Ancient Iran, also known as Persia, historic region of southwestern Asia that is only roughly  coterminous with modern Iran. The term Persia was used for centuries, chiefly in the West, to designate those regions where Persian language and culture predominated, but it more correctly refers to a region of southern Iran formerly known as Persis, alternatively as Pārs or Parsa, modern Fārs. Parsa was the name of an Indo-European nomadic people who migrated into the region about 1000 BC. The first mention of Parsa occurs in the annals of Shalmanesar II, an Assyrian king, in 844 BC. During the rule of the Persian Achaemenian dynasty (559–330 BC), the ancient Greeks first encountered the inhabitants of Persis on the Iranian plateau, when the Achaemenids—natives of Persis—were expanding their political sphere. The Achaemenids were the dominant dynasty during Greek history until the time of Alexander the Great, and the use of the name Persia was gradually extended by the Greeks and other peoples to apply to the whole Iranian plateau. This tendency was reinforced with the rise of the Sāsānian dynasty, also native to Persis, whose culture dominated the Iranian plateau until the 7th century AD. The people of this area have traditionally referred to the region as Iran, “Land of the Aryans,” and in 1935 the government of Iran requested that the name Iran be used in lieu of Persia. The two terms, however, are often used interchangeably when referring to periods preceding the 20th century.

Persian Dynasties:

Median: 728–550 BCE

Achaemenian: 559–330 BCE

Hellenistic period of Alexander and the Seleucids: 330–247 BCE

Parthian perio: 247 BCE–224 CE

Sasanian: 224–651, Arab invasion and the advent of Islam 640–829

Iranian intermezzo (Includes the Tahirid, Samanid, Ghaznavid, and Buyid dynasties): 821–1055

Seljuqs 1038–1157

Mongols: 1220–1353

Timurids and Turkmens: 1380–1501

Safavid: 1502–1736

Afghan interlude: 1723–36

Nader Shah:1736–47

Zand: 1750–79

Qajars: 1794–1925

Pahlavi: 1925–79

Islamic republic: Since 1979

The Elamites 2700 – 539 BC

Knowledge of Elamite history remains largely fragmentary, reconstruction being based on mainly Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian) sources. The history of Elam is conventionally divided into three periods, spanning more than two millennia. The period before the first Elamite period is known as the proto-Elamite period: Proto-Elamite: c. 3200 – c. 2700 BC (Proto-Elamite script in Susa), Old Elamite period: c. 2700 – c. 1600 BC (earliest documents until the Eparti dynasty), Middle Elamite period: c. 1500 – c. 1100 BC (Anzanite dynasty until the Babylonian invasion of Susa), Neo-Elamite period: c. 1100 – 540 BC (characterized Assyrian and Median influence. 539 BC marks the beginning of the Achaemenid period.)

Medes 678 BC–549

Traditionally, the creator of the Median kingdom was one Deioces, who, according to Herodotus, reigned from 728 to 675 BC and founded the Median capital Ecbatana (modern Hamadān). According to Herodotus, Deioces was succeeded by his son Phraortes (reigned 675–653 BC), who subjugated the Persians and lost his life in a premature attack against the Assyrians. Herodotus reports how, under Cyaxares of Media (625–585 BC), the Scythians were overthrown when their kings were induced at a supper party to get so drunk that they were then easily slain. It is more likely that about this time either the Scythians withdrew voluntarily from western Iran and went off to plunder elsewhere or they were simply absorbed into a rapidly developing confederation under Median hegemony. Astyages followed his father, Cyaxares, on the Median throne (585–550 BC). Comparatively little is known of his reign. All was not well with the alliance with Babylon, and there is some evidence to suggest that Babylonia may have feared Median power. The latter, however, was soon in no position to threaten others, for Astyages was himself under attack. Indeed, Astyages and the Medians were soon overthrown by the rise to power in the Iranian world of Cyrus II (the Great) of Persia.

