The conundrum that is Iran has captured the imagination of the world as images of a looming wider conflict with the United States has begun to emerge as a consequence of the drone-directed killing by the Trump administration of Iran’s top military commander. In retaliation, dozens of missiles have been launched by Iran aimed at several military bases in Iraq which house US military personnel. Videos of a surface-to-air missile hitting a Ukrainian passenger airline taking off from Tehran with 176 people on board, mostly Canadians, are being replayed over and over again and suspicions abound that the shooting was instigated by Iran. The world waits with bated breath what might be the next moves of the protagonists in this evolving real-life drama.
This crisis has prompted me to try to have a better understanding of what Iran is all about because I must admit that I know very little about this country and its history. For those out there who are as unfamiliar as I am, allow me to share with you some interesting tidbits I picked up from Mr. Google.
Did you know that Iran, or going by its official name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Persia, as it used to be previously known, is one of the world’s oldest civilizations dating as far back as 7000 BC? Hmm, I find it interesting and telling that Iran has a lot more civilized history than its arch enemy, the US. It is located in Western Asia — which by the way explains why the Philippines always has to contend with Iran as one of Asia’s basketball powers — and is the 18th most populous country in the world with a population of about 82 million people. It is the second largest country in the Middle East, the 17th largest in the world and has a land area of 636,372 square miles, which is almost five times bigger compared to the Philippines.
The Arab Muslims’ conquest of Iran in the 7th century led to its Islamization which of course continues to this day. Iran’s branch of Islam is Shia as compared for example to Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni, that explains the enmity between these two pivotal countries in the Middle East. Sunnis comprise about 85 percent of the world’s Muslim population. For instance, the majority of the Filipino Muslims follow Sunni Islam. As an Islamic Republic, Iran’s constitution promotes the advancement of Iranian society based on Islamic principles and norms. An Iranian revolutionary cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 after the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, marking the end of the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy.
Iran has been plagued over the centuries with intermittent wars, coups, revolutions and intrusions from foreign and domestic vested interests due to its significant oil reserves, the third largest in the world, and its strategic positioning in Central Asia because of its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. Other than Arab Muslims, there were also Mongols, Assyrians, Ottoman Turks, Iraqis, British and Russians, which share a long boundary with Iran, and of course, now the US.
Iran and the US have a mixed history of being either friendly allies or detested enemies of each other. The earliest relationship between the two countries began in 1856 when Persia (still its name at that time) designated an ambassador to the US with the US reciprocating in 1883 with an appointment of its own ambassador. After World War I, Persia reached out to the US for “help to straighten out its finances,” which presumably meant loans. As an indication of Iran’s closeness with the US, in 1911, the Iranian parliament even went to the extent of designating an American financier, Morgan Shuster, as Treasurer General of Iran, whose subsequent actions in the exercise of his functions as Treasurer triggered the Anglo-Russo bombing of the country’s parliament in Tehran. This unholy collusion of two strange bedfellows, Great Britain and Russia, set the stage eventually for an invasion of Iran in 1941 to depose Reza Shah, the father of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ironically was pushed into power by the British in a 1921 coup.
Pahlavi himself was installed into power by the US and Great Britain in 1953 when nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq was overthrown for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, which was of course of strategic concern for both countries, Great Britain, which built Iran’s oil refineries, and the US, because of its Cold War with Russia. The US sustained its friendly relationship with Pahlavi until 1979 when he was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who unhesitatingly labelled the US as the “Great Satan.” During Pahlavi’s reign, the US poured massive financial aid amounting to about $1.2 billion, but was also deemed to have played a critical role in setting up the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, that helped keep the Shah in power. Ironically, it was the US which provided Iran its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel, and, supplying weapons-grade enriched uranium. Today that nuclear capability of Iran is the very reason for the estrangement of relationship between Iran and the US. The genesis of this estrangement was the hostage crisis shortly after Khomeini came into power. In retaliation for providing shelter to Pahlavi in the US, hordes of Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomatic personnel as hostages for 444 days. In the aftermath of the hostage-taking, the US severed diplomatic relations with Iran and imposed economic sanctions which continue to this day. In a 2014 study by the National Iranian American Council, it was estimated the sanctions have cost over $175 billion in lost trade and lost job opportunities. There have also been several volatile one-upmanship incidents since then, some very violent such as the recent killing of Iran’s top military commander, further straining the relationship.
When and how this continuing enmity will end, no one really knows. The world can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and whoever is in control of the buttons that could trigger a nuclear holocaust will realize that such an act can only end in an unmitigated disaster for all.
Until next week … One big fight!
For comments, please email firstname.lastname@example.org