Points of View

'Iran' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on the history of Iran provides background to Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis. The article by Shahrough Akhavi and Sussan Siavoshi is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Iranians have always called their country Iran (Land of the Aryans, “noble people”), but outsiders long used “Persia” (Parsa; Gk., Persis), referring to Pars, now Fars, a southern province. “Persia” remained in use until 1935, when Tehran formally requested the world community to use the name Iran.

Pre-Islamic History.

Iran has an ancient civilization, dating to about 2700 B.C.E., when the Elamites ruled over areas that include present-day Khuzistan Province in southwest Iran and adjacent areas to the north and east. Indo-Europeans, migrating from the east, did not dominate the Iranian plateau until the Iron Age, about 1300 B.C.E. The Kingdom of the Medes, centered at Ecbatan (modern-day Hamadān), ruled the plateau and areas of the west and southwest from 728 to 539 B.C.E. During this time, other Indo-European peoples, such as the Scythians, crossed into the western plateau from the Caucasus Mountains. The Achaemenid (559–330 B.C.E.), Parthian (247 B.C.E.–226 C.E.), and Sasanian (224–651) dynasties ruled for varying periods over areas of Iran, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Fertile Crescent, the Caucasus, Transoxonia, Afghanistan, and the Indian subcontinent. These dynasties left the indelible stamp of a recognizably Iranian civilization on the land.

Arab and Turkic Rule.

The Arab invasion, beginning in 637, was a turning point in Iranian history. Zoroastrian beliefs, rooted in the idea of unceasing struggle between the forces of good and evil, were replaced by Islam, a monotheistic religion. Imperial rule ended, and the territory became a region of the Muslim caliphate. Although Iranians embraced Islam, they retained many of their native traditions, a pattern facilitated by the inclination of the Arab invaders to allow those whom they conquered to enjoy a great deal of autonomy. Iranians kept their language, although words of Arabic origin pervaded Persian, and the Arabic script replaced the Old Persian scripts. For about a millennium, Iran was ruled by a succession of Arab and Turkic elites, including Umayyads (661–749), ʿAbbasids (749–945), Samanids (875–999) (who, however, were an indigenous Persian dynasty), Buyids (945–1055), Ghaznavids (962–1187), Saljuqids (1040–1194), Il Khanids (1260–1335), Timurids (1360–1447), and Aq Qoyunlu (1467–1501). During this period, Iran was dominated by Sunnism, except for local pockets of Shiism, as in the city of Qumm (Qom).

In this era Iranians contributed immeasurably to the development of literature, art, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, statecraft, and the Islamic sciences. Some of the towering Iranian figures of Islamic civilization during this era included ibn Muqaffaʿ (d. 760), Muslim ibn Hajjaj al-Qushayrī (d. 875), al-Tabarī (d. 923), Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. 932), al-Fārābī (d. 950), ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030), ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048), Nizām al-Mulk (d. 1092), al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144), Suhrawardī (d. 1191), ʿUmar al-Khayyām (d. 1123), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209), Nizāmī (d. 1209), al-ʿAttār (d. 1220), Rumī (d. 1273), Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī (d. 1274), Jāmī (d. 1492), and sadr al-Dīn al-Shīrazī (Mullā Sadrā) (1571–1640).

Safavid Dynasty.

In the late fifteenth century, a Sunnī Sūfī millenarian movement arose in eastern Turkey, and its leaders publicly proclaimed their affiliation with Shiism about 1399. Pronounced expectations of the return of the messianic Mahdi were present because of the imminent end of the Islamic ninth century. (Century transition periods had traditionally been rife with such expectations.) The leaders of this movement, whose eponymous ancestor was the Sūfī master, Safi al-Dīn Ardabīlī (d. 1334), established their rule originally in Tabrīz and then Qazvīn, not long thereafter moving the imperial capital to Isfahan. This new state, under the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), centralized power for the first time since the Arab conquest. Sūfīs had always harbored strong sentiments toward Shiism, but they had not seized state power in the past. Ever since, Iran has been the home of Ithnā ʿAsharī Shiism, although the short-lived Afshārid dynasty (1736–1747) tried to restore Sunnism.

