(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Iran is the most populous and the second-largest country in the Middle East (after Saudi Arabia) and a major exporter of oil. Its name means "Land of the Aryans." Iran was the center of a great empire of the ancient world. It remained a monarchy until the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the West, the country has been known as Persia, from the ancient Greek name for the heartland of the empire, Persis. The use of the name Iran was requested by the government in 1935. Iran became Muslim after the Arab conquest in the 7th century; Shiite Islam became its official religion in the 16th century.

The country is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Armenia; on the west by Turkey and Iraq; and on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the south, with a coastline of 2,043 km (1,270 mi) and control of a dozen islands, it commands navigation of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman.

Land and Resources

Iran is part of the Alpine-Himalayan mountain system. It consists of a large central plateau or highland rimmed by mountain ranges to the north and west. North of the plateau are the Elburz Mountains; the Talish Mountains are to the northwest, and the Kopet Dagh to the northeast. Mount Demavend (5,671 m/18,606 ft), an extinct volcano northeast of Tehran in the Elburz Mountains, is the highest point in Iran. The Zagros Mountains rise in the southwest; they are largely continuous with the mountains of eastern Turkey and the Caucasus. The mountainous regions of Iran are especially prone to earthquakes. Lowlands amount at most to some 7% of Iran's total area. These are located on the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. About half of the country consists of an arid central plateau with elevations ranging from 600 to 900 m (2,000 to 3,000 ft). The plateau includes the uninhabited sand desert and salt basins of central and eastern Iran known as the Kavir (Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut).

Soils and Water. 

Brown forest soils found along the coasts of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf are used extensively for farming. Fertile soils from the alluvial river valleys, especially around the Karun River and the Shatt-al-Arab, are also suitable for farming. In this arid region, however, water availability rather than quality of soil is decisive for the development of agriculture. Irrigation is essential for agriculture in most parts of Iran because rainfall is limited; an ingenious system of wells connected by underground tunnels known as qanats is widely used for bringing water from the foot of the mountains into farmlands on the plateau.


Iran's varied continental climate is characterized by extremes of both temperature and precipitation. Summers are very hot along the Persian Gulf; there temperatures of 50° C (122° F) are not uncommon. Inland, daytime highs also occasionally reach this level, but the temperature drops quickly at night. Except along the Caspian and Persian Gulf shores, winters are cold. Precipitation ranges from more than 1,270 mm (50 in) annually in the northwestern Zagros Mountains and in the Elburz Mountains to less than 50 mm (2 in) in the southeastern part of the central plateau.


Iran lacks major rivers. The Karun, which flows from the Zagros Mountains into the Shatt-al-Arab, is the most important and only navigable river in the country. Other major perennial rivers are the Atrak, the Safid Rud, and the Araks (Aras), all of which flow into the Caspian Sea; the Karkheh flows into the swamps in the Mesopotamian marshes. Central and eastern Iran are areas of interior drainage. The mountain ranges enclose a number of salt lake basins similar to those in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. The largest salt lakes are Lake Urmia (Orumieh), in the northwest, and Lake Namak, on the northeastern edge of the Kavir near the cities of Qum and Kashan.

Vegetation and Animal Life. 

About 11% of Iran, in the mountains bordering the Caspian Sea, is covered with mostly deciduous forest. Many kinds of trees and shrubs also cover parts of the Zagros Mountains. Drier areas generally lack vegetation. Poplars, tamarisks, date palms, myrtles, and mulberries are common trees in the oases. Plateau fauna include wild boar, foxes, and jackals and numerous smaller animals; a few lions and tigers are found in wilder areas. Lizards and various other creatures adapted to arid conditions live in the drier areas.


Iran has extremely rich mineral resources, especially petroleum and natural gas. Petroleum was discovered in Khuzestan province in 1908 under a concession to a British national who established the Anglo-Persian (later, Anglo-Iranian) Oil Company; extraction began the following year. Oil production in Iran thus started long before it did in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. With roughly 10% of the world's known crude petroleum reserves, Iran remains one of the most important members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Most oil fields are still located in the southwest. Some, however, are offshore under the Persian Gulf, with extensive deposits found in other parts of the country. A major new field in the southwest near Ahvaz, the most important find in decades, was discovered in 1999. Iran also signed a contract with a Swedish firm to begin oil exploration in a disputed area of the Caspian Sea in 2001. In 2003 it announced the discovery of huge new oil fields near the coast believed to contain up to 38 billion barrels. Much of this was unlikely to be worth commercial exploitation, though.

Natural gas is as yet underutilized commercially, but its supplies are also enormous (about 24.8 trillion m3/875.8 trillion ft3 in 2004). They constitute, after Russia's, the world's second-largest reserves. Iran is pushing for the construction of a natural-gas pipeline linking its gas fields to growing markets in India and Pakistan, although India has resisted the idea of a pipeline that would run through Pakistan before reaching India. Iron and coal deposits were developed in the 1970s for use in the new steel industry. Significant deposits of chromite, copper, lead, zinc, and salt are only beginning to be exploited commercially.


