History of Iran

Iran enjoys one of the richest historical lineages of any modern state dating back several thousand years. This history can be roughly divided into three epochs: the early pre-Islamic period (c559 BC to 651 AD); the Islamic era (651 BC to 1800 AD); and the modern age, defined by its encounter with Western modernity from around 1800.

The ancient pre-Islamic period

The history of “Iran” proper begins with the migration of Iranian tribes from Central Asia to what is now known as the Iranian Plateau in the 2nd millennium BC. But organized human settlements developed much earlier, and the Elamite civilization in southwestern Iran – today’s southern Iraq – emerged in the third millennium. In the first millennium BC, two distinct Iranian states emerged in the form of the Medes and the Persians and their emphatic entry onto the world stage began with the accession of Cyrus II in 559 BC.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire grew to become the largest contiguous land empire known to man, impressing friend and foe alike with its relatively benign administration based on religious ideas later associated with Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran identified with the mantra “good words, good thoughts and good deeds”. It carries great weight in the Western imagination due to its failed attempts to conquer the Greek states and its subsequent defeat at the hands of Alexander the Great some 150 years later, in 330 BC Hellenized rule under Alexander’s successors – the Seleucids – it lasted a century until the arrival of a new Iranian dynasty from the east, the Parthians.

The Parthian Empire

The Parthian Empire reshaped Iranian history by importing myths and legends from the east and supplanting the Achaemenids in popular memory. This decentralized kingdom -in which the king was the first among equals; a king above other kings, if you will – made up for his factionalism with longevity (he is the longest-living of all the Iranian dynasties) and proved himself a serious enemy of the emerging Roman Empire, inflicting one of its greatest defeats on it. It was on the plains of Carrhae in 53 BC that the Roman commander Crassus (famous for his defeat of Spartacus) was decisively defeated by a smaller Parthian force largely made up of horse archers, losing some two-thirds of his legions. and several “eagles” [Roman banners]. After 500 years, in the year 224 AD

The Sassanids were clearly the heirs of the Parthians, but their empire was more centralized and the ‘king of kings’ was more than the first among equals. The administration was consolidated and Zoroastrianism was promoted as an official and increasingly defined creed. In time, the Sassanid kings, especially Khusrau II, would come to symbolize all that was good about pre-Islamic Iran and its administration.

Like their predecessors, the Sassanids proved formidable opponents to the Roman and later Byzantine Empires, entering a cycle of conflict that eventually exhausted both empires and left them vulnerable to hitherto unforeseen challenges.

Islamic Era

In the 7th century a new power arose from the Arabian Peninsula – Islam. Defeating the Byzantines, the Muslim Arab armies finally conquered and absorbed the Sassanid empire into the new caliphate. The Iranian empire was too big a mouthful for the Caliphate to fully digest, with the result that Iranian ideas about the nature and practice of “just” government and culture began to shape the way the Caliphate developed. Caliphate.

Islam transformed the Iranian worldview, but the political and religious culture of the Islamic world was in turn shaped by the profound legacy of ancient Iran and many of the leading administrative and scientific minds of classical Islamic times, including the polymathematician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the famous visirial (ministerial) family of the Barmakids, emanated from the Iranian world.

In fact, the emphatic influence of the Iranian world was evident with the appearance of the Abbasid Caliphate in AD 749 and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to the newly founded city of Baghdad (circa AD 762), not far from the ancient city of Baghdad. Sassanian capital. This Iranian turn was exemplified by the development of the “new” Persian language, which now, with the adoption of the Arabic alphabet, has become the lingua franca of the Eastern Islamic world and, in time, one of the great literary languages. of the world.

The Islamic era would witness another profound development in the history of Iran with the entry of the Turkic peoples from Central Asia from the 11th century, but more consistently with the eruption of the Mongols (nomadic warriors from the steppes of Inner Asia) in the thirteenth century. The Mongol conquest facilitated the migration of Turkic tribes to the plateau, forcing a chain migration of Iranians to the Anatolian plateau, fundamentally altering the country’s political economy from being largely sedentary to having a significant nomadic component, especially in the northern parts of the country.

In addition, Mongolian and Turkish words (such as “Khan”) are incorporated into the Persian language, adding a new dimension to the vocabulary of an already rich and diverse language. In economic terms, however, the wave of nomadic invasions that began with the Mongols and culminated in the devastation caused by Tamerlane in the 14th century led to widespread economic dislocation. It would be many years before economic life made sense again.

At the same time, if considered in the long term, the Mongol conquests ensured that “Iran” as a distinct political entity re-emerged after centuries of seclusion in the Islamic world. It says something about the confidence and cultural richness of the Iranian civilization that it was able to re-form itself as a distinct state in its own right and that by the 16th century a new dynasty was to emerge that would add further layers to this distinctiveness.