The Safavid state's relationship to the religious institution has been termed “Caesaro-papist,” suggesting state domination within a symbiotic framework in which the Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) achieved significant power in their own right. The state co-opted many ʿulamāʿ into the patrimonial administration, although a significant number remained aloof from politics. On critical issues about which the rulers felt strongly, their decisions carried the day. However, the ʿulamāʿ as a whole, whether in or out of politics, were a powerful social force. Official ʿulamāʿ enjoyed deference and were frequently consulted on matters of high politics. Those resisting co-optation nonetheless secured an impressive degree of support among a diverse clientele that included seminary students and teachers, Sūfī leaders and followers, important merchants, landowners, urban and village notables, and young men animated by a code of chivalry and athletic prowess (lutis). On occasions when high ranking non-state ʿulamāʿ saw the need, they could mobilize their supporters in impressive demonstrations of power on behalf of or against certain causes.

The Safavid state, along with the Ottoman (1312–1923) and Mughal (1526–1857) Empires, were the dominant Muslim powers of the post-medieval, pre-modern era. Its apogee was in the reign of Shah ʿAbbās I (r. 1588–1629). With his death, the state entered a period of decline and was eventually defeated by a combined Uzbek-Afghan invading force in 1722. After a period of turmoil, a brief time of benevolent rule followed under the Zand dynasty (1750–1779).

Qajar Dynasty.

The Zands were succeeded by the longer-reigning Qajar dynasty (1785/97–1925). Under their rule the ʿulamāʿ increased their power at the expense of the state, to the point that by the end of the nineteenth century, they had become key actors in the social movements and institutions of the country. The rise of the ʿulamāʿ in the Qājār era partly stemmed from the state's inability to withstand foreign military, economic, and political pressures, partly from Qājār ineptitude, and partly from intellectual developments within the ranks of the ʿulamāʿ themselves.

The Qājār period was characterized by weak rulers, severe center-periphery problems, poor economic performance, and foreign domination. Iran lost territories to the Russians in 1804–1813 and 1825–1828. The British denied Iranian territorial ambitions in Afghanistan in the conflicts of 1836–1838 and 1856–1857 known as the “Afghan Wars.” The shahs granted concessions and capitulatory rights to foreigners, allowing the British, Russians, French, Dutch, Swedes, Belgians, and Hungarians to dominate fields ranging from transport and banking to internal security. The critical concessions were the Reuters Concession of 1871 (mining, banking, and railroads), the Tobacco Concession of 1891, and the DʿArcy Concession of 1901 (oil). In 1891–1892 and in 1905–1909, large-scale collective protests broke out in opposition to these grants, as well as to the monarchs’ domestic policies and autocracy.

Clergy power also derived from certain doctrinal changes in Shīʿī Islam, as well as ʿulamāʿ reactions to historical events. As early as the medieval period, some clerics, such as al-Muhaqqiq al-Hillī (d. 1325), had claimed that the ʿulamā collectively exercised walaʿ al-imāmah (guardianship) over the imamate of the Hidden Imam. The latter had vanished in 873/74, but believers expected his apocalyptic return one day. Meanwhile, debates continued over what believers should do during the period of his occultation, including whether or not they should obey secular authorities. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a doctrinal dispute arose between ʿulamāʿ who maintained that they were the deputies of the imam, some of whose authority (wilayāh) devolved on them, and others among them who believed that they were mere interpreters of the law with no special relationship to the Hidden Imam. The former prevailed, holding as well that certain experts among the clergy (mujtahids) were entitled to exercise independent judgment (ijtihād) in determining a legal rule in the absence of a clear textual specification in the Qurʿān or sunnah. This principle, which, in Sunnī Islam, had been underplayed or even opposed outright by many Sunnī jurists, was a powerful tool because it enabled these mujtahids to keep Islamic jurisprudence from stagnating. Also, because law is not separable from politics, it empowered them with means to rival secular rulers and to mobilize masses behind their own political interests.

Controversy exists over whether the clergy, in their interventions against royal policies, were defending popular sovereignty, democratic ideas, the interests of the religious institution, or their own private ambitions. However, whatever their private motives, many of them did use their moral authority to oppose foreign interference and the misrule of the shahs.

