Iran and the U.S.: escalating tensions
The U.S., along with much of the international community, has the following concerns about Iran:
• We believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, despite its claims to the contrary.
• Iran has supplied arms to Islamic militant groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist; Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has called Israel a “disgraceful blot,” and has said, “Israel must be wiped off the map.” And U.S. military officials believe that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard supplied militants in Iraq with roadside bombs, targeting American soldiers.
• The government of Iran violates its own citizens’ rights by suppressing political protest and infringing on their religious freedom. After a 2009 election that seemed rigged in favor of President Ahmadinejad, the government suppressed protests by shooting demonstrators, torturing detainees, and sentencing dissidents to years in prison. Members of the main religious minority, the Baha’i, have been persecuted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Our government bans most trade with Iran—though we do allow imports of their carpets and certain food products.
Following a 2011 U.N. report on Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. organized international economic sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to shut down the program. The sanctions have wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy, but so far have not led to any change in its nuclear policy.
Iran views the U.S. as a historic enemy, because we installed the unpopular Shah as its ruler in 1953; sided with Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the war between the two countries during the 1980s; and strongly support Israel.
Nukes, and what to do about them
Ahmadinejad insists that Iran only wants to produce nuclear power, not weapons. The international community doesn’t believe it, and has been pressuring Iran to shut down the program, because it poses a threat to stability in the Middle East. Defying the world, President Ahmadinejad quoted the American Declaration of Independence, saying that Iran has an “inalienable right” to produce nuclear fuel.
In January, 2011, an Israeli intelligence official said that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon before 2015 because of “measures that have been deployed against them.” He was probably referring to the Stuxnet computer worm, which sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program. Analysts believe that Stuxnet was created through a U.S.-Israeli collaboration.
As the U.S. and Israel consider what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, the options include intensified economic sanctions, sabotage, and military action. None of these options seems adequate or wise, however. For an analysis of the various options, see this New York Times essay.
• 2/20/12: Fearing that Israel will attack Iran in order to destroy its nuclear facilities, British and American officials have urged Israel to hold off and give economic sanctions more time to work. Israel believes that Iran might use nuclear weapons to destroy it; but the officials warned that an attack could have a severely destabilizing impact on the entire region. For more on this, go here.
For an overview of this topic, see CNN.
Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, political power in Iran has been held mainly by its religious leaders. (Theocracy means government by the clergy.) There is a National Assembly (called the Majles), but candidates for office must be approved by a religiously conservative Guardian Council, which has prevented many reformist candidates from running. In recent years, there has been an ongoing struggle between moderates and conservatives within the governing elite.
Who’s who in Iran
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad The President of Iran was re-elected in 2009 for a second four-year term, but his opponents’ supporters insist the election results were a fraud. A defiantly anti-American, hard-line conservative, Ahmadinejad has the support of both the urban and rural poor, but conservative religious leaders have reined him in and undercut his power. He was a member of the student group that took over the U.S. embassy in 1979, and later served as mayor of Tehran. A fervent enemy of Israel, he has called the Holocaust a “myth,” implying that one of the main justifications for Israel’s existence—that the Jews need a homeland, to safeguard against another Holocaust—is based on a lie.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei The Supreme Leader of Iran: the ultimate authority. Appointed for life in 1989, he replaced the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic
Mir Hussein Moussavi A former prime minister of Iran, he was declared the loser in the 2009 election for the presidency, though the legitimacy of the election remains in question. His campaign promised human rights reforms and a reversal of many of Ahmadinejad’s policies.
A disputed election
In June, 2009, two hours after polls closed, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, with 2/3 of the votes. Given the strong support Moussavi had enjoyed at rallies, the result seemed suspect. Nevertheless, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei approved the results, giving the conservative Ahmadinejad a second term and setting off the biggest street protests since the Revolution in 1979. The Guardian Council acknowledged that millions more votes were cast than the actual number of voters, but affirmed the election results nevertheless. Protesters defied Khamenei’s call for an end to the demonstrations, which were then put down violently by police and militias. About 20 demonstrators were killed, and thousands were arrested. Though the government tried to block reporting on the crackdown, news of the street clashes and arrests reached the outside world via Twitter and text messages. The protests gave rise to the Green Movement: a democratic reform movement let by Moussavi and supported by much of Iran’s middle class and college-educated youth. (For more on the Green Movement, see this Wikipedia article and this Op-Ed from the N.Y. Times.)