Iran had been absorbed into the Caliphate but had retained its own language and culture in such a way that it began to influence the shape and direction of travel in the Islamic world. Even the Turkish nomads would in turn come to appreciate the cultural power that Iran and the Persian world represented, adopting and adapting many of their cultural attributes, including the Persian language. With the rise of the Safavids in the 16th century, this cultural trust again took political form and to consolidate their position the Safavids imposed the minority branch of Islam, Shiism, as the new state religion from 1501.

This proved to be something of a double-edged sword. The adoption of Shiism helped distinguish the Iranian state from its Ottoman rival in the West. But it also served to hamper political ties with the Persian world to the east. Nevertheless, for two centuries the Safavids oversaw the flourishing of Iranian civilization, especially under the reign of Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), the only king known as “the Great” after the Islamic conquest. In fact, just as the Iranians attributed all pre-Islamic achievements to the reign of Khusrau I, Shah Abbas was also credited with any and all achievements during the Islamic period.

It was during this period that the first systematic contacts between Iran and Europe were established, as European merchants came to establish commercial and, in some cases, political links.

Modern challenges

Unfortunately for Iran, the period of greatest growth of European power and Western civilization in the 18th century coincided with a period of political turmoil within Iran itself. The traumatic fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722 ushered in decades of warfare as the first Iran rose to power under the leadership of Nader Shah (1736-47), only to fall back into disarray after his death.

As a little-known footnote to history, it was Nader Shah’s invasion and defeat of the Mughal Empire in 1739 that paradoxically opened India to European penetration in the 18th century. And when Iran emerged from its confusion in the late eighteenth century, it faced a new challenge in the Russian and British empires. These were not just political threats, but also ideological ones, with confident European powers that were not intimidated by Iranian civilization, but instead saw the political economy of the Iranian state as archaic and dependent on authority and despotic power of their kings.

The European power approached the world with new ideas on the organization of the State, the rule of law and constitutionalism, all of them alien to the Iranian world, but which gained strength among a group of intellectuals who saw the salvation of Iran in the adoption of these new and innovative forms of political and economic organization. Iranians, so used to educating the world, found themselves in the reluctant position of being the student. Throughout the 19th century, Iranian intellectuals and activists tried to promote reform, but were met with objections from reactionary elements within Iran (in particular, a monarchy reluctant to relinquish power) and ambivalence from the imperial powers. Europeans who were ultimately most anxious to maintain the balance of power.

Finally, at the end of the 20th century, in 1906, the first of Iran’s revolutions – the Constitutional Revolution – established a parliamentary system on the British model, with a constitution and a separation of powers. It was a pivotal moment that altered the country’s political landscape. But his ambitions were high and his promise remained unfulfilled as a new dynasty – the Pahlavis (1925-79) – sought to impose revolution from above.

With the appearance of the Pahlavis in 1925, the new monarch embraced with some vigor the revolutionary impulse of 1906, initially supported by many of the intellectuals of the time, eager to see the creation of a modern state that would allow them to carry out their numerous reforms. in education and the judicial system. Reza Shah’s government oversaw a transformation of the country, but the reforms he oversaw were only partially accomplished, as the growth of state power was not matched by a growth of civil society and civic rights.

Overthrown after Allied occupation (1941-46) in the turmoil of World War II, he was succeeded by his young son Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-79), who during the first period of his reign had to deal with growing factionalism and continued interference from foreign powers. The crisis over the continued Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan was resolved in 1946, but a more serious crisis over Iran’s oil industry led to an Anglo-American-orchestrated coup to oust the nationalist Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had encouraged the Shah to reign instead of rule. As with the 1906 revolution, the 1953 coup cast a long shadow over Iranian politics, and the Shah struggled to break out of it.

The royal autocracy and the Iranian revolution

In the 1960s the Shah felt strong enough to launch his own “white” revolution, further transforming the socio-economic landscape of the country, but failing to equate these drastic changes with a measure of political reform. Indeed, far from democratizing, the 1970s witnessed a reduction in royal autocracy. Political stagnation with social and economic change proved to be a combustible combination, to which was added a religious revival centered on the figure of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1978, the Shah, faced with opposition from nationalists, the left and religious groups, lost control of his political dominance, increasingly at a loss as to how to react to the groundswell of discontent.

He went into exile in January 1979. Two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the adoration of the multitudes and before long the monarchy was replaced by an Islamic Republic. But this new “Islamic” revolution was no more successful in reconciling Iran’s traditions with the challenges of modernity. The taking of the Embassy of the United Statesin November 1979 and the start of a prolonged war with Iraq in 1980, which lasted until 1988, marked and defined the emerging Islamic Republic. Rampant factionalism was not eliminated by the violent suppression of the left, and the Islamic Republic has been characterized by fierce debates over the nature and character of the state that is divided between those who favor republican institutions and those who seek the establishment of a Islamic government.

The predominance of the “Islamists” and the growing autocracy of the “supreme leader” indicate that the problems of 1906 remain unsolved and that in 1979 the “crown” was simply replaced by the “turban”.

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