Some scholars have held that the clergy harbored inherently anti-state views on grounds that the doctrine of the imamate vests political rule exclusively in the imam, thus mandating opposition to secular rulers as usurpers. A revisionist view is that Shiism has been apolitical ever since the sixth imam, Jaʿfar al-Sādiq (d. 765)—out of prudence for their safety—indefinitely suspended the requirement that believers declare their loyalty to the Imam's wilayah and counseled quietism instead. The revisionist literature maintains that clergymen have not only failed to oppose the state but in fact have supported it and called on it to protect Shiism and Shīʿī Muslims. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, who was later to abjure this position, argued in a work published in the early 1940s that the clergy had never opposed secular rulers in principle but merely asked the latter to consult them.

In 1891–1892 the clergy utilized the Shīʿī tax known as khums provided by believers to finance a collective protest against the Tobacco Concession. Later, most clergy demanded a constitution and a “house of justice” during the social movement known as the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1909. Many mujtahids at this time couched their admonitions to the Qājārs in the familiar terms of zulm (oppression of the justice of the Hidden Imam). The merchants were generally fed up with the influx of foreign goods and the privileges extended to foreign merchants. Many had become declassed and others had been driven bankrupt by the competition of European entrepreneurs. Many resented the shahs’ defaulting on loans they had given them. At times, merchants took the initiative in challenging the state, while senior clergymen played a secondary role.

Though victorious, the Constitutionalists still faced a problem that was to bedevil future oppositionist movements, namely, the relationship between revealed and positivist law. Their opponents maintained that the promulgation of a fundamental law implied that sharīʿah (the holy law) had to be supplemented by man-made law, an idea they held as anathema. They additionally maintained that the creation of a parliament suggested that sovereignty reposed in the nation, rather than Allah, an intolerable bidʿah (heretical innovation).

The Constitutionalist clergy acknowledged these difficulties but stressed the urgency of upholding principles of hisbah (the legal norm of holding someone to account) and al-amr bi al-maʿrūf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar (commanding the right and prohibiting wrong). They maintained that both of these were incumbent duties (sing. fard) of the Muslims as commanded by God in the Qurʿān. Were they to fail in such duties, the Constitutionalist clergy argued, the ruler's despotism could mortally endanger Islam itself.

Pahlavi Dynasty.

The Qājār period was known for the contrast between the shahs’ claims to omnipotence and their actual weakness. By World War I, the dynasty had reached the brink of collapse. Iran narrowly escaped partition by Russia and Britain in 1907 and conversion into a British protectorate in 1919, in the latter case rescued by its parliament's refusal to back the prime minister's endorsement of the deal.

The Qājārs were replaced by the Pahlavi dynasty (1926–1979). Its rulers stressed modernization, westernization, and secular, Iranian nationalism. They resolved to uproot traditional practices and beliefs and to implant new ones from abroad. These policies contributed to the dynasty's overthrow and replacement by a regime controlled by the ʿulamāʿ and headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini (1902–1989r. 1979–1989). The Islamic Republic of Iran has undone many Pahlavi actions. Contrary to popular notions, however, it has retained many features of the state that it overthrew and has continued some of its predecessor's policies.

Under these circumstances, a military leader in the Russian Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan (1878–1944), seized power in 1921 and made himself Iran's strongman. In 1923, he installed himself as prime minister, and in 1925 he engineered the dissolution of the Qājār dynasty by the Constituent Assembly, followed in January 1926 by his formal elevation to the throne as Reza Shah Pahlavi. The dynasty's watchwords were Western-style modernization and centralization of power. Reza Shah mounted successive military campaigns against the periphery, brutally suppressing the tribes, implanting a heavy-handed state bureaucracy, and forming a standing army loyal to him.

Reza Shah's reforms were modeled on those implemented by his more famous neighbor and fellow ruler, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938). Among them were wholesale legal changes involving the importation of European administrative, civil, criminal, and commercial codes. Most of the revenue from state monopolies (such as sugar and cement) was allocated to infrastructure development (especially roads and railroads) and to pay for Iran's growing army. Unfortunately for the shah, private enterprise did not flourish, as financiers preferred to speculate or invest in real estate rather than industry and manufacturing.

