By  Dina Abdel-Mageed

Staff Writer –


With its blue domes, golden minarets, veiled women, and photos of Khomeini, Iran is an interesting mixture; a combination of contradictions. And as events heat up, the Islamic Republic becomes the focus of attention. In an attempt to put our readers in the heart of events, we present to them basic information about the Islamic Republic of Iran in the form of questions and their brief answers.



• Where Is Iran Located?
• When Did Islam Enter Iran?
• What Kind of Role Did Iran Play in the Islamic Empire?
• When Did Iranians Adopt Shiism?
• What Were the Reasons Behind the 1979 Islamic Revolution?
• What Is the Iran Hostage Crisis?
• What Is Khomeini’s “Guardianship of the Jurist” Theory?
• What Does the Word “Ayatollah” Mean?
• Has the Revolution Affected Iran’s Relations With Its Neighbors?
• Is the Iranian Political System Democratic?
• Is Iran Ethnically and Religiously Homogenous?
• Is Iran Making a Nuclear Bomb?

Where Is Iran Located?

Iran, which occupies a land area of about 1.6 million square kilometers, is located between Iraq and Pakistan. It borders the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea.

Persian is the official language of the state, and it is the language spoken by over half the population. Other languages, such as Arabic and Kirmanji (Kurdish dialects) are used by the rest of the population.

Iran is the only country in the world that adopts Twelver Shiism as the official religion of the state.

A country of 70 million, Iran is the biggest country in the Gulf region in terms of population. Around four million Iranians live in North and South America, Europe, and Australia.

When Did Islam Enter Iran?

Iran — known as Persia before 1935 — has been populated since pre-historic times. Pre-Islamic Iran was ruled by different dynasties, the last of which was the Sassanid dynasty. Under the Sassanids, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the state.

After years of battles, the Sassanid Empire was toppled by Muslims and Iran was incorporated into the Islamic Empire. During the weakness periods of the Islamic Empire, Iran went through interludes of decentralization; it was ruled by different dynasties, and at one point it fell for Mongols. With its rich history and cultural traditions, Iran played a significant role in the Islamic Empire, filling the intellectual vacuum in the newly established empire.

What Kind of Role Did Iran Play in the Islamic Empire?

Muslim conquests brought Muslims into contact with other cultures, introducing them to different ideas and beliefs.

Iran — known then as Persia — had a deep intellectual influence on the Islamic Empire, resulting in what some consider a “special kind of victory.” Persian scholars made significant advances in different fields, including the study of Prophetic tradition, medicine, and astronomy. Names like Al-Bukhari, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna were the result of the interaction of Arab culture and Persian culture with its richness and thousands of years of civilization.

The Abbasid Caliphate, according to Goldschmidt, was characterized by the rise of Persian influence. The army that expelled the Umayyads and consolidated the power of the Abbasids was led by Abu Muslim Al-Khorasani, a Persian. Also, the viziers of Abbasid caliphs were frequently Persians, and various Persian bureaucratic families, such as the Barmakids, rose to power. Through rising to high positions within the army and civil administration, Persians were able to “Persianize” the state.  

Interestingly, the sweeping war between Amin and Ma’mun, the sons of the prominent Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid, is sometimes seen as a war between Arabs and Persians, given the fact that Ma’mun was born of a Persian concubine while his brother, Amin, was born of Harun’s Arab wife. 

Persian resurgence took also dissident forms; various Persian separatist movements, such as the Tahirids and the Saffarids, emerged, challenging the power of Abbasid rulers.

The Persian influence had echoes even in literature. Under Abbasids, a Persian literary movement under the nameshu`ubiyah flourished. As in many historical episodes, Persians were keen to prove their equality with — if not superiority over — Arabs.

Furthermore, many Sufi ideas and practices are believed to be influenced by traditional Persian beliefs, transmitted to different parts of the Muslim world that stretched from Cordoba to Delhi. Hallaj, Rumi, and Bastami are some of the well-known names in Sufism. With their Persian background, they promoted ideas that some mainstream Muslims consider deviant.

In the 13th century, Persia was invaded by the Mongols followed by the Turkish Ghaznavids and Seljuks. 

When Did Iranians Adopt Shiism?

