The country of Iran is perhaps one of the nations least understood by the western world, because it represents the complex mixture of a number of different historical, ideological, and political strains. The country is one of the central actors in the region, and it remains a crucially important player on the international stage even as its government remains particularly reserved from international cooperation and ostracized by a number of other nations. Thus, if one seeks to accurately understand the culture of the Iranian nation, its history, and its potential for the future, one must account for not only Iran's earlier history, but also each of the cultural, economic, religious, and political factors engaged to create the country of Iran that exists today. By examining each of these factors, one can see how Iran is in the midst of yet another revolutionary upheaval, albeit one marked by democratic assembly and peaceful demonstration rather than violence and coercion.
Up until 1935, Iran was called Persia, and during this time one may find some of the revolutionary inclinations which would go on to chart the destiny of the country at the height of the twentieth century and beyond (CIA 2011). For instance, "the turn of the twentieth century and, more specifically, the 1905 -- 11 constitutional revolution period" saw "the beginning of Persian women's 'awakening,'" leading to a greater involvement of both men and women in self-aware revolutionary movements (McElrone 297-298). Thus, one may view "women's [...] participation in the 1891 tobacco revolt, washerwomen's donations of their meager savings and rich women's contributions of their jewelry to sponsor a national bank, and the "storming" of the Majlis building" as indicative of the revolutionary and democratic forces fermenting within Iran early on in the twentieth century (McElrone 297).
This new found commitment to constitutional reform and social justice continued as Persia transformed into Iran and continued until a CIA coup helped to overthrow the democratically elected leader, instead installing a brutal and violent Shah that would rule Iran for nearly thirty years (Gavin 56). "On 19 August 1953, elements of the Iranian army, acting on orders from the Shah and with covert support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), deposed Mohammed Mossadegh as the prime minister of Iran" in order to allow western companies to benefit from Iran's substantial oil reserves, something which would have not been possible had Mossdegh been able to follow through on his popular plan to nationalize the Iranian oil industry (Gavin 56). Understanding the hypocrisy, bigotry, and ignorance that went into the planning and execution of this coup is crucial, because it underlies any subsequent analysis of Iran. At a time when the United States is struggling to install liberal democracies in the Middle East while maintaining law and order, it is worth noting that a similar democracy was already developing in Iran over half a century ago, and was only precluded from blossoming by the explicit intervention of the United States via the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA coup must also be noted for the way in which it set the stage for the eventual 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which "Iran became an Islamic republic [...] after the ruling monarchy was overthrown and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile" (CIA 2011). "The 1979 revolution in Iran overturned the existing political order" and offered a sharp rebuke to the United States and the CIA for its involvement in subverting democracy, because almost immediately the new government "nationalized large manufacturing and financial enterprises," acknowledging that control over Iran stems from control over its natural resources (Behdad & Nomani 84). Western powers, afraid of a democratic people which wished to retain control over its natural resources and the means of distribution, overthrew their democratically elected leader in order to install a puppet government that would ensure easy access to oil reserves. In turn, Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Shah, installing a theocracy that established even greater control over Iran's economy and distribution than the Western powers could have previously imagined. Essentially, the western world's "mistrust of Third World nationalism, its sympathy for oil interests, and its paranoia toward Communism produced" a far more effective and committed adversary than if Iran had been allowed to govern itself over the entire course of the twentieth century (Gavin 56).
Understanding the political history of Iran over the course of the twentieth century is only one part of the picture, however, because the Islamic revolution's success would not have been possible without "the Iranian world's conversion to Islam" resulting from a retreat of Zoroastrianism in the middle ages (Khanbaghi 201). Islam has remained the most important organizing paradigm for the modern state of Iran, because even as the world develops exponentially Iran's future is ultimately determined by "a learned religious scholar referred to commonly as the Supreme Leader who, according to the constitution, is accountable only to the Assembly of Experts - a popularly elected 86-member body of clerics" (CIA 2011). Currently the post of Supreme Leader is help by Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, with Mahmud Ahmadinejad serving as the president, albeit only with nominal power (CIA 2011). Because Islam is the official language, a stunning 98% of Iran purports to follow Islam, with the remaining 2% including "Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i" (CIA 2011).
The distribution of languages in Iran is somewhat more diverse than religions, with Persian and Persian dialects being spoken by 58% of the country, Turkic and Turkic dialects being spoken by 26% of the country, and the rest of the population speaking either Kurdish, Luri, Balochi, Arabic, or Turkish (CIA 2011). Combined with the strict religious observance, one can see how Iranian society is structured not only by religious requirements but linguistic and ethnic divisions as well. For example, differing ways of treating gender has resulted in a substantial literacy gap between males and females, such that 84% of males are literate while only 70% of females are, some seven percent below the national average (CIA 2011). However, the relative stability maintained through the application of religious law and violent repression has brought with it certain positive factors, but these must be considered alongside other economic and political considerations.
As mentioned before, the theocracy which emerged from the 1979 revolution brought with it repression and violence (which is not to say that the Shah's regime was not equally or more violent, but rather that the Revolution succeeded in solidifying violence as the preeminent means of political and social control even as the preexisting structures of political life were discarded). The effect of this has been twofold, because the use of violence in the repression of a civilian population instigates certain political and economic necessities. Firstly, although Iran has elections for president, the president does not hold nearly as much power as the Supreme Leader, and furthermore, the elections themselves more often reflect the official choices of the establishment than the actual expression of the Iranian people's will. Thus, the theocracy and pseudo-secular political establishment is only maintained through a robust military which features compulsory service and a special militia specifically used to crush dissent called the "Basij forces (Popular Mobilization Army)" (CIA 2011). The military is largely overseen by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, which functions as a kind of de facto military government alongside the largely decorative civilian government.
Because Iran is so fully controlled by a theocratic military, it has understandably produced a number of confrontational and destructive policies, both nationally and internationally. This has resulted in a number of economic problems for Iran, centrally in the form of sanctions which prohibit certain corporations or industries with doing business with or in Iran. Thus, even though the state is supported by Iran's oil reserves, "Iran's economy is marked by an inefficient state sector [...] which provides the majority of government revenues, and statist policies, which create major distortions throughout the system," and creates a subsequent need to engage in "positive inducements," or, those methods of economic diplomacy in which Iran gives up certain military or technological goals in return for economic benefits (CIA 2011, Nincic 138). The Iranian regime has made a habit of dramatically challenging western powers and sanctions, but these performances also serve the purpose of securing additional economic benefits for Iran where possible, so hedged in as it is by its own foreign and national security policy. Thus, even as "the recovery of world oil prices in the last year increased Iran's oil export revenue by at least $10 billion over 2009, easing some of the financial impact of the newest round of international sanctions," the country's economic future is nonetheless in a state of flux and dependent on the whims of an international market in which Iran has fairly little sway (CIA 2011). This has led to intractable economic problems, because the…