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Persepolis was the ancient capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid era. Founded by Darius I around 515BC, the city stood as a magnificent monument to the vast power of Persian kings.
Persepolis remained the centre of Persian power until the fall of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror captured Persepolis in 330BC and some months later his troops destroyed much of the city. Famously, the great palace of Xerxes was set alight with the subsequent fire burning vast swathes of the city.
Persepolis does not seem to have recovered from this devastation and the city gradually declined in prestige, never again becoming a major seat of power.
Today the imposing remains of Persepolis stand in modern-day Iran and the site is also known as Takht-e Jamshid. Located roughly 50 miles northeast of Shiraz, the ruins of Persepolis contain the remains of many ancient buildings and monuments. These include The Gate of All Nations, Apadana Palace, The Throne Hall, Tachara palace, Hadish palace, The Council Hall, and The Tryplion Hall.
Persepolis was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.
Historic Sites in Iran - History
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Iran, a mountainous, arid, and ethnically diverse country of southwestern Asia. Much of Iran consists of a central desert plateau, which is ringed on all sides by lofty mountain ranges that afford access to the interior through high passes. Most of the population lives on the edges of this forbidding, waterless waste. The capital is Tehrān, a sprawling, jumbled metropolis at the southern foot of the Elburz Mountains. Famed for its handsome architecture and verdant gardens, the city fell somewhat into disrepair in the decades following the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79, though efforts were later mounted to preserve historic buildings and expand the city’s network of parks. As with Tehrān, cities such as Eṣfahān and Shīrāz combine modern buildings with important landmarks from the past and serve as major centres of education, culture, and commerce.
The heart of the storied Persian empire of antiquity, Iran has long played an important role in the region as an imperial power and later—because of its strategic position and abundant natural resources, especially petroleum—as a factor in colonial and superpower rivalries. The country’s roots as a distinctive culture and society date to the Achaemenian period, which began in 550 bce . From that time the region that is now Iran—traditionally known as Persia—has been influenced by waves of indigenous and foreign conquerors and immigrants, including the Hellenistic Seleucids and native Parthians and Sāsānids. Persia’s conquest by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century ce was to leave the most lasting influence, however, as Iranian culture was all but completely subsumed under that of its conquerors.
An Iranian cultural renaissance in the late 8th century led to a reawakening of Persian literary culture, though the Persian language was now highly Arabized and in Arabic script, and native Persian Islamic dynasties began to appear with the rise of the Ṭāhirids in the early 9th century. The region fell under the sway of successive waves of Persian, Turkish, and Mongol conquerors until the rise of the Safavids, who introduced Twelver Shiʿism as the official creed, in the early 16th century. Over the following centuries, with the state-fostered rise of a Persian-based Shiʿi clergy, a synthesis was formed between Persian culture and Shiʿi Islam that marked each indelibly with the tincture of the other.
With the fall of the Safavids in 1736, rule passed into the hands of several short-lived dynasties leading to the rise of the Qājār line in 1796. Qājār rule was marked by the growing influence of the European powers in Iran’s internal affairs, with its attendant economic and political difficulties, and by the growing power of the Shiʿi clergy in social and political issues.
The country’s difficulties led to the ascent in 1925 of the Pahlavi line, whose ill-planned efforts to modernize Iran led to widespread dissatisfaction and the dynasty’s subsequent overthrow in the revolution of 1979. This revolution brought a regime to power that uniquely combined elements of a parliamentary democracy with an Islamic theocracy run by the country’s clergy. The world’s sole Shiʿi state, Iran found itself almost immediately embroiled in a long-term war with neighbouring Iraq that left it economically and socially drained, and the Islamic republic’s alleged support for international terrorism left the country ostracized from the global community. Reformist elements rose within the government during the last decade of the 20th century, opposed both to the ongoing rule of the clergy and to Iran’s continued political and economic isolation from the international community.
