History of Iran

Mary Stone | May 3, 2023


There has been a state-like organised society in Iran since around 3000 BC. During that period, the region was influenced by the early state of Elam, with Susa as its capital. After Elam, the region was ruled by the Medes and Persians. Around 550 AD, the Persian king Cyrus defeated the Medes and the Persian Empire became the largest empire the world had ever known. The capital of the empire was the mighty Persepolis. Alexander the Great’s armies defeated the Persian Empire and destroyed Persepolis in 330 BC. After Alexander’s conquests, the region of present-day Iran was ruled by the Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids until, after the collapse of the empire in the early 600s, power passed to the nomadic tribes, later known as the Arabs. With the Arab conquerors came their religion. It gradually evolved into Islam, which slowly became the dominant religion in the region.

In the early 1000s, Persia was conquered by Turkish tribes. Their reign was followed by Mongol invasions in the 1200s. The Mongols wreaked havoc in the areas they conquered, but as conditions stabilised under the Il Khans, Persian culture began to revive. The next Persian ruler was Ismail I, who established the Persian Safavid Empire in the late 15th century. He made Shi’ism the state religion of the country. The empire reached its greatest extent under Abbas the Great between 1571 and 1629, when he moved the capital of the Safavid Empire to Esfahan. The capital was moved to Tehran during the Qajar dynasty, which ruled from 1794 to 1925. During the Qajar dynasty, Persia came under the growing influence of Britain and Russia and became part of their struggle for power.

British help played a major role when the Pahlavi dynasty came to power in 1925 and Reza Pahlavi appointed himself the new Shah. He set about secularising the country’s administration and curtailing the rights of religious scholars. This policy was continued by his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who further sought to modernise the country. These modernisation efforts were made at the expense of democracy, and the Shah fell out of favour with religious scholars and democrats. His popularity among Iranians was boosted by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who criticised the Shah’s power. In 1978, Iran erupted in widespread protests, which turned into an Islamic revolution and the Shah fled the country. On his return to Iran, Khomeini established the Islamic Republic in 1979. The era of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been marked by a confrontation between Iran and the West, particularly the United States.

The Iranian plains were already inhabited in the Palaeolithic period 100 000 years ago. Agricultural communities have existed in and around the Zagros Mountains since 6000-5000 BC, in the area east of the great Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia. At that time, the region of present-day Khūzestān and Fārs was the seat of the Elam kingdom, centred on the cities of Susa and Anšan. Elam was influenced by the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, and the influence of Elamese culture was passed on to the later dynasties that influenced Iran. The legacy of Elam is preserved in Tepe Sialk, a large ziggurat built around 2900 BC.

Around 1000 BC, pastoralist tribes speaking Indo-European languages began to arrive in the region. Their migration may have been due to population pressures in their former settlements, the search for pasture and hostile neighbours. Some settled in the eastern part of present-day Iran, but others who left behind significant historical records continued westwards towards Zagrosvuor. Of the peoples who migrated to the region, three major groups can be identified: the Scythians, the Persians and the Medes. The Medes and Persians are described in an Assyrian text dating from 836 BC as taxable to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. After a century or so, the Medes and Persians were already strong enough to invade Assyria. By 700 BC, Media had already broken away from the Assyrians and in 612 the Meedians destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The Medes’ empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush mountains and the Persian Gulf. The Persians were also subject to the vassalage of the Medes.


In 549 BC. Cyrus II the Great, a member of the Achaemenid dynasty subordinate to the Medes, rebelled against the Medes and conquered their capital Ekbatana. He made himself king of Persia and the Medes were in turn ruled by the Persians. Cyrus continued his conquests to Lyydia in Asia Minor, where he seized the treasures of King Croesus, a king renowned for his wealth. The Persians also conquered Phoenicia, Judea and Babylonia in the west, and Parthia, Khorasmia and Bactria in the east. The empire created by Cyrus stretched from the Aegean to the Indus River and may have been the most extensive empire the world had ever known.

There is no certainty about Cyrus’ own religious orientation, but he was religiously tolerant and there was religious freedom in the kingdom. He did, however, follow Zoroastrian doctrines in order to gain the approval of the religious elite. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in Persia during the Achaemenid Empire. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in the region for over a thousand years. According to one version, he was killed in battle during a military expedition against the Massettians east of the Caspian Sea, where he was killed by Queen Tomyris.

Cyrus was succeeded in power by his son Cambyses II, who extended the Achaemenids’ power into Egypt. However, he died in 522 BC, according to one version, after hearing of a rebellion in the Persian heartlands of the empire. According to a stone relief in Behistun, the rebellion was led by the magical priest Gaumata, who placed himself at the head of the empire by falsely claiming to be Kambyses’ younger brother Bardiya, who had been killed by Kambyses a few years earlier. A few months later, Gaumata was overthrown and killed. He was killed by Darius I, a branch of the Achaemenid ruling family, with the help of his allies. Behistun’s engraving was made on the orders of Darius and depicts his version of events. The veracity of the story of Gaumata, who rose to power as the false Bardiyana, has been doubted by historians, but whatever the truth, Darius I rose to become king of Persia and he defeated the first religious revolution in the region.

Darius I ruled his kingdom from the palace he founded in Persepolis. During his reign, the Persians embarked on a campaign in Europe in 512 BC, conquering Thrace and Macedonia. The Persians also invaded what is now mainland Greece, where they rebelled against colonies that had been subjugated to the Persians. The resulting conflict is known by the Greeks as the Persian War. The wars ended with the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and the Persians were forced to retreat from the European continent into Asia Minor. More serious for the Persians was the Egyptian revolt in 486 BC. Darius I died in the same year.

After Darius I, his son Xerxes came to power. He suppressed rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia and went on a punitive expedition against the Greeks in an attempt to conquer the Peloponnese. Xerxes was defeated by Persian forces in 480 BC. At the battle of Thermopylae, the army of Leonidas, King of Sparta, and Leonidas himself fell in battle. However, the Persians were unsuccessful in the sea battles of Plataea and Salamis around the same time, forcing the Persians to retreat.

Xerxes was succeeded in power by his son Artaxerxes in 465 BC. Wars between the Persians and Greeks had paused for a while, but the Persians supported Sparta in the Peloponnesian War against Athens. The wars weakened the Greek city-states, and when the Persians had also lost their dominance in Thrace and Macedonia as a result of the Persian wars, the way was clear for the consolidation of the Macedonian Empire.

However, the Achaemenid dynasty did not have a strong ruler after Darius, and the empire was at its most extensive in his time. The Achaemenid rulers were despots who ruled the empire through a satrap system, thus allowing regional autonomy to their satrap municipalities. The satraps governed their territories autonomously, but were subordinate to the central government. The borders of the empire were not precisely defined, so that Persian rule in the peripheral regions of the empire could only be formally recognised. Persian was the official language of the country, but Aramaic was the most widely spoken language. The empire traded extensively with foreign powers, aided by a well-developed infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of goods. Under Darius, the economy was revolutionised by the introduction of the gold and silver coin system.

The conquests of Alexander the Great

The Macedonian Empire expanded significantly in 359 BC during the reign of Philip II, who ruled the country. He also planned an invasion of Persia, but he died before he could carry it out. The invasion was carried out by his son Alexander the Great, who inherited power from his father. Around the same time, the Achaemenid dynasty was weakened by internal power struggles, which claimed the lives of many Achaemenid rulers. In 336 BC, Darius III ascended the throne and remained the last king of the dynasty. Alexander the Great continued his father’s conquests in Asia Minor, and in 334 BC he defeated the Persians at the Battle of the Granicus River, conquering the Satrapies, who recognised the Persian rule of Ionia. The following year, the Persians were defeated at the Battle of Issus, near the border of present-day Turkey and Syria, after which Alexander’s forces conquered the Mediterranean coast as far as Egypt. The invasions to the east continued in 331 BC when Alexander defeated the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela, near Arbil in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan. Darius III fled to the east, where he was slain by Bessus, a satrap of Bactria.

Alexander the Great’s army burned the city of Persepolis in 330 BC. The purpose of the act is thought to have been symbolic, intended to show that the days of the Achaemenid dynasty were over. Alexander then embarked on a policy of Persianisation, encouraging his troops to marry Persian women and stay in the colonies. He himself married several Persian princesses, including Statira, daughter of Darius III, and Roksane, daughter of a Bactrian nobleman. Alexander’s troops continued their conquests towards India, but after the victorious battle of the Hydaspes River in 326 BC, Alexander’s troops were joined by three of his sisters, Darius and Ruthia. Alexander’s army began to tire of the constant warfare and discontent with Alexander the Great began to grow. On his way back from India, Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. During his lifetime, Alexander the Great attempted to create an intermediate form of Greek and Persian civilisation in Persia, but the Greek influence in Persia was ultimately fleeting.

After Alexander’s death, control of the territories he had conquered passed to his generals. Persia remained in 312 BC. Persia was taken over by the Seleucid dynasty founded by Seleucus I Nicator in 312 AD. The Seleucids very largely continued Alexander’s policy of establishing Greek colonies in the east. However, they had to compete with other heirs to Alexander the Great’s empire, notably the Ptolemies of Egypt, and with the growing power of the Roman Empire. As attention focused westwards, the regions of Sogdiana and Bactria gradually developed into independent states.


The greatest threat to the Seleucids came from the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia, east of the Caspian Sea, which began to threaten the remnants of Seleucid rule in the eastern part of the empire. The Parthians were pastoralists who rebelled against the Seleucids, and under the reign of the Arsacid ruler Mithridates I, who ruled from 171 to 138 BC, the Parthians conquered much of Persia and eventually the capital Seleucia in 141 BC. During the reign of Mithridates II, who ruled from 123-87 BC, Parthian power in Persia was consolidated. A major factor in the battles between the Seleucids and the Arsacids was the silk trade, which became essential for Persian cities along the Silk Road for over a thousand years.

The Parthian administration in the areas they conquered was quite tolerant. They tolerated the former religious and cultural practices of their subject provinces, and often the satrapies were still ruled by the noble families formerly loyal to the Seleucids. The Parthians established Ctesiphon, on the opposite bank of the Tigris from the destroyed Seleucia, as the capital of the kingdom. A major external threat to the Parthian Empire was the Roman Republic, which ruled the Mediterranean coast. The Romans, under Marcus Licinius Crassus, attempted to conquer Parthia, but were defeated in 53 BC. The Parthians were defeated in 53 BC at the Battle of Carrhae. The Roman army consisted mainly of infantry, which was slow-moving in open country fighting and therefore at a considerable disadvantage compared to the Parthian cavalry. Crassus himself was captured by the Parthians and executed.

Rome next attempted to conquer Parthia under Mark Antony in 40 BC. War broke out again between the kingdoms, ending in a stalemate after more than a decade. This was mainly due to geographical factors, as the Parthian cavalry was superior in battles fought in open country, while the Roman-controlled areas were hilly, leaving the Parthians vulnerable to Roman ambushes and the Parthians unable to besiege Roman cities. Augustus, who became emperor of Rome, concluded a peace treaty with the Parthians, which pacified the situation for several decades. The calm in the west led to the Parthians being able to establish a new Indo-Parthian kingdom in Punjab. However, wars against Rome resumed again under the Emperor Nero, after the Parthian king Vologases I had appointed a new king of Armenia, which the Romans regarded as a country dependent on their own empire. A new war broke out between Rome and Parthia as the two empires disputed over control of Armenia. The war ended in a mutually satisfactory peace treaty and Armenia became a buffer state between the empires. Under the treaty, a king of the Arsacid dynasty was placed on the Armenian throne, but succession to the throne required the approval of Rome. Armenia’s status created a state of war between the kingdoms again in 115, when the Parthian king Vologases III appointed a king in Armenia who was not approved by Rome. The Roman Emperor Trajan was given cause to invade Parthian-ruled Mesopotamia and annexed the region to the Roman Empire. However, the rebellious region was too difficult for the Romans to control and Trajan’s successor Hadrian handed control of the region back to Parthia and made peace with King Osroes I. The period of peace was short-lived, however, as in the second half of the 100s Rome continued its attempts to conquer Persia from the Arsacid rulers. In addition to the threat from Rome, the Arsacid dynasty began to suffer from internal power struggles, which weakened its governance.


Another major threat to the Arsacid dynasty was the powerful Sassanid family, which was active in the Persian-inhabited region of Fars and no longer bent to the Arsacids’ vassals. In 224, Ardashir, the head of the family, rose up against the Parthians and succeeded in expanding his territories at the expense of the Parthians. In 224, Ardašir defeated and killed the Parthian king Artabanus IV in battle at Hormozgān. Ardašir crowned himself as the new Shah of Shahshah and continued his conquests, and within a few years the entire former Parthian kingdom was under Sassanid rule.

The Sassanids began to emphasise their Persianism and Persian replaced the Greek used by the Arsacids in the engravings of coins. The engravings also legitimised Sassanid power by declaring the Ardashir to be of divine origin. The Sassanids emphasised Zoroastrianism as the state religion and the priestly class became a powerful social class. The century-long wars against Rome continued into the Sassanid period. Among the Sassanid rulers, the son of Ardashir, Shapur I, who came to power in 240, achieved significant military success against Rome, and it was during his reign that Persia achieved its most significant victories. In 243, the Persians defeated the Romans in war and killed the Roman emperor Gordian. In 259-260, the Emperor Valerian led his forces against Shapur, but the Persians repulsed the attack and Valerian was captured by the Persians. His fate is not known for certain.

During the reigns of Ardashir and Shapur, the Sassanid rule in Persia was consolidated. Trade along the Silk Road, as well as trade by sea with China and India, boosted the Persian economy. Shapur I died between 270 and 272, after which the kingdom was ruled by several of his sons for short periods in succession, and the succession was also interfered with by Zoroastrian priests. After the death of Sapur, the Sassanid domination of Rome also began to wane. After the war of 283, Rome took control of the border provinces conquered by Sapur.

