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Historical Causes of the Current Iranian Turmoil


By Ahmad Fattahipour

Iranian men stand in line at a mosque in Tehran as they wait to vote in Presidential elections June 12, 2009. (Ramin Talaie, Bloomberg News) A woman casts her vote in a Tehran mosque transformed into a polling station. (Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran today, a residual segment of the ancient Persian Empire, is more than six thousand years old. Situated at a crossroad between East and West, it has undergone many upheavals, wars and violent struggles throughout its long history to survive and to preserve its identity. Shahs, Sultans, Emirs and Caliphs have ruled it for centuries with an iron fist. People have risen against their rulers time after time with the hope of being liberated from their oppressors but instead have found themselves again and again betrayed by their new “liberators.”

Foreign invaders from Northern Turkmen, Tartars, Uzbeks, to Eastern Mongols and Afghans, to Western conquerors such as Alexander the Great from Macedonia, Roman Emperors, and Southwestern Arabs who invaded the vast Persian Empire of Achaemenides and Sassanids, plundered its wealth and left it in ruins. Apart from the invasions, during the past two centuries alone, modern empires of the British, Russians and French, as well as some others, have exploited this troubled land either directly or through the corrupt Persian Monarchs and their unscrupulous courtiers. The history of ancient Persia and modern Iran is a history of war and peace, oppression by the autocratic rulers, and the uprising of the people fighting for their freedom and independence.

The following chronology highlights some of the most salient events during the past two centuries which demonstrate the continuing struggle of Iranians against foreign intervention. This demonstrates the desire and will of Iranians to rule themselves with no outside interference in their internal affairs.

In the 19th century, the Tsarist Russian and British Empires were major rivals in the Caucasus region, the Middle East and South Asia. Russia took parts of the Persian Empire (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) through wars with Iran. The Qajar kings gave concessions to Russia under the two treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828) in order to protect themselves from the Ottoman Empire on the western border of the country as well as from internal rebellious tribes and local rulers.. The British were more interested in oil and other mineral resources and in protecting their colony India from expansion by the Russian Empire. The 1917 Revolution in Russia resulted in a temporary return of parts of Persia which were taken by Tsarist Russia; however, after the Soviet Union was formed it did not take long for those territories to be annexed to Russia once again, this time by the USSR.

A nationwide protest by the people was launched in 1891 against the tobacco concession granted to a British company by a Qajar king. This uprising of the people across the country succeeded in annulment of the concessions in 1892.

During the years 1901-1906 William Knox D’Arcy, a British subject, acquired oil concessions from a corrupt Qajar king of the time, Muzaffar-al-Din Shah, which culminated in uprisings throughout the country. This rebellion resulted in the writing of a new constitution, limiting the powers of the Monarchy and establishing the first parliament (Majilis).

In 1907 the Russians and British divided the country into spheres of influence. The northern parts, including the Caspian Sea and its fishing industries, went to Russia and the southern parts containing oil and access to the Persian Gulf went to the British.

In 1908 the new Monarch, Mohammad-Ali Shah Qajar, protected by the British and Russians, bombed the new parliament and restored the autocracy. Soon after, in April 1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded. Three months later in July, the constitutionalists regained their powers and restored the Constitutional government.

In 1910-1911 the northern part of the country was occupied by Russian forces.

During the years 1911 to 1925 the struggle between the pro- and anti-monarchy forces continued. There were long and hard debates in the Majilis on whether Iran should be turned into a republic like Turkey. (The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 was followed by the accession of Kemal Ata Turk, a secular dictator determined to westernize Turkey.) The Iranian parliament, dominated by conservative clerics, disapproved of the “anti-Islamic” measures of the Turkish leader and opted for a compromise, i.e. dismantling of the Qajar dynasty and replacing it with a new dynasty subject to the rule of law. Reza Khan, a former Cossack soldier, was appointed by the Majilis as the new king. Thus, the first serious attempt of Iranians to create a democratic republic was defeated by the conservative Mullahs. The new king, Reza Shah, as the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, ascended to the Peacock Throne in 1925.

In 1935 Iran, formerly known as Persia, was officially born as a new country with its current borders.

During the years 1935-1940, Reza Shah initiated a number of important reforms, but not necessarily in a democratic manner. The reforms included the elimination of a number of tribes, local rulers and feudal landlords. The same period saw the formation of a strong central government and army, the building of the first cross country railway, and the abolition of Hijab, the Islamic dress code for women. Reza Shah's banning of the Chador, a traditional form of clothing for women, caused strong negative reactions among conservative clerics like the future Ayatollah Khomeini.