Iran is bounded to the north by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea, to the east by Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and to the west by Turkey and Iraq. Iran also controls about a dozen islands in the Persian Gulf. About one-third of its 4,770-mile (7,680-km) boundary is seacoast.
Historic City of Yazd
The City of Yazd is located in the middle of the Iranian plateau, 270 km southeast of Isfahan, close to the Spice and Silk Roads. It bears living testimony to the use of limited resources for survival in the desert. Water is supplied to the city through a qanat system developed to draw underground water. The earthen architecture of Yazd has escaped the modernization that destroyed many traditional earthen towns, retaining its traditional districts, the qanat system, traditional houses, bazars, hammams, mosques, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples and the historic garden of Dolat-abad.
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0
Ville historique de Yazd
La ville historique de Yazd est située au milieu du plateau iranien, à 270 km au sud-est d’Ispahan, à proximité des routes des épices et de la soie. C’est un témoignage vivant de l’utilisation de ressources limitées pour assurer la survie dans le désert. L’eau est amenée en ville par un système de qanat – ouvrage destiné à capter l’eau souterraine. Construite en terre, la ville de Yazd a échappé à la modernisation qui a détruit de nombreuses villes de ce type. Elle a gardé ses quartiers traditionnels, le système de qanat, les maisons anciennes, les bazars, les hammams, les mosquées, les synagogues, les temples zoroastriens et le jardin historique de Dolat-abad.
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0
Ciudad histórica de Yazd
La ciudad histórica de Yazd se sitúa en el medio de la meseta central iraní, a 270 km al sureste de Isfahán y cerca de las rutas de las especias y de la seda. Es un testimonio vivo del uso de recursos limitados para garantizar la vida en el desierto. El agua llegaba a la ciudad por un sistema de qanats, destinados a capta ragua de las napas freáticas. Los edificios de la ciudad son de tierra. La ciudad escapó a las tendencias a la modernización que destruyeron numerosas ciudades tradicionales de tierra. La ciudad perdura con sus barrios tradicionales, el sistema de qanats, las viviendas tradicionales, los bazares, los hamames, las mezquitas, las sinagogas, los templos zoroastrianos y el jardín histórico de Dolat Abad.
Description is available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0
Historische stad Yazd
De stad Yazd ligt in het midden van het Iraanse plateau, 270 kilometer ten zuidoosten van Isfahan, dichtbij de specerijen en zijderoutes. De stad getuigt van het gebruik van beperkte middelen om te overleven in de woestijn. Een qanat systeem dat ondergronds water naar boven brengt voorziet de stad van water. De architectuur, die gebaseerd is op wat lokaal voorhanden is heeft de modernisering kunnen ontsnappen die vele andere steden wel trof. De traditionele districten, het qanat systeem, traditionele huizen, bazars, hammams, moskeeën, synagogen, Zoroastrische tempels en de historische tuin van Dolat-abat zijn alle bewaard gebleven.
Outstanding Universal Value
The City of Yazd is located in the deserts of Iran close to the Spice and Silk Roads. It is a living testimony to intelligent use of limited available resources in the desert for survival. Water is brought to the city by the qanat system. Each district of the city is built on a qanat and has a communal centre. Buildings are built of earth. The use of earth in buildings includes walls, and roofs by the construction of vaults and domes. Houses are built with courtyards below ground level, serving underground areas. Wind-catchers, courtyards, and thick earthen walls create a pleasant microclimate. Partially covered alleyways together with streets, public squares and courtyards contribute to a pleasant urban quality. The city escaped the modernization trends that destroyed many traditional earthen cities. It survives today with its traditional districts, the qanat system, traditional houses, bazars, hammams, water cisterns, mosques, synagogues, Zoroastrian temples and the historic garden of Dolat-abad. The city enjoys the peaceful coexistence of three religions: Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
Criterion (iii): The historic city of Yazd bears witness to an exceptionally elaborate construction system in earthen architecture and the adaptation of the ways of living to hostile environment for several millennia. Yazd is associated with the continuity of traditions that cover social organization. These include Waqf (endowment) benefitting public buildings, such as water cisterns, mosques, hammams, qanats, etc. as well as developed intangible and multi-cultural, commercial and handicrafts traditions, as one of the richest cities of the world entirely built of earthen material, a quality which contributes to the creation of an environment-friendly microclimate. It reflects diverse cultures related to various religions in the city including Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, which are still living peacefully together and having a combination of buildings including houses, mosques, fire temples, synagogues, mausoleums, hammams, water cisterns, madrasehs, bazaars, etc. as it can be seen in their traditional crafts and festivities.