In 310, after a succession dispute, Šapur II came to power and ruled the kingdom until 379. He was the longest-serving Sassanid ruler. Early in his reign, Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome and Armenia also officially converted to Christianity. As Christianity spread, Persian Christians began to be suspected as potential Roman spies, and Persia’s long period of religious tolerance began to crack as the politically prominent Zoroastrian scholarship became more intolerant of other religions. Tension with Rome also grew because Shapur II’s brother Hormizd was under the protection of Emperor Constantine in Rome as a potential conqueror of Persia. Shapur II demanded that Rome return the territories conquered by Shapur I in Mesopotamia, which led to another war between the empires and the Persians eventually regained control of what is now Amida in Turkey. Rome, backed by the conquering emperor Hormizd, attempted to retake the territories under Emperor Julian, but the Persians repulsed the invasion and Julian was killed in battle. The military achievements of Shapur II’s reign were very impressive, as during his reign the Sassanid Empire also had to fight in Transoxania and Bactria against the Hephthalites.

Repeated wars against Rome came to an end in 399, during the reign of Yazdagird I, who came to power. Peace was maintained throughout his reign. The old enemy, the Roman Empire, also fell apart, and the Byzantine Empire became the Persians’ regional rival. Yazdagird I pursued a rather tolerant religious policy, which allowed the emergence of Nestorianism, which broke away from Christianity. This tolerance may also have been Yazdagird I’s undoing, as he himself had executed Zoroastrian priests, and it is possible that he himself was a victim of homicide. Yazdagird II, who came to power in 438, was more popular with the Zoroastrian clergy. He tried to restore Zoroastrianism to Armenia, which led to a civil war in the country. In the heartlands of Persia, he again allowed persecution of Christians and Jews.

During his reign, Yazdagird II faced a threat from the pastoral tribes of the East. The Hephthalites became involved in the Sassanid succession and with their support Peroz I came to power. However, he turned against the Hephthalites and was killed in battle in 484. In 488, Kavad I came to power after the Hephthalites had conquered part of the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Kavad I sought to reduce the power of the country’s clergy and turned to the Manichean heresy of Mazdacianism. Its ideas of common wealth sharing found support among the peasantry, who suffered from famine and exploitation by the nobility. The nobility and the clergy revolted against Kavadi and deposed him, but he managed to return to power with the support of the Hephthalites in 498-499. In the latter half of his reign, Kavad found that the doctrines of Mazdakism were no longer of any use to him and the founder of the movement, Mazdak, was executed. The destruction of Mazdakism was completed by Kavad’s son, Khusrau I, who came to power in 531.

During the reign of Khusrau I, the Sassanid Empire experienced a new period of prosperity. He supported the cultural development of the country and the compilation of Persian history was begun. He built the great iwan arch of Khtesiphon, which can still be seen in modern times. Khusrau I’s period was also successful in war, with the Sassanids in the north and north-east fighting victoriously against the Hephthalites and Turks. In the west, the Sassanids waged wars against Byzantium, which eventually resulted in Byzantium having to buy peace.

Khusrau I died in 579 and was succeeded in power by his son Hormizd IV. He was a defender of the lower social classes, which meant that he was not popular with the nobility. He was deposed by the warlord Bahram Chubin with the support of the nobility. The nobility, who had adhered to the centuries-old principle of dynasty, could not accept this and supported the deposed ruler’s son Khusrau II, who had fled to the Byzantine emperor Mauricio. With the help of Mauricius, Khusrau II was brought to power after the war and the Sassanid dynasty was restored. With Byzantine support, Khusrau II was able to consolidate his power by 600.

Byzantine-Sassanid War (603-628)

What would prove to be the last showdown between Byzantium and the Sassanids began in 602. Its formal cause was the overthrow of Emperor Mauricius, the benefactor of Khusrau II. Khusrau II then launched a war against his challenger, General Foca. Byzantium found itself in a war on two fronts, as at the same time in the west the Slavs and Avars were invading the Balkans. For the first twenty years of the war, the Sassanids were victorious. The Sassanids conquered the Byzantine-held territories of the Middle East, stretching from Armenia to Syria and Egypt. With the conquest of Jerusalem, Byzantium lost the Holy Cross, whose patrons the emperors had been. The Sassanid army advanced in Anatolia as far as the Bosporus.

Both empires had Arab tribes in the Middle East as allies (foederati), guarding the borders of the empires. The vassals of Persia, ruled by the Sassanid dynasty, were the Lakhmids, who lived south of modern Iraq. Their capital, Hira, was only a few hundred kilometres from the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. The Lakhmid had converted to Nestorian Christianity as early as the 400s. The Byzantines were assisted by the Ghassanids, who were monophysite Christians living in Syria. The Arabs also lived in Mesopotamia and the Persian highlands, where unreliable tribes had been transferred from the border regions over time.

The military turning point in the war came in 622, when Heraclius, the emperor who had deposed Phocas in 610, had thoroughly trained his army and defeated the Iranian troops in what is now Turkey, in Armenia. The turning point in the war became permanent. Heraclius marched into the heartlands of Iran and four years later, after the Battle of Nineveh in 627, forced the Sassanids to make peace. In 630, the Sassanids gave back all the territories they had conquered in the war. Khosrau II, who had lost his reputation, was assassinated by the Persian aristocracy in 628. Kavad II, who succeeded his father on the throne in 628, died the same year, and Ardashir III, who succeeded him, was assassinated in 630. The Sassanid system of power disintegrated, and one ruler succeeded another. The hitherto subjugated Arab tribes now realised that there were no longer any foreign rulers above them. The ‘Arab period’ was a new feature of various chronologies. It began to be counted from 622, when the Sassanid collapse had begun.

Byzantine resources were not enough to restore Roman power in those areas of the Middle East left to their own devices by the collapse of the Sassanid Empire. Byzantium withdrew from the Middle East, seeking to retain control only over the most important cities, such as Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. The disappearance of the war machines of both empires left vast areas of the Middle East in the hands of the Arab clans who lived there, ushering in an era of marauding warlords. Arab jubilation is reflected in the Qur’an in the great Byzantine prophecy, which, in the form of a prophecy written afterwards, tells of the turn of the Byzantine war against the Sassanids: ‘The Byzantines have been defeated very near, but after their defeat they will still be victorious in a few years’ time. The solution is in God’s hands, both now and later. Then the believers will rejoice in God’s help.” The ensuing chaos is reflected in the notes of Christian monks and bishops. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sofronius, wrote a synodal letter in early 634 in which he described the political situation of the time as follows:

“To cut off the pride of all barbarians, and especially of those Saracens, who, because of our sins, have unexpectedly risen up against us, and are everywhere rampaging with their irreverent and impious shamelessness … let their mad impudence be soon put down, and let these despicable creatures, as before, be made the footstools of our God-appointed ruler.”

The Sassanid Empire collapsed after its last war and lost its grip on the periphery of the empire. Power struggles raged at the head of the dynasty, and plagues had reduced the population. The last Sassanid ruler was Yazdegerd III, who was brought to power as a minor in 632. In addition to the war, the economic difficulties have been blamed on the salinisation of the fields, climate change and plagues, which had taken a heavy toll on the population since the 100s. Plague epidemics in the Middle East continued to ravage the Middle East until the 700s, but did not affect pastoral tribes in the same way. Climate change also tended to favour nomads, as farmers were also increasingly forced to become nomadic. The rise of the Arab empire on the ruins of two great powers in the Middle East has therefore been seen as a consequence of the imbalance between agricultural and pastoral societies. As a result, the Arab state religion of Islam also spread to Iran, combining Hellenistic influences with Persian religions and Arab clan culture.

The Sassanid Empire flourished for four centuries, leaving its mark on modern Iran. The Shahname, or Book of Kings, compiled by the Persian poet Ferdows, is a collection of poems about the country’s culture that is still familiar to most Iranians today.

Arab conquests

The narrative tradition written in the Abbasid Empire in the 800s and 800s also describes in detail the Persian conquest, but the results are not scientific historiography but storytelling. An extensive overview is provided in particular by at-Tabari in his history of the early 900s. Tabari describes the Persian conquest as centred on two major battles: the Battle of Qadisiyya in 636 and the Battle of Nahavand in 642. Both accounts are marked by the stigma of sadistic deception. The Sassanids, for example, are said to have been outnumbered many times over, with an army of over 100 000 soldiers, almost all of whom would have been killed in battle. The last Sassanid king, Yazdegerd III, is said to have fled the Arabs to the east, where he would have been murdered by his own former subjects in the city of Merv in 651. There are also fairy-tale details attached to this story.

As a result of the Arab revolution, Persia was politically annexed to the rest of the Middle East. Persia became the most populous and prosperous part of the empire.

Umayyad and Abbasid

The collapse of the Sassanid Empire was followed by a long period of turmoil, which ended when power was concentrated in the hands of Muawiya, who operated from Damascus in Syria. He is also the first Arab ruler to survive in the historical record.

Muawiya started the Umayyad dynasty, which initially used Greek as the language of administration. Later, the Sassanid coins and many of the administrative practices inherited from the Sassanids were introduced. Persian administrators and scholars played an important role in society, and efforts were made to integrate the population of the conquered territories into the Arab community. However, the Umayyads were constantly confronted by rebellious movements throughout the empire.

According to Islamic mythical historiography, some held that Caliph Ali was the only legitimate Caliph, and the Caliphate had to be inherited from his lineage, which through Fatima, Ali’s wife, was also the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad. Ali’s son Husain led a revolt against Umayyad rule, but his forces were defeated at the Battle of Kerbala in 680 and Husain was killed. The event (for which there is no historical evidence) became a central event in Shi’ism, commemorated annually. Shi’ism later became strongly associated with Iran, although it was not originally a Persian religious movement. Most Persians did not convert to Shi’ism until the 1500s.

In the 740s, the Umayyad rule was challenged by an Abbasid rebellion that began in Khorasan and Merv in Persia. The Abbasids were Persianised Arabs whose rebellion was reportedly led by the mythical general Abu Muslim. Once in power, the Abbasids established their capital in Baghdad, next to the old Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. With the Abbasid revolution, the centre of gravity of the empire began to shift eastwards from the old Umayyad capital of Damascus. At the same time, the empire became heavily Persianised and the Arab revolutionaries began to assimilate into Persian culture. Persianisation had already begun during the Umayyad period, and the Abbasids also relied on Persian elders as officials in their administration. The Persian influence was also strongly felt in the flourishing of Persian culture and the period is remembered as the golden age of Islam. Baghdad, the country’s capital, grew to an allegedly large city of 400 000 inhabitants by the 900s and was the largest city in the world outside China.

The Abbasids introduced new religious ideas with the aim of unifying the empire. They also relied on the old Persian elite for power. However, the empire did not remain united, even though the population was relocated. The provincial governors increased their power and sent less and less tax revenue to the central government. In practice, they were independent, although in name they still recognised the authority of the abbasid caliph as the secular supreme authority of Islam.

The first local dynasties that began to compete with the Baghdad Abbasid rule were the Taherids of Khorasan (820-872), the Saffarids of Sistan (867-903) and the Samanids of Buhara (875-1005). On the periphery of the Abbasid caliphate, in the border regions of present-day Afghanistan and Iran, the Baghdad caliph’s grip on the regions was weak and there were power struggles between different groups. The most powerful was the Persian low-born warlord Ja’qub ibn al-Laith al-Saffar, who established the Saffarid capital of Zaranj, in present-day Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. The Saffarids expanded their power eastwards without having the mandate of the Abbasid Caliph for their actions, thus severing the Saffarids’ relationship with the Abbasids. After the eastern conquests, the Saffarids turned their attention to the Persian heartland, bringing the Abbasids and Saffarids into conflict in 876. The Saffarids gained control of a large part of what is now Iran, but the Abbasids were able to prevent the spread of Saffarid rule to Baghdad. Under duress, the Baghdad caliph was forced to recognise al-Saffari as governor of the territories he had conquered. Ja’qub ibn al-Laith al-Saffar died in 879 and his brother Amr ibn al-Laith al-Saffar took over the leadership of the Safarids. This attempted to spread Saffarid power into Samanid-ruled Transoxania, but the campaign failed miserably. In 900, in a battle near Balkh, the Samanid army defeated the Saffarids, Amr was captured and the Samanid ruler Ismai’l ibn Ahmad sent him to Baghdad to be tried by the caliph, thus also showing his loyalty to the caliph. Amr was executed by Caliph Al-Mu’tadid and thereafter the Saffarid Empire quickly began to collapse. The Saffarid dynasty survived in its stronghold of Sistan for another hundred years, but it no longer emerged as a major player in Central Asia, and the Samanids emerged as the most powerful dynasty in the region.

The Samanids were of Persian aristocratic background and were more diplomatic than the Safarids. They treated the caliph with respect and Samanid rulers took the title of emir, a lower title than caliph. The Samanids recognised the Caliph’s supremacy but in practice acted independently. Baghdad was taken over in the 900s by the Bujid dynasty, which effectively usurped the political power of the caliph. The Samanid period lasted little more than a century, but during that time Persian culture revived and Arab culture began to decline. Islam had already become a universal religion and no longer required Arabness to practice it. The period was characterised by an emphasis on Persian culture and history.

The development of Persian culture and science was aided by the support of the Abbasid caliphs for scholars who translated ancient Persian texts into Arabic from writings found in the conquered territories. Notable Persian scholars of the period include the historian al-Tabari (838-923), the philosopher and scientist Avicenna (980-1037), and the poet, mathematician and scientist Omar Khaijam (1048-1131). Medicine, historiography, literature and poetry, which is strongly linked to Persian culture, developed significantly during the period known as the Golden Age of Islam. In many areas, Persia was more advanced than Europe during this period.

Turkish Dynasties

Persian culture revived in the heartlands of Persia, but in Central Asia, Persian culture began to be supplanted by Turkic tribes. The Turkic tribes had already become Islamicised and their homeland north of the Hindu Kush mountains was called Turkestan. From the 800s onwards, the practice of recruiting young military slaves, often of Turkic origin, from among the pagan peoples had become common in Islamic dynasties. Many of them rose to senior positions in the country’s army and administration.

