The pre-Islamic Persians of Aryan language founded two empires in the south-west of Iran, the Achaemenid VI-IV BC and the Sassanid (III-VII AD). They imposed their culture throughout much of the Middle East.
From the beginning of the first decade of mediaeval history, Persia was perhaps the most important cultural centre in the world. The Persians were among the first to translate the medical wisdom of the Greeks. And if one was then fortunate enough to have studied medicine in Persia (Christians weren't admitted) one would certainly not have been considered a charlatan. Islam then required a high standard of knowledge in several other sciences, in order to specialise in only one of them.
If levels of Persian knowledge of sciences were destined to reach a limit however, this, ironically, would be due to the rigours and exigencies of the same religion that allowed the initial acquiring of such knowledge.
The name 'Persia' (Latinised from the Greek Persica or Persis originating from 'Pārsa', the people of Cyrus the Great's empire) was to last until 1935 when Reza Shar Pahlavi issued a decree to rename the country 'Iran'. This caused a serious conflict of opinions as the Persian intelligentsia suspected there were connotations (Land of Aryans) with nazism. (Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Economics Minister of Nazi Germany had also alluded to the Aryan origin of Persians).
'Persia' is far more evocative of the larger, cultural aspect than 'Iran' which seems to evoke more of an insular, autocratic and political one.
Persia is the land of one of the world's most ancient civilisations (from 7000 BC) and was to become a major influence in literature, art, philosophy, medicine, alchemy, astronomy and mathematics. During the reign of Cyrus the Great (pre-Islamic Persian Empire) what is sometimes alleged to be the first 'human rights charter' was established in the form of The Cyrus Cylinder (British Museum). It is perhaps more accurately regarded as ancient Mesopotamian propaganda proclaiming Cyrus to be 'King of the world'.
The history of Persia is obviously vast. A long sequence of wars, conquests, dynasties, rebellions with intermittent periods of anarchy, and even more so after the Islamic conquest of Persia. But the Persians were never 'arabised'. They enriched their culture with Arabian influence but they always essentially retained it as well as their own language. This paved the way to the 'Islamic Golden Age' which shined gloriously throughout the 10th and 11th centuries.
One of the most terrible events was the invasion of Genghis Khan in 1218. Half of the population of Iran was massacred. Pyramids of severed heads of men, women and children were carefully built and were cynically surrounded with the carcasses of dogs and cats. 90% of a population of 2,500,000 perished between 1220 and 1260 due to continued extermination followed by famine.
Two hundred years later 30% of the surviving population was decimated by the Black Death.
Yet Persian empires rose again and the first Islamic Shi'a State was established during the Sfavid Dynasty (1501 / 1722) by Shah Ismail I. Although this Dynasty often warred with the Ottomans, the Uzbeks and the Portuguese Empire, it was nonetheless a great patron of Persian arts.
Other, ambitious dynasties followed, and despite several wars with Imperial Russia in the 18th century (Qajar Dynasty) which resulted in the cession of almost half of Persian territory to Imperial Russia and to the British Empire, then the Great Famine of 1870-71 which caused the death of an estimated two million people, Iran always retained her sovereignty and was never colonised.
The Qajar Dynasty was overthrown by Reza Khan in 1925. He industrialised Iran, constructed a railway system and established a national education program. But his position regarding Germany at the beginning of World War II worried Russia and Britain. In 1941 they invaded Iran, also in order to use the Iranian railway in the war effort. The Shah then had to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The elected Prime Minister of 1951, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalised the oil reserves of Iran. This made him enormously popular in Iran but less so elsewhere. Britain reacted by embargoing Iranian oil and plotted with the USA under President Eisenhower to depose Mossadegh. 'Operation Ajax' was to prove 'successful'. Mossadegh was arrested in 1953.
The Shah Pahlavi had the support he needed from the USA to modernise Iran's infrastructure, but his regime became overly autocratic. Any political opposition was systematically crushed.
These were the seeds of circumstances that grew into the radicalisation of Iran, the flames of which were also fanned by Ayotollah Khomeini. The Iranian (or Islamic) Revolution began in January 1978 when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. It marked the end of the Pahlavi Dynasty ten days later when rebels overpowered the Shah's troops. The Shah and his family fled.
On the 1st April, 1979, overwhelmingly approved by national referendum, Iran became an Islamic Republic.
Abolhasan Bani-Sadr was elected the first president of the Islam republic of Iran in January 1980, and represented a degree of moderation and hope. But he too fled to France after being dismissed from office and charged with conspiracy and treason.
Unsuccessfully Saddam Hussein tried to gain access to the Persian Gulf in September 1980 (Iran-Iraq war). Iranian casualties were estimated roughly between 500,000 and a million. More than 100,000 deaths were directly caused by Iraqi chemical weapons.
Although there then followed the relatively moderate regime of Khatami who advocated freedom of expression, the revolutionary ideology was to become even more extreme, if not vindictive, under the actual regime presided by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In addition to Ahmadinejad's disdain of Israel, his open threats to the Jewish State, the regime's hostility towards the USA, its open support of terrorist activities (including those of the Hezbollah, Hamas and even the Taliban) and its political exploitation of obselete Sharia law; its continued denial that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear arms, only increases international distrust and preoccupation regarding the regime's purpose of developing them.
Such are the consequences. But in spite of what could be considered short-sighted, imperialistic irresponsibility on the part of Britain, Russia and the USA, and whatever one's religion and political sympathy, such a conclusion amounts to a sad and regressive result for Iran, in relation to the more grandiose periods in the history of Persia.
Sources- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Le Larousse, Wikipedia, infoplease. Satellite image by courtesy of Nasa.
Text © Mirino (PW) June, 2009