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Iran: Introduction
Country Study > Introduction

INTRODUCTION


During Iran's long history, the country has evolved its own great Persian civilization, in addition to forming a part of a number of world empires. Iran has created sophisticated institutions, many of which still influenced its Islamic regime in the 1980s. Despite the turmoil surrounding the establishment of its revolutionary government, Iran's development has shown continuity. Major trends affecting Iran throughout much of its history have been a tradition of monarchical government, represented in the twentieth century by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi; the important political role of the Shia Islamic clergy, seen most recently in Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini; and, since the late nineteenth century, pressure for Westernization or modernization.

Iran has been distinguished for having regimes that not only conquered neighboring areas but also devised ingenious institutions. The Achaemenids (550-330 B.C.) -- who ruled the first Iranian world empire, which stretched from the Aegean coast of Asia Minor to Afghanistan, as well as south to Egypt -- created the magnificent structures at Persepolis, the remains of which still exist. The Achaemenids also inaugurated a vast network of roads, a legal code, a coinage system, and a comprehensive administrative system that allowed some local autonomy, and they engaged in wide-ranging commerce. Iran has also influenced its conquerors. Following its conquest of Iran, the Muslim Umayyad Empire (A.D. 661- 750) adopted many Iranian institutions, such as Iran's administrative system and coinage. Moreover, Tamerlane (1381-1405), the famous Mongol ruler, made use of Iranian administrators in governing his far-flung territories.

Despite their primarily tribal origin, for most of the country's history the people of Iran have known only monarchical government, often of an absolutist type. For example, the Sassanids who ruled Iran for four centuries, beginning in A.D. 224, revived the Achaemenid term shahanshah (king of kings) for their ruler and considered him the "shadow of God on earth." This concept was again revived in the late eighteenth century by the Qajar monarchy, which remained in power until Reza Khan, a military commander, had himself crowned as Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1926. Many considered Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Shah, to be an absolutist ruler in his later days, especially because of his use of the internal security force SAVAK (Sazman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat- e Keshvar) to repress domestic opposition.

After the Muslim conquest, Iran was strongly influenced by Islam and, specifically, the political role exercised by the Shia clergy. Such influence was established under the indigenous dynastic reign of the Safavids (1501- 1722). The Safavids belonged to a Sufi religious order and made Shia Islam the official religion of Iran, undertaking a major conversion campaign of Iranian Muslims. The precedent was revived in 1979 in a much more thoroughgoing theocratic fashion by Ayatollah Khomeini.

In contrast to this traditional element in Iranian history has been the pressure toward Westernization that began in the late nineteenth century. Such pressures initially came from Britain, which sought to increase its commercial relations with Iran by promoting modernization of Iran's infrastructure and liberalization of its trade. British prodding had little effect, however, until Iranian domestic reaction to the growing corruption of the Qajar monarchy led to a constitutional revolution in 1905-1906.This revolution resulted in an elected parliament, or Majlis.

Mohammad Reza Shah also strengthened the military by considerably expanding its role in internal security matters to counteract the domestic opposition that arose after Mohammad Mossadeq's prime ministership organizations.

Meanwhile, the shah promoted Iran's economic development by implementing a series of seven- and five-year economic development plans, of which the first was launched in 1948. The programs emphasized the creation of the necessary infrastructure and the establishment of capital-intensive industry, initially making use of Iran's enormous oil revenues but seeking ultimately to diversify the country's economy by expanding heavy industry. In the 1960s, the shah also paid attention to land reform, but the redistribution of land to peasants was slow, and in many instances the amount of land allocated to individual farmers was inadequate for economically viable agricultural production. Moreover, Iran experienced high inflation as a result of the shah's huge foreign arms purchases and his unduly rapid attempts at industrial development and modernization. Members of the bazaar, or small merchant class, benefited unevenly from the modernization and gained less proportionately than the shah's Westernizing elite.

Many factors contributed to the fall of the shah. Observers most often cited such factors as concern over growing Western influences and secularization, the ignoring of the religious leaders, the repression of potential dissidents and of the Tudeh Party, and the failure of the bazaar class to achieve significant benefits from the shah's economic development programs. Following a brief secular provisional government after the shah was overthrown in 1979, clerical forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini took control and launched a far- reaching Islamic revolution.