During the weak reign of Abd al-Maliki, the Samanid emir from 954-961, the real power was held by Alp Tegin, the head of his bodyguard, a military slave by background. After the emir’s death, Alp Tegin refused to relinquish his power and sought to bring to power his own favourite, whom he was able to control. But when a rival faction won, he was forced to flee the country to the Kabul Valley, in what is now Afghanistan, where he succeeded in overthrowing the local dynasty that ruled Ghazni. Alp Tegin died in 977 and was succeeded in power by Sebük Tegin, a military slave of Alp Tegin’s Turkish background. Under Sebük Tegin, Ghazni’s power grew eastwards, where it was held by Hindu rulers. Sebük Tegin was formally a local ruler under the Samanids, but the Samanid emirates were increasingly squeezed as Tegin’s power grew in the east. At the same time, the Samanids began to be threatened by the Bujid dynasty.

In the late 900s, the Samanids also began to be threatened by the Karakhanids, a Turkic tribal confederation north of the Syrdarja River. They sought to extend their influence southwards, forcing the Samanid emirate to rely on Sebük Tegin, who in return demanded control over larger areas. The Samanids were devastated by the invasion of the Karakhanids in 996, when Sebük Tegin also decided to conclude a treaty with the Karakhanids. The Samanid capital of Buhara in what is now Uzbekistan surrendered to the Karakhanids in 999. Sebük Tegin himself had died in 997 and his son Mahmud the Ghaznite rose to lead the new Ghaznavid kingdom. After the fall of the Samanids, the Ghaznavids and the Karakhanids divided the former Samanid territories.

Mahmud the Ghaznite showed deference to the Abbasid caliph in the leadership of his kingdom, but in practice the Ghaznavids were completely autonomous and the caliph had no real authority. Mahmud Ghazni presented himself as a pious Sunni and under that guise he went to war in the Indian subcontinent, where the small Rajput principalities were unable to resist Mahmud’s forces. In reality, his aims were not entirely religious, but were raiding expeditions. There was little in the Persian region to oppose the Ghaznavids during the reign of Mahmud the Ghaznavid, allowing Ghaznavid power to spread far and wide. After his death, the balance of power began to shift again as the Seljuks, who were part of the Turkic tribes in Central Asia in the early 1000s, began to increase their influence. Mahmud’s son Mas’ud I attempted to defeat the Seljuks, but the larger Ghaznavid army with its war horses was unable to defeat the Seljuk archers, who moved quickly on horseback. The Ghaznavids began to lose the western parts of their kingdom to the Seljuk Empire and gradually the Ghaznavids became vassals of the Seljuks. The Ghaznavids were finally defeated by the Ghurid dynasty, which conquered Ghazni in 1150 or 1151.

After the Seljuks had defeated the Ghaznavids in north-eastern Persia, they continued their advance westwards into central Persia. The Seljuks advanced west as far as Asia Minor, where they defeated the Byzantines in 1070, leaving much of Anatolia under Seljuk rule. The Seljuks, like other pastoral Turkic tribes, had little experience of centralised government. Thus, like the previous conquerors, they ruled according to the Persian abbasid model. The Seljuks were already very Islamicised, so their culture was easily assimilated into Persian culture. However, not all Turkic tribes were willing to adopt the Persian state structure. The Ghuz Turkic pastoral tribes of Central Asia did not submit to Seljuk rule and the Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sandžar sought to subjugate them by force. However, the campaign failed when the Seljuks were defeated by the Ghuz army in 1153. The consequences of this were dramatic, as the Seljuk vassals saw their chance and broke away from the Seljuks. The Ghurid dynasty, which had defeated the Ghaznavids, was the most successful in filling the power vacuum created.

In addition to the Ghurids, remnants of Seljuk power were claimed by the Kovaresmian empire, which conquered areas around the Caspian Sea. The Ghurids and Kovaresmia fought each other for control of the Iranian plateau and the Seljuk legacy. The struggle ended briefly in favour of the Ghurids, who had the support of the caliph and the majority of the population, posing as Sunni rulers, while the Kovaresmian soldiers were pagan Turks. Ghurid rule reached its peak in the 1190s, when the Ghurids conquered Delhi, where the Ghurid rulers later established the Delhi Sultanate. However, the Ghurid empire expended enormous resources in fighting both in the Iranian plateau and in northern India. The Shah of Kovaresmia allied with the Karakitai Empire and the Ghurid army was defeated in the north of present-day Afghanistan in 1204. A decade later, the Ghurid Empire collapsed and lost territory to its northern rival.

Mongol conquests

After the Kovaresmian Shahs defeated the Ghurids and the last of the Seljuks in the Iranian highlands, they became the rulers of the region in the early 1200s. At the same time, in East Central Asia, the Genghis Khan alliance of Mongol tribes formed the Mongol Empire. The Mongols conquered Karakitai and the Kovarsmian Shah incorporated the western parts of the collapsed empire into his own territories, making the Mongol Empire and Kovarsmia neighbours.

Coexistence between nations did not turn out to be peaceful. In 1218, Genghis Khan sent an envoy to the court of Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad, but he beheaded the envoy. To the Mongols, killing the envoy was a despicable insult, and Genghis Khan retaliated against the Kovaresmian Shah the following year. Kovaresmia was far from ready for war, as much of its territory had only just been annexed to the newly formed empire and its administration had not yet been organised. The Mongols attacked Kovaresmia, easily defeating the scattered Shah’s forces, and he could only flee the Mongol forces to a small island in the Caspian Sea, where he soon died. His son Jalal al-Din continued to fight the Mongols from Ghazni, and he did achieve victory over the Mongols at the Battle of Parvan, but the victory ultimately only slowed the Mongol advance into Central Asia. The new invasion of Genghis Khan in 1221 could no longer be repulsed by the alliance led by Jalal al-Din, and the Mongols destroyed Ghazni and massacred its inhabitants. The same fate befell the other cities that had risen up against the Mongols, and no power was able to prevent the Mongols from invading deeper into Persia. The Mongol upheaval was the greatest since the Arab invasion six hundred years earlier, but the devastation was greater. In modern terms, the Mongol mass slaughter would be called genocide. Contemporary eyewitnesses estimate the number of those killed at Merv at between 700 000 and 1.3 million. This is a huge figure, but it is plausible as it represents a large proportion of the population of Kovarsmia at the time.

The Mongols tried to consolidate their power in Persia and made Tabriz their base. They succeeded in destroying the Ismaili Assassins, whom the Seljuks were never able to defeat. Some minor rulers who recognised Mongol supremacy were allowed to continue as Mongol vassals, such as the remnant of the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia, the Sultanate of Rum. Mongol rule thus extended as far as the Mediterranean. Genghis Khan died in 1227. Before his death, the Mongols had reached what is now Azerbaijan, wreaking havoc along the way. After his death, the vast Mongol Empire was divided among his descendants. Persia remained under the rule of the Il-Khan Empire, founded by Hülegün, grandson of Genghis Khan.


The Il Khans ruled a region that stretched from Anatolia to what is now Afghanistan. The Il-Khan Empire was bordered by other successor states to the Mongol Empire, Chaghatai in the east and the Golden Order in the north. Relations with the other Mongol empires became hostile. The Il khans continued their conquests westwards, where they conquered Baghdad and the last abbasid caliph was killed in 1258. The Mongol advance only ended at the Battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine, where the Egyptian Mamelukes defeated the Il Khan’s forces.

The Il-Khans held on to their own identity at the beginning of their reign, but over time they became more Islamicised and adopted Persian culture. The Mongols formed only a small elite group in Persia and were subordinate to Persian officials. The turning point was the conversion of Khan Ghazan to Islam in 1295. Once again, Persian culture had taken the upper hand over its conquerors, and the mausoleum in the ruined city of Soltaniyeh, the son of Ghazan’s son, Öljeitü Khan, is a significant monument to this.

During the reign of Ghazan Khan in 1295-1304, the Mongols began to improve conditions for the Persians; taxes on artisans were reduced, agriculture was revived by restoring irrigation systems and the security of trade routes was improved. As a result, trade increased dramatically as Chinese and Indian goods were able to pass through Persia. The Persian economy recovered and was influenced by foreign cultures. With the death of Ghazan’s nephew, Abu Sa’id, who ruled from 1316 to 1335, the Il Khanate began to decline for lack of a strong leader. As a result, several small dynasties were able to regain power.


The Transoxanian warlord Timur Lenk emerged as the unifier of Persia. He had risen to prominence in the Khanate of Chagatai and, with the internal division of the country, he became the de facto ruler of the whole kingdom by the 1370s. He was not of Mongol descent and did not directly rise against the Mongol rulers, but he sought to join the Genghis Khan line through a marriage alliance. Once Timur had gained a strong enough grip on Transoxania, he turned against the surrounding kingdoms, beginning a series of conquests. All the Persian dynasties were caught up in the wave of conquests by Timur’s army, which slowly built their own empires. Timur’s armies plundered cities and brutally killed their inhabitants. The loot was sent to Samarkand, Timur’s capital. Marching through Persia, Timur erected pillars of human heads to frighten his enemies. The columns erected outside the cities of Esfahan and Baghdad bore the heads of tens of thousands of slain enemies. Timur Lenk and his armies sowed terror in the late 1300s in the region from Anatolia to the Sultanate of Delhi.

Timur Lenk died in 1405. Before his death, he had conquered a large empire, but the administration of the conquered territories was not organised in any way, and the old dynasties often remained in power. After Timur’s death, his descendants began to fight for power among themselves, and the Persian dynasties no longer recognised their rule. The most powerful of Timur’s descendants was Shahrokh, who moved the centre of power to Herat, but his power no longer extended to the western part of Persia, where the Turkmen tribes held sway. Gradually, the Timurid-ruled territory began to disperse and the Turkic tribal alliances known as Ak Koyunlu and Kara Koyunlu began to emerge.

The rise of Shiism

In the late 15th century, a military brotherhood of Turkish horsemen began to increase its influence in eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan. They were called Safavids and were named after their early leader, Shaikh Safa al-Din al-Ardabil, who lived between 1252 and 1334 and was a proponent of Sufism, a mystical trend in Islam. The interpretation of Sufism was quite open and its views could be reconciled with the traditional beliefs of the new nations. This contributed to the spread of Sufism and the growth of Safavid power. The doctrine was initially very peaceful and had no political aspirations, but in the 15th century, the Safavid views began to diverge from other directions in Sufism. The Safavids began to militarise and acquire Shiite characteristics. Their military power was based on the Qizilbash warriors of Turkic origin. They were simply called qizilbaš, or red heads, because of the headgear they wore. The Safavids sought to extend their power over an ever wider area, and they rose up against the Ak Koyunlu princes, which was to be their downfall. After the leader of the movement was killed by Ak Koyunlu’s forces in 1494, power passed to his brother Ismail. In 1501, Ismail and his Qizilbash warriors launched another campaign against Ak Koynlu and in 1501 the Safavids took control of Tabriz, which became their capital. Ismail declared himself a Shah and made 12-Shia the religion of the territories he conquered.

Over the next few years, the Safavids overthrew the remaining Ak Koyunlu princes and took control of all of what is now Iran, as well as the capital of Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. In the north-east of the empire, the Uzbeks had taken control of Khorasan as the Timurid rule crumbled. The Safavids overthrew the Uzbeks in 1510, giving them control of the entire Iranian plateau. On the western frontier of the Safavid Empire, the Ottomans defeated the Qizilbash army of the Safavids at the Battle of Calderan in 1514, halting the spread of Safavid rule westwards. Ismail made Shi’ism the religion of the territories he conquered. Before the Safavid conquests, Persia had been predominantly Sunni, but the region gradually became Shi’ite, distinguishing it from its Sunni neighbours, the Uzbeks, Ottomans and Pashtuns. The division between Shi’a and Sunni areas still today separates Shi’a Iran from its Sunni neighbours.

Ismail’s defeat at the battle of Calderan against the Ottomans ate away at his prestige in the eyes of the Qizilbash. The war continued even after the battle, but not all Qizilbash leaders were loyal to the Shah. The Ottomans repeatedly conquered Tabriz and Baghdad and the Shiites were persecuted in Ottoman areas. The Safavids, on the other hand, extended their religious persecution to the Sufis, despite their Sufi heritage. The Sufi interpretation of Islam was almost completely eradicated from the empire.

Ismail died in 1524 and his successor, Tahmasp I, was still a minor when he came to power. He ruled for over half a century, during which time the Safavids lost territory both in the west to the Ottomans and in the east to the Uzbeks. He also moved the country’s capital from Tabriz to Qazvin, as it was better protected from the Ottomans. Tahmasp I died in 1587, after which the kingdom fell into a period of infighting and two more short-lived rulers until Abbas I ascended to the Shah in 1587, after his alliance with prominent Qizilbash leaders.

Abbas the Great

During the reign of Abbas I, from 1587 to 1629, the Safavid Empire was at its strongest. He reorganised the country’s army, where the power of the Qizilbash army was reduced. During Abbas’ reign, firearms also became common in the Persian army. Armies were formed from Georgian and Armenian slaves who were far from their homes and thus totally dependent on the Shah, making them much more reliable. Qizilbash lands were also taken over by the central power. These acts were intended to weaken tribal power and centralise administration in Abbas’ own hands. The Safavids’ military success with their new army further increased Abbas’ prestige. The Safavids defeated the Uzbeks in the north-east and in the west Baghdad was conquered from the Ottomans. Members of the Qizilbash tribes were sent to secure the new borders. This policy of population transfer dispersed the tribes, further weakening their power.

One of the great legacies of the Safavid period for modern Iran is its Shi’ite system of governance. A major beneficiary of Abbas’s reforms was the Shia ulama, which Abbas supported through his policies. At the same time, Shia culture developed in the form of art, metalwork, weaving and especially architecture. Abbas moved the capital to Esfahan in 1598. The city became a major cultural centre where the legacy of Safavid architecture can still be seen.