Americans held hostage
In 1979, after the Shah had fled, a group of Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy and held the staff as hostages. They accused embassy staff of being CIA agents and plotting the overthrow of the new Islamic government—a fear based on the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Some of the hostages were released, but 52 of them were held for 444 days—until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. (President Jimmy Carter’s failure to win the hostages’ freedom contributed to his defeat in the 1980 election.) Trivia: The long-running TV news show Nightline began as a nightly update on this hostage crisis.
Why did those Iranian students and religious leaders hate the U.S.?
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. go back to 1953, when the U.S. sponsored a coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (who had nationalized the oil industry) and installed the Shah as Iran’s ruler. Over the next two decades, the Shah became a key American ally in the region—but many Iranians hated him because of his harsh repression of opponents and his attempts to turn Iran into a modern, secular country. The U.S. supported the Shah for as long as he ruled.
Iran vs. Iraq
The two countries are neighbors and rivals. They fought an eight-year war starting in 1980, which began when Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, sensing weakness in the new regime, sent his army across the border. Estimates of Iranian deaths range from 500,000 to 1 million. More than 100,000 Iranians were victims of Iraq’s chemical weapons.
Since Saddam’s overthrow, and the more recent uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Iran has seemed eager to fill the power vacuum. Now only Saudi Arabia is left to challenge Iran in its ambition to become the dominant nation in the Muslim world.
Geography and fast facts
• Iran is located between Iraq and Afghanistan. The country is slightly smaller than Alaska. The capital is Tehran.
• 74.2 million people live in Iran. About half of them are under 25. The vast majority belong to the Shi’a branch of Islam, which is the official religion.
• The official language is Persian, written with an Arabic alphabet. In Iran itself, the language is called Farsi. It’s also spoken in Afghanistan.
• Major exports: oil and carpets. (Yes, really: Persian carpets.) Iran has more oil than any country except Saudi Arabia. It also has more natural gas than any country except Russia.
• According to Iran’s Constitution, every citizen must have access to medical care, unemployment and disability benefits, and a pension.
• Iran has diplomatic relations with every member of the United Nations except the U.S. and Israel.
• Male homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran. It’s legal, however, to be a transsexual, if you have a sex-change operation.
Iran’s power structure
• The Supreme Leader appoints the top judges, military leaders, and half the members of the Guardian Council. Only the Supreme Leader has the power to declare war or peace.
• The President is the highest authority and decision-maker after the Supreme Leader.
• The Guardian Council has the final say over all legislation, and can veto would-be candidates for elected office. In 2004, it disqualified more than 2,500 reformist candidates.
• The Revolutionary Guards (with about 125,000 active troops) are a branch of the military. Their stated mission is to defend the Islamic Revolution, but their political power has grown over the years. Some analysts believe the Guards now hold more power than the clergy.
What’s an Ayatollah?
In the Shiite branch of Islam, an Ayatollah is a high-ranking religious authority.
An ancient civilization
Persia (as Iran was called until 1935) was one of the great empires of the ancient world. Its first dynasty was formed 4,800 years ago. Accomplished in literature, philosophy, medicine, mathematics and art, the Persians spoke their own language and maintained an identity separate from the Arabs.
More recent history
In 1921, army officer Reza Khan overthrew the existing government. Soon after, he was proclaimed Shah, marking the start of a new dynasty. He built railroads, factories, and schools. Early in World War II, he was forced to step down (his ties with Germany worried Britain and the USSR, and they invaded the country); his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became the new Shah.
In 1951, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, a staunch nationalist, became prime minister. He nationalized Iran’s oil, provoking a British blockade. In 1953, he was overthrown by a coup orchestrated by the U.S. and Britain.
Beginning in the early 1960s, on the urging of the Kennedy administration, the Shah set to work enacting reforms—and crushing political opposition. His secret police agency, known as SAVAK, earned the Shah the hatred of much of his country. The repression overshadowed his accomplishments, which included distributing land to 1.5 million former tenant-farmers, providing free education from kindergarten through 8th grade, and extending voting rights to women.
By leading his country in a modern, secular direction, the Shah drew the wrath of the Islamic clergy. One of his fiercest critics was the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini was sent into exile, but he continued to speak against the Shah from abroad.
The country’s poor bitterly resented the wealth of the elites. Nationalists, Islamists, Marxists and students joined together in demonstrations against the Shah in 1978; the protests grew in intensity until the Shah fled. The Ayatollah Khomeini returned in 1979, and Iranians voted to make their country an Islamic Republic.