Aryan tribes migrated into the Iranian plateau in the 2d millennium B.C. Iran's official language, Persian (Farsi), is an Indo-European language, although it has been written in modified Arabic script since the 10th century. The Gilani and Mazandarani dialects, spoken by the inhabitants of the provinces around the Caspian Sea, and the Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi dialects are also Indo-European. Iran was invaded by Arab tribespeople in the 7th century and by Turko-Mongolian tribes in the 11th to 14th centuries. Turkic languages are also spoken in Iran, mainly Azerbaijani in the northwest and the Azerbaijani dialects of Qashqai and Aynallu farther south. Turkmen is spoken in the northeast. Arabic is spoken in Khuzestan and by some tribespeople in Fars. Iran has a long history of continuous administration and independent rule, shared culture, and common religion, however. This has given the large majority of Iranians a strong sense of national identity.

By 1920, nomadic pastoralist tribes, which included both distinct ethnolinguistic minorities and government-created federations, constituted more than a quarter of Iran's population. Their number declined sharply as a result of government repression and forced settlement in the 1920s and 1930s. Continued pressure as well as the lure of the cities and settled life has resulted in a further sharp decline since the 1960s. The most important tribal groups are the Kurds, who live mainly in the province of Kurdistan in the northern Zagros region; the Lurs and the Bakhtiari, who live in the southern Zagros region; the Qashqai in Fars; the Turkoman in the northeast; and the Baloch in the southeast. In 2003 the country also was home to some 300,000 Iraqi refugees. The number of Afghan refugees in Iran before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States was estimated at 2.4 million. By 2003 this number had been reduced to about 1 million. In 2004 the Iranian government publicly called upon the remaining refugees to return home within 16 months and began withdrawing subsidies such as free tuition to encourage their departure.


Some 98% of Iranians are Muslims, with 89% belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam and 9% to the Sunnite branch. The latter group includes many of the Kurds, Baloch, and Turkomans. Iran is the only Muslim country where Shiism has been (since 1501) the official state religion. Mashhad and Qum are important Shiite religious centers with holy shrines frequently visited by pilgrims. The Baha'is, who branched off from Shiism in the 19th century and make up roughly 0.6% of the population, are persecuted as apostate by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Armenian Christians constitute approximately 0.5% of the population; they are the next-largest minority religious group. Smaller communities of Jews, Zoroastrians and Nestorian Christians, each representing about 0.1% of the population, are officially recognized as religious minorities. There is, however, evidence of political pressure on the Christians, the Zoroastrians, members of the Shaykhi branch of Shiism, and those inclined toward Sufism. The government is vocally anti-Israel. Between the 1979 Islamic revolution and the turn of the century, nearly half of Iran's Jews were thought to have left the country.


The population of Iran is concentrated in the region around the Caspian Sea in the north, the Atrak River valley in the northeast, the mountain valleys in the northwest, and the Karun River valley in the southwest. Iranian cities have grown very rapidly since the 1970s. Tehran, the capital, is by far the largest city. Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz all have populations in excess of 1 million. Other major cities include Ardabil, Bakhtaran, Kerman, Orumiyeh, Qazvin, Rasht, and Yazd. The nation's population grew quickly during the 1960s and 1970s. It increased sharply after the revolution, reaching an annual growth rate of 3.9% in 1988; growth has since been reduced. The total population trebled between 1960 and 1995. By 2007 about 23% of the population were under the age of 15.

Education and Health. 

Education is free and compulsory for all children from the age of 7 to 12. Many new schools have been built since the revolution. Nevertheless, owing to the demographic explosion, overcrowded school facilities are often used in two shifts. After the revolution, textbooks were rewritten to place greater emphasis on religion and traditional values. Although many restrictions on women that had been lifted during the time of the shah were reimposed after the Islamic revolution, both education and health care for women have improved significantly. By 2003, women lived longer than men, the literacy rate for females between the ages of 15 and 24 had risen to 97%, and female students outnumbered males at state universities. The country's universities, the oldest and largest of which is the University of Tehran (1934), were purged after the revolution but have been expanding since 1983.

Health care has improved in the last four decades. It remains inadequate, however, especially in the countryside. Qualified medical professionals are in short supply; about 15% of the physicians working for the Ministry of Health are foreigners. Smog has become a serious problem; it was implicated in the deaths of nearly 10,000 people in Tehran in the year ending March 2006.

The Arts. 

Iran has a very rich culture. Persian literature has flourished for more than a thousand years, with poetry as the foremost art form. Music and architecture are also historically important, as are calligraphy and miniature painting. Iran is also famous for its crafts, including ceramics, silver and gold metalwork, and, above all, Persian carpets. The traditional crafts, however, have declined with industrialization. In recent years Iranian films—most notably Abbas Kiarostami's acclaimed Close-Up (1990) and Jafar Panahi's The Circle (2000)—have been earning an international reputation.

Economic Activity

The Iranian economy remained overwhelmingly agrarian until the end of World War I. In the 1920s and 1930s, Reza Shah Pahlavi built the infrastructure of the modern economy and instituted a program of industrialization under state ownership. A second wave of industrialization (1963–73) was helped by a steady increase in Iran's oil revenues. The state invested heavily in infrastructure, while the private sector took the lead in industry and banking. After the revolution, banks and most private industries were nationalized.