During the Safavid period, Persia also began to engage in international trade. The country prospered from the silk produced in Gilan, which was sold to India and, via Armenian traders, to Europe. The Portuguese had occupied Bahrain and the island of Hormuz on the Gulf coast to control trade from the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, but in 1602 Abbas expelled the Portuguese from Bahrain. In 1623, he allied with the British East India Trading Company against the Portuguese to drive them out of Hormuz as well and regain control of the Strait of Hormuz. The British were given the right to trade, and other foreign traders were also attracted to Persia.

Abbas I died in 1629 and after him the Safavid dynasty began to decline. One reason for this was the lack of a strong ruler. Abbas himself had risen to power by deposing his father, and to ensure that this did not happen to him, his sons lived in harems all their lives. To make sure, he blinded them and had one of his sons killed. After Abbas, one of his grandsons came to power. This unfortunate habit of confining princes in harems meant that the heir who came to power had no experience of politics. They were therefore entirely at the mercy of their advisers, who thus exercised real power. Power thus began to slip to local aristocrats, harem women and the reorganising qizilbashes.

The fall of the Safavids and Pashtu power

The next strong Safavid ruler and dynastic resurgence came under Abbas II between 1642 and 16666, but the era of Safavid greatness was inevitably over. This was fuelled not only by maladministration but also by excessive taxation of the people, the decline of trade and the weakening of the military organisations, both the Qizilbash army and the slave army. During the reigns of the last two Safavid shahs, Sulaiman I (1669-1694) and Sultan Husain (1694-1722), Safavid power continued to decline. During their reign, the Shiite ulama increased its power. Muhammad Baqir Majlis, one of the leading clerics, gained considerable power and is considered to have pursued a deliberate policy of persecution of minorities, targeting foreigners and non-Shi’a Muslims. Under Husain, Majlis’s policies became increasingly Islamic extremist. All taverns, cafes and brothels were ordered to close, the consumption of intoxicants was banned and women were required to stay at home. The transformation of previously liberal Persia into a narrow-minded and intolerant regime hastened the downfall of the Safavid dynasty.

The Pashtuns, previously loyal to the Safavids, also turned their backs on the Shah after he tried to convert them to the official state religion. Opinion among Sunni Pashtuns began to turn against the Shah. Under the leadership of Mirwais Amir Khan, a Ghelzai Pashtun, the Pashtuns rose up in revolt and in 1709 the rebels killed the Shia governor in Kandahar. The crumbling Safavid power tried to restore order in the east of the kingdom, but the Pashtun regions began to slip away from Persian rule. Mirwais, the founder of the Pashtun Hutak dynasty, died in 1715, but he was succeeded in the revolt against the Safavids by his son Mir Mahmud. He and his armies invaded the Iranian highlands, captured the Safavid capital Esfahan, and Shah Husain was captured by the Pashtuns. Husain’s son Tahmasp II fled to Qazvin and declared himself Shah, from where he tried to rally support to save the failing Safavid kingdom. The weakness of the Safavids did not go unnoticed by the Ottomans, who conquered the western parts of the Safavid kingdom. Peter the Great’s Russia, again unwilling to see the Ottomans grow stronger, conquered the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. Mir Mahmud was assassinated in 1725 and succeeded by Ashraf Khan. This beheaded the Safavid ruler Husain to prevent any Ottoman attempt to restore him to the throne. For the Persians, the Pashtun rule in the 1720s was a time of suffering, not only from violence and plunder, but also from the Ottomans taking Persians as slaves from the territories they had conquered. The Persians never accepted Pashtun rule, believing the Safavids to be the only legitimate rulers.

After Persia’s submission to the Pashtuns, Nadir Quli, the warlord of the executed Safavid Shah’s son Tahmasp II, later known as Nadir Shah, emerged. He and his army first conquered Mashhad and then headed for Esfahan, the capital of the Hutak dynasty, in 1729, from where Ashraf Khan was forced to flee to Kandahar, where he was soon assassinated. Tahmasp II was restored as Shah, but in 1732 he was deposed by Nadir, and Tahmasp’s minor son Abbas III was installed as the new ruler until 1736, when Nadir felt his support was strong enough and appointed himself Shah and founder of the Afsharid dynasty.

Nadir Shah abolished the oppression of Sunni Muslims and was also more tolerant towards other religions and minority nationalities than his predecessors. With this change, he sought to strengthen Sunni loyalty to the army. He also presented himself as a Sunni convert in order to present himself as the ruler of the entire Islamic world. For a Shia Muslim, this would have been impossible. To strengthen the country’s army, the assets of Shiite mosques and shrines were confiscated and the people were subjected to exorbitant taxes. He also did not imprison his sons in harems, but gave them the duties of governors. With his reinforced army, Nadir invaded the last stronghold of the Pashtun power, Kandahar, where the city fell after a year of siege in 1738. Nadir did not stop there, however, but continued his campaign to Delhi on the pretext that the Mughals had aided the Pashtuns. The armies of the Mughal Empire and Nadir Shah met at the Battle of Karnal in 1739. The Mughal war elephants were vulnerable to fire from the Afghani army, the rampaging elephants were out of control of their handlers and trampled underfoot anyone who got in their way. After the victory in Karnal, Nadir marched to Delhi, where his troops carried out a ruthless massacre that killed an estimated 30,000 people. Nadir annexed only the Mughal territories west of the Indus River to his own kingdom, leaving the Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah still in power. With him from Delhi, Nadir returned with an enormous booty, including the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

The Delhi raid was not originally a conquest, but the main purpose was to get loot to finance the conquest wars in the West. Nadir was also successful on the western front, where the Ottomans conquered the former Safavid territories in 1743, in what is now Iraq. In the north, Persian power grew at the expense of the Uzbeks. A peaceful solution was found with the Russians after they returned the territories they had conquered from the Safavids.

With Nadir Shah’s conquests, Persian influence reached its greatest extent in the millennium and a half. The empire stretched from the Caucasus to the Indus River, but its structure was not sustainable as the administration of the conquered territories was not organised. Moreover, Nadir was becoming increasingly mentally unstable. Among other things, he blinded his son when he suspected that he had risen up against him. The Ottoman victory was not yet final either, as the new Ottoman forces were already preparing for another battle against Nadir. The constant warfare was also very costly for the Persians and Nadir’s desire to collect taxes to finance his war led to tax collectors looting within his own country. Eventually Nadir’s own instability proved to be his undoing and he was assassinated by his own officers in 1474.

Nadir’s military successes were very short-lived and immediately after his death the eastern Pashtun regions of the empire began to break away from the Afsharids. Nadir’s former trusted officer Ahmad Shah Dorrani established his own centre of power in Kandahar, around which the Dorrani Empire was formed in 1747. In what is now Georgia, a kingdom was formed under the rule of another Nadirite warlord, Erekle. In the heartland of Persia, the Lorestani tribe of the Zandies, led by Karim Khan, took control of the western provinces of Persia in the 1750s.

After Nadir’s death, his nephew Adil Shah declared himself Shah and killed all but one of Nadir’s sons and grandsons. Adil was not able to rule for long and was overthrown by his brother Ibrahim. Ibrahim was also soon deposed and Nadir’s surviving son Shahrokh took power, who was also deposed at times, but managed to return to power apparently with the support of Ahmad Shah Dorran, who respected Shahrokh as Nadir’s descendant. Shahrokh remained in power for a long time, from 1750 to 1796.

However, the Shahrokh no longer ruled the kingdom established by Nadir, but Karim Khan Zand had emerged as a more important ruler. Persia had also suffered badly from the Nadirite wars, and in the first half of the 17th century the kingdom’s population had fallen from nine million to six million, the capital Esfahan was in ruins and trade had come to a standstill. Major tribal leaders and tribal alliances were again able to increase their power. One such tribal leader was Karim Khan, whose reign was relatively peaceful after the Zand dynasty had established itself. He first deposed his own allies and then defeated other enemies, such as Mohammad Hasan Khan Qajar. Karim Khan did not engage in a war of conquest as previous rulers had done, and at no time did he use the title of Shah to describe himself. He restored Shi’ism as the religion of his regions and established his capital in Šīrāz, where the mosques and palaces he built still stand.

Agha Muhammad

Karim Khan Zand died in 1779, after which Persia was again plunged into civil war. The princes of the Zand dynasty were forced to fight for power against the Qajars, who were based in Māzandarān. The Qajars had been united in a common front by Mohammad Hasan Khan Qajar’s son Agha Muhammad Khan. He had fallen into the hands of Adil Shah as a child and was castrated at his command. He had then been held hostage by Karim Khan and, after his death, fled north to fight the Zand dynasty. Agha Muhammad defeated the Zand forces in the north and Esfahan was conquered in 1785. Tehran then also submitted to the Qajars. Agha Muhammad established Tehran as his new seat of power and it has been the capital of the country ever since.

The Qajar dynasty had consolidated its power in the north, but in the south of Persia, the Zand dynasty was ruled by Lutf Ali Khan Zand. He held his ground against the invasion of Agha Muhammad’s forces, but in 1791, when he attempted an invasion to retake Esfahan, a revolt broke out against him in Šīrāz. Agha Muhammad himself went with his troops to support those who had risen against the Zand power, the decisive turning point being Lutf Ali Khan’s failed attempt to kill Agha Muhammad in a surprise attack in the dark of night. However, Lutf Ali Khan’s forces were themselves surrounded, but managed to escape to Kerman with Agha Muhammad’s forces in pursuit. Agha Muhammad captured the city of Kerman in 1794, where its women and children were taken as slaves, and ten thousand men who had not been killed in battle were blinded. Lutf Ali Khan managed to escape to Bam, where he was betrayed and handed over to Agha Muhammad. Lutf Ali Khan was tortured to death, and Agha Muhammad became the ruler of the entire Iranian plateau. Lutf Ali was soon joined by the last of the Afgharid rulers, Shahrukh, who was based in Khorasan.

Agha Muhammad then turned his attention to the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and conquered its capital Tbilisi in 1795. Thousands were killed in the battle and 15 000 women and children were taken as slaves. In St Petersburg, the incident sparked anger against the Persians, as the Geogian king, Erekle II, had placed himself under Russian protection. Agha Muhammad was able to unite Persia under his rule and he ended a long period of civil wars and laid the foundations of the Qajar dynasty, but he gained a rather deservedly brutal reputation. Agha Muhammad died in 1798 while on a military expedition in Nagorno-Karabakh when he was stabbed to death by two of his servants.

The wars in Russia

Before his death, Agha Muhammad had named his nephew Fath Ali Shah as his heir to power. He ruled the country for 37 years and has achieved a prominent place in Iranian history. This is partly because during his reign Persia came into increasing contact with Europeans, at a time when European countries were seeking new allies during the revolutions and Napoleonic wars.

The first European delegation to conclude a treaty with Persia was the British East India Trade Company delegation, led by John Malcolm. London was concerned that Napoleon had invaded Egypt in 1798 and France had already sent its own delegation to Tehran, which made the British anxious to reach an agreement with the Shah. In 1801, the British signed a treaty with Fath Ali Shah under which the British promised the Shah supplies in the event of a Pashtun or French invasion of Persia. Similarly, Fath Ali Shah promised the British his support if the Pashtuns invaded India. But the greater threat to the Persians than France was Russia, which had effectively annexed Georgia and reinforced its forces in the Caucasus after the massacre organised by Agha Muhammad. In 1804, war broke out between Russia and Persia as the Russians sought to move the border between the empires southwards to the Araks. Fath Ali Shah invoked the treaty with the British and asked for their help in the war against Russia, but British interest in Persia had already waned. The British had also allied with Russia against Napoleon and so did not want to jeopardise their relations with Russia. The French, on the other hand, approached Persia in the changed situation, and in 1807 Napoleon signed a treaty with Fath Ali Shah, under which the Persians now turned against the British and promised to invade India, in return for Napoleon’s military aid against the Russians. Soon, however, the French were defeated at the decisive Battle of Friedland by the Russians, who also submitted to French rule, leaving the British in a hurry to strengthen their relations with Persia before they posed a threat to India. In 1809, the treaty of cooperation was strengthened and the British promised to support Persia if any European power invaded the country, while the Shah pledged his support to the British if the Pashtuns invaded India. The war between Persia and Russia in the Caucasus was still going on as the situation changed. The Russians found that the Caucasus was a tricky place to fight wars, and conquering the region was not easy. The British encouraged the Persians to continue the war against Russia, but in 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia again, which led to Britain and Russia again forming an alliance and the British desire to help Persia ceased again. The war in the Caucasus became too much for Persia to bear and, despite some significant victories, the war turned into a defeat for Persia, which was left without outside support. Persia was forced to conclude the Treaty of Gulistan with Russia in 1813, which obliged Persia to cede to Russia all the territories north of the Araks. The region included Dagestan’s Shirvan and Georgia, which contained important cities that had belonged to Persia for centuries, such as Baku, Gəncə and Tbilisi. Russia also retained the right to interfere with the Persian crown succession, which was difficult for the Persians to digest.

The peace terms dictated by the Russians created hatred in Persia towards the Russians, and the mullahs incited the people to a new jihad against the Russians. Abbas Mirza, son of Fath Ali Shah, who led the Persian troops, was already preparing to strengthen the country’s army for a new war against Russia. Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, after which Britain again offered its help to Persia. The Persian-Russian war broke out again in 1826. The Persians initially succeeded in the war, advancing north along the Caspian coast and retaking Gəncə. However, the British no longer supported Persia, claiming that this time Persia was the aggressor. After the initial success, the Persian military success was reversed. The Russians captured Gəncə and advanced across the Gulestan peace border, capturing Yerevan and Tabriz. Persia was forced to submit to the peace of Turkmenchai, whose peace terms were more humiliating than those of Golestan. Persia was forced to cede to Russia the remaining territories north of the Araks, Armenia and Nakhichevan. Among other things, Persia also had to pay huge war reparations and Russian merchants were to be allowed to operate freely in Persia. Persia did not accept Russian interference in its customs, and the situation escalated into violence outside the Russian embassy in Tehran in 1829, in which a Russian diplomat, Aleksandr Griboyedov, who had arrived to enforce the peace terms, was killed.

