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Iran: Public Image Versus Historical Reality - Part 1: An Abridged History to the 20th Century

Politics / Iran Jul 26, 2017 - 02:12 PM GMT

By: Raymond_Matison


Part I, traces historical events which have shaped Iran’s evolution and development from its great Persian empire of over two thousand years ago to those taking place in the 20th century.

Over the last several decades Iran has been labeled by the United States a terrorist state, a state that needs to be restricted or otherwise controlled.  Consequently, Iran has been under frequent, broad and severe sanctions over the last several decades, whereby it was impeded from selling its oil to generate revenues, and foreclosed to use the SWIFT system of international money transfer.  It is a state, according to the international community, which cannot be permitted to develop nuclear arms.  President George W. Bush identified Iran as part of a global axis of evil.  More recently President Trump has noted on his recent trip to the Middle East that Iran “is the biggest sponsor of terrorism, and that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon”.  He called on “all nations of conscience to isolate Iran”.

What is it exactly about Iran that generates such acrid convictions from world leading countries such as United Kingdom and the United States?  In the U.S. we continue to be exposed only to negative press about Iran.  With so much fake news being uncovered today on almost all newsworthy items, what is the likelihood that some of this negative information on Iran is misguided or intentionally released for some selfish geopolitical reasons?  What do the public and its average citizen really know about Iran and its history?  It is said that our perceptions of any country, events, or people are based on our individual and limited knowledge about them.  If we had additional truthful, or insightful information – possibly our opinions would change.  Accordingly, knowing more about Iran’s past and recent history might influence our perceptions and views.  This article attempts to provide such information to those who previously have not had the time or interest to become more informed about Iran – in order that they can form their own fact-based opinions on a topic that often appears in the news.

Iran’s ancient history, and influence on its civilization.

According to archeologists, Iran as defined by its present borders had people residing in it perhaps as long as 100,000 years ago.  Some 5,000 years ago there were active settlements dedicated to farming.  So the territory of present day Iran has a very long history – preceding the evolution of Western Civilization. Persia, as this land was known then, was a participant and sometime leader of this Middle East civilization.  It is the land where recognizable names such as Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes ruled.  It is the land where Persians, Mongols and Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, have fought great battles.  Persians also fought with ancient and powerful Greece, and Rome. 

At that time there were numerous plundering bands of tribesmen, tribal and village communities, city states, petty kingdoms, larger kingdoms, dynasties and empires all   rising or collapsing from almost a constant state of war.  Leaders were most often deposed through wars.  In the infrequent case where a leader continued to overcome his adversaries, the then short natural life span of man meant that upon his passing a war of succession, or invasion by an outside force usually followed.  The point to be observed here is that over thousands of years the Persian/Iranian people have fought so frequently that fighting (resistance or aggression) likely has become a part of their genetic code.  We can surmise that proud people of this historical empire over centuries have developed a fierce resistance to domination by outsiders, and today are steadfast in regaining and maintaining their independent policies of a sovereign country.

When Persia was at its pinnacle of power, their ancient prescient leader Darius had built roads and bridges to bind their empire together, and established a tax system and uniform gold coinage for payment, as he tolerated multiple religions or Gods to be worshiped.  Persia’s culture was highly developed and embraced its own religion, Zoroastrianism, which had evolved with written scripture, including concepts of a single creator-god, angels, heaven and hell, judgment after death, with each soul spending eternity in paradise or perdition, yet providing for free human choice and eternal struggle between good and evil – some six centuries before Christianity.

Arab conquest and Islam

As has been the case historically with every previous empire on this planet, eventually because of internal corrosion, it ultimately loses power and is supplanted by its successor.  In 480 B.C., Xerxes invaded the Greek city states but after taking Athens had to retreat.  William McNeil in his masterful book “The Rise of the West” states that

 “The sovereign polis won its greatest successes in the Persian Wars.  The surprising outcome of Xerxes’ invasion no doubt proved to many - that under the gods, free men organized into city-states need fear no military danger from without and could be trusted to develop a more perfect individual manhood and a more glorious collective greatness than could possibly arise in a politically authoritarian society.” 

In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered Persia and burned its capital Persepolis bringing an end to its previously great empire, initiating Greek civilization into ascendancy.