Ecbatana in Hamedan

Achaemenian Dynasty (559–330 BCE)

Achaemenian Dynasty, also called Persian Hakhamanishiya, ancient Iranian dynasty whose kings founded and ruled the Achaemenian Empire. Achaemenes (Persian Hakhamanish), the Achaemenians’ eponymous ancestor, is presumed to have lived early in the 7th century BCE, but little is known of his life. From his son Teispes two lines of kings descended. The kings of the older line were Cyrus I, Cambyses I, Cyrus II (the Great), and Cambyses II. After the death of Cambyses II (522 BCE) the junior line came to the throne with Darius I. The dynasty became extinct with the death of Darius III, following his defeat (330 BCE) by Alexander the Great. Probably the greatest of the Achaemenian rulers were Cyrus II (reigned 559–c. 529 BCE), who actually established the empire and from whose reign it is dated; Darius I (522–486), who excelled as an administrator and secured the borders from external threats; and Xerxes I (486–465), who completed many of the buildings begun by Darius. During the time of Darius I and Xerxes I, the empire extended as far west as Macedonia and Libya and as far east as the Hyphasis (Beās) River; it stretched to the Caucasus Mountains and the Aral Sea in the north and to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert in the south.

Bas-relief of Darius in Persepolis

Greek (Alexander) conquest and Seleucid Empire (330 BCE–248 BCE)

From 334 BCE to 331 BCE, Alexander the Great, defeated Darius III in the battles of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela, swiftly conquering the Persian Empire by 331 BCE. Between 334 and 330 BC Alexander completed the conquest of the whole Achaemenian Empire. Alexander’s burning of the royal palace at Persepolis in 330 symbolized the passing of the old order and the introduction of Greek civilization into western Asia. Greek and Macedonian soldiers settled in large numbers in Mesopotamia and Iran. Alexander left no heir. His death in 323 BC signaled the beginning of a period of prolonged internecine warfare among the Macedonian generals for control of his enormous empire. By the end of the 4th century BC, Seleucus I Nicator had consolidated his control over that part of Alexander’s territory that had corresponded to the Achaemenian Empire. Alexander’s empire broke up shortly after his death, and Alexander’s general, Seleucus I Nicator, tried to take control of Iran, Mesopotamia, and later Syria and Anatolia. His empire was the Seleucid Empire. He was killed in 281 BCE by Ptolemy Keraunos.

Alexander Mosaic, showing Alexander fighting king Darius III of Persia in the Battle of Issus. Pompeii

Parthian (247 BC–AD 224)

The Parthian Empire was the realm of the Arsacid dynasty, who reunited and governed the Iranian plateau after the Parni conquest of Parthia and defeating the Seleucid Empire in the later third century BC, and intermittently controlled Mesopotamia between ca 150 BC and 224 AD. The Parthian Empire quickly included Eastern Arabia. The first ruler of the Parthians and founder of the Parthian empire was Arsaces I, who had been a governor under Diodotus, king of the Bactrian Greeks, and who revolted and fled westward to establish his own rule (c. 250–c. 211 BC). By 200 BC Arsaces’ successors were firmly established along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Later, through the conquests of Mithradates I (reigned 171–138 BC) and Artabanus II (reigned 128–124 BC), all of the Iranian Plateau and the Tigris-Euphrates valley came under Parthian control. Mithradates II the Great (reigned 123–88 BC), by defeating the Scythians, restored for a while the power of the Arsacids. He also defeated Artavases, king of greater Armenia, whose son Tigranes became a hostage in Parthian hands and was redeemed only for considerable territory. In 92 BC Mithradates II, whose forces were advancing into north Syria against the declining Seleucids, concluded the first treaty between Parthia and Rome. Finally, in southern Iran the new dynasty of the Sāsānians, under the leadership of Ardashir I (reigned 224–241), overthrew the Parthian princes, ending the history of Parthia.

A rock carved relief of Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138 BC), at Khong-e Azhdar, city of Izeh, Khuzestan Province

The Sāsānian Period (AD 224–651)