The wars against Russia showed that although Persia was not significantly behind the Europeans in terms of technology, it did not have a state structure similar to that of the Europeans. The Qajar dynasty’s administration was based on alliances with local tribes, and the country had a relatively small bureaucracy. This lack of organisation meant that Persia was unable to maintain an army as strong as Russia’s. Around a third to a half of the Persian population remained nomadic, and a large part of the population was hardly affected by the events in the Caucasus.

In the grip of the superpowers

Fath Ali Shah died in 1834. His successor, Abbas Mirza, had already died before him, when his second son Muhammad Shah became Shah. In his time, under Russian pressure, Persia was drawn into the great game between Britain and Russia as the two powers competed for control of Central Asia. Russia encouraged the Shah to replace the lost territories in the Caucasus with new conquests from the east. Muhammad Shah besieged Herat with Russian support in 1837, but Britain could not accept that Herat should remain under Persian and therefore Russian control, as it was seen as a threat to India. The situation collapsed when the British occupied Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and demanded that the Shah withdraw his troops from Afghanistan. Muhammad Shah was also forced to make new trade concessions to the British.

Not only the British but also the Russians dominated Persian trade and the great powers managed to take advantage of Persia’s weak central government. The arrival of foreign powers in the Persian market particularly affected local merchants and craftsmen, as European products displaced local products. Another significant development of Muhammad Shah’s reign was the emergence of the Babel ideology in the 1840s. Muhammad Shah died in 1848 and his son Nasir ad-Din came to power. The change of power was again supported by the British and the Russians. The Baabites did not accept the new Shah and revolted against the Shah and the Shiite ulama. However, the Baabi rebellion was severely defeated.

For Nasir ad-Din, the Babylonian rebellion was not the only problem of his reign; rebellions arose elsewhere. The British and the Russians also got involved, fearing that one side would gain a stronger position in Persia. The Persians might have been saved by Nasir ad-Din’s prime minister, Amir Kabir. He strengthened the country’s administration by reforming the tax system, cutting government expenditure by reducing the fees paid to civil servants. He established a western-style polytechnic college in Dar ul-Funu to improve Persia’s technological level. He carried out a military reform to modernise the country’s army, tried to develop the country’s industry by building factories and reduced the influence of Islamic ulama and foreign powers. His achievements were remarkable, and all in just three years. Amir Kabir fell out of favour with the officials whose position he had undermined. In the eyes of Nasir ad-Din, too, Amir Kabir had already gained too much power and was assassinated by the Shah in 1852. With Amir Kabir died the budding progress of Persia, while elsewhere in the world the industrial revolution was raising the standard of living of the people.

After Amir Kabir, Persia was again plunged into a more reactionary regime, and no progress was made. In addition, Russia became increasingly involved in the country’s affairs. In 1865, the Shah again attempted to conquer Herat, but the British quickly drove off the invaders. In the decade following the conflict, the British and the Russians became so involved in Persian affairs that the Shah’s power seemed to be only nominal. Nasir ad-Din, however, could do little about it, as he could not lean towards either European power without the other retaliating. The British and Russians also played their part in slowing down Persia’s development. In an era when railways were being built all over the world, there was no railway network in Persia, because the European powers feared that the railway would bring the other side’s army to their borders more quickly.

In the late 1850s, Mirza Malkom Khan emerged as a prominent idealist. He argued that the weakness of the Persian government and its inability to prevent foreign powers from interfering in the country’s affairs was due to its inability to adopt European-style administration, industry and science. These views were shared by Mirza Husain Khan, who was appointed Prime Minister in 1871 and was also impressed by the tanzimat reforms introduced in the Ottoman Empire. Encouraged by Husain Khan, the Shah established a new European-style government and an advisory council. The Shah also granted the British Paul Julius Reuter rights to build railways and other economic projects. These changes were not to everyone’s liking and, under pressure, the Shah dismissed Husain Khan as Prime Minister and the concessions to Reuter were withdrawn. The expansion of Russian power in Central Asia in the 1870s prompted the British to reaffirm their support for the Shah and the British government called for further reforms to make Persia a stronger ally against Russian expansion. Malkom Khan was the Persian diplomat in the negotiations between the two countries, but eventually the Shah broke off the talks. The British believed that this was due to Russian pressure on the Shah. Malkom Khan retired to London in the 1880s, where he remained to produce an anti-Persian newspaper and to defend the new constitution. The paper gained popularity among the Persian elite. Nasir ad-Din continued to negotiate with foreigners and Paul Julius Reuter was given permission to establish Persia’s first bank. In 1890 he granted a British company the rights to a tobacco monopoly, allowing the company to sell and export tobacco without competition. The concession was made for a substantial bribe and sparked outrage among tobacco growers, bazaar traders and ulama. Riots broke out in major cities and the leading mujtahid Mirza Mohammed Hassan Shirazi declared a fatwa calling for a nationwide tobacco boycott, which was widely enforced. The Qajar regime was forced to abandon the agreement in 1892, leading to a substantial debt.

The tobacco concessions damaged Nasir ad-Din’s popularity to the extent that the regime adopted increasingly reactionary policies and contacts with Europe were restricted. However, the Qajar regime was unable to stifle the spread of new ideas and demands for reform. One of the most prominent political activists of the late 19th century was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. His cause called for the reform of Islam, since, in his view, there was no contradiction between Islam and modern science. However, these ideas were too bold for both the Shiite and Sunni reactionary ulama, as well as for Shah Nasir ad-Din himself. Al-Afghani retreated to Iraq, from where he wrote articles in newspapers criticising the regime. Al-Afghani’s ideas also impressed a Persian youth named Mirza Reza Kermani. Apparently encouraged by Al-Afghani, Kermani shot Shah Nasir ud-Din dead in 1896.

Constitutional revolution

During the reign of Nasir ad-Din’s successor, Muzaffar ad-Din, from 1896 to 1907, the country fell into a period of weak and ineffective governance. The situation was exacerbated by economic problems, which the government tried to overcome by borrowing from Russia. The loans from Russia were viewed harshly by the people and the ulama, who were concerned about the growing foreign, and especially Russian, influence in the country. The country began to demand that the Shah’s powers be curtailed and that the rule of law be established.

The outbreak of war between Russia and Japan in 1905 halted the import of goods, leading to a rise in prices. This in turn led to a collapse in customs revenues, which the Qajar regime tried to offset with internal tariffs, particularly affecting merchants. The situation in the country’s bazaars began to become unrest as food prices rose too high. The inability of the regime to respond to the protests of the traders and their supporting ulama led to growing unrest. In the summer of 1906, one ulama member was shot dead by police during a student demonstration, leading two thousand ulama members and their students to leave Tehran for Qom. Led by merchants, some 14,000 people again camped in the grounds of the British embassy to protest against the Qajar regime. The area became a focal point for political debate in the country, with calls for restrictions on the rights of the Shah and the establishment of a new representative national assembly (majlis).

The whole of Tehran was practically paralysed as the bazaars remained closed and the ulama was absent from the capital. By August 1906, the country’s administration was already facing a possible military uprising as the army could no longer be paid its salaries. Under pressure, Shah Muzaffar al-Din agreed to the demand for a National Assembly. The Majlis met for the first time in October 1906 and drew up a new constitution for the country, setting strict limits on the Shah’s power and defining the prerogatives of an elected parliament. Shah Muzaffar ad-Din signed the new constitution in December 1906, and he himself died just five days later.

The Persian Constitutional Revolution marked the end of the medieval period in the country. However, hopes for constitutional government were not realised. The Majlis mainly represented the middle and upper classes of the country, who had been at the head of the protests from the beginning. The main classes calling for revolution had been the Shiite ulama and the bazaar merchants. Among the ulama, the ayatollahs Abdullah Behbahani and Sayyid Mohammad Tabatabai stood out in particular. In their broad-minded view, democracy, despite its Western origins, was not incompatible with Islam. The authority of the Ulema in leading the demonstrations was a major factor in the success of the revolution. The constitution also gave a voice to more secular liberal and nationalist ideas, whose supporters wanted to see the country develop along Western lines. This was a development that the more conservative members of the ulama did not want to see, and arguments began about the direction in which the country should develop.

The common goal of the supporters of the constitution had been to reduce the power of foreign powers in Persia. However, neither Britain nor Russia respected Persia’s sovereignty, but were united by concerns about Germany’s growing influence. Britain and Russia were allied not only with each other but also with France, in the so-called Triple Entente. The two countries reached an agreement on Persia in 1907, dividing the country into their respective spheres of interest. The Russian sphere of influence included the northern part of the country, while the British sphere of influence included the south-eastern part of the country, bordering British India. In the centre was a neutral zone.

Mohammad Ali Shah, who succeeded Muzaffar al-Din, did not approve the new constitution. He decided to abrogate the constitution and restore absolute monarchy. After several disagreements between the Majlis and the Shah, in June 1908 Mohammad Ali Shah sent a Russian-led Cossack brigade to bombard the Majlis, arrest some of the deputies and close the National Assembly. The Shah’s counter-revolution succeeded in Tehran, but in Tabriz, Esfahan, Rasht and other major provincial centres, the pro-constitutionalists were able to defend themselves against the Shah’s forces. Russia supported the Shah in the counter-revolution and saw it as its duty to restore the Qajar dynasty to power in its own zone. The pro-constitutionalist forces managed to win over the Bakhtiyar tribe in the centre of the country and, with new allies, Tehran was retaken in July 1909. Mohammad Ali Shah went into exile in Russia and was succeeded by his minor son Ahmad Shah Qajar.

Although the pro-constitutional forces had won, their ranks were already badly fractured. The ranks of the ulama were not united either, with a large number of its members having turned to the Shah’s rule and rejected the draft constitution. Political assassinations were on the increase and among those killed was Behbahani, a reformist. The armed forces that had supported the takeover remained in the capital and several high-ranking Bahtiyans joined the government. In addition to the political turmoil, the country’s stability and commerce were disrupted during the counter-revolution. Trade was also not entirely in the hands of the regime, with Russia having exclusive rights to trade in the north and Britain in the south and east. However, the Majlis was determined to develop its economy and sought new partners elsewhere. Russia and Britain did not inspire much confidence, but the anti-colonialist United States supported the Persians’ efforts and seemed to be the best ally in this situation. Majlis appointed US official Morgan Shuster as his economic adviser. Under Shuster’s leadership, the country’s economy was reformed and taxes began to be collected even from officials under Russian patronage. To ensure this, gendarmerie troops were sent to the north of the country, to the Russian zone. Russia issued an ultimatum to the majlis and demanded Schuster’s dismissal, because Russia said that without their consent, tax collection could not take place in their zone. In Schuster’s view, the Russian motive was to keep the Persian economy bankrupt in order to make it easier to manipulate. The Majlis refused to dismiss Schuster, but subsequently Russian troops already on the ground occupied Tehran in December 1911, prompting the Bakhtiyars and more conservative members of the Majlis to accept the Russian ultimatum and dissolve the Majlis.

The First World War

In the turmoil caused by the Persian Constitutional Revolution, Britain began to take a new interest in its relations with Persia. The reason was the discovery of oil in 1908 in Khūzestān in the south-west of the country. Khūzestān was under British influence under a treaty with Russia. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (AIOC) was set up to exploit the oil. In the years following the Constitutional Revolution, Britain gradually became the dominant foreign power in Persia, partly because of the oil. The British Embassy noted that the Tehran regime had little influence on events outside the capital. The British and Russians held sway in their own areas, and elsewhere a rebel Jangal llike had emerged, which sought to uphold the principle of constitutional revolution. The new Majlis met again in December 1914, by which time the First World War had broken out and the new government had declared Persia neutral. However, the country was caught up in fighting between Britain, Russia and the Ottomans as the Ottomans and their German allies invaded Persia’s Russian territories from the west and north. The British, on the other hand, had a vested interest in protecting their oil fields in the south. The fighting between the Ottomans and the Russians was particularly damaging in the north-west of Persia. The situation in Persia, as in war in general, eventually turned against the Germans and Ottomans. By the end of the war, Russia was already concentrating on its own revolution, leaving the British as the only foreign power in Persia.

At the end of the war, Persia was in a weak state, suffering from famine as the war had disrupted agricultural production and trade, which was disrupted in particular by the end of Russian trade following the Russian Revolution. The famine was exacerbated by the global influenza epidemic that followed the war. British troops remained in many parts of the country after the war, but they were soon confronted in the north by jangal forces led by Mīrzā Kūchik Khān and forced to withdraw from the Gīlān region. After the war, the situation in the Middle East was by no means the only problem for the British. The Communist regime of the newly formed Soviet Union was not to be given a foothold. The United States also dug in its heels, advocating anti-colonial policies and the right of peoples to self-determination.

Anglo-Persian agreement

Britain had won the war and gained dominance in Persia, but its resources were spread too thinly, so the Persian situation had to be resolved with as few economic resources as possible. In 1919, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, proposed an Anglo-Persian treaty which would have effectively made Persia a protectorate by giving the military and fiscal functions of Persia to the British. In return, Britain granted Persia a loan to develop its infrastructure. Prime Minister Vosug ud-Dowleh and two other members of the government received a major financial incentive from the British and they supported the deal, leading the young Ahmad Shah’s government to agree to the deal. When the details of the agreement were made public, it immediately aroused widespread opposition from all factions and the Majlis refused to accept it. Despite this, the British tried to enforce the agreement and British officers were brought into Persia to command army units, but this only precipitated the fall of the Persian government and the resignation of the prime minister.

In London it was believed that the Anglo-Persian agreement could be forced through, but the British commanders in Persia saw the realities of the situation. British troops were very unpopular in Persia and after the withdrawal of Gīlān they attracted little respect from Persian nationalists. British General Edmund Ironside, who was in Persia from 1920, operated in Persia on his own initiative without Curzon’s approval. He was given the task of re-equipping the Cossack brigade. He dismissed all Russian officers, fearing they were anti-British and vulnerable to Bolshevik influence. However, the Persian soldiers refused to work under British officers, so Persian officers were put in charge. Reza Khan was appointed commander. Ironside was concerned that if British power weakened, the Bolsheviks might take Tehran, in which case it was better for the Persian cossacks to take power before then and the British could withdraw from Persia in peace.

