Iran, once known as Persia, is an old, old land. Ancient mountain ranges ramble through a landscape that runs out into the Caspian Sea. Tradition-bound, yet at the crossroads of many an expanding empire, Iran has struggled to adapt to changes while maintaining its culture.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica,* Iran's Achaemenian period (c. 550 BC) gave rise to its distinctive culture and society. Another great wave would completely transform Iran in the 7th century AD when Iran was conquered by Muslim Arabs. The late 8th century was the time of an Iranian cultural renaissance. Great books were written, in a language and script heavily influenced by its Arab conquerors.
During the 13th century, Mongol invasions battered several of Iran's major cities. Throughout the following centuries, ruling houses rose and fell. In the early 16th century, the Safavids introduced 'Ashari Shi'ism as the kingdom's official creed. The 18th century brought invasions from the Ottoman Empire, and in 1736 the House of Safavid fell. There followed a period of confusion and scrambling for power, but in 1796 the Qajar line ascended the throne. Their long reign would be marked by increased foreign influence and the growing political power of the Shi'ite clergy.
The 20th century saw the rise of another royal family, the Pahlavi line. Their slow attempts to modernize their country angered both the conservative clerics and those who wished for faster and more radical reform. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution overthrew the last shah. He escaped into exile while Iran became embroiled in internal and international controversy.
For 444 days, from November 4, 1979, until January 20, 1981, the new Iranian regime held hostage 66 diplomats and citizens of the United States inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Some hostages were released sooner, but 52 were held until the end. When the Iranian Revolution succeeded, Iran became the only Shi'ite state in the world at that time.
In May of 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president. He had campaigned for curbing censorship, fighting religious excess and allowing for greater tolerance. However, other powers in government limited implementation of his policies. The country saw assassinations of political opposition leaders by the Iranian secret service.
In 1999, reform candidates continued to win, and in July of 1999, 25,000 students participated in a five-day sit-in to protest restrictions on freedom of the press.
However, in 2005, the more moderate president Mohammad Khatami was replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had campaigned on a program of return to revolutionary Islamic values. Several of Ahmadinejad's speeches have focused on Israel. He stated in speeches given on October 26 and November 14, 2005, that Israel did not have the right to exist. In a speech given on December 8, 2005, Ahmadinejad denied the historicity of the Holocaust. Today, Iran is in the middle of another international controversy over its uranium enrichment program.
*"Iran ." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 22 Aug. 2006 . This article is available as part of the CRRL's online database system. If you would like a copy of the Britannica article sent to you, please use our Contact Us form.
If you would like to read books about modern Iran and learn more about its culture, please go to our list, Stories from Iran."