Reza Shah did try to secure more revenue from the British-owned and -operated Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), but in the end, he contented himself in 1933 with a paltry 20 percent increase in revenues from annual profits. These added revenues were not invested in the economy, however, but were earmarked for the modernization of the military.

Reza Shah's social reforms were more successful than his economic ones, although the advances achieved were generally confined to the urban areas. His policies greatly accelerated the halting steps taken by the Qājārs in the area of education reform. Admiring both the method and content of Western education, his government subsidized student missions to European universities to promote the study of economics, law, medicine, and engineering, subjects deemed critical to success in the modernization of the country. Tehran University, opened in 1934, was the first institution in what was to become a national university system. Significant gains were also made with the establishment of hospitals, clinics, and laboratories, the testing of foods, and the inoculation of school children against debilitating diseases. Less successful were efforts to abolish the veil, require the adoption of Western forms of dress, destroy the social bases of the ʿulamāʿs power, and streamline the operation of bureaucratic and business organizations. The shah's policies did displace and declass the clergy, but this was only a temporary accomplishment.

The shah pointedly refused to allow any political liberalization or local political autonomy, but instead exiled, jailed, tortured, or executed many of his opponents. He deprived the religious institution of most of its resources and ignored the constitutional mandate to create a committee of mujtahids to ensure the conformity of parliamentary acts with Shīʿī law. Actually, many constitutional provisions were ignored in the Pahlavi era, including the stipulation that the shah be head of state but not head of government.

Mindful of the abject weakness of the Qājārs in the face of the great powers, Reza Shah had seen himself as the architect of Iranian territorial patriotism and the agent to end Iran's foreign domination. He tried to westernize the country through fiat, and though he gained the grudging respect of some, his state was not securely rooted in any particular social class. The ease with which he was forced to abandon the throne by the Soviet and British invasion of the country in August 1941 underscores the narrow base of his rule.

As with the first global war, World War II devastated Iran's economy. But politically this period witnessed liberalization. Political prisoners were released, the press became freer—though at the cost of the significant spread of “yellow journalism”—a more vital parliament emerged, and political parties arose. However, the landed aristocracy, a group left virtually intact by Reza Shah, retained its power and privileges. The new shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (r. 1941–1979), inexperienced and uncertain of himself, was a British puppet. Nonetheless, he succeeded in invigorating his ties with the army and, in 1949, oversaw the creation of a docile upper chamber (the Senate) in parliament that would support him against his critics in the lower chamber, a move many regard as a virtual coup dʿétat.

The Mossadegh Government.

Later in the same year, a coalition was formed of nationalist groups known as the National Front, led by Mohammad Mossadegh (Muhammad Musaddiq) (1880–1967) and ardently seeking the nationalization of the hated AIOC, which symbolized British hegemony in Iran. As head of the parliamentary oil commission, Mossadegh shepherded the nationalization bill to passage. At this point the prime minister resigned, and public opinion compelled a reluctant shah to appoint Mossadegh as premier. The latter immediately moved to implement the nationalization law and at once became involved in a bitter dispute with the British government, the AIOC's majority owners.

London, under American pressure, first tried negotiation, but it concomitantly embargoed Iranian terminals and threatened would-be purchasers with dire consequences. Mossadegh sought to overcome the embargo's effects by relying on non-oil exports, but these added only a fraction of the revenues needed to fund his programs. Meanwhile, his National Front coalition began to unravel, as leftists upbraided him for playing up to the Americans, while the clergy feared that he was falling under the sway of the communists. If Mossadegh had been able to secure revenues from other sources, he may well have been able to head off catastrophe. The Truman administration had distanced itself from London's hard-line position. However, the Eisenhower administration changed course on the pretense that Moscow was controlling events in Iran. Eisenhower rejected Mossadegh's request for a loan and secretly planned with the British to overthrow him.