By the turn of the 21st century, unemployment was at least 20%. Many wage earners were forced to hold multiple jobs to survive. Since that time, improved rainfall, rising world oil prices, and a gradual easing of the economic restrictions imposed after the 1979 revolution have contributed to the return of moderate economic growth (estimated to be approximately 6% in 2005). Foreign investment, though, remains minimal. At least one-quarter of the Iranian economy is controlled by the bonyads—huge foundations that received assets seized from the shah and his associates after the revolution. The bonyads, whose responsibility is to care for the needy, have since acquired millions of dollars more in assets. They are constitutionally above the law and are answerable only to the nation's supreme religious leader.


The oil industry, nationalized in 1951 and now including refineries and petrochemicals, is by far Iran's leading industry. The oil refinery in Abadan was the largest in the world until it was destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). It has since been rebuilt, but its capacity has not reached the previous level. Manufacturing provides a larger share of the gross national product than agriculture, although it employs fewer people. After the Islamic revolution in 1979, all large industrial plants were nationalized. Government efforts at privatization since the 1990s have so far had little effect; inefficient state-managed industries remain dependent on direct and indirect government subsidies. The textile industry is Iran's oldest and remains important. Steel manufacturing, begun in 1973, is linked to the production of automobiles, buses, trucks, tractors, refrigerators, and electronic machinery. Russian specialists helping to build a nuclear power plant at the port city of Bandar-e Bushehr left Iran in March 2007 due to financial and political differences; by this time the plant was 95% completed. The government has approved plans to build additional nuclear plants near Bushehr and in Arak and Darkhovin.

Agriculture and Fishing. 

Because of its general aridity and mountainous topography, only some 11–12% of Iran's land is suitable for farming. About 40% of this land is irrigated. More than half of it is left fallow at any one time. During the land reform of 1962–71, large estates of absentee landlords were distributed to nearly 2 million sharecroppers. A class of small proprietors has since been consolidated. Nonetheless, most farms remain small and inefficient. Agricultural output has not kept pace with the demands of the rapidly growing population. Food imports have consequently risen sharply. Additionally, in 1999–2001 the worst drought in decades adversely affected the agricultural sector and therefore more than half the population, especially in southern and eastern Iran. Water rationing was instituted in many cities, and millions of tons of grain and several hundred thousand head of livestock were destroyed. Additional crops in northeastern Iran were lost in 2001 during the worst flooding in that area in hundreds of years. The raising of sheep and cattle, traditionally a mainstay of the Iranian economy, has lost its significance as a result of the dwindling number of nomadic tribespeople. Commercial fishing is important along the Persian Gulf and in the Caspian Sea, the source of Iran's famous caviar. Pistachio nuts and fruits are leading agricultural exports.


Railroads serve the major cities of Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz, Qum, Isfahan, Ahvaz, Bandar Khomeini, and Khorramshahr; a rail line linking Mashhad to Sarakhs, on the Turkmenistan border, opened in 1996. The main highway extends from the Turkish border to Mashhad and continues to the Afghan border. Another highway connects Tehran to Qum and continues to Isfahan and Shiraz. The chief ports on the Persian Gulf are Khorramshahr, Bandar Khomeini, Bandar Abbas, and Bushehr. Smaller ports are located on the Caspian Sea. Kharg Island, in the Persian Gulf, is the principal terminus for oil exports.


Oil and petrochemical products account for nearly 90% of Iran's exports. Non-oil exports include carpets, cotton, dried fruits, and pistachios. The United States was Iran's primary trading partner before the Islamic revolution. It has since been replaced by Japan, China, and Western Europe. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Iran considerably expanded its trade with the neighboring former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan. A natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Kurd Kul in Iran opened in 1997. Iran has since signed numerous agreements with foreign companies to develop its oil resources. It lost its battle, however, to have Caspian Sea oil reserves exported to the Mediterranean region via a pipeline through Iranian territory. Instead, under terms of an accord signed by Turkmenistan and a U.S.-led consortium in 1999, the export route bypasses both Russia and Iran. The country remains under a U.S. trade embargo imposed following the seizure of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Although restrictions on the export of Iranian carpets, pistachio nuts, and caviar to the United States were lifted in 2000, U.S. sanctions on foreign companies making major investments in Iran's oil and gas industry were extended for an additional five years in August 2001 to protest what the United States said was Iran's involvement in international terrorism.

Since the turn of the 21st century, Iran has taken action to improve relations with many of its neighbors. These moves included the 2001 establishment of weekly train service between Damascus, Syria, and Tehran and an agreement to build freshwater pipelines that would funnel drinking water from northern Iran to Kuwait. In 2004 it signed an agreement with Japan giving that nation a 75% share in the development of Iran's Azadegan oil field, one of the largest in the Middle East. Iran also became China's second-largest source of imported oil. In 2005, Iran and India agreed to cooperate in the construction of a natural-gas pipeline between the two countries; India had already agreed to import millions of tons of liquefied natural gas from Iran. The gas pipeline would also provide transit fees for Pakistan. China has signaled its intent to develop one of Iran's largest onshore oil fields, Yadavaran, in exchange for guaranteed supplies of liquefied natural gas. A natural-gas pipeline between Iran and Armenia was inaugurated in 2007.