Sāsānian dynasty, also called Sāsānid, ancient Iranian dynasty evolved by Ardashīr I in years of conquest, AD 208–224, and destroyed by the Arabs during the years 637–651. The dynasty was named after Sāsān, an ancestor of Ardashīr I. The first shah of the Sasanian Empire, Ardashir I, started reforming the country economically and militarily. For a period of more than 400 years, Iran was once again one of the leading powers in the world, alongside its neighboring rival, the Roman and then Byzantine Empires. The empire’s territory, at its height, encompassed all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, parts of Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, parts of Pakistan, Central Asia, Eastern Arabia, and parts of Egypt. Most of the Sassanian Empire’s lifespan it was overshadowed by the frequent Byzantine–Sasanian wars, a continuation of the Roman–Parthian Wars and the all-comprising Roman–Persian Wars; the last was the longest-lasting conflict in human history. Started in the first century BC by their predecessors, the Parthians and Romans, the last Roman–Persian War was fought in the seventh century. The Persians defeated the Romans at the Battle of Edessa in 260 and took emperor Valerian prisoner for the remainder of his life. Eastern Arabia was conquered early on. During Khosrow II’s rule in 590–628, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon were also annexed to the Empire. The Sassanians called their empire Erânshahr (“Dominion of the Aryans”, i.e., of Iranians). A chapter of Iran’s history followed after roughly six hundred years of conflict with the Roman Empire. During this time, the Sassanian and Romano-Byzantine armies clashed for influence in Anatolia, the western Caucasus (mainly Lazica and the Kingdom of Iberia; modern-day Georgia and Abkhazia), Mesopotamia, Armenia and the Levant. Under Justinian I, the war came to an uneasy peace with payment of tribute to the Sassanians. However, the Sasanians used the deposition of the Byzantine emperor Maurice as a casus belli to attack the Empire. After many gains, the Sassanians were defeated at Issus, Constantinople, and finally Nineveh, resulting in peace. With the conclusion of the over 700 years lasting Roman–Persian Wars through the climactic Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, which included the very siege of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the war-exhausted Persians lost the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (632) in Hilla (present day Iraq) to the invading Muslim forces. The Sasanian era, encompassing the length of Late Antiquity, is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran, and had a major impact on the world. In many ways the Sassanian period witnessed the highest achievement of Persian civilization, and constitutes the last great Iranian Empire before the adoption of Islam. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during Sassanian times, their cultural influence extending far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India and also playing a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art. This influence carried forward to the Muslim world. The dynasty’s unique and aristocratic culture transformed the Islamic conquest and destruction of Iran into a Persian Renaissance. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture, architecture, writing, and other contributions to civilization, were taken from the Sassanian Persians into the broader Muslim world.

Ahura Mazda and Ardashir I

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Persian emperor Shapur I capturing Roman emperor Valerian and Philip the Arab

A bowl with Khosrau I’s image at the center.

Islamic conquest of Persia (633–651)

In 623 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius reversed Persian successes over Roman arms—namely, by capturing Jerusalem in 614 and winning at Chalcedon in 617. His victim, Khosrow Parvīz, died in 628 and left Iran prey to a succession of puppet rulers who were frequently deposed by a combination of nobles and Zoroastrian clergy. Thus, when Yazdegerd III, Iran’s last Sāsānid and Zoroastrian sovereign, came to the throne in 632, the year of Muhammad’s death, he inherited an empire weakened by Byzantine wars and internal dissension.An Arab victory at Al-Qādisiyyah in 636/637 was followed by the sack of the Sāsānian winter capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris. The Battle of Nahāvand in 642 completed the Sāsānids’ vanquishment. Yazdegerd fled to the empire’s northeastern outpost, Merv, whose marzbān, or march lord, Mahūyeh, was soured by Yazdegerd’s imperious and expensive demands. A miller near Merv murdered the fugitive Yazdegerd for his purse. The Sāsānids’ end was ignominious, but it was not the end of Iran. The Muslim conquest of Persia ended the Sasanian Empire and led to the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. Over time, the majority of Iranians converted to Islam. Most of the aspects of the previous Persian civilizations were not discarded, but were absorbed by the new Islamic polity.