Criterion (v): Yazd is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement which is representative of the interaction of man and nature in a desert environment that results from the optimal use and clever management of the limited resources that are available in such an arid setting by the qanat system and the use of earth in constructing buildings with sunken courtyards and underground spaces. Besides creating pleasant micro-climate, it uses minimum amounts of materials, which provides inspiration for new architecture facing the sustainability challenges today.
From the 1930s onwards, several policies were established to modernize the city. That led to the creation of a few wide commercial streets and provision of easy access to “modern” housing. This happened mostly outside the historic city. Contrary to some intentions including those belonging to higher classes, the populations of Yazd, as well as the city decision-makers, have managed to maintain large zones of the historic city intact, including the restoration and conservation for a number of large houses.
Today, Yazd possesses a large number of excellent examples of traditional desert architecture with a range of houses from modest ones to very large and highly decorated properties. In addition to the main mosque and bazaar which are in a very good state, each district of the historic city still has all its specific features such as water cisterns, hammams, tekiehs, mosques, mausoleums, etc. In the city, there are still many streets and alleys which have kept their original pattern, having also many sabats, i.e. partially or entirely covered alleys, and series of arches crossing them for protection from the sun. The skyline of the city punctuated with wind catchers, minarets and domes of the monuments and mosques offer an outstanding panorama visible from far away, from inside and outside the historic city.
Being a living dynamic city, Yazd has evolved gradually with some inevitable changes. However, there are still many qualities which allow Yazd to meet conditions of authenticity, including those related to the continuity of its intangible heritage.
This has had a positive influence in terms of authenticity linked to location, setting, form, design and materials. Apart from the changes that have occurred throughout the 20 th century, the property boasts plenty of well-preserved buildings and public spaces. In all interventions, priority has always been given to traditional techniques whenever restoration works were needed.
Protection and management requirements
The Historic City of Yazd was listed as a national monument in 2005, which provides legal protection according to the Law for Protection of National Heritage (1930) and the Law for Establishing Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization (1979). The property is also subject to laws and standards for the protection of historic cities.
The management of the property is centralized in Iran's Cultural Heritage Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO), who is the national body responsible for World Heritage properties, including reporting to UNESCO World Heritage Committee, and who coordinates efforts with local and national authorities as well as non-governmental organizations, the traditional waqf system, and the local communities. ICHHTO has a number of policies that underpin the management system for the property.
Efforts which have been made by the local population, in some instances under the districts organizations and social structure of Waqf (endowment), as well as efforts by Yazd Municipality, ICHHTO, and local representatives of the Government of Iran (Ministries of education, health, etc…) have still to be promoted.
All these partners have joined efforts to elaborate a new management mechanism that will allow directing their capacities towards common goals. This has been facilitated by the creation of a steering committee in charge of defining general orientations for the management and conservation of the historic city.
A technical committee has also been established with representatives of the major stakeholders, who will work under the direction of specialized working groups to identify, study, and monitor different kinds of projects.
ICHHTO has decided to establish a specific office (Base) that will have the responsibility to coordinate the meetings of these two committees and to organize the monitoring of the historic city regarding its state of conservation.
The training of the ICHHTO staff should continue specially on relevant conservation philosophies, and the impacts of different interventions on the integrity and authenticity of the inscribed property.