As the crisis unfolded, Mossadegh also challenged the shah over authority to control the military. Mossadegh invoked the Constitution, which vested control in the government, whereas the shah cited his father's role in creating the national army to justify his claim to control it. With covert U.S. and British backing, a coup dʿétat was mounted against Mossadegh. Unfortunately for him, a key group within the National Front, led by Ayatollah Abol Qāsem Kāshāni (Abū al-Qāsim Kāshāni; d. 1962), abandoned him and went over to the royalists. Kāshāni accused Mossadegh of being a dictator and condemned his request for extraordinary powers and his suspension of the 1952 elections in the countryside (intended to prevent pro-court and pro-British landowners from winning any more seats). Weakened by great power pressures from without and internal crises from within, Mossadegh's government fell to the conspirators in August 1953.

Restoration of the Shah.

This action earned the shah and the West the bitter hostility of many Iranians. Nothing seemed more symbolic of the shah's dependence on the British and Americans than their role in restoring him to his throne after his panicked flight to Rome at the onset of the coup. Upon his reinstallation, the shah began to rule as an absolute autocrat. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration urged him to implement reforms to gain popular support. He reluctantly agreed to do so only after it became clear to him that reform-minded Iranian politicians in his own bureaucracy were gaining independent stature and popularity.

The keystone of the shah's program was land reform, begun in the early 1960s and completed in the early 1970s. Scholars are divided as to its impact. Some believe that it merely served to replace the traditional aristocracy with the state in rural areas and had never been intended to benefit the peasants. Others hold that a significant number of families who already had a subsistence margin of land obtained enough additional property to render them viable freeholders. Since the accuracy of these competing claims depends on the kinds of data one uses, it is not easy to make a conclusive assessment. It seems, however, that the great majority of landless peasassnts at the start of the reform (sometimes estimated to have been half the population of rural Iran at that time) still had no land by the reform's conclusion.

During this period (1961–1963), professionals, intellectuals, elements of the bureaucracy, and the clergy and their supporters were engaged in collective protest. The secular opposition attacked the shah's violation of the Constitution in suspending parliament without calling for new elections. The clergy protested aspects of the monarch's “White Revolution” reforms, particularly women's suffrage and land reform. Some clergymen believed that any putatively meaningful reform the shah sponsored was a sham, because he would ensure its subversion to keep his power. Others, however, undoubtedly feared losing either their own lands or their administration of religious endowments (awqaf, sing. waqf    ), from whose revenues they often privately benefited. Virtually all clerics maintained that enfranchising women would bring them into public arenas and endanger their modesty and virtue.

In March and June 1963, major clashes between students and the army broke out at Tehran University and the seminary in Qom. Ayatollah Khomeini, then one of several marajiʿ al-taqlīd (sing. marjiʿ al-taqlīd; Pers. marjaʿ-i taqlīd, literally, “source of emulation,” a title for the highest ranking ʿulamāʿ in Shiism), publicly and bitterly attacked the shah for unleashing his forces against the clergy, for his dependence on the United States, and for his commercial and intelligence cooperation with Israel. In October 1964, Khomeini openly accused the shah of restoring the hated capitulations by compelling his hand-picked parliament to pass, at Washington's demand, an amendment to the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. This amendment extended the protections of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunity to U.S. armed forces personnel, their families, and any American civilian employees working under contract for those forces or for those families. The bill was so unpopular that even many pro-shah deputies reported in sick on the day of the vote, but eventually enough deputies were rounded up to pass the measure by a narrow margin.

In retaliation for Khomeini's oppositional activities, the regime planned to execute him but was stayed by the intervention of other marajiʿ al-taqlīd, some of whom were actually his rivals but who feared massive unrest would ensue in the event. He was exiled, going first to Turkey and then to Iraq, where he was to stay for about fourteen years. Although the regime survived the disturbances of 1961–1963, in retrospect they marked the beginning of the end of the Pahlavi dynasty.

Overthrow of the Shah.

Before its collapse, however, the monarchy appeared to be invulnerable. Economic growth in the 1960s and early 1970s was enviably high, reaching as much as 10 percent per year. The shah finally celebrated his rule by holding his coronation in 1967. In 1971, scandalous amounts were spent on the so-called 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. The shah apparently felt it necessary to match this pomp with commensurate military might, including the purchase of M1 tanks, Spruance-class cruisers, hovercraft, and state-of-the-art fighter planes. All of this cost enormous sums. On paper, at least, Iran had become the most powerful regional actor.

