The ancient nation of Iran, historically known to the West as Persia
and once a major empire in its own right, has been overrun frequently and
has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. Invaded by Arabs,
Seljuk Turks, Mongols, and others--and often caught up in the affairs of
larger powers--Iran has always reasserted its national identity and has
developed as a distinct political and cultural entity.
Archeological findings have placed knowledge of Iranian prehistory at
middle paleolithic times (100,000 years ago). The earliest sedentary cultures
date from 18,000-14,000 years ago. The sixth millennium B.C. saw a fairly
sophisticated agricultural society and proto-urban population centers.
Many dynasties have ruled Iran, the first of which was the Achaemenid (559-330
B.C.), a dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great. After the Hellenistic period
(300-250 B.C.) came the Parthian (250 B.C.-226 A.D.) and the Sassanian
The seventh century Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran was followed by conquests
by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, and Tamerlane. Iran underwent a revival
under the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which
was Shah Abbas. The conqueror Nadir Shah and his successors were followed
by the Zand dynasty, founded by Karim Kahn, and later the Qajar (1795-1925)
and the Pahlavi dynasties (1925-1979).
Modern Iranian history began with a nationalist uprising against the
Shah (who remained in power) in 1905, the granting of a limited constitution
in 1906, and the discovery of oil in 1908. In 1921, Reza Khan, an Iranian
officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, seized control of the government.
In 1925, he made himself Shah, ruling as Reza Shah Pahlavi for almost 16
years and installing the new Pahlavi dynasty.
Under his reign, Iran began to modernize and to secularize politics,
and the central government reasserted its authority over the tribes and
provinces. In September 1941, following the Allies' (United Kingdom-Soviet
Union) occupation of western Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. His
son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became Shah and ruled until 1979.
During World War II, Iran was a vital link in the Allied supply line
for lend-lease supplies to the Soviet Union. After the war, Soviet troops
stationed in northwestern Iran not only refused to withdraw but backed
revolts that established short-lived, pro-Soviet separatist regimes in
the northern regions of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. These were ended in 1946.
The Azerbaijan revolt crumbled after U.S. and UN pressure forced a Soviet
withdrawal and Iranian forces suppressed the Kurdish revolt.
In 1951, Premier Mohammed Mossadeq, a militant nationalist, forced the
parliament to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. Mossadeq was
opposed by the Shah and was removed, but he quickly returned to power.
The Shah fled Iran but returned when supporters staged a coup against Mossadeq
in August 1953. Mossadeq was then arrested by pro-Shah army forces. In
1961, Iran initiated a series of economic, social, and administrative reforms
that became known as the Shah's White Revolution. The core of this program
was land reform. Modernization and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented
rate, fueled by Iran's vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the
In 1978, domestic turmoil swept the country as a result of religious
and political opposition to the Shah's rule and programs--especially SAVAK,
the hated internal security and intelligence service. In January 1979,
the Shah left Iran; he died abroad several years after.
On February 1, 1979, exiled religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
returned from France to direct a revolution resulting in a new, theocratic
republic guided by Islamic principles. Back in Iran after 15 years in exile
in Turkey, Iraq, and France, he became Iran's national religious leader.
Iran's post-revolution difficulties have included an 8-year war with
Iraq, internal political struggles and unrest, and economic disorder. The
early days of the regime were characterized by severe human rights violations
and political turmoil, including the seizure of the U.S. Embassy compound
and its occupants on November 4, 1979, by Iranian militants.
By mid-1982, a succession of power struggles eliminated first the center
of the political spectrum and then the leftists, leaving only the clergy.
There has been some moderation of excesses internally, but Iran still has
a serious human rights problem. Internationally, Iran remains a major state
sponsor of terrorism.
Following Khomeini's death on June 3, 1989, the Assembly of Experts--an
elected body of senior clerics--chose the outgoing president of the republic,
Ali Khamenei, to be his successor as national religious leader in what
proved to be a smooth transition.
In August 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Majles,
was elected President by an overwhelming majority. He was re-elected June
1993, with a more modest majority; some Western observers attributed the
reduced voter turnout to disenchantment with the deteriorating economy.
(Ali) Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani, elected President in August 1997 with
an overwhelming majority, was re-elected again with a majority in June
2001. In February 2004 flawed elections were held for the 7th Majles in
which many reformists were prohibited from contesting their seats. The
managed result was that a much more conservative Majles took its seats
in May 2004.