Guidelines for the use, maintenance and conservation of earthen historic buildings, with attention to interiors, should be elaborated in order to assist private owners of historic buildings.
Risk preparedness research should be conducted for the property with regards to earthquakes.
Analytical studies of the Historic City of Yazd, elaborating the relationships between the intangible aspects of each district (including social, cultural and religious dimensions) and the tangible aspects (such as the qanats, water cisterns and religious structures) should be undertaken.
Biblical Sites, Ancient Wonders, the Last ‘Garden of Eden’: Here’s What Trump Just Threatened to Bomb in Iran
In threatening Iran’s archaeological riches, President Trump is bent on destroying sites that are central to human history.
ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images
Late last week, using what has apparently become an official channel of communication, President Donald Trump announced via his Twitter account that the U.S. military would target “52 Iranian sites… some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” if Iran retaliated for the killing of its top military man and spy, Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The selection of 52 sites would symbolize, he said, the “52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago,” referring to the 1979 Tehran embassy siege.
Deliberately destroying sites of cultural heritage is, according to Irina Bokova, a former director general of UNESCO, “a war crime” and “a strategy of cultural cleansing.” It was a strategy employed to great effect by ISIS. Apart from the fact that the president is threatening to use terrorist tactics to punish an entire people, it is worth looking at the significance of the heritage he is planning to eradicate.
Currently, there are 22 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran. Among them is the ancient royal city of Persepolis, in the southwest of the country, which was once the capital of the Achaemenid empire in the sixth century BCE. UNESCO describes it as “among the world’s greatest archaeological sites” and having “no equivalent.” The city was founded in 518 BCE by Darius the Great and includes a number of remarkable palatial buildings, terraces, and an architecturally remarkable throne hall.
If Darius the Great sounds familiar, it might be because—according to the biblical book of Ezra—it was Darius who actually funded the restoration of the (second) Israelite temple in Jerusalem. In doing so, Darius was following a decree offered by another Persian king, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus was responsible for sending the Israelites back home to the Holy Land in the first place after he successfully conquered Babylon (Baghdad) in 539 BCE. For his momentous role in Israelite history, the Bible actually calls Cyrus God’s anointed one, the Messiah: “Thus says the Lord to his Anointed (Messiah), to Cyrus whom I took by his right hand” (Isa 45:1).” Cyrus’ tomb, which was once visited by Alexander the Great, is in Pasargadae, Iran.
Cyrus the Great’s influence is felt throughout the country. According to the Greek writer Xenophon, the Persians were known as astonishing gardeners. Cyrus’s son, Cyrus the Younger, apparently told the Greek commander Lysander that when not at war he spent his days gardening. Nine enclosed Persian gardens (all UNESCO sites), founded using design principles that date to the reign of Cyrus the Great, are dotted around the country’s provinces. The gardens are divided into four sections and cleverly utilize flowing water for both irrigation and decorative purposes. The four-fold division has a religious significance as well: it symbolizes the four elements of the world and the division of the world into four parts. In general, these Persian gardens are believed to represent the paradisiacal qualities of Eden which according to the Bible was located at the intersection of four rivers (the word Paradise actually derives from the Persian “pardis” or beautiful garden). Their design influenced the construction of the gardens of Alhambra in Spain. If Trump was to destroy these sites, one could reasonably (if hyperbolically) say that he destroyed all that was left of the Gardens of Eden.
The tomb of Cyrus II of Persia, known as Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 6th century BCE in the town of Pasargadae. For his momentous role in Israelite history the Bible actually calls Cyrus God’s anointed one, the Messiah.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/Getty Images
It is not only the tombs of biblically significant Persian Kings that might be in Trump’s sights. The tombs of the prophets Daniel and Habbukuk are located in Susa and Toyserkan, Iran. While the biography of Habbukuk is fairly obscure, Daniel’s life story plays an important role in both Judaism and Christianity. To this day, Daniel’s escape from the lion’s den is a staple in Christian Sunday schools. In the case of Daniel, at least six different sites claim to be the location of his tomb, but the strongest candidate, as recognized by both Jews and Muslims, is the tomb in Susa. It was first mentioned in the writings of the Jewish medieval traveler Benjamin of Tudela in the twelfth century.