In Khomeini's revolutionary regime, the Ayatollah himself acted as policy guide and ultimate decision maker in his role as the pious jurist, or faqih.

The Constitution of 1979 designates Khomeini as the faqih for life. The Assembly of Experts in 1985 designated Hojjatoleslam Hosain Ali Montazeri as the deputy to Khomeini and thus in line as successor. In 1988 it was not clear, however, whether the country would accept the choice of the experts when Khomeini died.

Other than appointing Khomeini faqih for life, the revolutionary Constitution provides for political institutions to implement the legislative aspects of the government. An elected legislative assembly, the Majlis, charged with approving legislation devised by the executive, was dominated by Muslim religious leaders. The Constitution also created the Council of Guardians to ensure that laws passed by the Majlis conformed with Islam. In practice, the Council of Guardians has been conservative about economic legislation, blocking Majlis measures on land reform, for example. To overcome this blocking of legislation, in January 1988 Ayatollah Khomeini gave a ruling to President Ali Khamenehi in which he claimed that the Islamic state had the same powers as the Prophet Muhammad, who was God's vice regent; therefore, the state could set aside the Quran with regard to legislation if it were for the good of the community.

Other than through legislative instititutions, political expression occurred in principle through political parties. However, the dominant political faction, the largely clergy-led Islamic Republican Party established in early 1979, was dissolved in 1987 because it had become unmanageable. Subsequently, only one legally recognized political party, the Iran Freedom Movement (Nehzat-e Azadi-yi Iran), which had been established by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, operated in Iran. Estimates of the number of persons opposed to the government or in prison varied. Officially, the latter number was given as 9,000, but the antigovernment Mojahedin maintained that 140,000 was a more realistic figure. In 1988 opposition parties existed in exile, primarily in Western Europe, and included ethnic Kurdish movements and the Mojahedin Islamic extremists, as well as Marxists and monarchists. The Mojahedin also had created the Iranian National Army of Liberation, which operated out of northern Iraq against the Khomeini regime.

After the Ayatollah's government came to power, it initially executed or imprisoned many members of the shah's regime, including officers of the various armed services. But, following the outbreak of the war with Iraq in 1980, substantial numbers of military men were released from prison to provide essential leadership on the battlefield or in the air war.

By 1988 the eight-year-old war with Iraq had evolved through various stages of strategy and tactics. Because Iran's population was approximately three times that of Iraq, Iran's military manpower pool was vastly superior. Capitalizing on this advantage, in the early stages of the war Iran engaged extensively in "human-wave" assaults against Iraqi positions, frequently using youths in their early teens. This war strategy proved extremely costly to Iran in terms of human casualties; it was estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 Iranians had been killed by 1987, and estimated losses of matériel were also large. The hostilities included a tanker war in the Persian Gulf and the mining of the Gulf by Iran, events that led to the involvement of the United States and other Western nations, which sought to protect their shipping and safeguard their strategic, economic, and political interests in the area. Furthermore, a "war of cities" was inaugurated in 1985, with each side bombarding the other's urban centers with missiles. Iran expended considerable effort in developing a domestic arms industry capable of manufacturing or modifying weapons and war matériel obtained from outside sources. Iran's principal arms supplier was China, from which it acquired Silkworm HY-2 surface-to-surface missiles, among other weapons systems. Iran also obtained missiles from the Soviet Union, which attempted to maintain amicable relations with both sides in the Iran-Iraq War. In addition, in the ground war, which initially had favored Iraq but then turned strongly in Iran's favor, in April 1988 Iraq succeeded in regaining the Faw Peninsula. Iraq thus recovered a significant part of the territory it had lost earlier to Iran.