The Safavids, Cleveland argues, are the ones who introduced Shiism in Iran. They emerged originally as a Sunni Sufi order in Ardabil; however, Safavid leaders adopted Shiism later for no clear reasons. After seizing Tabriz in 1501, the Safavid leader Ismail declared himself shah and declared Twelver Shiism to be the official and compulsory religion of the state.

Ismail brought Shiite scholars from different parts of the Muslim world, especially Lebanon, to teach people about Shiism and executed those who refused to adopt it. The embedment of Shiism under the Safavids resulted in varying degrees of animosity with its neighbors, especially the Sunni Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722 begot a state of chaos and decentralization.

The Safavids were succeeded by the Qajars, who managed to consolidate their control over large parts of Iranian territory by 1794, but they did not enjoy popular support, given their weakness and their economic dependence on concessions to Western countries. In 1921, the Qajar dynasty was toppled by colonel Reza Khan and a group of his soldiers.

The conversion to Shiite Islam, according to some experts, was an attempt to isolate Iran from its Sunni context, especially the Ottoman Empire, which constituted a threat to the Safavid dynasty.

What Were the Reasons Behind the 1979 Islamic Revolution?

As part of Reza Shah’s policy of Westernization and secularization, European dressing manner was imposed in 1928 and hijab was officially banned in 1936.

By 1925, Reza Khan was able to get rid of all those who had claims to power,  convincing the parliament to entrust him with the crown. By Reza Khan declaring himself shahinshah (king of kings), the Pahlavi dynasty began. As part of Reza Shah’s policy of Westernization and secularization, European dressing manner was imposed in 1928 and hijab was officially banned in 1936.

Within the turmoil of World War II, Reza Shah was forced by the Allies to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Shah. Mohammad Reza Shah followed the footsteps of his father, transforming Iran along Western lines.

A close ally of the United States, Mohammad Reza, who is often compared to Ataturk, stressed the accomplishments of pre-Islamic Iran, making connections between his reign and ancient Iranian empires.

Following the Mosaddaq crisis in 1953, Muhammad Reza’s rule became even more autocratic, crushing all forms of political opposition. According to Cleveland, with the assistance of Americans and Israelis. the Shah established an internal security apparatus called SAVAK, which was notorious for its merciless treatment of political opponents of the regime.

According to Cleveland, the oppression and state-driven secularization resulted in marginalizing large groups in society, which urged political forces from different backgrounds to unite. Thus, there was no unified vision of the Iranian revolution.

During the early 1960s, Ayatollah Khomeini started preaching against the regime, which eventually resulted in his exile in 1964. The tapes sent by Khomeini from exile, together with the zeal of Marxists, liberals, and bazaar merchants, inspired the masses, which culminated in huge demonstrations in 1979. After the Shah’s departure for an “extended vacation,” Khomeini returned to Iran triumphant on February 1, 1979.

Comparing his role to that of Lenin, some tend to downplay the role played by Khomeini, who stayed around 15 years away from his country.

What Is the Iran Hostage Crisis?

An Iranian student holds a placard during a protest against negotiation with the US in front of the Iran Supreme National Security Council’s building in Tehran, Iran, April 8, 2006. (Reuters photo)

Muhammad Reza Shah was a close ally of the United States, which provided him with financial aids, weapons, and diplomatic support. The climax of Western support was in 1953 when the nationalist Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddaq was overthrown by Operation Ajax, launched by the American CIA and British Intelligence.

During the following years, the Shah’s internal security organizations, trained by the Americans, ensured that any form of political dissent was repressed. Thus, hatred towards the United States continued to increase during the years that preceded the revolution.

Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution, a group of students, who declared themselves members of what they called Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, detained 63 diplomats and three US citizens in the US diplomatic mission in Tehran. When Khomeini became aware of the seizure, he supported it and called it “The second revolution: the take-over of the American spy den in Tehran.”

A number of hostages were released after a few months; however, the rest were freed after 444 days of captivity in January 1981.

What Is Khomeini’s Guardianship of the Jurist Theory?

Guardianship of the Jurist is a theory formulated by Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. The theory, which was first presented in the form of lectures by Khomeini to his students, was made into a book in 1967.

