Backgrounder: Iran

February 13, 2017

Alessandro Bruno

iranrevolution, public domain



Most of the international community celebrated the nuclear deal between Iran and the countries of the so-called “5 + 1” group. Only Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the new president of the United States, Donald Trump, did not. The agreement signed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, China, United Kingdom, United States and Russia) plus Germany (hence 5+1) imposes limitations on Iran’ uranium enrichment program. In exchange, Iran received an easing of economic and trade sanctions. It also repatriated some $150 billion of its own money that American banks froze as part of the punitive measures the United States imposed on Iran after the 1979 Revolution and the related hostage crisis. The Iran nuclear deal is not especially ambitious, but it is significant. As a direct result of it, several countries have restored official and trade relations with Iran, including the United States. Not for nothing, Boeing has reached a deal to sell about $ 27 billion worth of aircraft to Iran Air. But Trump has put this agreement into question, souring the bilateral tone to levels not seen since the time Ayatollah Khomeini was Supreme Leader. In fact, Iran has replaced Obama’s Russia as the main geopolitical foe for the Trump administration.

But if there is a widely misunderstood country in the Middle East, it would be Iran. So, it would be useful, in fact necessary, to review the country’s recent history to better understand the present geopolitical stakes.

Iran is a complex country that defies easy generalization. The most important thing to keep in mind is that Iran has deep contradictions. It is an Islamic Republic, who’s legal and political system are inspired by Sharia law, yet it also boasts one of the most secular elites of any Middle Eastern country. It has endured deep sanctions, yet it has managed to develop a far more diverse economy than any of its Persian Gulf oil-producing neighbors. Most, importantly, unlike the Arab countries of the Middle East that the British and French midwifed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, such as Syria or Iraq, Iran has kept virtually the same borders for the past two thousand years. Its recent history is ‘unique’ in the Middle Eastern context. Iran has experienced rapid and deep changes in the past four decades. In 1979, Iran became an Islamic Republic, one of only four in the world – the other three being Afghanistan, Mauritania and Pakistan. But, Iran is the only Shiite one, which is remarkable in itself; it is also one of the keys to understanding its regional ambitions and the nature of much of the recent tensions with Saudi Arabia. Iran didn’t evolve into a Shiite Islamic Republic. It got there by way of revolution; indeed, a revolution that for the 20th century was second only to Russia’s in impact. The Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 smashed the Shah and his monarchy. It also sent the existing international order into disarray. Up until 1979, the Shah’s Iran was the biggest US ally in the Middle East. The Revolution changed everything. It is the key to understanding Iran today and what challenges lie ahead, particularly in view of what the Trump White House intends to do.

The official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran is, of course, Islam; although other religions are allowed (Christianity, Judaism, Baha’ism and Zoroastrianism). Yet, it’s crucial to note that a significant proportion of Iranians do not practice any religion, especially in Tehran and large cities. In the case of women it becomes more evident because young women in particular find ways to avoid the Islamic “dress code.” It’s much different than the case in Saudi Arabia, where the morality police strictly enforce the segregation of men and women, as well as other restrictions. Women in Iran wear the veil loosely, showing a large part of their hair, almost as if it were a tall scarf; they like to paint their nails, put on makeup, and dress no differently than women would in Toronto or New York in their private lives.

In other words, Iran runs at two speeds. And although the political sphere may be dominated by adaptations of religious principles, there are ever fewer graduates at the religious learning centers, the madrasas, of Qom, which dominated the Majles (assembly) in the early years of the Revolution.

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  • Kiran MVV

    Wow… for a “Background” story, this piece covers everything and yet explains nothing… I mean, by reading this, will anyone even know WHY the Shah of Iran was thrown out by the people then? Nope. Does it explain how the Shah took advantage of the country while the people sufferred? Nope.

    I haven’t followed Iran’s politics since the last 1.5 years, only maintained a cursory glance over it, but I am pretty much sure if Trump hadn’t scared half the world to death before coming to power, they would be lesser spooked and some kind of a backroom deal could’ve been reached into preventing them from doing those missile tests… as if the world has lesser things to worry about at the moment…

  • Thomas A Kaspar

    Nice refresher piece .

  • Avy Gonzalez

    And not one mention that Iran is the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world and how Obama’s Iran deal threatens Israel’s existence. Nice history lesson though incomplete and one sided….

  • Hans Solo

    The Obama Administration described the JCPOA one way and Iran described it another almost contrary way. The original premise put forth by Obama was only two alternatives either the agreement that Obama envisioned at any cost or conflict. That was a false clouded premise, and likely intentionally so. The sanctions were working very well and therein was the real path to a meaningful agreement. The most effective option was the intention to continue with the sanctions until Iran gave the complete set of assurances on inspection including access to cited installations, history, prior and current program structure, reduction of stockpile and refinement capability, and tied to regional behavior and support of terrorist activities. Iran really had no options, either collapse of their economy with social upheaval and likely undermining of the regime internally at the price of a nuclear weapons program that would not sell well internally, regionally, or internationally. Did Obama want the Iranians to have a nuclear capability in the foreseeable future to thwart the Israelis? It seems so, it his political party’s intellectual design to lean in that direction as a means of punishing Israel.


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