The new government banned Western music and other foreign popular culture, required women to wear the traditional veil, and nationalized banks, utilities, and the petroleum and industries. At that point, many of the Westernized, educated elites left the country.
7/26/10: Pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the European Union banned new investment in Iran by companies based in the E.U. This came after the U.S. took similar actions, and after four rounds of U.N. sanctions.
9/23/10: Addressing the U.N., President Ahmadinejad said that that most people in the world (including most Americans) believe the U.S. government organized the 9/11 attacks, to justify making war on the Islamic world and to save Israel. See this Reuters article for more.
11/29/10: In secret diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and described in the New York Times, Arab countries pleaded with the U.S. to take action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The cables also show that American intelligence officials believe North Korea has given Iran missiles capable of reaching European capitals.
2/15/11: After praising the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as evidence of the failure of secular regimes, Iran cracked down forcefully on demonstrators in its own capital. Some of Iran’s leaders have said that opponents of the government should be killed. For details, see this New York Times article.
10/11/11: Accusing the Iranian government of plotting to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. and to bomb the Saudi embassy in Washington, the Obama administration called for tougher sanctions against Iran. According to the Justice Department, two men connected to Iran’s Quds Force (an elite military unit that conducts operations on foreign territory) tried to hire a member of a Mexican drug cartel to kill the ambassador with a bomb. Iranian leaders called the accusation an absurd fabrication.
10/25/11: The Justice Department said that electronics parts made in the U.S. were smuggled into Iran through Singapore, and used in remote controls for I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices) that were then delivered to Iraq for use against American soldiers. The parts were found in unexploded I.E.D.s in Iraq.
11/8/11: The International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons. The report, quoted by CNN, said Iran has made “efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities” and has obtained information on nuclear weapons from “a clandestine nuclear supply network.”
1/8/12: Iran announced that it would soon begin producing enriched uranium at a second site, boldly defying international sanctions. For details, see the New York Times.
1/11/12: Iran has defied international pressure to halt its nuclear program. Now three of its nuclear scientists have been killed. Who’s responsible? See CNN for more on this story.
Bill Keller, “Nuclear Mullahs,” New York Times, 9/10/12: “Can we live with a nuclear Iran?… [F]orced to choose, I would swallow hard and take the risks of a nuclear Iran over the gamble of a preemptive war… What statesmen do when faced with bad options is create new ones. The third option in this case is to negotiate a deal that lets Iran enrich uranium for civilian use… [and] that applies rigorous safeguards…”
Dennis Ross, “Iran Is Ready to Talk,” the New York Times, 2/15/12: “…before we assume that diplomacy can’t work, it is worth considering that Iranians are now facing crippling pressure and that their leaders have in the past altered their behavior in response to such pressure. Notwithstanding all their bluster, there are signs that Tehran is now looking for a way out.”
Gary Sick, “Iran, U.S. need a crisis exit ramp,” CNN.com, 1/12/12: The U.S. and Iran have been goading each other toward a war that would be catastrophic. Both sides need to take a step back and start negotiating.
Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich Jr. and Evan Montgomery, “Why Obama should take out Iran’s nuclear program,” CNN, 11/10/11: “The November 8 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report casts further doubt on Iran’s continual claims that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful use. Rather than halting its weapons program in 2003, as was reported in a controversial 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran has apparently continued to develop the various components necessary to produce a nuclear weapon… The United States faces the difficult decision of using military force soon to prevent Iran from going nuclear, or living with a nuclear Iran and the regional fallout.”
Fareed Zakaria, “Don’t rush to war with Iran,” cnn.com, 11/13/10: We “do have a containment policy towards Iran that appears to be having some effect. Its neighbors are allied against it and with the United States. The pressure has restricted the regime’s room for maneuver. There appear to be internal tensions within the regime. And yet, rather than keeping the pressure on and seeing if we can find a way to get inspectors in, we now hear calls for war one more time. ¶Let’s be clear: We are talking about a preventive war against a country that has not attacked us. We are talking about war on the basis of intelligence reports. It is easy to start a war. It is very difficult to predict how it will go and where it might end. I think we need to ask some hard questions before we start launching the missiles.”
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, “Another Iranian Revolution? Not Likely,” N.Y. Times, 1/6/10: recommends that the U.S. seek a new relationship with Iran, based on security and economic cooperation, rather than pressuring Iran to change.
Ready to learn more? Start with these links:
Infoplease (for recent history)
Washington Post (history since the mid-20th century)
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Last updated 11/15/12