Borrowing the idea of the Islamic government from Sunni reformers, such as Rashid Rida and Abul A`la Al-Mawdudi, Khomeini set the legal ground for his revolutionary doctrine of Vilayati-i faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist).

According to Khomeini’s theory, which advocates theocracy, Amanat argues, in the absence of the Occulted Imam, thefaqih (jurist) is the most qualified person to rule, holding the authority to impose both public and civil laws. In Khomeini’s words, “Islamic jurists should be the real rulers while sultans act as their subordinates.” 

Khomeini’s theory was revolutionary in the sense that it presented a breakaway from the traditional Shiite messianic belief in the necessity of waiting till the eventual return of the Occulted Twelfth Imam who will bring peace and justice to earth, a belief that had been barring Shiite jurists from seeking political power in any form.

Building on the ideas of Ali Al-Shari`ati, among other thinkers, Cleveland argues, Khomeini generated what can be called “Islamic-oriented activism,” which was a new phenomenon in the Shiite thought in particular. Al-Shri`ati, however, argued that intellectuals were better and more qualified than Islamic jurists to be in power.

According to Dr. Neveen Mosad, what urged Khomeini to shift his attention from spreading awareness to political activism was the death of two prominent Shiite scholars: Ayatollah Husayn Burujirdi and Ayatollah Kashani. Such a power vacuum gave Khomeini the chance to present his ideas.

As part of Khomeini’s new trend of thought, he issued a number of controversial fatwas (religious guidance). In 1963, Khomeini issued a fatwa in which he forbade taqiyya(hiding ones’ beliefs). According to him, Shiites should not resort to taqiyya till the return of the hidden Imam as was widely believed; rather, they should be assertive in protecting religion.

Khomeini’s theory presented a breakaway from the traditional Shiite belief in the necessity of waiting till the return of the Occulted Imam.

“One thousand years has passed since our Mahdi(Rightly Guided) Imam occulted and more thousands of years may pass before…he returns. Shall we then keep Islamic rules suspended for such a long time while people are acting the way they please?” wrote Khomeini in his book, The Islamic Government.

`Umom Al-wilaya (full authority) issue has been a controversial one within the Shiite religious establishment itself for a long time. Ayatollah Kashani, for instance, embraced ideas similar to those of Khomeini, advocating the political role of the jurist. On the other hand, other scholars, such as Ayatollah Burujirdi, believed that the role of the jurist was confined to the mosque; i.e. he had religious authority only. Those who belong to the first camp are calledusulyyoun while those who belong to the second are called ikhbaryyoun.     

Guardianship of the Jurist theory was incorporated into the 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The creation of the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, which was occupied by Khomeini till his death, was a direct translation of the Guardianship of the Jurist theory into reality. According to some observers, Khomeini depended on his personal charisma and his authority as the Supreme Leader to create a sort of “authoritarian populism.”

What Does the Word “Ayatollah” Mean?

According to Wilfried Buchta, the Shiite religious hierarchy in Iran is divided into five ranks. First, Marji` Al-taqleed Al-motlaq (absolute source of emulation) is the highest rank in that hierarchy. Yet, the position has been vacant since the death of Ayatollah Husayn Burujirdi in 1961. Marji` Al-taqleed Al-motlaq is a Grand Ayatollah, but he is unique in the sense that he enjoys a special position assigned to him through an informal kind of consensus among the other Grand Ayatollahs.

Second, Grand Ayatollahs occupy the second highest rank in the religious hierarchy in Iran. The literal meaning of the word Ayatollah is “sign of God.” There are around 20 Grand Ayatollahs today, 14 of them live in Iran. Except for Husayn Ali Montazeri, all contemporary Grand Ayatollahs oppose the Guardianship of the Jurist theory. It is important to note that Khomeini himself was a Grand Ayatollah.

According to Twelver Shiite doctrine, each believer has to choose a Grand Ayatollah to be his or her marji` taqleed(source of emulation). Also, followers are supposed to give fifth of their annual earnings to their marji` taqleed, who acts on behalf of the Occulted Imam.

Nearly 11 out of the existing Grand Ayatollahs have followers outside their countries, the most prominent of them are Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf and Husayn Ali Montazari in Qum.

Third, those who occupy the third rank are called Ayatollahs. Today, there are around 5000 Ayatollahs in Iran, 80 of whom, including Ali Khameinei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, hold positions in the ruling regime while the others prefer to stay away from politics.