These examples are to say nothing of the historic medieval bazaars and cities, ancient inscriptions, Zoroastrian sanctuary, and feats of ancient engineering found around the country. The Shushtar Hydraulic System—a third century CE infrastructure of canals, water mills, dams, tunnels, and waterfalls—is a truly exceptional work of genius that shows the spread of Roman technology in the ancient world. The desert architecture of the City of Yazd, a harmonious blend of Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Islamic communities, shows how, with the proper management of resources, it is possible to survive in the harshest of environmental conditions. And the stunning turquoise covered dome of the medieval Mausoleum of Oljaytu, is a critical link in the history of Islamic architecture.
The global political climate means that the majority of these sites are unknown to American and European tourists. But access is not equivalent to importance: destroying sites in Iran is no less horrific than bombing the Valley of the Kings in Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome. Iran was home to some of the most powerful empires in history and is as important to our understanding of world history as Egypt or Rome or China. Iranian cultural heritage is world cultural heritage and something that everyone has a stake in. Beyond the fact that destroying any cultural heritage erodes our understanding of human history, this is a country that should be of importance to the religiously motivated voters Trump spends so much time courting. The Persians financed and supported the construction of the Jerusalem Temple and now Trump threatens to destroy their legacy. Throughout his tenure as president, Trump has revealed that history is not his strongest suit. Now his ignorance of the past promises to have profound and irreversible consequences.
Opinion: Destroying cultural heritage sites is a war crime
President Trump threatened to destroy 52 Iranian sites — “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” — on Twitter on Saturday. This may seem like a small issue in the midst of an international crisis, but, as others have noted, his tweet amounts to an announcement of an intention to commit war crimes.
A part of the Hague Convention of 1907, signed over a century ago, says that “all necessary steps must be taken” to spare “buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected.” Similarly, the Geneva Convention Protocol I, signed in 1949 and amended in 1977, renders unlawful “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.”
Federal law in the United States says that violating these international conventions would constitute a war crime. Anyone who violates them could be imprisoned or, if death results from their actions, be sentenced to death. Members of the Trump administration should be on notice that they can be held liable under these provisions.
Trump’s threatened actions would be morally reprehensible even outside the law, because they would destroy centuries-old places of profound importance not just to Iranians, but to all of human civilization.
Measuring the significance of sites is always a delicate exercise. In the United States, we conduct a formal evaluation before we place a site on a list such as the National Register of Historic Places.
The worldwide list is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) List of World Heritage Sites. The United States has 24 places on UNESCO’s list, including Independence Hall, widely recognized as the birthplace of modern democracy and a symbol of hope for people around the world. The San Antonio Missions, Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park are also listed. It’s worth noting that many sites that we might think of as important to our national identity are not included on this international list. Not even Mount Vernon has made it, though President Washington’s home is one of 19 places nominated by the United States for consideration.
Iran, just one-sixth the size of the United States, also has 24 UNESCO designations and has nominated 56 more for consideration.
That country, recognized as a cradle of civilization, is home to World Heritage Sites like the Shustar hydraulic system, initiated in the fifth century B.C. and hailed by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of creative genius.” Also included as a group are eight Persian gardens whose distinct design influenced the Alhambra in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India and countless modern landscapes today.
But perhaps the most significant place on the UNESCO list is Persepolis, reportedly the most-visited historic site in Iran. It was a ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, completed by Darius I and given a place of prominence in architectural history courses across the world. Some believe that Persepolis was the place where the clay Cyrus Cylinder (today housed at the British Museum) was inscribed in cuneiform. Recognizing the diversity of the Persian Empire, the cylinder sets forth a vision of governing a pluralistic society and is considered by some Iranians to be the world’s first charter of human rights.