The war has severely strained Iran's economy by depleting its foreign exchange reserves and causing a balance of payments deficit. It has also redirected manpower that would otherwise have been engaged in agriculture and industry. By 1987 Iran's overall war costs were calculated at approximately US$350 billion. Moreover, wartime damage to urban centers in western Iran, such as Abadan, Ahvaz, Dezful, and Khorramshahr, caused refugees to flood into Tehran and other cities, further aggravating the housing shortage. The destruction of petroleum producing, processing, and shipping installations on the Persian Gulf had reduced Iran's oil production and its export capability, thereby cutting revenues. Sales of other domestic commodities, such as carpets, agricultural products, and caviar, were unable to compensate for the lost oil revenue, which was further reduced by a world oil glut. Thus, in 1988 the revolutionary regime faced a straitened economic future in which basic structural problems -- such as the degree of state involvement in the economy and the successful implementation of agricultural reform -- remained to be addressed.

Iran's economic situation has influenced its foreign policy to some extent. Although ideological considerations based on revolutionary principles dominated in the early days of the Revolution, Iran's policies became more pragmatic as the war with Iraq continued. For example, because of its need for weapons and other military matériel, the Khomeini regime was willing to purchase arms from Western nations and even from Israel. Initially, the revolutionary government had made a radical foreign policy change from the pro-Western stance of the shah. The United States, because of its support of the shah, was branded as the "Great Satan" and the Soviet Union as the "Lesser Satan." Both capitalism and socialism were condemned as materialistic systems that sought to dominate the Third World. In practice, however, the United States was the major target, as evidenced most clearly in the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran and the taking of American diplomats as hostages in November 1979.

Because of the Khomeini regime's desire to export revolution, regional monarchies with Western associations, such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Jordan, were regarded with some hostility, particularly after these countries came to the support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. As a protest against Iranian actions in the Gulf, in late April 1988 Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran. Another instance of Iran's militant policy was its funding and sponsorship of Islamic extremist organizations in Lebanon, particularly Islamic Amal and Hizballah, which contributed to the ongoing civil war in Lebanon.

In 1988 the country with which Iran had the most cordial relationship was Syria. Iran also maintained active economic relations with the Soviet Union, especially with respect to direct trade, arms purchases, and the transshipment of goods via the Soviet Union to Western Europe.

Iran's future course in the late 1980s hinged upon a number of factors. These included the smoothness with which it would be able to make the transition to Ayatollah Khomeini's successor; the duration, cost, and settlement terms of the war with Iraq; the direction of Iran's foreign policy, in relation both to the superpowers and to the remainder of the world, particularly the countries of the region; and the skill of Iranian technocrats in taking the necessary steps to address the country's economic difficulties.

June 20, 1988

* * *

After the manuscript was completed in June 1988, two significant events occurred in July 1988 that contributed to Iran's decision on July 18 to accept the United Nations (UN) proposal of 1987 for a cease-fire to the Iran-Iraq War. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down in error a civilian Iranian airliner that it believed was planning to attack a United States Navy ship in the Persian Gulf. In a step indicative of moderation, Iran took the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 to the UN, a body to which it had paid little heed since 1981 because Iran felt the UN was supporting the United States position on the hostage issue. Just prior to the UN debate, President Ronald Reagan announced that the United States, without accepting blame for the accident, was prepared to make an ex gratia payment to the victims' relatives.

In the more immediate conduct of the war, on July 13 Iraqi forces advanced on the south central front, capturing Dehloran, thirty kilometers inside Iran. They took about 5,000 prisoners as well as substantial amounts of Iranian military equipment during their three-day occupation of the area. Foreign experts surmised that Iraq sought to strengthen its bargaining position in the event peace negotiations were forthcoming.

On July 18 Iran announced its acceptance of UN Resolution 598 of July 1987, which called for a cease-fire. Khomeini, taking responsibility for accepting this "poisonous chalice," while at the same time recognizing the great sacrifices of the nation, stated that, in view of recent "unspecified events" (presumably Iraq's "war of cities" and its use of chemical warfare, together with the intervention of the "Great Satan") and the advice of Iranian political and military experts, he believed the cease-fire to be in the interest of the Revolution. As of mid-May 1989, although the cease-fire was holding, no significant progress had been made in UN-sponsored Iranian-Iraqi peace negotiations, and Iraq was insisting on sovereignty over the entire Shatt al Arab as a condition for the settlement.