The Abbasid Caliphate, Iranian semi-independent governments and Persianate states (750-1219)

One of the first changes the Abbasids made after taking power from the Umayyads was to move the empire’s capital from Damascus, in the Levant, to Iraq. The latter region was influenced by Persian history and culture, and moving the capital was part of the Persian mawali demand for Arab influence in the empire. The city of Baghdad was constructed on the Tigris River, in 762, to serve as the new Abbasid capital. As the power of the Abbasid caliphs diminished, a series of dynasties rose in various parts of Iran, some with considerable influence and power. Among the most important of these overlapping dynasties were the Tahirids in Khorasan (821–873); the Saffarids in Sistan (861–1003, their rule lasted as maliks of Sistan until 1537); and the Samanids (819–1005), originally at Bukhara. The Samanids eventually ruled an area from central Iran to Pakistan. By the early 10th century, the Abbasids almost lost control to the growing Persian faction known as the Buyid dynasty (934–1062). Since much of the Abbasid administration had been Persian anyway, the Buyids were quietly able to assume real power in Baghdad. The Buyids were defeated in the mid-11th century by the Seljuq Turks, who continued to exert influence over the Abbasids, while publicly pledging allegiance to them. The balance of power in Baghdad remained as such – with the Abbasids in power in name only – until the Mongol invasion of 1258 sacked the city and definitively ended the Abbasid dynasty.

Interior view of the Nizam al-Mulk and Malik Shah tomb, Isfahan

Mongol conquest and Ilkhanate (1219–1353)

Misunderstanding of how essentially fragile Sultan ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad Khwārezm-Shah’s apparently imposing empire was, its distance away from the Mongols’ eastern homelands, and the strangeness of new terrain all doubtless induced fear in the Mongols, and this might partly account for the terrible events with which Genghis Khan’s name has ever since been associated. The terror his invasion brought must also be ascribed to his quest for vengeance. Genghis Khan’s first two missions to Khwārezm had been massacred; but the place of commercial motives in the Mongol’s decision to march to the west is indicated by the fact that the first was a trade mission. The massacre and robbery of this mission at Utrār by one of ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad’s governors before it reached the capital made Genghis single out Utrār for especially savage treatment when the murder of his second, purely diplomatic, mission left him no alternative but war. His guides were Muslim merchants from Transoxania. They had to witness one of the worst catastrophes of history. During 1220–21 Bukhara, Samarkand, Herāt, Tus, and Neyshābūr were razed, and the whole populations were slaughtered. The Khwārezm Shah fled, to die on an island off the Caspian coast. His son Jalāl al-Dīn survived until murdered in Kurdistan in 1231. He had eluded Genghis Khan on the Indus River, across which his horse swam, enabling him to escape to India. He returned to attempt restoring the Khwārezmian empire over Iran. However, he failed to unite the Iranian regions, even though Genghis Khan had withdrawn to Mongolia, where he died in August 1227. Iran was left divided, with Mongol agents remaining in some districts and local adventurers profiting from the lack of order in others. A second Mongol invasion began when Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü Khan crossed the Oxus in 1256 and destroyed the Assassin fortress at Alamūt. With the disintegration of the Seljuq empire, the Caliphate had reasserted control in the area around Baghdad and in southwestern Iran. In 1258 Hülegü besieged Baghdad, where divided counsels prevented the city’s salvation. Al-Mustasim, the last Abbāsid caliph of Baghdad, was trampled to death by mounted troops, and eastern Islam fell to pagan rulers. As the atabegs had done after the Seljuqs, Il-Khanid military emirs began to establish themselves as independent regional potentates after 1335. At first, two of them, formerly military chiefs in the IlKhans’ service, competed for power in western Iran, ostensibly acting on behalf of rival Il-Khanid puppet princes. Thus in 1353 Shīrāz became the Muzaffarid dynasty’s capital, which it remained until conquest by Timur in 1393.

Jalal al-Din Khwarazm Shah crossing the rapid Indus River, escaping Genghis Khan and the Mongol army.

Stucco mihrab commissioned in1310 by Mongol ruler Oljaytu in Jameh Mosque of Isfahan.

The Timurids (1370- 1468)

Timur (Tamerlane) claimed descent from Genghis Khan’s family. The disturbed conditions in Mongol Transoxania gave this son of a minor government agent in the town of Kesh the chance to build up a kingdom in Central Asia in the name of the Chagatai Khans, whom he eventually supplanted. He entered Iran in 1380 and in 1393 reduced the Jalāyirids after taking their capital, Baghdad. The ruling Timurid dynasty, or Timurids, lost most of Persia to the Aq Qoyunlu confederation in 1467, but members of the dynasty continued to rule smaller states, sometimes known as Timurid emirates, in Central Asia and parts of India. In the 16th century, Babur, a Timurid prince from Ferghana (modern Uzbekistan), invaded Kabulistan (modern Afghanistan) and established a small kingdom there, and from there 20 years later he invaded India to establish the Mughal Empire. Members of the Timurid dynasty were strongly influenced by the Persian culture and established two significant empires in history, the Timurid Empire (1370–1507) based in Persia and Central Asia and the Mughal Empire (1526–1857) based in the Indian subcontinent.