Iran is one of the world's largest petroleum exporters. Nevertheless, its demand for gasoline far outstrips its domestic refining capacity. Iran must therefore import much of its gasoline. Large amounts of this gasoline, which is subsidized, is smuggled to neighboring countries. By 2006, under threat of economic sanctions, the government debated introducing gasoline rationing. Some experts predicted that Iran's income from oil exports could vanish by 2015, partly because of its failure to reinvest in the industry.


The government of Iran is the first theocratic republic in the world. The constitution of the Islamic Republic gives its Leader, the Faqih, extensive religious and secular powers. These include the right to appoint the commanders of the armed forces and the head of the judiciary and to confirm the elected president. Legislative power is vested in the Majlis, whose members are elected every 4 years. All Majlis legislation, however, must be in conformity with Islam as determined by the six clerical jurists of the Council of Guardians, which automatically reviews all legislation. The constitution was amended in 1989 to strengthen the presidency by abolishing the office of the prime minister. Subsequently, the voting age was raised from 15 to 18 years. The Council for the Determination of the Interest of the Islamic Republic, whose members are appointed by the Faqih, was set up to arbitrate in cases of deadlock between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians. The clerical Assembly of Experts has the power to elect and dismiss the Leader of the Islamic Republic (the Faqih).


Iran's documented history can easily be traced to the empire of the Medes in western Iran and Asia Minor in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.. It assumes great importance in world history with the establishment, in 549 B.C., of the Achaemenid empire by the ruler of Persia, Cyrus the Great. The Achaemenid empire was extended to Egypt by Cyrus's son, Cambyses II; its consolidation as a world state took place under Darius I (r. 522–486 B.C.). This empire was overthrown in 330 B.C. by Alexander the Great. After his death, Iran became part of the Seleucid kingdom founded by one of his generals, Seleucus I Nicator. In about 238 B.C., the Parthian empire was established under the Arsacid dynasty in Bactria and northeastern Iran. In the late 2d century B.C., the Arsacids recovered many of the dominions of the Persian empire. In A.D. c.224, the Parthian empire was overthrown by Ardashir, a Persian local ruler who claimed Achaemenid descent. The dynasty he founded, the Sassanians, ruled Iran until the Arab conquest, which began in c.637.

Iran was gradually converted to Islam by the conquering Arabs and incorporated into the caliphate. After the Abbasid revolution (750), Iranians became prominent in the caliphal government and administration. Independent dynasties appeared in different parts of Iran in the latter part of the 9th century and through the 10th and 11th centuries. The Seljuk Turks invaded Iran in the mid-11th century; defeated the Byzantine emperor in 1071, opening Anatolia to settlement by Turkish tribes; and established a vast empire that extended to the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the rise of local dynasties, Iran had remained under the suzerainty of the caliphs. Most of it was conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan by 1220. One of Genghis's grandsons, Hulagu, established the Il-Khan (Ilkhanid) dynasty in Iran (with its capital at Soltaniyeh) in 1256. In 1258 he overthrew the Abbasid caliphate altogether by seizing and largely destroying Baghdad. The Turko-Mongolian domination of Iran continued under Timur (1381–1405), whose world empire fragmented after his death, and under the Turkoman dynasties of western Iran to the end of the 15th century.

In 1501, Shah Ismail, the leader of a Sufi millenarian movement, founded the Safavid empire; he established Shiism as its official religion. Shiism was spread among the Iranian masses under the Safavid dynasty. The Safavid state was consolidated by Abbas I (r. 1587–1629), who chose the city of Isfahan as his capital. The Safavid government was overthrown by Sunni Afghan tribesmen from the eastern periphery of the empire in 1722. Iran succumbed to periodic internecine warfare during the rest of the 18th century. After the restoration of a unified state under the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925), the Shiite hierarchy emerged as a power independent of the state; its highest-ranking members assumed the title of Ayatollah (sign of God) by the beginning of the 20th century.

Between 1811 and 1827, Iran lost a series of wars with Russia. During the rest of the 19th century it came under increasing pressure from Russia in the north and from Britain, which was concerned with the security of its Indian empire and its trade in the Persian Gulf. The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 divided the country into Russian, neutral, and British zones of influence. Iran nevertheless maintained its independence. Popular protest against the decadent Qajar government, which had begun in 1890 under the leadership of the Shiite hierarchy in opposition to a British tobacco concession, was revived in 1905. This forced the ailing shah to order the election of a Majlis (parliament) and grant Iran a constitution in 1906. There followed five years of political struggle, known as the Constitutional Revolution, between the new shah, supported by Russia, and the Majlis.

The attempts of constitutional governments to implement administrative, judicial, and military reforms were frustrated and central authority fell apart. After a coup d'état in February 1921, Reza Khan, an officer of the Cossack brigade, became commander in chief of the armed forces. He quickly consolidated his power. In 1925 the Majlis deposed the last Qajar shah and elevated Reza Khan to the throne as Reza Shah Pahlavi. Reza Shah had already begun to implement military and administrative reforms as prime minister; he created a modern standing army out of the ragtag military forces and brought all of Iran under control of the central government. He set up a centralized civil service and a national educational system with schools for boys and girls and established the University of Tehran. In 1941, however, Reza Shah was forced by the Allies to abdicate in favor of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who reigned until 1979.