A nation that willfully destroys another country’s heritage would be no better than the criminals who have destroyed irreplaceable sites in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in recent years.
Protecting civilian lives is paramount, but saving cultural sites is consistent with that mission, too. Destroying mosques, museums and libraries will certainly result in civilian casualties.
If President Trump’s rhetoric is a calculated attempt to pressure Iranian citizens to topple their regime, it seems likely to backfire. Imagine how Americans would respond if a foreign power threatened to fire missiles at the Statue of Liberty. If he follows through on his threat, he will violate international law and the United States will risk further damage to its increasingly fragile global reputation.
Sara C. Bronin is a lawyer and specialist in historic preservation.
Golestan Palace (Photo: FrankvandenBergh, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
"The lavish Golestan Palace is a masterpiece of the Qajar era, embodying the successful integration of earlier Persian crafts and architecture with Western influences," according to UNESCO. The palace is one of the oldest building complexes in Tehran in the historic center of the city.
Historic Sites in Iran - History
Brief Overview of the History of Iran
Throughout much of early history, the land known today as Iran was known as the Persian Empire. The first great dynasty in Iran was the Achaemenid which ruled from 550 to 330 BC. It was founded by Cyrus the Great. This period was followed by the conquest of Alexander the Great from Greece and the Hellenistic period. In the wake of Alexander's conquests, the Parthian dynasty ruled for nearly 500 years followed by the Sassanian dynasty until 661 AD.
In the 7th century, the Arabs conquered Iran and introduced the people to Islam. More invasions came, first from the Turks and later from the Mongols. Starting in the early 1500s local dynasties once again took power including the Afsharid, the Zand, the Qajar, and the Pahlavi.
In 1979 the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown by revolution. The Shah (king) fled the country and Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini became leader of the theocratic republic. Iran's government has since been guided by Islamic principles.
Sheikh Safi al-din Khanegah and Shrine
Located in Ardabil, this shrine is the tomb of Sufi mystic leader Sheikh Safi al-din. Different areas such as a library, mosque, school, and mausoleum make up this site, and the architecture is in keeping with the principles of Sufi mysticism.
The relief and inscriptions chronicle for the main part the court intrigue and rebellions that Darius had to contend with in his ascension to the throne and the many rebellions that broke out all across the Persian empire shortly after he assumed the throne.
The inscriptions have the same text written in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian, using the cuneiform script, causing some to call the Behistun inscriptions the Persian Rosetta Stone - the 196 BCE Rosetta Stone being the ancient Egyptian stone inscriptions of a passage in three scripts: two in Egyptian language hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts, and one in Classical Greek. Babylonian, one the languages used in the Behistun inscriptions, is a later form of Akkadian and the inscriptions helped to increase our understanding of Babylonian and thereby Akkadian. Indeed, the cross references help to provide a better understanding of all the languages employed in the inscription.
Darius mentions in the inscriptions at Behistun that he had copies of the inscription written on parchment and distributed throughout the empire. A copy of the inscription written in Aramaic has indeed been found on the island of Elephantine on the upper Nile near the city of Aswan in Egypt.
Historic Sites in Iran - History
This Iranian postage stamp commemorates the shooting down of a commercial passenger flight, Iran Air 655, by a U.S. Navy cruiser in 1988. The memory of the history of foreign intervention in Iran casts a long shadow on its current relationship with the United States.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the taking of American hostages that year, Americans have tended to see the Iranian regime as dangerous, reckless and irrational. Recent concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions and anti-Israel declarations have only underscored the sense many Americans have that Iran is a "rogue" nation, part of an "axis of evil." There is another side to this story. This month historian Annie Tracy Samuel looks at American-Iranian relations from the Iranian point of view, and adds some complexity to the simplified story often told.
The victory of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s June 2013 presidential elections generated hope that the thirty-year standoff between Iran and the United States might be resolved.