In about 610 A.D., Mohammad received his first revelations or divine messages, and over the next several decades Islam became a new religion to be followed by the common masses.  Its teachings codified in the Qur’an unified the Arab world, which quickly spread its religious and military dominance over the Middle East.  To the then relatively cultured Persians, an invasion and conquest by what appeared to be religious barbarians was to further erode their previous cultural achievements over future centuries.  In addition, over time their religion Zoroasterism was replaced by Islam.  Their language, Farsi, did survive even though it came to be written in Arab script.

In 1220 A.D. Genghis Khan and the pagan Mongol hordes invaded and ravaged Iran. The growing influence of Islam had ascended such that by 1295 the Mongols themselves had converted to this militaristic religion.  Thus, Iran came to be ruled by foreign monarchs, Islam, Caliphs (meaning successor to religious Muslim leadership) and foreign cultural influences over countless future centuries. 

When Mohammad died, his friend became the first Caliph. However, different Muslim tribes or groups had views that succession should have come from Mohammad’s family line, being closer to the Prophet, rather from popular choice among qualified Muslims.  Sunni orthodox Islam refers to those following the Islamic creed where the next caliph is chosen without regarding a line of succession, whereas Shi’a indentifies with followers supporting Mohammad’s descendants.  Shiism had become the official State religion in 1501, but since that time Shi’a Muslims themselves became an increasingly persecuted minority within states run by Sunni Muslims, to eventually becoming adversaries.

Today over one billion people in the world identify themselves as Sunni Muslims. Wahhabism, a small fundamentalist movement within Sunnism, applies the strictest and most extreme principles of Islam to its followers.  Of the rest, most identify themselves as Shi’a Muslims, the largest number of whom are living in or around Iran.  According to Wikipedia, a significant percentage of the population of Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Turkey and Pakistan are Shi’a Muslims, perhaps numbering between 100-200 million people in total.  Iran appears to maintain a strong national culture but it is not strictly a homogeneous nation as it contains Kurd, Azeri and other minorities.

Both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims utilize terrorism to bring attention to their separate and distinct causes, but it is only the Sunnis who practice suicide with body strapped bombs or driving bomb-laden trucks into their targets.  Still, Shi’as have a duty and willingness to embrace martyrdom at the hands of God’s enemies selflessly carrying out its religious obligation.  Quite telling of their national character is seen in their dogmatic religious processions which portray injustice and betrayal, self-flogging, and impending gloom – perhaps the result of centuries of oppression.

The teachings of Islam are easily available to familiarize with or study today by a simple
search on the Internet.  Such reading reveals many aggressive, violent and murderous verses in the Qur’an all to be committed against nonbelievers in the name of Allah.  In his book “The God Delusion” author Richard Dawkins notes that “It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.  As the distinguished Spanish film director Luis Bunuel said, ‘God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.’” It is hardly arguable that even today a large share of conflicts, wars and atrocities in the world are still related to the theocratic intersection of religion and government.

Shiite Muslim religion has evolved to be less deterministic and more open to reason when compared Sunnis, which somewhat explains their mutual antagonism, including internecine war.  In his book “A history of Iran”, British author Michael Axworthy states

 “Integral to Shiism is the belief that rulers may hold power only as long as they are just.  Ultimately, its belief gave the Shiite masses, and by extension their religious leaders, the political and emotional power to bring temporal regimes crashing down.  Armed with the Shiite principle that endows the ordinary citizen with inherent power to overthrow despotism, and with the ideals of the emerging new world, Iranians rebelled in a way their forefathers never had.  Their demands were as astonishing as their rebellion itself: an end to the country’s domination by outside powers and a parliament to express the popular will.  This was the most radical program Iranians had ever embraced.” 

The preceding quote refers to the year 1905, when revolutions were also occurring in parts of Europe with the goal of containing or overthrowing monarchs.

British colonialism

Colonialism is an ugly business, for it requires subjugating people of other nations while exploiting and plundering their natural resources, which in turn requires a completely contemptuous attitude toward indigenous people and their desires, hopes and aspirations.   Yet despite its ugly principles, colonialism had become a commonly accepted practice centuries ago as most large European countries had acquired colonies.  However, it was Britain that had become the most successful and most frequent practitioner of despotic colonialism and imperialism.

