy of openness and dialogue. "Iran is available to strengthen and expand international ties in all fields," Rohani made clear after his re-election. These openings were at the heart of the July 2015 nuclear agreement.