Illustration from Jāmī’s Rose Garden of the Pious, dated 1553. As is the norm for many works of the Timurid era.

The Turkmens (1378-1508)

In 1402 he captured the Ottoman sultan, Bayezid I, near Ankara. He conquered Syria and then turned his attention to campaigns far to the east of his tumultuously acquired and ill-cemented empire; he died in 1405 on an expedition to China. His successors, the Timurids, maintained a hold on most of Iran until 1452, when they lost the bulk of it to Black Sheep Turkmen. The Black Sheep Turkmen were conquered by the White Sheep Turkmen under Uzun Hasan in 1468; Uzun Hasan and his successors were the masters of Iran until the rise of the Safavids.

The Safavids (1501–1722, 1732-1736)

Safavid dynasty, ruling dynasty of Iran whose establishment of Shiite Islam as the state religion of Iran was a major factor in the emergence of a unified national consciousness among the various ethnic and linguistic elements of the country. The Safavids were descended from Sheykh Safi al-Din (1253–1334) of Ardabil, head of the Sufi order of Safaviyeh, but about 1399 exchanged their Sunni affiliation for Shiism. The founder of the dynasty, Ismāil I, as head of the Sufis of Ardabīl, won enough support from the local Turkmens and other disaffected heterodox tribes to enable him to capture Tabrīz from the Ak Koyunlu (Turkish: White Sheep), an Uzbek Turkmen confederation, and in July 1501 Ismāil was enthroned as shah, although his area of control was initially limited to Azerbaijan. In the next 10 years he subjugated the greater part of Iran and annexed the Iraqi provinces of Baghdad and Mosul. Despite the predominantly Sunni character of this territory, he proclaimed Shīʿism the state religion. Iran weakened appreciably during the reign of Ismāil’s eldest son, Shah Ṭahmāsp I (1524–76), and persistent and unopposed Turkmen forays into the country increased under his incompetent successors. In 1588 Abbās I was brought to the throne. Realizing the limits of his military strength, Abbās made peace with the Ottomans on unfavourable terms in 1590 and directed his onslaughts against the Uzbeks. Meeting with little success, Abbās engaged (1599) the Englishman Sir Robert Sherley to direct a major army reform. With his new army, Abbās defeated the Turks in 1603, forcing them to relinquish all the territory they had seized, and captured Baghdad. He also expelled (1602, 1622) the Portuguese traders who had seized the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf early in the 16th century. Shah Abbās’s remarkable reign, with its striking military successes and efficient administrative system, raised Iran to the status of a great power. Trade with the West and industry expanded, communications improved. The capital, Esfahān, became the centre of Safavid architectural achievement, manifest in the mosques Shāh mosque and Sheykh Lotfollāh mosque and other monuments including the Ali Qāpū, the Chehel Sotūn, and Naghsh e jahan square. Despite the Safavid Shiite zeal, Christians were tolerated and several missions and churches were built. After the death of Shah ʿAbbās I (1629), the Ṣafavid dynasty lasted for about a century, but, except for an interlude during the reign of Shah ʿAbbās II (1642–66), it was a period of decline. Isfahan was besieged by the Afghan forces led by Mahmud Hotaki after their decisive victory over the Safavid army at the battle of Gulnabad, close to Isfahan, on 8 March 1722. After the battle, the Safavid forces fell back in disarray to Isfahan. The famine soon prevailed and the shah capitulated on 23 October, abdicating in favor of Mahmud, who triumphantly entered the city on 25 October 1722.

The Battle of Chaldiran between Iran & Ottoman at the 40 Sotoun Palace in Isfahan. 1514

Abbas the Great portrait from Italian painter

The Afghan interlude (1722-1736)

Mahmud proclaimed himself ‘Shah’ of Persia. Meanwhile, Persia’s imperial rivals, the Ottomans and the Russians, took advantage of the chaos in the country to seize more territory for themselves. By these events, the Safavid dynasty had effectively ended. In 1724, conform the Treaty of Constantinople, the Ottomans and the Russians agreed to divide the newly conquered territories of Iran amongst themselves.