In 1921, 2,500 Cossacks led by Reza Khan marched on Tehran. They met no resistance and were allowed to form a new government. The government was headed by the nationalist Sayyid Zia Tabatabai and Reza Khan was made commander of the armed forces. Very soon Reza Khan emerged as the dominant figure and Tabatabai was driven into exile. Reza Khan later in 1921 also attacked the Yangals and they were quickly defeated. He also rose against the Bakhtiyars and other powerful tribes who had often assisted foreign powers in interfering in Persian affairs. Through his actions, Reza Khan sought to consolidate government control of the country throughout Persia, as well as to consolidate state revenues.

The reign of Reza Khan

Reza Khan’s efforts were widely supported and Shah Ahmad Shah also appointed him Prime Minister in 1923. The Shah himself went on an extended holiday to Europe, from which he never returned. Reza Khan’s goal was to establish a republic in the same way that Atatürk had done in Turkey. However, the political mood in the country and the opposition of the ulama forced him to abandon his republican policy. Instead, he took his own name, Pahlavi, and elevated himself to become the new Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. This was confirmed by Majlis in 1926.

Even before his appointment as Shah, Reza Khan had taken steps to create a strong central administration. After his coronation, he launched a programme of change to modernise the country. In the 1920s, the country was still a land of rural villages and tribes, the majority of the population was illiterate and there was little industry. The biggest change was the strengthening of the country’s military forces. The Majlis passed the Conscription Act in 1925, but it was widely opposed by the tribes. The army was needed not only by the regime to consolidate its own power, but also to pacify the country and bring the tribes under its command.

Efforts to modernise the country were reinforced by the development of its infrastructure. Much of the country’s road network had been built by foreign powers during the First World War. The government developed a road and rail network to transport domestic exports such as textiles, tobacco, sugar and other foodstuffs. Reza Khan’s regime also invested heavily in the education of its citizens and a secular school system was established. School enrolment increased from 55 000 in the 1920s to over 400 000 by the end of the Second World War. However, the rural population was still excluded from the education system. The country’s first European-style university, Tehran University, opened in 1935. Educational reform was also aimed at breaking down the religious hierarchy, as the establishment of a secular school system ended the educational monopoly of the ulama. The ulama was also deprived of judicial decision-making power, and a secular court and civil code were created.

Reza Khan decided to unite the nation and liberate women. He ordered the people to dress in Western style, banned veils for women and allowed girls to attend school. However, he also sought to remove the influence of the outside world, and a language reform removed non-native words from the Persian language. In 1935, Reza Khan decreed that foreign powers had to abandon the name Persia, and switch to using the name Iran, which had been the ancient name that Iranians had always used.

However, foreign powers, especially the British, who exploited the oil in the south of the country, still had a strong position in Iran. Reza Khan wanted to renegotiate an agreement with the British to exploit the oil resources. Negotiations broke down and the Shah unilaterally terminated the agreement. A deal was eventually struck, but it left a bad taste in both mouths, Iran did not fully achieve its objectives and the British became increasingly suspicious of the Shah. Relations with Britain deteriorated as a result of the incident, while relations with the Soviet Union had already deteriorated due to trade policies that were unfavourable to Iran. To counterbalance the British and Soviet influence, Reza Khan encouraged the Germans to trade with Iran. At the start of the Second World War, Germany was Iran’s largest trading partner.

Reza Khan started with broad support for the restoration of order in Iran, the unification of the country, the consolidation of independence, and his economic and educational reforms. However, to achieve these goals, he ousted the Majlis and took real power for himself. The press was restricted and opponents of the regime were silenced. Many religious leaders were imprisoned or exiled. Many tribal leaders were also killed, and bureaucrats who had become too powerful, such as Abdulhossein Timurtaš, who served as justice minister and led the oil negotiations with the British, suffered the same fate. The most serious incident took place in 1935 in Mashhad, in the shrine of Imam Reza, where a demonstration against the Shah’s orders on Western dress and the veil ban was staged. Shah forces broke up the demonstration with armed force, hundreds were killed and the country’s regime became increasingly unpopular. The Shah’s popularity was also eroded by fiscal policy, which particularly affected the peasantry. State monopolies on trade, imposed on certain sectors to increase state revenue, were a burden on bazaar traders. Widespread discontent was fuelled by repression, censorship and the assassination of popular politicians. These all combined to mean that by the start of the Second World War, Riza Khan no longer enjoyed the confidence of the people.

The Second World War

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Iran declared itself neutral. However, this did not prevent Iran from becoming a target of military action. Britain was annoyed that Iran refused Allied demands to expel all German citizens from the country. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the British and the Soviet Union formed an alliance and found it necessary to transport military supplies through Iran to the Soviet Union. This would have violated Iran’s neutrality and both the Soviet Union and Britain simultaneously attacked Iran in August 1941, the Soviet Union from the north-west and Britain from Iraq in the west and the southern Gulf. The invasion of Iran was swift and the Iranian army put up only nominal resistance and Reza Khan ordered the army to abandon resistance. The Allies captured Tehran on 17 September 1941. Reza Khan realised that the Allies would no longer allow him to remain in power and he abdicated the throne in favour of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Reza Khan Pahlavi died in 1944.

The invasion of Iran proved vital for the Allies in terms of supply routes. Germany occupied much of Europe, which meant that the supply routes between Britain and the Soviet Union were either the dangerous Arctic route via Murmansk, or alternatively from the south via Iran. The US went to war alongside Britain and the Soviet Union, and in 1942 the US also joined the forces occupying Iran. In 1943, the Allies held a conference in Tehran where they reaffirmed their commitment to Iranian independence, and assured that Allied forces would withdraw from the country within six months of the end of the war. In reality, during the war the Pahlavi dynasty’s power was very limited. However, Majlis elections were held for the first time since the 1920s in 1944. Sayyid Zia Tabatabai and Muhammad Mossadeq, who had returned from exile, were successful.

The effects of the war on Iran were extremely damaging. The country faced shortages of food and other essential commodities. The presence of foreign troops fuelled xenophobia in the country. The unequal distribution of profits in favour of the British by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was important to the British, did not help to boost the popularity of the occupying powers either. Majlis did little to improve conditions. The removal of political censorship under Reza Khan paved the way for the rise of the communist Tude Party and other left-wing parties calling for economic and social reform.

The Soviet Union sought to capitalise on the popularity of the communist Tude party, which fuelled political divisions and Cold War-era confrontation in Iran. In the autumn of 1944, the Soviet Union negotiated oil concessions in the north of the country, where the Tude was strongest. In the south, US companies negotiated the same concessions. However, Majlis denied the oil concessions before the war was over. This led to Soviet propaganda attacks on the Iranian regime and also began to give the impression that the Soviet forces were not going to withdraw from Iranian Azerbaijan after the end of the war. The Soviet Union encouraged the separatist Azeris and Kurds in the region, with the aim of creating a pro-Soviet zone in the north of Iran. The Azerbaijan crisis was one of the first acts of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union acting as the protector of the separatist regime established by the Kurdistan Republic of Northern Iran and the Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Soviet troops blocked Iranian government forces from entering the region, putting pressure on the Iranian regime.

At the end of the war, Britain and the United States withdrew from Iran as agreed, but Soviet troops remained in the country. Iran finally bowed to Soviet pressure and the crisis in Azerbaijan was resolved peacefully. Majlis signed an oil agreement with the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Soviet Union, under pressure from Britain, the United States and the United Nations, also gave in and withdrew from Iran in 1946. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Iranian army marched into the north of the country and separatist movements were defeated. The crisis in Azerbaijan made the Soviet Union unpopular with the Iranians, which benefited the United States, which was able to increase its influence in the country by concluding a military assistance agreement with Iran. Communist ideology did not disappear from Iran with the withdrawal of the Soviet army, but in 1949 the Tude party was outlawed after its members were convicted of attempted assassination by the Shah.

Mossadeq and the nationalisation of oil

After the assassination attempt, the Shah appointed Ali Razmara as prime minister, whose military record raised concerns that the Shah was planning a return to autocratic monarchy, as his father had done. Muhammad Mossadeq, who had become a powerful politician, assembled a broad coalition of majlis to push through a demand for the nationalisation of Iran’s oil reserves. This objective enjoyed widespread popular support, but negotiations with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company broke down. Negotiations took a new turn when Prime Minister Razmara was assassinated by an Islamic extremist group in 1951. As the country’s most popular politician, Mossadeq was elevated to the post of prime minister.

The Mossadeq-led committee got its way when the Majlis voted to nationalise Iran’s oil in 1951. However, nationalisation led to a deadlock when British technicians left the country and abandoned the oil fields. Britain also imposed a global embargo on Iranian oil, with the US joining the boycott. The oil trade came to a standstill, causing major economic problems for Iran. Despite the difficulties, Mossadeq still enjoyed great popular support and continued as Prime Minister. However, his popularity and growing political power caused friction between him and the Shah. Mossadeq tried to promote his other goal, limiting the power of the Shah. He demanded the right to appoint a war minister, and thus gain greater influence over the armed forces. The Shah refused and Mossadeq resigned. His successor announced that he would enter into negotiations with the British to resolve the oil dispute, a move that was resented by the people. Mossadeq’s resignation was followed by three days of riots, and the Shah reappointed Mossadeq as Prime Minister.

Mossadeq’s early return prompted Britain and the United States to start planning a coup to oust Mossadeq. The United States, in particular, did not like the fact that Mossadeq had reached an agreement and was cooperating with the Tude party. In the climate of the Cold War, the US feared that Iran would be drawn into the Soviet sphere of influence. Britain and the US allied with Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to oust Mossadeq and in August 1953 they launched Operation Ajax, as the CIA called the operation. As planned, the Shah appointed the monarchist Fazlollah Zahed as Prime Minister. However, the plan seemed to fail at first, as Mossadeq refused to resign, the Shah fled the country and anti-monarchy riots broke out. Mossadeq sent in the army and police to contain the situation, which proved to be a mistake. Public opinion turned against him and a few days later the people marched in the streets in demonstrations against Mossadeq. Mossadeq’s forces were outnumbered by pro-Shah forces, Mossadeq was arrested, the Shah returned to power and Zahedi continued as Prime Minister. Mossadeq was sentenced to house arrest for treason and attempted overthrow of the royal power, where he lived until his death in 1967.

The Shah’s White Revolution

The ousting of Mossadeq caused the United States to become the most important ally of the Pahlavi dynasty. At the same time, the US objective of weakening Soviet communist influence in Iran was fulfilled. Britain also became closer again and a new oil deal was signed for oil resources. Around the same time, the British oil company AIOC, which exploited Iran’s oil, changed its name to British Petroleum (BP). Iran also joined Britain, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan in signing the Baghdad Agreement on defence cooperation, which was also supported by the United States. Later, Iran concluded a bilateral defence agreement with the United States. By the 1950s, it had become clear that the United States was now the dominant foreign power in Iran. This development was not to everyone’s liking in Iran.

After Mossadeq’s ouster, the Shah’s regime kept a tight grip on power. The Zahedi was dismissed and the Shah effectively took power for himself. Political repression became the norm. The Tude party was banned, as were other parties, which were either banned or otherwise suppressed. Two puppet parties, the National Party and the People’s Party, were created for the Majlis, controlled by the Shah’s supporters. The press was silenced and the secret service SAVAK began to persecute dissidents.

Iran’s increased oil revenues enabled the government to launch a development plan for agriculture and industry. However, economic recovery was slow after the shocks caused by the nationalisation of oil. The influx of oil wealth into the market led to rising inflation and hence discontent, which was not allowed to cause political unrest due to tight controls. In 1960, the Shah proposed land reform, which was opposed by some of the ulama, as interference with property rights was considered un-Islamic. At the same time, the Shah was under pressure from the United States to liberalize his administration and land reform was temporarily put on the back burner. The Shah appointed his own supporter Ali Amin as prime minister in 1961. This regime loosened the press and political parties were allowed to resume their activities, albeit with restrictions. However, Amin’s regime suffered from numerous problems, as economic growth had slowed and the regime’s austerity measures caused recession and unemployment. This caused widespread discontent and the regime became unpopular, leading to demonstrations and strikes which eventually led to Amin’s resignation. Asadollah Alam, a close supporter of the Shah, was appointed as the new Prime Minister. He served as Prime Minister until 1964.

In 1963, the Shah proposed a reform package known as the White Revolution. It included land reform, privatisation of state factories, women’s suffrage and increased literacy. A referendum was held to implement the reform package, which received overwhelming popular support, with an overwhelming majority of voters in favour. While the government’s measures were met with considerable approval from the groups benefiting from the reforms, the root causes of the unrest were not addressed and the poorest were ignored. Iran’s sovereignty over the United States was also questioned. Ruhollah Khomeini, the religious leader of Qom, became the most vocal critic of the Shah’s rule. In 1963, he verbally attacked the Shah’s regime and was arrested. His arrest led to widespread demonstrations in major cities, which were bloodily suppressed by the country’s army. Khomeini was released but driven into exile.

The land reform programme was launched in 1963, but it did not meet its objectives. Some two million Iranians became landowners for the first time, but for many their farms were too small to earn a living. Many were also left out of the distribution. This led to widespread unemployment in rural areas, which in turn led to migration to the cities, where migrants lived in the poorest areas of the cities. The country’s industrial output rose thanks to reforms, particularly in the coal and textile industries and in the automotive sector. As industrial production increased, the country’s GDP grew significantly, but wages were low. Investment in education and health led to a fall in infant mortality and accelerated population growth. The government of Ali Mansur, appointed Prime Minister in 1964, also set its sights on economic consolidation and administrative reform. The economy was strengthened by tax increases, particularly on oil products. As oil was the primary heating fuel for the working class, taxes became unpopular. Strikes ensued and taxes had to be abolished. Mansur was assassinated in 1965 by members of a radical Islamic group. The Shah was also assassinated in the same year.