The fragility of the system was its dependence on oil revenues. The huge increase in oil prices after the October 1973 Arab–Israeli War enabled the shah to purchase vast quantities of weapons and so emboldened him that he discarded carefully crafted economic planning in favor of grandiose, showcase projects, such as nuclear reactors. The state's expenditures fueled very high rates of inflation and created major bottlenecks in the distribution system.

By 1975 a glut of oil worldwide led to a sudden decline in prices, causing a fiscal liquidity problem, and forced the regime to borrow in the international financial markets. The government alienated businessmen by launching an anti-profiteering campaign and arresting merchants and entrepreneurs. Inflation ate into workers’ wages, although the regime repeatedly hiked wages to prevent collective action by labor. Guerrilla groups, influenced by the writings and practice of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, launched armed attacks against regime installations, and although they did not threaten the existence of the regime, they did contribute to the sense of its vulnerability. Increasingly, groups in society repudiated the cultural alienation spawned by the Pahlavis’ westernization policies. The term gharbzadegī (“struck by the West”) was coined by the writer, Jalal Al Ahmad, and became a particularly damaging symbol in the hands of the opposition to characterize these policies. It began to seem as though Iranians of all political hues were yearning for a reassertion of traditional values, which had so long been under official near-ridicule. In a context of deepening alienation and the shah's advancing illness from cancer, criticism of the system by students, lawyers, and religious groups began to take its toll. By early fall 1977, collective protests gathered momentum.

Meanwhile, from abroad, Ayatollah Khomeini continually berated the regime for its dependence on the United States, ties to Israel, and domestic policies that he believed had impoverished the masses. At the same time, Khomeini's allies at home had established networks of mobilization and support for thousands of the urban poor population. Many of these had been driven into the cities from the countryside by land reform policies that had failed to provide sufficient credit and other resources to the peasants to keep them on the land. Newly arrived migrants in these towns were absorbed not by the institutions of the Pahlavi state nor by private enterprises but by the religious solidarity associations administered by the allies of Ayatollah Khomeini from neighborhood mosques.

When it came, the shah's overthrow was achieved not by the single-minded determination of any particular group in society but by the actions of a broad array of groups in response to a combination of factors. These included incompetent economic policies between 1973 and 1978; resentment over growing class disparities; the immobility of the state; policies that alienated industrialists and businesspeople; the regime's loss of legitimacy, which was framed in terms of violations of the justice of the imams; opportunities and willingness of key actors, especially the intellectuals, lawyers, and bazaaris, to engage in large-scale collective protest—stimulated in part by the sudden shift in American rhetoric, if not actual policy, on behalf of human rights; inconsistent regime responses to such protest after January 1978; the organizational skills of the opposition; the willingness of the various groups in that opposition to unite behind the common objective of overthrowing the regime; Khomeini's effectiveness as a leader of the opposition; and the sidelining of the ruler because of his illness.

Islamic Republic.

The opposition's victory was secured with Ayatollah Khomeini's return from exile in February 1979. The revolutionaries did not have a blueprint, but Khomeini had already revealed his general intentions in his book, The Mandate of the Jurist (Hukūmāt-i Islāmī, 1970), which vindicated the clergy's right to rule and called for the implementation of Islamic law in all areas of life. He proceeded to appoint a provisional government, although effective power lay in his own hands and in that of the Revolutionary Council, which was mainly made up of his staunch supporters.

The provisional government was forced to resign in early November 1979, when Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan was accused of plotting with the United States over the future role of the shah. Just weeks earlier, on October 23, Washington, in a fateful decision, had agreed to permit the shah to enter the United States for medical care. Many Iranians rejected this explanation, feeling instead that the Americans were preparing to restore the shah to the throne as they had done in 1953. In a defining moment, students occupied the American embassy in Tehran on November 4 and held most of its diplomats hostage until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president in January 1981.