Nādir Shah (1736–47)

Iran’s territorial integrity was restored by a native Iranian Afshar warlord from Khorasan, Nader Shah. He defeated and banished the Afghans, defeated the Ottomans, reinstalled the Safavids on the throne, and negotiated Russian withdrawal from Irans Caucasian territories, by the Treaty of Resht and Treaty of Ganja. By 1736, Nader had become so powerful he was able to depose the Safavids and have himself crowned shah. In 1739, accompanied by his loyal Caucasian subjects, he invaded Mughal India, defeated a numerically superior Mughal army in less than three hours, and completely sacked and looted Delhi, bringing back immense wealth to Persia. n his way back, he also conquered all Uzbek khanates –except Kokand –and made the Uzbeks his vassals. He also firmly reestablished Persian rule over the entire Caucasus, Bahrain, as well as large parts of Anatolia and Mesopotamia. in 1741, the assassination attempt was made on him near Mazandaran; he slowly grew ill and megalomaniac, blinding his sons whom he suspected of the assassination attempts, and increasing cruelty against his subjects and officers. In his later years this eventually provoked multiple revolts and, ultimately, Nader’s assassination in 1747.

Statue of Nader Shah at the Naderi Museum in Mashhad

The Zand dynasty (1750–79)

Following the death of the Afshārid ruler Nāder Shāh (1747), Karim Khān Zand became one of the major contenders for power. By 1750 he had sufficiently consolidated his power to proclaim himself as vakīl (regent) for the Safavid Esmāil III. Karīm Khān never claimed the title of shāhanshāh (“king of kings”); instead he maintained Esmāil as a figurehead. Karim Khān, with 30 years of benevolent rule, gave southern Iran a much needed respite from continual warfare. He encouraged agriculture and entered into trade relations with Great Britain. His death in 1779 was followed by internal dissensions and disputes over successions. Between 1779 and 1789 five Zand kings ruled briefly. In 1789 Lotf Ali Khān (ruled 1789–94) proclaimed himself as the new Zand king and took energetic action to put down a rebellion led by Āghā Moḥammad Khān Qājār that had begun at Karīm Khān’s death. Outnumbered by the superior Qājār forces, Loṭf Ali Khān was finally defeated and captured at Kermān in 1794. His defeat marked the final eclipse of the Zand dynasty, which was supplanted by that of the Qājārs.

Karim Khan Castle, The royal residence of the Zand dynasty. Shiraz

The Qājār dynasty (1796–1925)

In 1779, following the death of Moḥammad Karīm Khān Zand, the Zand dynasty ruler of southern Iran, Āghā Moḥammad Khān (reigned 1779–97), a leader of the Turkmen Qājār tribe, set out to reunify Iran. By 1794 he had eliminated all his rivals, including Lotf Alī Khān, the last of the Zand dynasty, and had reasserted Iranian sovereignty over the former Iranian territories in Georgia and the Caucasus. In 1796 he was formally crowned as shah, or emperor. Agha Moḥammad was assassinated in 1797 and was succeeded by his nephew, Fathalī Shāh (reigned 1797–1834). Fathali attempted to maintain Iran’s sovereignty over its new territories, but he was disastrously defeated by Russia in two wars (1804–13, 1826–28) and thus lost Georgia, Armenia, and northern Azerbaijan. Fatḥ ʿAlī’s reign saw increased diplomatic contacts with the West and the beginning of intense European diplomatic rivalries over Iran. He was succeeded in 1834 by his grandson Moḥammad, who fell under the influence of Russia and made two unsuccessful attempts to capture Herāt. When Moḥammad Shāh died in 1848 the succession passed to his son Nāṣer od-Dīn (reigned 1848–96), who proved to be the ablest and most successful of the Qājār sovereigns. During his reign Western science, technology, and educational methods were introduced into Iran and the country’s modernization was begun. Nāṣer od-Dīn Shāh exploited the mutual distrust between Great Britain and Russia to preserve Iran’s independence. When Nāṣer was assassinated by a fanatic in 1896, the crown passed to his son Moẓaffar od-Dīn Shāh (reigned 1896–1907), a weak and incompetent ruler who was forced in 1906 to grant a constitution that called for some curtailment of monarchial power. His son Moḥammad ʿAlī Shāh (reigned 1907–09), with the aid of Russia, attempted to rescind the constitution and abolish parliamentary government.  In so doing he aroused such opposition that he was deposed in 1909, the throne being taken by his son. Aḥmad Shāh (reigned 1909–25), who succeeded to the throne at age 11, proved to be pleasure-loving, effete, and incompetent and was unable to preserve the integrity of Iran or the fate of his dynasty. With a coup d’etat in February 1921, Reza Khan (ruled as Reza Shah Pahlavi, 1925–41) became the preeminent political personality in Iran; Ahmad Shah was formally deposed by the majlis (national consultative assembly) in October 1925 while he was absent in Europe, and that assembly declared the rule of the Qajar dynasty to be terminated.