In 1912, the British Navy recognizing the leap in efficiency from using oil as opposed to coal as a power source, and in order to keep its dominance of the seas, switched their ships from coal to oil.  However, England itself had no oil within its boundaries, when it formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in order to exploit Iran’s oil.  When Winston Churchill helped to seize Iran’s oil industry in the 1920’s, he called it’s “a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams.”  Britain had maintained its world power because of its persistence in exploiting natural resources of nations such as Iran.  The British government had a fantastically lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil, and it was Britain’s most profitable enterprise.  The injustice of it was that most Iranians lived in abject poverty while the wealth that flowed from Iran’s oil maintained Britain as a world power.

With respect to Britain’s geopolitics at that time, Mr. Kinzer, author of the book “All the Shah’s Men” notes that

“The British were concerned also to contain, or if possible overturn, the new communist regime in Russia.  All of this came at a time of greatly reduced financial means, as a result of the crippling debt incurred during the war, and with the United States under Woodrow Wilson preaching a new philosophy of international relations – essentially a democratic principle of self-determination –- that appeared to undermine the very foundation of British imperialism.  Iranian nationalists welcomed Wilson’s principles, and again were encouraged to think of the United States as Iran’s great hope among the great powers.”

Both Britain and Russia as imperial powers interfered in Iranian government so persistently that the then Shah’s independence of action were actually severely limited.

Iranian Democracy

In the late 1800s, the then profligate Iranian monarch (Nasir al-din Shah) was having difficulty with inadequate state revenues when he conceived the idea to sell several important concessions to foreign businessmen and governments.  In 1901 he sold a sixty year concession for oil development to a private individual that by 1914 became a majority owned property of the British government.  Clearly, the monarch could not have imagined that this single decision would dominate and impact Iran’s subsequent history for over a century to the present day.
Concerned Iranian citizens recognizing egregious policies of the monarch saw a need to limit his powers by establishing a constitution.  This constitution was written and adopted in 1906.  In addition to limiting the Shah’s powers, this secular document tried to expel the intrusion of foreign powers.  Enlightened reformers tried also to secularize law and education, which created a clash with clerics who feared losing their power and influence.  Clerics were concerned that the study of science would undermine faith, and modern law negates religion-based sharia law.  Some people supported a democracy, others a monarchy; clerics could not accept constitutionalism and rejected a monarchy - it was a time of revolution and great struggle for power.

With respect to their constitution, Stephen Kinzer’s outstanding book, “All the Shah’s Men” describes this constitutional structure in the following way:

“their constitution was based on the Belgian constitution, which stated explicitly that the Shah’s sovereignty derived from the people as a power given to him in trust, not as a right bestowed directly from God.  Shi’ism was declared to be the state religion, sharia’s law was recognized, clerical courts were given a significant role, and there was a five man committee of senior ulema (Muslim scholars) to scrutinize legislation passed by the Maijles (parliament) to confirm spiritual legitimacy.”
Iran had the first and only democratic government in the Middle East, which had developed naturally and internally by their own people, rather than through the attempted impositions of foreign governments in other Middle East countries over a century later.  Mr. Kinzer makes profound observations regarding events that were to affect and shape history of the Middle East and the subsequent geopolitics of the rest of the world.

“If the United States had not sent agents to depose Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iran would probably have continued along its path toward full democracy.  Over the decades that followed, it might have become the first democratic state in the Muslim Middle East, and perhaps even a model for other countries in the region and beyond. That would have profoundly changed the course of history – not simply Iranian or even Middle Eastern history, but the history of the United States and the world.

The 1953 intervention in Iran may be seen as a decisive point in twentieth-century history.  By placing Mohammad Reza Shah back on his Peacock Throne, the United States brought Iran’s long, slow progress toward democracy to a screeching halt.  The Shah ruled with increasing repression for twenty-five years.  His repression produced the explosion of the late 1970’s, later known as the Islamic Revolution.  That revolution brought to power a radical clique of fanatically anti-Western clerics who have worked relentlessly, and often violently, to undermine American interests around the world.”

Intrusion of imperial powers.