Although Khomeini had not ordered the storming and capture of the embassy, after the fact he realized that the hostages could be used for at least two purposes: to humiliate the United States, and to defeat the “liberals” in his own regime, who did not accept the doctrine of the mandate of the jurist. By 1982, the “Khomeinists,” to coin a term, had won the post-revolutionary power struggles. Defeated were social forces covering the entire spectrum from royalists to guerrilla groups, communists, and the secular though pietistic nationalists. Among the defeated groups were those ʿulamāʿ who rejected Khomeini's doctrinal innovations regarding clerical rule.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979, clerical rule has been institutionalized. The political system is dominated by the supremacy of the judicial bodies, which perform executive and legislative functions as well. However, the state-society gap has increased dramatically. Unlike the Pahlavi state, which appeared to be rooted in no particular social class, the Islamic Republic of Iran is embedded in the support of elements of the petite bourgeoisie and the urban poor. Some have estimated its support base to be no greater than about 20% of the country's population. However, this may be sufficient to keep the Khomeinists in power, as the rest of the population is divided by various sorts of social, economic, political, and cultural cleavages.

Problems of the Islamic Republic.

The political opposition has continued to struggle for accountability and transparency. In 2004, 30% of the population was 15 years of age or less. Thus, the number of people who actually witnessed the revolution is probably no more than half the population, and this number is steadily declining. Ayatollah Khomeini is a distant figure for many, and only his photographs and tape recordings serve to connect them with him. It is safe to say that his 1988 fatwā (religious opinion) asserting the faqih 's (top jurist's) power to suspend Islamic ordinances in the interests of state security—which ushered in the doctrine of the absolute mandate of the jurist—is rejected by most politically-engaged citizens. Women and students, to the degree that they are organized in groups and associations, have drifted away from supporting the regime.

Potentially the greatest threat to the Khomeinists is opposition from within the ranks of clergymen who have kept aloof or been forced into silence. The problem as disaffected clergymen see it is the state's takeover of the religious institution and its attempts to emasculate the institution of marjaʿiyyat-i taqlīd. This expression, for which no adequate translation exists, roughly means the institution by which believers voluntarily select their religious leaders to emulate in matters of ritual and doctrine. Historically, this institution had been independent of state authority, despite the state's efforts to control it. Ironically, this has now been achieved under the aegis of a religious regime.

The spread of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in civil society cannot be halted by government fiat. On top of this is unsatisfactory economic progress. Projections are for the country's oil reserves to be depleted by 2015–2020. Yet the economy continues to be heavily dependent on this sector, despite plans as early as the immediate post-revolutionary years for economic diversification. All of these matters would not be so serious had the society not experienced a period of time, from 1997 to 2005, coinciding with the presidency of Muhammad Khatami, during which people experienced a degree of loosening of controls over their lives. Accordingly, the real problem for the regime is the sense of relative deprivation experienced in recent years by politically aware segments of the overall population.

How the regime will deal with the growing gap between state and society is, of course, unknown. But international and regional politics may have considerable influence on trends in the future. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and their aftermaths present both opportunities and threats to the Islamic Republic's government. Should an external attack against Iranian infrastructure or an invasion of the country by the regime's enemies occur, it would probably have the effect of driving the opposition back into supporting it, at least in the short and medium terms. Should foreign intervention not occur, political developments are more likely to take the path of evolutionary change from within the system, rather than a sudden coup or seizure of power by purely secular forces opposed to the Khomeinists.

The Islamic Republic since 2005.

The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency was a defining moment for the reformist movement in Iran. In his campaign Ahmadinejad, at the time the little known mayor of Tehran, emphasized economic justice and Islamic piety. His younger age, humble beginning, military background, and populist message set him apart from his predecessor Mohammed Khatami, and the latter’s agenda for the creation of a more open polity. Ahmadinejad‘s administration not only put an end to internal political reform, but curtailed the regional and global diplomatic inroads made by Khatami’s administration. Partly due to Ahmadinejad’s defiant attitude and his controversial remarks regarding the Holocaust, and partly due to the country’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran became more and more isolated and subject to increasingly punishing economic sanctions. In the process the forces for reform became increasingly dejected and hopeless.