Between 1941 and 1953, the Majlis, which had been turned into a rubber stamp by Reza Shah, became highly assertive. This caused frequent changes of government and political instability. In March 1951 the Majlis nationalized the oil industry; Muhammad Mosaddeq became prime minister. Britain refused to accept the nationalization and severed its diplomatic ties with Iran. In 1953 the United States acquiesced in a British plan for a coup to overthrow Mosaddeq. The coup was carried out on Aug. 19, 1953.

The shah, who had fled the country a few days earlier, returned. In 1961, under U.S. pressure, the shah appointed Ali Amini prime minister. Amini's minister of agriculture, Hasan Arsanjani, launched the land reform of 1962 and distributed the largest estates among landless peasants. The shah continued the land reform and combined it with other measures, including suffrage for women. He submitted his reform package to a referendum in January 1963. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the clerical opposition to the shah's reform program. Khomeini was arrested in June, and riots following his arrest were suppressed with considerable loss of life. The shah carried out his reform program, while a series of developmental plans helped to create impressive economic growth during the next decade. The regime, however, grew increasingly repressive. The shah became dictatorial, relying heavily on his secret police (known by its Persian acronym, SAVAK). The Majlis was turned once more into a rubber stamp. The shah played a leading role in the quadrupling of world oil prices by OPEC in 1973–74. His attempt to transform Iran into a world power overnight was less successful. It resulted in massive rural-to-urban migration, inflation, bottlenecks, and economic dislocation. This created widespread discontent that fueled the revolution of 1979.

All political groups opposed to the shah unified under the leadership of Khomeini as huge demonstrations and strikes paralyzed the government. The country was put under martial law. Khomeini appointed a Revolutionary Council and refused to negotiate with the shah and his aides. The shah left Iran on Jan. 16, 1979. Khomeini returned from exile to a tumultuous welcome on February 1, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was proclaimed on February 12. Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of a provisional government that included representatives of the liberal and nationalist elements of the revolutionary coalition. A system of dual power immediately emerged, however, with the revolutionary committee and the newly created revolutionary guards (Pasdaran) acting independently of the provisional government. A clerically dominated Assembly of Experts elected in place of a constituent assembly bypassed a draft constitution submitted by the provisional government. Instead, it proposed a theocratic government based on the Mandate of the Faqih, with an elected parliament and president. This was approved by a referendum in December 1979.

The United States was embroiled in the Islamic revolution because of its longtime support for the shah and close technical support of his army. In November 1979, while plans for a theocratic government were being unveiled against the wishes of the liberal and nationalist members of the provisional government, the U.S. embassy was seized by militant Islamic students. Khomeini supported the takeover and dismissed Bazargan. This precipitated an international crisis that finally ended with the release of the hostages in January 1981. Meanwhile, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a moderate like Bazargan, was elected president in January 1980. Power struggles between Bani-Sadr and the revolutionary structures of power on the one hand and the Islamic Republic party (which dominated the newly elected Majlis) on the other continued until Bani-Sadr's impeachment by the Majlis on June 21, 1981, and his subsequent dismissal by Khomeini. The revolutionary power struggle then moved into the streets and entered its most violent phase. More than 70 leading members of the Islamic Republic party were killed in an explosion on June 28; new president Muhammad Ali Rajai and new prime minister Muhammad Javad Bahonar died in another explosion on August 30. A string of assassinations of prominent clerics followed. In the revolutionary terror, which did not abate until early 1983, thousands of men and women belonging to rival revolutionary groups were executed or killed in streetfights. The most notable of these groups was the mujahideen, Islamic radicals who supported Bani-Sadr and to whom the explosions and assassinations were attributed.

Following a border dispute, Iraqi troops invaded Iran in 1980. Thus began the Iran-Iraq War, which continued until a UN-mediated cease-fire agreement came into effect in August 1988. Radicals in Iran's revolutionary elite favored the export of the Islamic revolution; they established links with Hezbollah in Lebanon and underground Islamic revolutionary groups in Iraq and elsewhere. In what became known as the Iran-contra affair, the United States agreed to sell arms to Iran secretly for use in the war with Iraq; news of the agreement was leaked by dissatisfied members of the revolutionary elite in 1986.

Hojatolislam (later Ayatollah) Ali Khamenei, who had been elected president of Iran in 1981 after the assassination of Rajai, was reelected in 1985. Khomeini, who had been designated Leader of the Islamic Republic, died on June 3, 1989. The clerical Assembly of Experts swiftly chose Khamenei as his successor. The energetic speaker of the Majlis, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was elected president in July 1989. Iran remained neutral during the 1991 Persian Gulf War; it was credited with putting pressure on Shiite militants in Lebanon that led to the gradual release of Western hostages held there in 1991. The U.S. government, however, did not opt for improved relations. Rafsanjani, who was returned to office in 1993, sought with some success to end Iran's diplomatic isolation. The United States, however, banned U.S. companies from trading with Iran in 1995 and imposed (1996) secondary sanctions against foreign companies investing heavily in Iran. Iran's increasing influence among Iraq's Kurds contributed to the 1996 confrontation between the United States and Iraq.

Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, won Iran's first free presidential election since the 1979 revolution in May 1997. He called for an easing of clerical restrictions and stressed the importance of the rule of law. He also sought to improve Iran's relations with the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and the Western nations. He later lifted some restrictions on publishing and the arts and called for an end to the U.S. effort to isolate Iran. His agenda faced opposition from hard-line conservatives, who still controlled about 120 seats in the 270-seat legislature (later expanded to 290 seats), compared with 80–90 seats for Khatami supporters and 60–70 held by independents. Khatami faced economic problems as well. The nation's per-capita income had decreased by approximately two-thirds between 1978 and 1998; this was due partly to dramatic declines in world oil prices and a lack of foreign investment.

Subsequently, when several Iranian diplomats were killed during the takeover of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan by the fundamentalist Sunnite Muslim Taliban, Iran staged military exercises along the Afghan border. Iranian troops remained in the area to deter what Iran perceived as a threat to its national interests. Iran had been backing the anti-Taliban forces, including Afghanistan's Hazara Shiite minority. The situation reflected growing rifts in the Islamic world between Iran, which considered itself to be the main protector of Shiite communities around the world, and fundamentalist Sunnite Muslims such as the Taliban and some groups in Pakistan, who considered Shiites to be members of a heretical branch of Islam and therefore not true Muslims. In November 1999, primarily for economic reasons, the border between Iran and Afghanistan was reopened.

In July 1999 there were huge demonstrations in cities throughout Iran by university students protesting press restrictions imposed by conservatives and demanding democratic reforms. These demonstrations, the largest since the 1979 revolution, were suppressed by security police and hard-line volunteer vigilantes. Both Khatami and Khamenei called for restraint. The violence ended, but no clear victor in the ongoing conflict between reformists and conservatives had yet emerged. Several leaders of the demonstrations were subsequently secretly tried and sentenced to death. Many reformist journalists allied with Khatami were also tried and imprisoned.

The conservative-controlled body screening candidates refused to allow most of the leading reformists to run in the February 2000 legislative elections. Nevertheless, Khatami's allies won a clear legislative majority, capturing 186 of 290 seats in the first round of voting and 52 of the 66 seats contested in a May 2000 runoff. Their support was strongest among youth and women and those seeking an improvement in the economy and an expansion of social freedoms. The elections drew the highest turnout (about 83% of those eligible to vote) of any since the 1979 revolution.

Although the change in the makeup of the Majlis removed a major obstacle to the implementation of Khatami's reform program, many other important government bodies remained under conservative control. (The conservative bodies included the Council of Guardians, which had to approve all legislation.) Even the reformists did not advocate a Western-style secular democracy. Instead, they proposed a peaceful transition to democracy within an Islamic system. They also continued to refuse to recognize the existence of Israel. On June 8, 2001, Khatami was overwhelmingly elected to a second term as president. The massive turnout reflected his support among Iranian voters. But his efforts at reform continued to face conservative opposition, and the lack of progress gradually eroded his popularity.

The Iranian government condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, but it also said that any retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan should be authorized by the international community through the United Nations. Iran had long provided aid to Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. It remained on the sidelines during the U.S.-led military campaign that led to the collapse of the Taliban regime in December. In January 2002, however, Israel and the United States accused Iran of smuggling arms to the Palestinian National Authority and providing refuge to members of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) terrorist network fleeing Afghanistan. Iran denied both charges. In early 2002, following Iran's release of some of the last Iraqi prisoners of war, Iran and Iraq agreed to resume direct flights between Tehran and Baghdad and take other steps to improve their relations.

Iran's relationship with the United States deteriorated dramatically in 2002, when U.S. president George W. Bush described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his January 29 State of the Union address. The Iranian government strongly objected to Bush's charges. Iranians staged the largest anti-U.S. demonstration in many years in Tehran. The situation was seen as strengthening the hand of the country's hard-liners in their struggle with the reformists. Although the Iranian government accepted U.S. humanitarian aid for the victims of a June 22, 2002, earthquake in the northwestern province of Qazvin and again after an even deadlier quake in December 2003 that almost totally destroyed the ancient city of Bam< and killed more than 26,000 people, it remained uninterested in opening a political dialogue with the United States.

Many Iranians had welcomed the downfall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003. Nevertheless, they also distrusted the United States and its allies; they feared that Iran might be the next target of the U.S.-led war on international terrorism. There were huge antiwar marches in Iran when the U.S.-led Iraq War was launched in March of that year. The swift removal of Hussein from power sparked heated debates among Iranians about the possible effects on their own country.

Some U.S. officials subsequently charged that Iranian-trained Shiite militias in southern Iraq were attempting to install an Iranian-style Islamic government in postwar Iraq. An Iranian opposition group operating in Iraq, the Paris-based Mujahideen Khalq (People's Mujahideen), which sought to replace Iran's religious leaders with democratically elected ones and had been classed as a terrorist organization by the United States, agreed in May 2003 to turn its weapons over to the U.S.-led coalition that had ousted Hussein. Iran declared that its activities in Iraq were aimed at providing food, health care, and other assistance to suffering Iraqis; it called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country. Also in May, during the first visit to Lebanon by an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Khatami praised the militant Islamic Hezbollah (which opposes Israel's existence and has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States) while denying that Iran was supplying or directing Hezbollah's activities.