Around 1940 Reza Shah, who owed his throne mainly to the British support and to a conservative pro-British parliamentary majority, started to tilt towards an alliance with Nazi Germany. In 1941 Allied Forces invaded Iran and Reza Shah was exiled to Johannesburg, South Africa in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shaw who reigned for 38 years.

In 1951 a popular nationalist movement led by Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh pressured the Iranian government to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil industries. The U.S. and Britain, alarmed by the Iranian government's action, responded in 1953 with a CIA-funded and CIA-organized coup that ousted Dr. Mossadegh. Mohammad Reza Shah, who had temporarily left Iran, returned with the support of the U.S. and Britain.

The years 1954-1963 may be considered as the resurrection of the Pahlavi Dynasty, whose reign had been only briefly interrupted by the popular prime minister Mossadegh. The Cold War had already started and the anti-USSR position of the Western world helped Mohammad Reza Shah to solidify his power as Monarch. Savak, the notorious security arm of the Shah, assisted by the CIA, helped the Shah continue to rule and simultaneously planted the seeds for growing opposition to the autocratic regime of the Shah.

American interest in Iran existed before World War II but it was significantly increased with the advent of the Cold War. The geographic location of Iran as a southern neighbor of the USSR made it imperative for the U.S. to prevent the USSR from conquering Iran and getting access to the Persian Gulf. Nationalization of oil by Iran under the leadership of Dr.Mohmmad Mossadegh, a democratically-elected Prime minister, 1951-1953, prompted an alliance between the U.S. and UK to stop this nationalistic movement which also had implications for other oil-producing countries. In 1953, a CIA- funded and operated coup against Dr. Mossadegh resulted in his removal and replacement with General Zahedi whose mission was to re-install Mohammad Reza Shah as the King. This event laid out the foundation for the current crisis and hostile U.S.-Iran relationship.

From 1963 to 1979 the U.S. helped the Shah to initiate some reforms in the areas of land reform, education, health and economic growth under the name of the “White Revolution.” However, since he was perceived by the Iranian people as a puppet of the United States, a great majority of the people turned against him, making possible the 1979 revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini managed to mobilize the majority of the people regardless of their ideology or political standing. He promised the people freedom and democracy prior to the revolution, but instead, he became another dictator disguised as a religious leader.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein invaded Iran with the hope of conquering the southwestern part of the country with its oil-rich resources. Khomeini took advantage of this attack on Iran and used the nationalistic sentiment of Iranians against Arabs to solidify his theocratic regime.

Iran has taken some moderate measures towards democracy between 1988-2009. However, the two underlying issues, the wide gap between social classes and gender, remain as the fundamental causes of the current situation in the country.

What is happening in Iran today is no longer just about the election results. The Islamic regime’s survival is now at stake. Ahmadinejad represents the poor, the rural and other oppressed people. Mir Hossein Mousavi represents the urban middle classes and those who wish to see Iran as a respectable member of the world community. In supporting Mousavi, one should bear in mind that he is a member of the present ruling class which is composed of the clerics and Bazaaris (merchants, petit-bourgeoisie) and extremely wealthy people. The paradox is that Ahmadinejad represents the lower classes and the down-trodden. The Basijis and Revolutionary Guards who support Ahmadinejad are the true followers of the “Line of Imam,” i.e. Khomeini’s doctrine, a theocratic government. Mousavi, on the other hand, represents the Bazaaris, urban middle class and capitalists.

There is a difficult choice before the Left in the United States. Supporting Ahmadinejad would probably result in a national socialist (fascist) regime and supporting Mousavi would probably result in a free-market economy more inclined towards economic integration of Iran into the world capitalistic economy.

The intervention of the United States in Iranian affairs has not ended despite the denials of the present administration. According to the New York Times and other sources, the United States government has been setting up centers that operate in Dubai and other places holding workshops on non-violence which include sessions on popular revolts around the world, the “color revolutions” that the U.S. instigated and supported in Eastern Europe. These centers also teach the Iranian participants how to use encrypted email accounts and software to upload information without leaving traces on the originating computer. This in no way diminishes the grievances felt by millions of Iranians who have taken to the street. However, it does muddy the waters and makes it difficult for true revolutionaries to trust each other or their organizations.

One important point to bear in mind is that the Iranian people are questing for freedom and democracy. The young population of the country with 70% under the age of 30 born after the 1979 revolution will not be content with cosmetic reforms. They will remain restless and continue to challenge the authorities to liberate themselves from theocratic and autocratic regimes. The battle for achieving a free and democratic Iran is far from over. The free democratic Iran is yet to be born.