Historically, Iran partly may have been a victim of its geography, as its lucrative trade routes of the past made it a target for invaders – even before there was an understanding or appreciation for the fabulous wealth created by oil.  Over the last several hundred years weaker nations were always at the mercy of militarily strong imperialist nations such as Britain and Russia as colonialism became a popular practice.  For example in 1907, totally ignoring Iran’s newly adopted constitution, Britain and Russia signed a treaty simply dividing Iran between them.  Britain assumed control of southern provinces which contained the oil, while Russia took control northern provinces closer to Russia.  In a neutral zone sandwiched between these two territories Iranians could rule as long as they did not act against the interests of their occupiers.  In a showing of total contempt for Iran and its government was the fact that it was not included in any negotiations nor consulted, but was simply informed of this fait accompli arrangement after the treaty was signed in St. Petersburg.

A decade later, in 1919 as the British began to fully understand the incredible value of its oil concession and in order to more fully control it, Britain imposed a constricting Anglo-Persian Agreement through which the British took control of Iran’s army, treasury, transport system, and communications network - essentially eliminating Iran’s sovereignty.  It was a brazen move, typical of colonialist England at the time, which only gained enmity for them from Iranian citizens.  There was little that Iran could do as it was mainly a country of illiterate peasant villages, tribes, and small towns with little industry and a weak army.  England had not considered nor applied the laws of its most famous citizen, Isaac Newton, who noted that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”.  His laws, of course, were formulated for properties of motion, but even little reflection will convince that they also apply well to colonialist oppression.  Thus it was that the continuing arrogance and tyranny of the British was such that Iran was no more than a vassal state.

As the dislike and hatred of the British continued to grow, with Germany starting its rise and expansion in the 1930s the Shah welcomed Germans to operate in Iran.  On the premature premise that Germans might launch an attack on Russia from Iran, the Allied forces, including American troops, invaded Iran and maintained control through WWII.  Allied planes dropped leaflets from planes which said “We have decided, that the Germans must go, and if Iran will not deport them, then the English and the Russians will.”  Haughty stuff.  Perhaps Britain did not yet understand the dynamics of a changing world, and that its style of colonialism was coming to a close, even as during the period of occupation open dissent was subdued against all occupiers.

America’s participation in Iran’s occupation did have the desirable effect of supressing Soviet influence from without, as well as Iran’s pro-communist party Tudeh, but it destroyed the image America previously earned as a virtuous country supporting freedom and sovereignty. The United States no longer had credibility as a purveyor of democracy to Iran or other nations because of its active participation in destroying Iran’s democracy in 1953.  Since then, Iranians have come to believe that the United States is replacing a declining colonialist Britain, and wants to control and extract its oil and build military bases on its soil - as it has done in other Middle East countries.  There was ample evidence for Iran to take this position.  In his book “Myths, Lies, and Oil Wars” author F. William Engdahl states:

 “A quid pro quo for the CIA helping their British cousins, Washington extracted a heavy price on behalf of the Rockefeller oil group. What had been in the sole domain of British oil since 1908 now had to be shared with the American Rockefeller companies.  British Petroleum, as the company was renamed after the coup, would henceforth get a mere 40% share of Iran’s oil.  Each of the five Rockefeller-linked US sister got 8% or a total of 40%, and Shell got 14%, while the weaker French CFP got 6%.”

The coup also had significance in a number of other ways, because it established the United States in Iran as the prime ally and protector of the Reza Shah Pahlavi regime.  But it also took away much of Iranian citizen respect and previous openness to representatives of American government and its Iran policy.

In Part 2 of this analysis on Iran we see in greater detail what happened to Iran in the last century.  How England and later the United States took advantage of a resource rich but democratic-institution poor country.  We see how the deposition of a monarch leads to the installation of a radical Islamist regime, and how it impacts the development of a more civil Iranian society.

Raymond Matison

Mr. Matison is a U.S. patriot who immigrated to this country in 1949. With a B.S. in engineering physics, an M.S. in Actuarial Science, work in the actuarial field, and as a financial analyst at Legg, Mason Inc., Lehman Brothers, and investment banking at Kidder Peabody, and Merrill Lynch provides a diverse background for experience.  First-hand exposure to fascism, socialism, and communism as well as the completion of a U.S. Army military intelligence course in the 1960’s have inspired a continuing interest in selected topics in science, military, and economics.  He can be e-mailed at

Copyright © 2017 Raymond Matison - All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilizing methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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