Host to ancient trade routes and some of the world's oldest civilizations, Iran has always been a significant geostrategic location. Currently, relations with the West are tense, especially since former U.S. President George W. Bush labeled Iran an "Axis of Evil" in 2002, and large scale domestic protests erupted throughout Iran following the 2009 Presidential elections. Iran, however, continues to assert its independence, most prominently by advancing its nuclear program.
Centrally located between the East and the West, Persia has witnessed devastating invasions throughout its history. Following the 13th century Mongol period, in which invasions reduced the Persian population by at least half, the Islamic empire came to Iran. Throughout the 19th century, Iran was part of the great game between Russia and Britain. A revolution in 1906 turned Iran into a constitutional monarch, but continual foreign intervention and a weak governance system led to a subsequent revolution by Reza Shah in 1921. Although the Shah attempted to remain neutral throughout World War II, the British and Russia invaded Iran for control over the railroads and protection of the oil reserves. They forced Reza Khan to abdicate, being replaced by his son Reza Pahlavi. In 1951, popular elections named Muhammad Mossadegh the Prime Minister and he began to nationalize the oil industry. In 1953, the British and U.S. conspired under Operations Ajax to support monarchists and helped overthrow Mossadegh. Reza Shah Pahlavi was brought back with as emperor. The autocratic leader, supported by the British and U.S. governments, promoted the White Revolution, a series of rapid modernization reforms at the cost of political and social freedoms enforced by the secret police SAVAK. Growing unrest led the Shah to flee Iran in 1979.
A vocal opponent to the reforms, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and assumed power. On April 1, 1979, Iranians overwhelmingly voted to make Iran an Islamic Republic, the first modern state based on the fundamental principles of Islamic Law, Shariah.
Anti-U.S. sentiment was prominent and in November 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. The Algerian government brokered the release on January 19, 1980, signing the Algiers Accords, which included the agreement that the U.S. would not interfere politically or militarily in Iranian internal affairs, as well as the creation of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Although the hostages were released, it is argued that the U.S. immediately defied the Algiers Accords by funding Iranian exile groups and television broadcasts to Iran.
In 1980 Suddam Hussein, then President of Iraq launched an invasion of the Shatt al-Arab waterway near the Persian Gulf. This began the deabilitating eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War. Hussein framed the war in terms of defeating the Iranian revolution. Iraq was home to many Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites and the largest Shi’ite population outside of Iran. Saddam Hussein’s regime consisted of minority Sunni Muslims.
Iran allied with Syria and Libya, and strengthened ties with China and North Korea. Iraq turned to the U.S. and U.S. allies in the region. The war, which saw the use of chemical warfare by Iraqi forces, but no victor left both countries with high human causalities with estimates between 500,000 and one million deaths.
Following the war and Khomeini's death in 1989, Iranian leadership turned to domestic development. The Presidency was reformed into a functional position, rather than just ceremonial, however power is still largely consolidated. President Rafsanjani and later President Khatami began pursuing a more liberal policy and worked towards improving diplomatic relationships. The Iranian government also began to rebuild a defense strategy and nuclear energy program.
Relations with the West again turned tedious in 2002, when former U.S. President George W. Bush labled Iran a member of the "Axis of Evil." The U.S. government accused Iran of attempting to acquire nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; supporting international terrorism; supporting violent opposition to Middle East Peace talks; threatening its neighbors and having a dismal human rights records. However, many Iranians, however, felt unfairly assaulted by this statement as Iran had been aiding the U.S. in developing a governance strategy in Afghanistan fearing an influx of drugs over the border.
Many political dissidents have been exiled Iran, and general discontent with the lack of real reforms under the Khatami and Rafsanjani may have increased apathy among the populace. In addition, Iran faced ongoing assaults in 1992 and 2000 by the oppositional group, the Iranian Mugahedin and increased tensions with the U.S. In 2005, conservative, populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 2005 President election.
Since the 1979 Revolution, internal discontent had been mostly suppressed under a national unified front, by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps or the voluntary militia, the Basij. Following the June 2009 presidential elections, popular discontent spilled out into the streets, challenging Ahmadinejad's re-election and arguably the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Khamenei called the elections "divine assessment," despite both domestic and international allegations of fraud and denounced protests as illegal. Protesters faced stiff police crackdowns and numerous deaths were reported.
As of late 2010 President Ahmadinejad continued to pursue its nuclear program, but claims that the program is of a peaceful nature. However, this has done little to allay fears in European, American or Israeli capitals. The question of Iranian nuclear weapons has remained on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, and Israel has threatened unilateral air strikes if Iran continues its nuclear program.