Northwestern Iran’s borders before and after Russo-Persian War. 1804-1813& 1826-1828

Edward VII – Nasser-ed-Din Shah – Alexandra of Denmark.  London 1889

The Pahlavi dynasty (1925–79)

Reza Shah

In collaboration with a political writer, Sayyid Ziya aldin Tabatabai, Reza Khan staged a coup in 1921 and took control of all military forces in Iran. Between 1921 and 1925 Reza Khan-first as war minister and later as prime minister under Ahmad Shah—built an army that was loyal solely to him. He also managed to forge political order in a country that for years had known nothing but turmoil. Initially Reza Khan wished to declare himself president in the style of Turkey’s secular nationalist president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—a move fiercely opposed by the Shīʿite ulama—but instead he deposed the weak Ahmad Shah in 1925 and had himself crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi. During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, educational and judicial reforms were effected that laid the basis of a modern state and reduced the influence of the religious classes. A wide range of legal affairs that had previously been the purview of Shīʿite religious courts were now either administered by secular courts or overseen by state bureaucracies, and, as a result, the status of women improved. The custom of women wearing veils was banned, the minimum age for marriage was raised, and strict religious divorce laws (which invariably favoured the husband) were made more equitable. The number and availability of secular schools increased for both boys and girls, and the University of Tehrān was established in 1934. He banned trade unions and political parties and firmly muzzled the press. Reza Shah’s need to expand trade, his fear of Soviet control over Iran’s overland routes to Europe, and his apprehension at renewed Soviet and continued British presence in Iran drove him to expand trade with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His refusal to abandon what he considered to be obligations to numerous Germans in Iran served as a pretext for an Anglo-Soviet invasion of his country in 1941. Intent on ensuring the safe passage of U.S. war matériel to the Soviet Union through Iran, the Allies forced Reza Shah to abdicate, placing his young son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi on the throne.

Ahmad Shah and Reza Khan after 1921 Persian coup

The Tehran Conference: Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. 1945