During his first press conference after being sworn in as president, Rouhani declared that he was open to direct talks with the United States, while a White House statement released after Rouhani’s inauguration offered him a “willing partnership.”
Those conciliatory words, however, were accompanied on both sides with qualifications, skepticism, and antagonistic gestures. Congress continued to push new sanctions aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the Obama administration conditioned any partnership on Iran taking steps to meet its “international obligations.”
On the Iranian side, Rouhani emphasized that the United States must take “practical step[s] to remove Iranian mistrust” before he would be willing to engage in dialogue. His focus on Iran’s mistrust is not simply rhetoric but reflects what Iran sees as the long history of U.S. enmity.
While Americans understand relations with Iran in terms of its nuclear program and incendiary anti-Israel homilies, Iranians see the relationship as part of a long and troubling history of foreign intervention and exploitation that reaches back into the nineteenth century. Iranian leaders argue that if interactions between Iran and the United States are to improve, this history will have to be addressed and rectified.
The past is very much part of the present in Iran. A profound consciousness of history informs Iran’s political and strategic outlook, its conception of itself and its position in the world, and its non-relationship with the United States.
As both sides cautiously explore today’s opportunities to reset their fraught relationship, American policy-makers should take note of how Iran perceives the history of its relations with the United States, particularly the U.S. role in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.
The Legacies of European Imperialism
Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, Great Britain and Russia fell upon the country then known as Persia in their contest for imperial and economic domination. Though Persia promised different things to the different powers—control of the Caspian Sea and the long-sought warm water port for Russia security of India for Britain—they sought to achieve their goals by weakening and controlling the country.
After several decades of invasion and imposed stagnation, combined with the profligacy and incompetence of Persia’s Qajar shahs, Britain succeeded to a large extent in doing both. In two separate concessions granted in 1872 and 1891, British citizens secured monopolies over almost all of Persia’s financial and economic resources.
According to British Foreign Secretary George Curzon, this was “the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a Kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, much less accomplished, in history.”
Neither concession was fulfilled, however.
In some of the earliest instances of successful popular protests in the Middle East, Iranians rallied against the measures and eventually forced their cancellation.
The movements united the Iranian nation and paved the way for the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Having witnessed the shah’s penchant for selling off the country to foreign powers, Iranians forced him to create a legislative assembly (Majlis) and grant a constitution.
In Iran, then, the history of foreign intervention is bound together with a tradition of popular protest and defense of the nation. And this pattern repeated several times in the twentieth century.
During World War I, Iran declared neutrality but became a battlefield for the European belligerents nonetheless. Following the ceasefire, Great Britain took advantage of the weakened and sundered country to impose a highly unfavorable treaty that essentially turned Iran into a British protectorate.
Once more, however, the increase in foreign intervention generated a movement for national independence, which culminated in the suspension of the agreement, the ouster of the Qajar dynasty, and the establishment of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1925.
During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-41), outside interference in Iran became much less direct. Until World War II his government was able to maintain a level of independence unprecedented in the country’s modern history.
Then, in 1941 the Allied Powers decided the sitting monarch’s pro-German sympathies and weak defenses were an intolerable threat. Led by Great Britain and the Soviet Union, they invaded Iran, forced Reza Shah to abdicate, and placed his young son on the throne.
Enter the United States
Like his abrupt rise to power, Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign owed much to the contrivances and support of foreign powers. In particular, the coronation of the second and last Pahlavi Shah was accompanied by the appearance of the United States as an important player in Iranian affairs.
Although America’s interest in Iran came comparatively late, Iranians view it as part of the longer history of foreign exploitation.
During the first decade of Mohammad Reza’s rule, social conflicts, economic problems, and foreign interference were acute. Together these crises generated demands for political and economic change and a powerful nationalist movement in the Majlis (parliament).
One of the main demands was for the revision of Iran’s concession to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which exploited the country’s oil wealth. After negotiations with the AIOC produced a highly unfavorable supplementary agreement in 1949, opposition to the company and to Iran’s subservience to foreign interests intensified, leading to popular demonstrations and, in March 1951, to the nationalization of the oil industry.
