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Arabic & Islamic studies essay – Iran

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What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?


Iran has seen major changes to its government and indeed to wider society over the course of the twentieth century. The overthrow of the Qajar dynasty in 1921, Shah Pahlavi’s White Revolution and the Islamic Revolution have all had a tremendous impact on the political structure of the nation, but no less significantly led to widespread change in the everyday life of the people. Throughout this period the unique aspects of Iran are of constant importance – its fierce nationalist character, its geopolitical position between the Middle East and Asia, the value of its oil and its position as the only non-Arab Muslim state – and it is often the case that foreign powers, rather than Iranians, have huge sway over the direction of the nation.

The rule of the first Shah, Reza Khan, was marked both by this nationalism and by foreign intervention. During his sixteen-year reign the Trans-Iranian Railway was built, connecting Tehran to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. Furthermore, the University of Tehran was established as the centrepiece of a modern education system. It was also Reza Khan who established the use of the term “Iran” as the official name of the country, separating the new nation from its past connections to the Greek, Roman and British Empires. However, in one of the first clear instances of foreign interests trumping Iranian interests, the north-south line of the Railway that was constructed largely benefited the British, who used this line heavily to move troops through Iran to the subcontinent. Perhaps ironically, Britain and Russia invaded Iran during World War II in order to exploit the capacity of the Trans-Iranian Railway.
Further foreign intervention was evident in the removal of Prime Minister Mossadeq. By the time of his election in 1951 Iran had become the second-highest producer of oil in the world, but there was increasing dissatisfaction with how little Iran was receiving from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadeq’s plan was to nationalise the AIOC, and combat “poverty, disease and backwardness” among the Iranian people, and refused the British any involvement at all in the new system. In response, Britain placed an embargo on Iranian oil, and worked with the US to depose Mossadeq in 1953.

The rule of Reza Khan’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was dominated by the White Revolution, a large-scale series of social, economic and land reforms. The land reforms were perhaps the most revolutionary, as the government bought land from the traditional landed elites and resold it to peasants below the market value. Over a twelve-year period, the percentage of land occupied by its owner increased from twenty-six to seventy-eight percent, benefiting an estimated twelve million Iranian peasants. The White Revolution also saw the creation of the literacy corps, where instead of completing their military service in their army, high school-educated Iranians could work towards educating the illiterate two-thirds of the population.
The period of the White Revolution, and more generally the rule of the Shah, was characterised by increased alliances to the West, especially with the US. During this period Tehran became the Middle Eastern headquarters of the CIA, and a huge number of US military advisers, technicians and strategists were often present in the country, and were granted what amounted to complete diplomatic immunity. Within Iran this was seen as another piece of evidence that the Shah cared more about the opinions of foreign dignitaries than about Iranians, a sentiment underlined by inviting scores of foreign dignitaries to the celebrations at Persepolis, commemorating 2,500 years of continuous Iranian monarchy while much of the land was suffering from severe drought and famine.

The defining characteristic of the 1979 revolution was that it was an Islamic Revolution, a clear departure from the Shah and his father, who had in some ways attempted to secularise Iran – most notably during the Women’s Awakening (1936-41). Khomeini formed his Provisional Revolutionary Government on February 4, 1979, declaring that it was God’s government and a revolt against it was a revolt against God. Despite the seemingly autocratic nature of this declaration, it must be said that both the new “Islamic Republic” and the 1979 constitution for this republic were overwhelming supported in referenda, both receiving support from 98% of the population, with supposed high voter turnout. This contrasts greatly with the rule of the Shah who, although granting women the right to vote, never really presented the people of Iran with a great deal upon which to exercise said right.
The 1979 constitution institutionalised the role of the religious ‘ulama, establishing the velayat-e faqih and the power of veto of the Council of Guardians. This Rule of the Jurists was unprecedented, and unsurprisingly attracted heavy criticism, especially the position of rahbar – the supreme jurist who was owed the allegiance of all others. Many suggested that this blend of the religious and political was incompatible with Shi’ism, revering the rahbar in a manner that was usually reserved for the Prophet.

It is this blend of religious and political that has been one of the two most significant aspects to come out of the period of Iran with Khomeini as leader. That current President Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to come from a non-religious background clearly shows that there is an expectation, or at very least a general acceptance of religious leaders as political leaders – something that would be greatly unprecedented, and perhaps slightly worrying, for many other nations.
The second significant social change that came out of this period was the engagement of women in the social, educational and political process. While many may argue that the Revolution was a backwards step for women’s rights – especially in regards to segregation of the sexes, inheritance and other areas of the civil code – there can be no question that the number of women involved in anti-Shah demonstrations spurred increasing involvement. Further to this, the enormous number of Iranian men killed during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 (estimated as high as one million) led to many women entering the workforce and the public sphere in great numbers, with a strong push for women’s education. In the 1996 Consultative Assembly elections, fourteen women were elected and the percentage of total enrolments at primary, secondary and tertiary levels were equal between men and women in 2007/8.

Iran’s history has been violent, turgid and deeply, deeply complex. Autocratic leaders and lame duck parliaments have been overthrown in revolutions and replaced  by more autocratic leaders and lame duck parliaments, and in nearly all of these “regime changes” there has been significant international involvement from the US, Britain, Russia and other Middle Eastern countries. And every time it seems as though Iran is headed towards reformation – the idealism of the White Revolution, the early days of Khomeini, Mohammad Khatami’s Dialogue of Civilisations – something happens that leads to a closing of ranks, borders and minds. However, there is no question that due to Iran’s immense size, increasingly significant geopolitical location, population and oil wealth, it will remain a major power, potential threat and incredibly important actor on the world stage.

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