Mohammad Reza Shah

Mohammad Reza Shah succeeded to the throne in a country occupied by foreign powers, crippled by wartime inflation, and politically fragmented. Paradoxically, however, the war and occupation had brought a greater degree of economic activity, freedom of the press, and political openness than had been possible under Reza Shah. Following the war, a loose coalition of nationalists, clerics, and noncommunist left-wing parties, known as the National Front, coalesced under Mohammad Mosaddeq, a career politician and lawyer who wished to reduce the powers of the monarchy and the clergy in Iran. Most important, the National Front, angered by years of foreign exploitation, wanted to regain control of Iran’s natural resources, and, when Mosaddeq became prime minister in 1951, he immediately nationalized the country’s oil industry. In August 1953, following a round of political skirmishing, Mosaddeq’s quarrels with the shah came to a head, and the Iranian monarch fled the country. Almost immediately, despite still-strong public support, the Mosaddeq government buckled during a coup funded by the CIA. Within a week of his departure, Mohammad Reza Shah returned to Iran and appointed a new prime minister. The period 1960–63 marked a turning point in the development of the Iranian state. Industrial expansion was promoted by the Pahlavi regime, while political parties that resisted the shah’s absolute consolidation of power were silenced and pushed to the margins. In 1961 the shah dissolved the 20th Majles and cleared the way for the land reform law of 1962. The land reforms were a mere prelude to the shah’s “White Revolution,” a far more ambitious program of social, political, and economic reform. Put to a plebiscite and ratified in 1963, these reforms eventually redistributed land to some 2.5 million families, established literacy and health corps to benefit Iran’s rural areas, further reduced the autonomy of tribal groups, and advanced social and legal reforms that furthered the emancipation and enfranchisement of women. In subsequent decades, per capita income for Iranians skyrocketed, and oil revenue fueled an enormous increase in state funding for industrial development projects. The new policies of the shah did not go unopposed, however; many Shīʿite leaders criticized the White Revolution, holding that liberalization laws concerning women were against Islamic values. More important, the shah’s reforms chipped away at the traditional bases of clerical power. The development of secular courts had already reduced clerical power over law and jurisprudence, and the reforms’ emphasis on secular education further eroded the former monopoly of the ulama in that field. In 1963 a member of the ulama named Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini—a professor of philosophy at the Fayẕiyyeh school in Qom who was accorded the honorific ayatollah—spoke out harshly against the White Revolution’s reforms. In response, the government sacked the school, killing several students, and arrested ayallaht Khomeini. He was later exiled, arriving in Turkey, Iraq, and, eventually, France. The shah’s reforms also had failed completely to provide any degree of political participation. The sole political outlet within Iran was the rubber-stamp Majles, dominated since the time of Mosaddeq by two parties, both of which were subservient to and sponsored by the shah. Traditional parties such as the National Front had been marginalized, while others, such as the Tūdeh Party, were outlawed and forced to operate covertly. Protest all too often took the form of subversive and violent activity by groups such as the Mojāhedīn-e Khalq and Fedāʾīyān-e Khalq, organizations with both Marxist and religious tendencies. All forms of social and political protest, either from the intellectual left or the religious right, were subject to censorship, surveillance, or harassment by SAVAK, and illegal detention and torture were common. In this environment, members of the National Front, the Tūdeh Party, and their various splinter groups now joined the ulama in a broad opposition to the shah’s regime. Ayatollah Khomeini had continued to preach in exile about the evils of the Pahlavi regime, accusing the shah of irreligion and subservience to foreign powers. In January 1978, incensed by what they considered to be slanderous remarks made against ayatollah Khomeini in a Tehrān newspaper, thousands of young madrasah students took to the streets. They were followed by thousands more Iranian youth—mostly unemployed recent immigrants from the countryside—who began protesting the regime’s excesses. The shah, weakened by cancer and stunned by the sudden outpouring of hostility against him, vacillated, assuming the protests to be part of an international conspiracy against him. Many people were killed by government forces in the ensuing chaos. In January 1979, in what was officially described as a “vacation,” Shah and his family fled Iran; he died the following year in Cairo. On February 11, the country’s armed forces declared their neutrality, effectively ending the shah’s regime.

The Iranian delegation to the ICJ in 1953 for Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. case (Prime Minister Mossadegh in center)

One of the images of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79

Islamic republic

The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88)

In September 1980 a long-standing border dispute served as a pretext for Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein to launch an invasion of Iran’s southwestern province of Khūzestān, one of the country’s most important oil-producing regions and one populated by many ethnic Arab. Iran’s formidable armed forces had played an important role in ensuring regional stability under the shah but had virtually dissolved after the collapse of the monarch’s regime. The weakened military proved to be unexpectedly resilient in the face of the Iraqi assault, however, and, despite initial losses, achieved remarkable defensive success. Tactics eventually enabled Iran to capture small amounts of Iraqi territory, but the war soon lapsed into stalemate and attrition. In addition, its length caused anxiety among the Arab states and the international community because it posed a potential threat to the oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf. The civilian populations of both Iran and Iraq suffered severely as military operations moved to bombing population centres and industrial targets, particularly oil refineries. Attacks on oil tankers from both sides greatly curtailed shipping in the gulf. Finally, in July 1988, after a series of Iraqi offensives during which that country recaptured virtually all of its lost territory, ayatollah Khomeini announced Iran’s acceptance of a UN resolution that required both sides to withdraw to their respective borders and observe a cease-fire, which came into force in August.



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