The nationalization efforts in the Majlis were led by Mohammad Mosaddeq, a veteran politician committed to freeing Iran from imperial domination.
As premier, Mosaddeq worked to curb the power of the shah, particularly over the armed forces. He refused to relinquish Iran’s control of its oil, and he allowed the Communist Tudeh Party, which had grown in popularity with the rise of anti-Western sentiment and which supported Mosaddeq (at this time), to operate more openly.
Opposition to Mosaddeq’s rule grew in the United States and Britain, which viewed the premier’s intransigence as the primary obstacle to procuring a new oil concession. In the context of the Cold War, Mosaddeq was portrayed in the Western countries as moving dangerously close to the Soviet Union.
In August 1953, therefore, British and American agents successfully engineered Mosaddeq’s overthrow and restored the shah’s control of the country.
To this day, Mosaddeq stands as a symbol of Iran’s nationalist ambitions and the role of outside powers in extinguishing them. His legacy is commemorated annually on 29 Isfand and on 28 Murdad, the dates on the Iranian calendar that correspond to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951 and the overthrow of Mosaddeq in 1953, respectively.
Iranians brandished his portrait when they demonstrated against the shah in 1978-79, and they did so in 2009 when they collectively called out to their potentates, “Where is my vote?” The fact that the leaders of the Islamic Republic also extol Mosaddeq as a martyr of imperialism is testament to the broad significance of his legacy.
A monograph published by a government agency in the early 1980s illustrates how Iranians view the role of the United States at this turning point in their modern history.
The 1953 coup removing Mosaddeq, the book asserts, was “executed by the direct intervention of the U.S., [and] imposed once again the Shah over the Iranian nation. There followed a dictatorial monarchy which would repress and oppress the nation for the twenty-five years to come. The Shah had no chance to return without the coup he had also no chance of sustaining his faltering regime without military and financial support from America.”
The Shah: America’s Friend in Tehran
Once back in power with the support of the United States, Mohammad Reza Shah devoted his energies towards two ends: preserving his power and regime and yanking Iran into the modern world. The shah equated modernization with Westernization and secularization, and to make Iran modern he sought support from American officials and advisors, encouraged American investment, imported American goods, and purchased loads of American weaponry.
In 1964, for example, the Majlis, now less independent, passed one bill to grant diplomatic immunity to American military advisors and a second authorizing a $200 million loan from the United States for the purchase of military equipment.
The bills were “publicly and strongly denounced” by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a leader of the opposition against the shah and the future leader of the revolution that would overthrow him. Khomeini characterized the measures as “signs of [Iran’s] bondage to the United States.” After his attack was published and circulated as a pamphlet in 1964, the shah exiled Khomeini from Iran.
In subsequent years, the shah ruled through repression and violence and employed his internal security organization, SAVAK, which received aid from the CIA, to jail, torture, or kill those who opposed his rule. He enriched and empowered a small, Westernized elite, which became increasingly alienated from the rest of Iranian society.
By 1978, those outside the small aristocracy bore manifold, if differing, grievances against the shah’s rule—a regime that had been made possible by U.S. support, carried out with U.S. wealth and weaponry, or modeled on U.S. culture. As the vast majority of Iranians grew more anti-shah, therefore, they also grew more anti-American.
The 1979 Revolution and the Great Satan
As a result of the United States’ support for the shah, the Iranians who opposed his reign and took part in the revolution that overthrew him in 1979 made diminishing American power a key part of their platform.
In the first months of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s relations with the United States were a subject of debate in Tehran, with some favoring the maintenance of normal, though less substantial, relations and others favoring severing all ties with Washington.
The Carter administration’s decision to admit the shah into the United States for medical treatment in October 1979, however, gave credence to the latter group’s contention that the United States was actively working to subvert the new regime.