Oil boom

After Mansur, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, a former diplomat and head of the state oil company (NIOC), became prime minister and remained in office for 12 years, longer than anyone else. The New Iran (Iran Novin) Party, founded by Mansur and led by Hoveyda, won a majority in parliament in the 1967 and 1971 elections. The only opposition parties allowed to participate in the elections were the Mardom Party and the Pan-Iranian Party. Iran experienced a period of strong economic growth during this period. The increase in oil revenues led to a surge in foreign investment in Iran and increased the Shah’s prestige abroad. The Shah used his prestige among the OPEC countries to insist that they demand a higher price for their oil. Moreover, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the price of oil doubled. Soon there was too much money in circulation and inflation exploded. Housing rents and food prices rose sharply, especially in Tehran. The Shah blamed the price rises on bazaar traders and SAVAK-backed gangs were sent to the bazaars to arrest those seeking excessive profits, but this had no effect on economic realities. Imported goods and suburban supermarkets robbed the bazaar traders of their income.

The politically empowered Shah also took an increasing role in the disputes in the Gulf region. Iran supported the monarchists in the 1962-1970 civil war in northern Yemen and the Sultan of Oman in the Dhofar revolution. An agreement was reached with Britain on the fate of Bahrain, which had been ruled by the British but was claimed by Iran. Bahrain became an independent state and the United Arab Emirates was created on the opposite shore of the Gulf after the British withdrew. After the British withdrawal, Iran secured control of Abu Musa, a key island in the Persian Gulf, by agreeing to pay the sheikh of Sharjah an annual fee. This damaged relations with Iraq, with which relations were strained. The 1975 Algiers Agreement, which gave Iran sailing rights in the Shatt al-Arab region and Iran stopped supporting Iraqi Kurdish rebels, brought about a détente with Iraq. To ensure Iran’s role in the Gulf, the Shah used the country’s oil revenues to equip its army, air force and navy. Military cooperation also intensified with the United States.

Closer cooperation with the United States and foreign investment began to make a strong impact, especially on the streets of Tehran in the 1970s. By the end of the decade, nearly 50 000 Americans were living in Iran. They lived in great isolation from the local population, and most of them were not even interested in trying to understand the Iranian way of life. This created tensions between the native population and the immigrants. The native population began to fear that increased Westernisation, in terms of dress, lifestyle and cultural practices, was threatening the Islamic values and identity of Iranian society. The Shah himself was also very much isolated from the common people because of the numerous assassination attempts. In 1971, he organised the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, to which heads of state from all over the world were invited. The celebration was the ultimate in megalomania, costing a whopping USD 100-200 million. A large part of the population was completely unaffected by the celebrations. Critics of the celebrations included the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini, who condemned the monarchy as anti-Islamic from the outset.

The road to revolution

The unpopularity of the monarchy was the greatest of the Shah’s political problems. His only solution to this was repression. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign was a good time for some minorities, but there was growing resentment among the people because of the suppression of fundamental freedoms. In 1975, the Shah ordered Iran to move to a one-party system, with the new Rastakhiz party becoming the only party allowed. When Jimmy Carter became US President in 1977, the Shah gradually began to loosen his grip, as the US was no longer sympathetic to its repressive allies. Political prisoners were released and their legal protection improved. The concessions were used by the opposition, which was now able to criticise the autocratic government and call for the formation of a constitutional government. In July 1977, the Shah dismissed his long-time prime minister, Hoveyda, and appointed Jamshid Amuzegar as his successor, although he soon proved unpopular.

One of the most vocal opponents of the Shah was Khomeini, who, while in exile, had prepared a theory of Islamic governance. During the Pahlavi dynasty, the entire ulama had been pushed aside from many of its traditional positions of authority, thus alienating the ulama from the Shah. A large part of the educated middle class was also against the Shah because of his repressive policies and human rights abuses.


Protests against the Shah intensified when a government-published newspaper in January 1978 strongly criticised the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini. This caused a scandal in the religious community, which erupted into demonstrations in Qom in support of Khomeini and calling for his return. Police forces tried to break up the demonstration violently and several people were killed, but Khomeini, who was abroad, called for further demonstrations. The Qom events were followed by a period of mourning during which the bazaars were closed. Peaceful demonstrations were held in several cities, but in Tabriz the police again violently tried to break up a demonstration and more people were killed. After the events in Tabriz, the demonstrations became larger and more violent. The death toll increased, but the deaths of the demonstrators only served to increase the anti-Shah mood. The most deadly incident was when more than 400 people died in the Cinema Rex fire in August 1978. The opposition accused SAVAK agents of arson. However, subsequent investigations point to a radical Islamist group with the support of the ulama, but the climate of the time led many to blame SAVAK.

Anti-government sentiment was already widespread as 1978 progressed. Previously, only the middle class had participated in the demonstrations, demanding constitutional rule of law. But the demonstrations of early 1978 were led by religious elements and centred on mosques and religious events. As the events progressed, there were increasingly vocal calls for the resignation of the Shah and Khomeini was seen as the leader of the country’s new form of Islamic state. After the Cinema Rex fire, the Shah appointed Jafar Sharif-Emami as the new prime minister to replace Amuzegar, who tried to calm the situation by making concessions: easing censorship, releasing political prisoners and repealing unpopular laws such as the change of calendar. However, protests escalated during Ramadan in early September and the government declared a state of emergency. This did not deter the protesters, however, and on 7-8 September a huge and even more radical demonstration took place in Tehran and eleven other cities. Government troops broke up the demonstration in Tehran with the intensification of tanks and attack helicopters. The demonstrators again responded with Molotov cocktails. The crowd refused to disperse and government troops opened fire. The official death toll was 87, but the actual figure is certainly higher. The incident came to be known as Black Friday.

Many were so embittered by the events of Black Friday that they no longer wanted to compromise with the Shah. By the autumn of 1978, many opposition groups had already allied themselves in Paris with the fugitive Khomeini and his ideology. Khomeini’s stay in France facilitated his contacts with his supporters in Iran because of better communications. The protests continued into late 1978, but the Shah’s regime had no clear line on how to calm the situation, vacillating between repression and concessions. In early November, the Shah appointed a military government led by General Gholam-Reza Azhar, took a more humble approach and promised in a televised speech to hold free elections in the country. More political prisoners were released, including Khomeini’s key ally Hossein-Ali Montazeri, while unpopular members of the old regime, such as former Prime Minister Hoveyda and the former head of SAVAK, were jailed to woo protesters. But it was too late. Khomeini considered the Shah’s promises worthless and called for the demonstrations to continue.

Demonstrations and strikes continued, effectively blocking other government activities. Violence became a daily occurrence. In the largest event, more than a million people took part in an anti-Shah march in Tehran. US support for the Shah was also beginning to wane and many Americans left Iran after attacks on US-owned companies and the embassy. In December, the Shah began exploratory talks with the moderate opposition to resolve the situation. At the end of the month, Shapour Bakhtiar, leader of the Iranian National Front, agreed to form a new government on the condition that the Shah would leave the country. The Shah had at this point been suffering from cancer for some time, but the public had not been told. On 16 January 1979, the Shah announced that he was going abroad for a short holiday. He never returned to Iran. The Iranian revolution overthrew the millennial monarchy. The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died of illness in July 1980.

The new Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, immediately took steps to calm the opposition movements. He sought to restore constitutional rule to the country. He lifted restrictions on the press, released political prisoners, promised to end SAVAK and the state of emergency declared in the country, and promised to hold free elections. He also suspended arms shipments from the United States and announced that Iran would no longer sell oil to South Africa or Israel. Bakhtiar won the support of the moderate clergy, but he did not win the support of Khomeini, nor did the National Front back his actions. Khomeini declared Bakhtiar’s regime illegal and Bakhtiar sought to prevent Khomeini’s return to Iran until conditions returned to normal.

Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran on 1 February 1979, welcomed by millions of Iranians. Khomeini appointed his own Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargani, and established the opposition Revolutionary Committee’s base in Tehran. The Revolutionary Committees collaborated with armed movements to attack government buildings. In many large cities, local committees took over local administration and were responsible for the distribution of basic needs of the population, such as fuel oil. The government’s own ministries remained dysfunctional, with members of the Bakhtiari government in many cases denied access to their offices. The Iranian army was unable to calm the situation, as in many cases it refused to fire on crowds that had taken to the streets. Within the country’s army, there were divisions over which camp it should belong to. Khomeini used his speeches to try to win the country’s army over to his side. On 11 February, the army gave in and declared that it would remain neutral in disputes between the people and the government. This immediately triggered a general uprising among the people and meant that the Bakhtiari government no longer had the support of the army. Bakhtiar thought it best to resign from office, and he went into hiding and later fled the country. The next day, the key points of Tehran were in the hands of the revolutionaries. Committees searching for leading figures in Bakhtiar’s regime executed them. Khomeini himself headed a revolutionary council that set about eliminating those with differing views on Iran’s future.

After the revolution

Mehdi Bazargan was the first prime minister of the revolutionary regime. He led a government that had no bureaucratic machinery to govern the country. The central government had been dismantled and revolutionary committees were operating in large cities across the country, carrying out administrative tasks without being subordinate to the central government. As supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini made political statements, appointed representatives to the main governmental organisations, established new institutions and announced decisions without first consulting the prime minister. Prime Minister Bazargan found that he had to share power with Khomeini and his Revolutionary Council. In establishing the new regime, the revolutionaries held members of the former regime responsible for political repression, plundering the country’s wealth, damaging economic policies and allowing foreign exploitation. The revolutionary court began its work as soon as Khomeini took office in Tehran. Members of the former regime and Shah generals, as well as other military and police officials and SAVAK agents, were executed almost daily throughout early 1979. The executions shocked moderates and also those who had initially rejoiced at the fall of the Shah.

In March 1979, Khomeini confirmed the separation of the Shah and sealed the establishment of a form of government based on Islamic principles in a referendum. In the referendum, 97% voted in favour of the establishment of an Islamic republic and the transition to a theocratic form of government. The Shiite ulama was again very strong after Khomeini’s return, but moderate religious scholars felt that the revolutionary theory reflected Khomeini’s own personality more than traditional Shiism. Such views, however, were silenced. By the autumn of 1979, members of the ulama loyal to Khomeini had drafted a new constitution for the country. According to it, the day-to-day administration of the country is secular, but the supreme power is held by a spiritual leader dedicated to Islamic governance. The constitution provides for the election of a president and a majlis, as well as municipal councils, but the religious council approves all candidates before they can stand for election. Above all, the constitution guaranteed Khomeini the highest possible position. To achieve his goals, he was prepared to clear the way for anyone who had a dissenting opinion. Khomeini was supported by the revolutionary guard Pasdaran, which he set up and which was led by military commanders loyal to him.

The new Iranian regime had few functioning relations with foreign powers. Bazargan tried to maintain relations with the Gulf states, despite the fact that the clergy had strong opinions about the rulers of these countries. There was also widespread anti-Americanism in Iran, but despite this Bazargan met President Carter’s security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algiers in early November 1979. At the same time, news spread in Iran that the Shah had been allowed to enter the United States to receive treatment for his illness. This prompted hundreds of thousands to march in Tehran demanding the Shah’s extradition to Iran. Protesters feared that the Shah, with US support, would try to overturn the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The situation came to a head in November 1979 when radicals calling themselves the ‘doctrinaires of the imam’s line’ seized the US embassy and took diplomats hostage. Khomeini gave his support to the radicals and the hostage crisis continued. Bazargan resigned over the incident.

Presidential elections were held in January 1980 and Abolhassan Banisadr was elected as the country’s first president. His objectives were to reorganise the central government, gradually abolish Pasdaran and incorporate the revolutionary institutions into government organisations. The administrative reforms advocated by Bani Sadr also failed to materialise, due to the revolutionary ideas still strong among the ruling clergy. Instead, large-scale executions resumed in 1980, when some 900 suspected counter-revolutionaries were executed. Bani Sadr also had to make efforts to resolve the hostage crisis, but his efforts were not successful as he had little authority over students of the imam’s line. Khomeini, on the other hand, saw the hostage crisis as propaganda against the United States, which he could use to bolster the country’s unity. He wanted to maintain a revolutionary mood in the country that would prevent his opponents from making their voices heard. In addition to political purges, Islamic principles were introduced and women were forced to wear the veil. Fed up with the prolonged hostage crisis, the United States froze several billion dollars of Iranian assets in foreign banks in the United States and abroad. Even this was unsuccessful and the Carter administration attempted to free the hostages in a covert operation in which a helicopter force landed near the embassy, but the operation failed. In the United States, President Carter’s failure lowered his popularity to such an extent that his re-election campaign collapsed. The hostage crisis also made most Americans hostile to Iran. In Iran, too, there was no longer any desire to give Carter a propaganda victory after the failed operation. The hostages were finally released in January 1981, when Carter left office. The failed US rescue operation also had repercussions in Iran, with radical groups blaming Iranian army officers for the successful escape of US helicopter troops. Widespread purges in the armed forces followed and several were executed. President Bani Sadr tried to prevent the purges, but Khomeini demanded the execution of those responsible.

Khomeini’s rule was not universally accepted in Iran. In the north of the country, the Kurds were disappointed that the revolution did not bring them autonomy. Negotiations between the Kurds and the Iranian government failed and the Kurds’ demands were rejected. This led to armed clashes between the Kurds and the Iranian army. The ideology of the Islamic Republic was also rejected by the communist Tude, whom Khomeini accused of spying for the Soviet Union. The party’s leading figures were arrested and Tude’s activities were banned. The only parties allowed were the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), founded by Khomeini, and the pro-Khomeini Freedom Party. However, the greatest threat to Khomeini’s regime was posed by Saddam Hussein.