However, 2009 witnessed a revitalization of the reform movement when the Guardian Council approved the application of two of its leaders, Mehdi Karrubi (the former head of the Majlis) and Hossein Musavi (the former prime minister), to run as presidential candidates. Iran experienced one of its freest campaigns since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, a campaign that convinced a significant sector of the disaffected population to participate in the election. Despite the impressive mobilization of forces in support of reformist candidates, particularly of Musavi, the official results of the elections put the percentage of the national vote received by Ahmadinejad at 62 per cent, making him the clear winner. A large percentage of the electorate, dejected by the questionable outcome, challenged the validity of the official result, and poured into the streets of Tehran and other big cities in massive, spontaneous, but peaceful demonstrations. The protesters came from all segments of the society, creating a human rainbow of young, old, poor, well-to-do, male, female, religious and non-religious individuals. They were united in one thing, however, and that was their demand for a recount of the votes. The Supreme Leader sided with Ahmadinejad and sanctioned his election. It was then that for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic the very existence of the office of the supreme leader, and not just the extent of its power, was publicly challenged by some of the protestors who used slogans to that effect. Rattled by the growing number of demonstrators, the state resorted to violence. Many people were killed, more were beaten, and even more were arrested. Even though the regime succeeded in putting an end to street demonstrations and subduing the movement (known as “the Green Movement”), the state’s legitimacy came into question as never before. It is worth noting, however, that the uprisings in the Middle East and North African regions, i.e., the “Arab Spring,” which swept first Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, the Southern states of the Persian Gulf, Libya, and Syria in 2011, seemed to have had no significant impact on Iran, as it failed to bring the Iranian opposition back to the streets. On the other hand, the Arab Spring added another dose of uncertainty with regard to the position and the relative power of the Iranian state in the region. Regionally, the Arab Spring has been, at least in the short run, both a curse and a blessing for the Islamic Republic. Some of its enemies, such as Hosni Mubarak, have been toppled, a development that has been received with joy by the regime. However, should the friendly regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria be toppled, the Iranian regime could lose some of its foothold in the Levant.

One important post-2009 development in Iran has been the increasing involvement of the armed forces, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, in the political economy of the country. The suppression of the “Green Movement” in support of Ahmadinejad’s presidency for a second term by the Revolutionary Guard was interpreted by some, particularly the Iranian opposition outside Iran, as a military coup. Speculations abounded that the Supreme leader was now only a figurehead and that the Islamic Republic had become, for all intent and purposes, a military dictatorship. But more important to the observers of Iran, in its long term impact as to whether Iran will become a military run state, has been the increasing control/ownership of the Revolutionary Guard of areas such as the communications and oil industry, as well as the presence of many of its leaders in high political offices.

However, so far the military has remained only one of the players in the competition for power that still characterized the fractured Iranian political system after the suppression of the Green Movement. For the most part the latest competition has been the result of a split within the conservative camp. On one side has been Ahmadinejad and his supporters, and on the other Khamenei, the conservative clerical establishment, and the Military. In this battle Ahmadinejad has represented populism by his appeal to the downtrodden. Of special importance has been his risky and controversial elimination of major subsidies in food and energy. Overall, these subsidies, particularly the fuel subsidy, had benefitted the upper and middle classes more so than the poor. The policy of subsidy elimination was accompanied by direct cash payments to the population that should benefit the poor more than the rich. Ahmadinjead has also taken the clerical establishment to task. Nevertheless, despite Ahmadinejad’s populist appeal, it has been Khamenei and his supporters who have most of the levers of power, including the coercive arm of the Revolutionary Guard in their hands. The chances of Ahmadinejad to win this battle, therefore, seem slim.

Even though the outcome of these struggles, whether between the reformists and the conservatives, or among different branches of the conservative/authoritarian factions, remains unclear, one thing is certain: the Islamic Republic is still in a state of flux, and its future, whether in relation to the internal competing forces, or in relation to regional and global players, is far from set.


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Akhavi, Shahrough and Sussan Siavoshi. "Iran." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t236/e0378.

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #231: 'Iran' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 17, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/231.