Khomeini had often stated that he would not agree to an end of the war without the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Husayn's regime. His reversal of position raised questions concerning the future of the Revolution. There was evidence in the spring of 1989 that factionalism was increasing among revolutionary leaders. The most dramatic example of this was Ayatollah Montazeri's being obliged in late March to resign as successor to Khomeini. Montazeri apparently fell from grace because he had become unduly critical in public of the regime's policies. He had repeatedly criticized the continued execution of numerous individuals on the ground that they were hostile to the Revolution and had questioned whether Iran had actually won the war with Iraq.

The realignments taking place among the top hierarchy were not clear as of mid-May 1989. For example, in early March Khomeini had concurred with the appointment of Hojjatoleslam Abdullah Nouri, a friend of Majlis Speaker Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, as his personal representative to the Pasdaran. This move was thought to be part of Rafsanjani's strategy to diminish the influence of the Pasdaran and to integrate them more closely with the army, because the regime considered the army a more loyal force than the Pasdaran in the postwar period. Even before the war ended, in early 1988, the government had begun following a pragmatic policy, seeking to regain friends for Iran in the world community through such means as reestablishing diplomatic relations with France, Canada, and Britain. Relations with Britain were again severed, however, in late February 1989, as a result of Khomeini's imposition of the death sentence on February 14 on British writer Salman Rushdie for his authorship of The Satanic Verses.

Since the end of the war in July 1988 a major issue among the different factions in the government has been the degree of foreign involvement to be permitted in Iran's reconstruction. Despite some dissent in this regard, the government has sought to obtain loans and credits for Iran from various West European sources and from Japan because oil income is not projected to be adequate to meet rebuilding needs, let alone allow for development projects. Preoccupation with reconstruction and the lack of funds had obliged the revolutionary regime to postpone, if not abandon, any measures to export the Revolution. Instead, Iran was seeking a reconciliation with some of the Persian Gulf states and with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it appeared that in its budgetary allocations for the new Iranian year beginning March 21 and for the proposed new five-year development plan, the regime was increasing its spending on agriculture and water projects and stressing education, health, and social measures, all of which were designed to show Islamic concern for the downtrodden.

A second issue among the various factions concerned the extent to which governmental centralization was appropriate. One faction maintained that more centralized policy direction was needed for the successful implementation of reconstruction programs, and that to achieve this end the presidency needed to be a strengthened. Rafsanjani supported this position and was one of more than 100 signatories of a proposal made to Khomeini that one of the ways of strengthening the executive would be to eliminate the office of prime minister. In this connection, a letter was published in the Iranian press on April 16, 1989, and signed by 166 Majlis delegates, asking Khomeini to establish a committee to amend the Constitution in three areas: the faqih, the presidency, and the judiciary. Khomeini responded in late April by appointing twenty members to a Commission for the Revision of the Constitution, with the Majlis appointing five additional members. Khomeini set out guidelines for the commission to use in looking at eight areas of the Constitution, including the three requested. Other aspects to be examined included the role of the Discernment Council, appointed to reconcile differences among the Council of Guardians, the Majlis, and the government. By mid-May the commission had met several times.

The press has reported that the deliberations included debate on draft proposals for amending the articles of the Constitution pertaining to qualifications for the post of faqih so that lower-ranking clergy could serve on a collective council of faqihs. This would permit Rafsanjani and Khamenehi, for example, to serve. Other debate centered around proposed changes in the presidency that would entail the elimination of the post of prime minister or allow the president to appoint the prime minister without Majlis approval, thus making the prime minister responsible to the president. As early as January 1989, Rafsanjani had hinted that he might run for president to succeed Khamenehi when the latter's term ended in August 1989. Although as of mid-May Rafsanjani had not publicly committed himself to running, he had gained the endorsement for this post from revolutionary leaders of all factions. It appeared, therefore, that the revolutionary regime was on the way to some major changes in the executive structure and in its leadership.

May 18, 1989 - Helen Chapin Metz

(As this volume was in press, Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, of a heart attack, following intestinal surgery two weeks earlier. After lengthy deliberations, on June 4 President Khamenehi was named Khomeini's successors as faqih by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly of Experts. The future of Iran's government in consideration of possible collective leadership and the proposed reforms to the constitution affecting the executive, judicial, and administrative structures remained unclear.

June 5, 1989 - Helen Chapin Metz

Data as of December 1987




Last Updated: December 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iran was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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