Iran-Iraq war

Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, starting an eight-year war. Various theories have been put forward as to the main causes of the war. It has been suggested that Saddam invaded Iran because he saw a post-revolutionary Iran as weak and hoped to achieve a quick victory, thus resolving a border dispute in Shatt al-Arab, a region where an agreement signed the previous decade had been unfavourable to Iraq. Saddam may also have seen Iran as a threat to the Shiite revolution and decided to act before revolutionary ideas spread among Iraqi Shiites. Better equipped Iraqi forces won the war early on. The West was officially neutral in the war, but new weapons were sent to Iraq from the West, while the Iranians had weapons bought by the Shah in the previous decade. Iraq also had chemical weapons, which it used against both Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians. The US was even prepared to support Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran.

In Iran, the government led by President Bani Sadr and Prime Minister Mohammad-Ali Raja, and the clergy who defended him, argued over how to respond to the invasion of Iraq. Bani Sadr wanted to use the army to defend himself, while the government wanted the Pasdaran forces to take the lead. Bani Sadr accused the government of obstructing military action, and asked Khomeini to sack the government and give himself, as president, broad powers to govern the country in a crisis situation caused by the war. The government accused Bani Sadr of planning to use the army to stage a coup. Pro-Bani Sadr demonstrations were held in the country’s major cities in late 1980. Khomeini tried to mediate between the president and the government. He urged the parties to leave military action to the army, and ordered the clergy not to interfere in matters outside its jurisdiction. A committee was set up in Iran to settle differences between the president and the government and to ensure that both followed Khomeini’s instructions. But because Bani Sadr did not have the support of the government behind him, the situation was out of his hands. Eventually, Bani Sadr also lost Khomeini’s support and he resigned in June 1981. Bani Sadr fled to France, where he was granted political asylum. From France, Bani Sadr plotted to overthrow Khomeini’s regime and spoke out for democracy and minority rights. He founded the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCR), which received support from Kurds and others. Opposition supporters who supported Bani Sadr called for the overthrow of the government, but the government responded with a policy of repression and terror. The People’s Mojahedin Organisation (MKO), which had initially supported the revolution, had also risen up against Khomeini’s regime. After Bani Sadr’s ouster, MKO bomb attacks on the IRP headquarters killed more than 70 of Khomeini’s closest associates in June 1981. As a result, over a thousand MKO supporters were executed. Bani Sadr was succeeded as President by Mohammad-Ali Rajai, and he was succeeded as Prime Minister by Mohammad-Javad Bahonar. Both of them were killed in a bomb attack in August 1981. The MKO continued its violent attacks, but the government managed to defeat the rebel movements. Over time, the MKO dwindled into a paramilitary organisation that cooperated with the Iraqi Baathist regime. In October 1981, Ali Khamenei was elected as the new president to replace the slain Rajai. Mir-Hosein Musavi was elected as the new Prime Minister by the Majlis.

In addition to the internal turmoil, the country continued to wage a devastating war against Iraq. Iraq inflicted great damage on Iran at the start of the war, but Iran launched a major counter-attack in the spring of 1982, forcing Saddam’s forces to retreat to the border. The war on the ground reached a stalemate and Saddam began bombing Iranian ships in 1984 to damage Iran’s oil exports. Iran responded in kind and the two countries entered into what became known as the Tanker War. The United States did not take part in the military action, but it moved warships into the Gulf to protect ships in international waters. In July 1988, the US warship USS Vincennes pursued Iranian gunboats, shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner in the process, killing 290 civilians. The incident was a disgrace for the United States, and the statements of the Ronald Reagan administration showed no real remorse. In Iran, the shooting down of the passenger plane increased anger against the United States.

The war continued in a stalemate. Both sides bombarded each other’s capitals with cruise missiles and bombs dropped from aircraft. The cost of the war had already risen enormously and more than a million people had been killed. At the end of the war, the front was almost exactly where it had been in 1980. A UN resolution called for a ceasefire between the warring parties. President Khamenei, with Khomeini’s agreement, accepted the ceasefire in July 1988.

The Khamenei era

Ruhollah Khomeini died in June 1989. Ali Khamenei was elected as the new spiritual leader and was replaced as president by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in an overwhelming electoral victory. At the beginning of Rafsanjani’s term, Iran faced a massive reconstruction effort. During the war, the country’s infrastructure, factories, ports, administrative buildings and irrigation systems had been destroyed and some 1.6 million Iranians had been left homeless. In addition, there was a significant number of refugees fleeing the war in Afghanistan, some 2 million in the late 1990s. Iran’s international isolation also made reconstruction difficult. The Rafsanjani regime started to rebuild the war-ravaged economy. To achieve this, he pursued a more liberal economic policy, privatising industrial production and approaching the West politically to attract foreign investment. However, there was no consensus in the conservative parliament on the methods to achieve these goals and Rafsanjani’s policies were opposed by Khamenei. The country’s economy recovered slightly, but less than had been hoped. Iran was dependent on oil exports and the oil industry did not receive foreign assistance to modernise oil technology.

The freer political climate in the 1990s also allowed reformist philosophers such as Abdulkarim Sorouš to make their voices heard. He advocated a reformist Islam and called for the secularisation of the regime. The Islamic revolution had created a state-controlled institutional religion in the country and Sorouš predicted that unless Islam and politics were separated, this would devalue the religion and alienate young people from Islam. Sorouch’s prediction has come true in Iran. With the development of communications technology in the 1990s, Iranians also became connected to their compatriots abroad, giving voice to political dissidents. In particular, the Islamic Republic was criticised for its gender inequality. Women had lost their enhanced status after the fall of the Shah, but at least they retained the right to vote. Attitudes towards women began to become more liberal in the 1990s.

Both women and the country’s youth were also major supporters of Mohammad Khatami when he was elected president in 1997. At the beginning of the decade, Khatami had been forced to resign as Minister of Culture because of his moderate views on social and cultural issues within the Islamic administration. In his reform programme, he advocated the establishment of a constitutional administration, less censorship and greater tolerance. He believed that reforms were necessary to preserve the theocratic system of the Islamic Republic, otherwise the people would demand the establishment of a secular system of government. Khatami was backed by 70% of the electorate, a disappointment for those in favour of conservative Islamic governance. However, the reformist Khatami had limited means to implement the reform agenda he was pushing. The country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his most extensive executive powers to reject the reforms advocated by Khatami. Politicians who supported Khatami’s line were removed from office. The burgeoning press freedom that began after Khatami’s election victory was stifled as reformist newspapers were accused of violating Islamic principles and shut down one by one. In late 1998, six writers and political dissidents were murdered in Iran. The murders were traced to the MOIS intelligence service, which alleged that the assassins had acted arbitrarily and without orders. However, the assassinations were widely seen as an attempt by the MOIS to oppose President Khatami. Khatami launched the purges in MOIS, but after the purges, MOIS officers arrested thirteen innocent Iranian Jews, accusing them of being Israeli spies. The MOIS claimed to be fighting the Zionist conspiracy, but the arrests of the Jews only complicated President Khatami’s attempts to reach out to foreign powers.

Despite the crackdown, during Khatami’s tenure the country’s press became increasingly critical of the government. In July 1999, students protested in Tehran against the closure of a reformist newspaper. Four students were killed in the clash. The following day, the demonstrations escalated, calling for the authorities to be held accountable for the deaths of the students, as well as activists murdered the previous summer and the release of Jews accused of espionage. Over the next two days, the demonstrations had already spread to the country’s eighteen largest cities. Khatami also gave his support to the hard-line leaders and allowed them to suppress the demonstrations. Khatami did not want the country to reform through uncontrolled violence; gradual change was better. This view was shared by many Iranians.

Khatami was re-elected president in 2001. In his second term, there was little faith in his ability to bring about significant political reforms. Iran’s reformist president also received little support from the West. The United States, in particular, had an opportunity to improve relations with Iran after the 11 September 2001 attacks, when both Khatami and Khamenei condemned the attack, as did a large part of the Iranian people. Iran was also a major supporter of the anti-Taliban coalition later in 2001, but despite this, US President George W. Bush raised Iran in his 2002 Axis of Evil speech. The search for improved foreign policy relations came to an end when Iran’s 2005 presidential election was won by the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election was far from democratic, with the clerical council rejecting more than 1000 presidential candidates. As a result, reformist Iranians boycotted the elections, protesting the rejection of their candidates by the Council. In the first round of the elections, none of the candidates received 50% support. In the second round, Mr Ahmadinejad, who was mayor of Tehran, won 60% of the vote, beating his opponent, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

As president, Ahmadinejad was much more conservative than his predecessor and his rhetoric towards the West and Jews was negative. Ahmadinejad’s provocative statements also led the West to question the main purpose of Iran’s nuclear programme, and reinforced Western fears that Iran was seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. No evidence of this has been found. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has concluded that Iran has not complied with the security component of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, leading the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. Under Mr Ahmadinejad, the country’s high inflation and unemployment did not improve, reducing his popularity with both the people and the Majlis. Despite his falling popularity, Ahmadinejad was elected for a second term in the 2009 elections. His strongest opponent, Mir-Hosein Musavi, claimed the elections were fraudulent and called on his supporters to protest the result. Khamenei also called on the Supreme Council of Guardians to investigate possible irregularities, but the election result remained unchanged even though it emerged that more votes had been cast in some constituencies than there were registered voters. However, according to the Council, this did not have a decisive impact on the election result and Ahmadinejad’s re-election was confirmed. Protests against the election result continued in the following months, and the unrest also claimed lives as government forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

In 2010, Iran started to take measures to rebalance its economy, in response to international sanctions that had been weighing on the country’s economy since the Iran-Iraq war. The government ended extensive subsidies on food, medicine, fuel and other commodities. These were replaced by direct cash payments to Iranians. The sharp rise in consumer goods prices and subsidy cuts raised fears of social unrest. Anti-regime demonstrations took place in February 2011, following a wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East. Unrest in the Arab world toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This also encouraged Iranians to criticise Khamenei and Ahmadinejad loudly in their protests. The demonstrations were dispersed by Iranian police and paramilitary forces and opposition leaders Mir-Hosein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi were placed under house arrest to prevent them from participating in the demonstrations.

For decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been competing with each other for regional influence. The two countries have been each other’s arch-enemies and recently the confrontation has escalated. In principle, the countries represent two different main branches of Islam. Saudi Arabia is Sunni and considers itself the leading Sunni country in the region. Iran, on the other hand, is the largest Shia state. Political developments in the region have exacerbated the confrontation between the two countries. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 also brought down a major Sunni countervailing force in Iran, and Iran’s position was strengthened despite the fact that Iraq’s new Shia leadership has also been in close contact with Iran’s other arch-enemy, the United States. The unrest and growing instability of the 2011 Arab Spring prompted both Iran and Saudi Arabia to take active steps to increase their own influence. Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Gulf Arab region include the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Iran’s allies include Syria under the Bashar al-Assad regime and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement. In the Syrian civil war, Iran has supported the al-Assad regime and Saudi Arabia the rebels. In the Yemeni civil war, the Saudi led coalition has fought against Iranian-backed Shia Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia and Iran have not fought each other directly, but they have engaged in proxy warfare by supporting actors who are actually fighting each other in armed conflicts in the region. In particular, attacks on Saudi infrastructure by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have exacerbated the situation. The US Trump administration has strongly supported Saudi Arabia. Israel, the traditional ‘official’ enemy of Saudi Arabia and Iran, also considers Iran to be its main regional security threat and has therefore also indirectly supported Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016.

In the 2013 presidential elections, Ahmadinejad was succeeded by Hassan Rouhani, a moderate conservative. During his first term as president, Iran’s economic conditions stabilised and the country’s economy began to grow again. This was largely due to Iran’s reintegration into the world economy after it agreed in 2015 to limit its nuclear programme to remove economic sanctions. Rouhani was re-elected president in 2017, but the benefits of economic growth were not evenly spread, and many did not see relief in their daily lives. The country’s burgeoning economic growth and improving relations with the US were again dealt a blow when, in 2018, the US withdrew from an agreement with Iran in which Iran committed to limiting its nuclear programme. US President Donald Trump deemed the agreement to be unfavourable to the US and sanctions on Iran were reinstated. Iran was deeply shocked and accused the US of violating the agreement. Iran again reneged on key nuclear commitments and also threatened other measures, putting pressure on European countries to ease the impact of US sanctions. The tensions led to a new Gulf crisis in 2019, with Iran disrupting the shipping of tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. This has been interpreted as Iran’s response to the possibility of disrupting shipping in the Gulf if European states do not act to lift sanctions. The sanctions have hit the value of Iran’s currency, increased inflation and hampered the country’s oil exports. Iran has called on EU countries to act to alleviate the economic hardship caused by the sanctions.

In January 2020, a highly influential Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, was killed in a US air strike in Iraq.



  1. Iranin historia
  2. History of Iran
  3. a b c d e f g h i j Wissen Media Verlag GmbH Gütersloh/München: Maailmalla Aasia, s. 218-219. Saksa: WSOY, 2008. ISBN 978-951-0-33474-41.
  4. a b c d e Axworthy, s.19-22
  5. Składanek 2004 ↓, s. 258–259, 267–269.
  6. Składanek 2003 ↓, s. 25–29, 31–44.
  7. ^ The term “Tatars”, employed by the Russians, referred to Turkish-speaking Muslims (Shia and Sunni) of Transcaucasia.[171] Unlike Armenians and Georgians, the Tatars did not have their own alphabet and used the Perso-Arabic script.[171] After 1918 with the establishment of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, and “especially during the Soviet era”, the Tatar group identified itself as “Azerbaijani”.[171] Prior to 1918 the word “Azerbaijan” exclusively referred to the Iranian province of Azarbayjan.[172]
  8. ^ David Sacks, Oswyn Murray, Lisa R. Brody, Oswyn Murray e Lisa R. Brody, Encyclopedia of the ancient Greek world, Infobase Publishing, 2005, pp. 256 (in corrispondenza della parte destra della pagina), ISBN 978-0-8160-5722-1.
  9. ^ a b c d R.M. Savory, s.v. «Safavids», The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2ª edizione
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