In June 2003, Iranian students staged the largest antigovernment protests since those in 1999. They criticized not only the hard-liners but also the failure of Khatami's reform movement to deliver on its agenda. Many of the demonstrators were arrested. Khamenei warned that the police would crack down on the students if they did not end their protests. The following month the Iranian government conducted the final test (in a five-year series) of the Shahab-3 missile, which is capable of hitting Israel, eastern Turkey, and Pakistan, prior to handing control of the missile over to the army.

Concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions had been increasing since December 2002, when the United States announced that it had satellite photographs indicating that Iran was constructing two huge nuclear facilities of a type that could possibly be used to make nuclear weapons. Iran, which had just begun mining its own uranium near Yazd, asserted that the complexes were being built for peaceful purposes. To resolve the issue, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sent an inspection team to check the facilities in February 2003. Iran pledged to cooperate with the agency and to develop the facilities in accordance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); it later said that it was willing to allow additional international monitoring as long as it received access to the advanced nuclear technology it needed to build modern reactors to meet its future energy needs.

By March 2003 the country's first nuclear reactor, south of Bushehr, was reported to be nearly completed. By June a facility containing gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment that could eventually produce enough weapons-grade material to build several nuclear weapons a year had been discovered. A uranium-conversion facility was also near completion in Isfahan. Iran declared that it was working with uranium metal (generally used for weapons components rather than peaceful purposes) and announced plans to build a heavy-water research reactor. Later, traces of weapons-grade uranium were found on centrifuge parts in two different locations, although it was determined in 2005 that these were the results of contamination from their supplier, Pakistan.

In September 2003 the 35-member IAEA governing board gave Iran until October 31 to agree to allow snap inspections of all suspected nuclear sites, concede to environmental sampling, and suspend its uranium-enrichment programs. On October 21 the Iranian government bowed to international pressure and agreed to allow full IAEA inspections and to halt its nuclear-enrichment program so that it could continue its legitimate nuclear activities. The IAEA then issued a resolution deploring Iran's secret nuclear-arms program without referring the matter to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2003. She was the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the prestigious award, which the Nobel Committee clearly hoped would encourage Iranian prodemocracy and human rights activists. But a new political crisis threatened in January 2004 when the unelected, conservative Council of Guardians disqualified more than 2,000 reformist candidates from standing in scheduled February 20 elections. Those disqualified included the brother of President Khatami, who headed Iran's largest reformist party, and virtually all of the best-known figures in the reform movement. Dozens of legislators resigned in protest, and more than 600 approved candidates, primarily reformists, withdrew from the race. Most reformist parties boycotted the February 20 polling. Conservatives won a majority of seats, many of them by default. The turnout of just over 50%, the lowest since the 1979 revolution, reflected both the reformist boycott and popular disillusionment with the reform movement because it had been unable to fulfill its promises. Meanwhile, on February 11, Iranians marked the 25th anniversary of the revolution.

In May 2004, after the Iranian government renewed a pledge not to restart its nuclear-enrichment program, it was allowed to begin talks leading to membership in the World Trade Organization. But international tensions over Iran's nuclear program and Iranian calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from neighboring Iraq continued. With the formal return of Iraqi sovereignty in late June 2004, Iran's ability to influence future developments in its neighbor were believed to have increased because of its links to Iraq's majority Shiite community. A visit to Iran in July 2005 by Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari—the first high-level visit since the Iran-Iraq War—heightened concerns about Iranian involvement in Iraq.

The position of Iran's hard-liners was further strengthened by the results of the presidential election of 2005. In the June 17 first round, no candidate gained the required 50% of the vote, and the leading reformist candidate was eliminated. The ultraconservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made an unexpectedly strong showing in the first round, went on to decisively defeat the initial top vote-getter, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad, who captured 62% of the vote in the second round, won with the support of the poor. Poor Iranians were promised jobs, pensions, expanded health insurance, pay increases, and low-interest loans. Ahmadinejad also pledged to root out the corruption and inefficiency that many voters believed had stalled the nation's economic development since the revolution. The results of the June 24 runoff gave the hard-liners a monopoly over all of the country's elected and appointed institutions.

Ahmadinejad, who assumed office on Aug. 3, 2005, abandoned Khatami's cautious domestic reforms and tentative efforts to improve Iran's relations with the West, particularly the United States. He was also less amenable than his predecessor to compromise on the nuclear issue. On August 8, after rejecting European proposals for dealing with international concerns over its nuclear program, Iran resumed the conversion of uranium at its facility near Isfahan. This set off a crisis that eventually led to the Iranian nuclear program being referred to the UN Security Council by the IAEA on Feb. 7, 2006, for possible economic sanctions. The awarding of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize to the IAEA and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, strengthened the hand of those favoring negotiation over confrontation with Iran. It also delayed the sanctions threat while Russia attempted to persuade Iran to transfer its nuclear-enrichment program to Russia, an idea that Iran ultimately rejected. It also later rejected the idea of a possible alternative light-water nuclear reactor from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Iran had resumed its suspended nuclear-fuel research in January 2006. The government started to move its foreign-exchange reserves out of Europe to lessen the impact of any future sanctions. Later, it ordered the IAEA to remove its surveillance cameras and other equipment from Iranian nuclear sites. After a month of largely fruitless negotiations during which Iran refused to meet the IAEA's demands, that body concluded that it could not be certain there were no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran. It formally referred the matter to the UN Security Council on Mar. 8, 2006. On March 29 the Security Council unanimously approved a statement calling for Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities within 30 days; IAEA inspectors later resumed their work.

On Apr. 11, 2006, less than two weeks after it test-fired a new missile that could carry multiple nuclear warheads, Iran announced that it had successfully produced the enriched uranium needed to make nuclear weapons. There was no direct evidence linking Iran's clandestine nuclear work to a nuclear-weapons program, however. New doubts concerning Iran's nuclear expertise were raised when it appeared that the material used in its uranium-enrichment program had probably come from China in 1991, before China had joined the NPT. Nevertheless, many feared that Iran's nuclear program, if unchecked, would further increase Iran's influence on the regional and world stage. It might also spark a nuclear arms race in the already unstable Middle East. As the UN Security Council struggled with whether to deal with the issue via incentives (supported by Russia and China) or sanctions (proposed by Britain, France, and the United States), the Iranian parliament threatened to withdraw from the NPT if the issue was not resolved peacefully.

Iran and the United States had avoided direct talks since the 1979 revolution. On May 31, 2006, the United States announced that it was prepared to end the standoff and hold such talks if Iran would suspend its nuclear-enrichment and -reprocessing activities. On July 31 the Security Council gave Iran a month to suspend these activities or face possible sanctions. Iran, however, remained defiant. In fact, it stepped up its uranium enrichment program in October by activating a second set of centrifuges. In March 2007 it partly suspended its cooperation with the IAEA. By the next month it had installed equipment at Natanz that would allow it to enrich uranium on an industrial scale. In July 2007, however, Iran allowed the IAEA to inspect the facility at Arak and the two parties agreed upon safeguards at Nantaz. Neverthess, Iran still refused to halt its uranium-enrichment program.

Relations between Iran and the United States had worsened rapidly after Hezbollah staged a daring cross-border raid into Israel on July 12, 2006, capturing two Israeli soldiers. Hundreds died in Israeli retaliatory attacks on Lebanon and Hezbollah missile attacks on Israel. Iran had financed, trained, and armed Shiite Hezbollah, providing most of its 12,000 missiles. Some contended that Iran had encouraged the attack to divert attention from international efforts to halt its nuclear program. Others said that Iran did not control Hezbollah; instead, Hezbollah had miscalculated how Israel would respond. Iran's hard-line government contended that the situation in Lebanon was part of a broader attack by Israel and the United States on all Muslims. Nevertheless, it insisted that it was not seeking a direct military confrontation with Israel.

Meanwhile, the war in Lebanon demonstrated once again how Iran had recently extended its influence in the Middle East. Iran's influence in Iraq had grown along with the post–Iraq War power of that country's Shiite majority. It had also forged an alliance with predominantly Shiite Syria, another Hezbollah supporter that had also been diplomatically isolated by the United States. In addition, Ahmadinejad's strident attacks on Israel gained Iran support among Palestinian Arabs. Flush with oil wealth, Iran also channeled money and arms to Sunnite Hamas. Post-Taliban Afghanistan also was a fertile field for Iranian interference.

By 2007, however, Ahmadinejad faced domestic political problems. His failure to meet his promises to improve life for the poor cost him dearly. The UN sanctions imposed due to his strident stand on the nuclear issue were also unpopular. During municipal elections on Dec. 15, 2006, Ahmadinejad's supporters lost seats in Tehran and other cities. In simultaneous elections for the powerful Assembly of Experts, moderate conservative Rafsanjani received the largest number of votes. High voter turnout indicated general support for more moderate policies.

Iran's diplomatic isolation increased after it temporarily seized 15 British Royal Navy personnel in the Persian Gulf in March 2007. The move was thought to be in retaliation for the earlier U.S. capture of 5 Iranians in Iraq. Iran said that they were diplomats; the United States said that they were supporting the Iraqi insurgents.

The importation of the allegedly Iranian-made sophisticated explosive devices into Iraq and Afghanistan later appeared to slow. A new proposal to resolve the nuclear standoff was made; Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies suggested that the enrichment of uranium for all Middle Eastern nuclear facilities take place in a neutral country. Iran had already rejected a similar proposal in which the enrichment would take place in Russia.

The United States imposed new sanctions on Iran in early November 2007. Later that month, the IAEA reported that Iran had made new but still incomplete disclosures about its past nuclear activities. It was unclear if Russia and China would agree to stronger international sanctions if they included restrictions on investments in Iran's energy sector. The previous month, Russian president Vladimir Putin had been the first Kremlin leader to visit Iran since 1943.

In general, Iran's feelings of insecurity were increased by the presence of U.S. forces in almost every country along its borders. A new U.S. intelligence estimate issued in December 2007 seemed to lessen the threat of new sanctions or war. It concluded that Iran had stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003, although it continued to enrich uranium; it also had an active space program, launching a research rocket on Feb. 4, 2008, from its newly constructed space center. With the outside pressure reduced, Iranians refocused on domestic issues. Criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic policies increased as March 2008 legislative elections (from which most reformist candidates were disqualified) approached. Nevertheless, many experts warned that a foreign military strike would likely unite Iranians behind their president and his nuclear ambitions.

Said Amir Arjomand


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