Fourth, holders of the title of hujjat Al-Islam are subordinate to Ayatollahs. Literally, the title means “proof of Islam,” and it is a common rank among the graduates of religious academies. Around 28,000 people in Iran hold this title, 2000 of whom, including Muhammad Khatami, are involved in politics.

Fifth, those who obtain a very little amount of religious education hold the title of theqat Al-Islam, which means “trust of Islam.” Around 4000 people of those who work for the ruling regime hold this title.

Has the Revolution Affected Iran’s Relations With Its Neighbors?

Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Dr. Mosad argues, Iran has been facing the dilemma of balancing its commitment to Khomeini’s line and protecting its national interests, given that the two conflict so often.

Khomeini made no secret of his hostility towards the monarchical system. In his words, “The concept of monarchy totally contradicts Islam.” Alarmed by Khomeini’s statements and those of high ranking Iranian officials, Arab leaders developed a hostile attitude towards the new regime in Iran, given that many neighboring countries have Shiite minorities. Khomeini was open about his intention to “export” the revolution to other parts of the Muslim world.

The influence of Iran on Shiites outside its borders and the territorial disputes with Arab neighbors remain sources of tension in Arab-Iranian relations.

Thus, during the early 1980s, Iran was isolated regionally and internationally. Such an isolation intensified during the Iran-Iraq war in which almost all Arab states, except for Syria, supported Iraq morally and logistically. According to some observers, Saddam Hussein fought on behalf of other Arab states that viewed the Islamic Republic as a potential threat to their stability. Sometimes the war was portrayed as an identity war between Arabs and Persians.

Khomeini’s idea of supporting themustad`afeen (those who are wronged) as opposed to the mustakbereen (those who are arrogant) led to many problems with neighboring countries, given that, according to him, some Arab regimes fell in the category of mustakbereen. US-Arab relations have often been a source of tension in Iran’s relations with its neighboring countries.

Interestingly, during the early days of the Revolution, Khomeini endeavored to bridge the gap between Shiites and Sunnis by forbidding criticizing the Caliphs who preceded Ali — an issue that causes much animosity between the two sects. Also, he declared it permissible for Shiites to pray behind Sunni imams.

Such good-faith gestures, however, could not downplay the impact of the fiery rhetoric of the political establishment in revolutionary Iran.     

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the revolutionary zeal moderated and a degree of pragmatism has been adopted by Iranian policy makers. Such pragmatism had echoes in a number of incidents. For instance, a group of Afghani-Egyptians, including Shawqi Al-Islambolly, the brother of Sadat’s assassin, were deported from Iran. Following the end of eight-year-war with Iraq, the need for international and regional support in the reconstruction effort as well as the need for attracting foreign investment with the aim of building Iran’s war-torn economy led to a more pragmatic approach towards foreign policy. 

However, the influence of Iran on Shiite communities outside its borders and the territorial disputes with Arab neighbors among other issues remain as sources of tension in Arab-Iranian relations. Significantly, the absence of the Iraqi role in the region as a military power after the fall of Saddam’s regime has shifted the balance of power, giving Iran a good chance to emerge as a major player in the Middle East.

The Iranian-Turkish relations is always affected by Turkey’s close ties with Israel. It is commonly believed that the Israeli-Turkish cooperation on the military level aims at encircling both Iran and Syria. Beside political and ideological differences, such a cooperation sets hurdles in the way of Iran’s relationship with Turkey and complicates Iran’s situation with regard to the peace process in the region.

According to some observers, the threat posed by the Turkish-Israeli military cooperation has been an incentive for Iran to secure its borders with its Arab neighbors by pursuing better relationships with them. Iran, however, is still regarded with suspicion from Arab countries, who worry that Iran with its huge resources might turn into a hegemonic power in the region. 

The year 1999 witnessed a limited Turkish intrusion into Iranian territories under the pretext of pursuing the brother of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ogalan.

Is the Iranian Political System Democratic?

According to Dr. Mosad, “[R]esearchers in the field of political science face … a challenge when they try to categorize the Iranian political system. The Iranian political system is a mixture of democracy and totalitarianism, which is the case with many political systems. However, the problem with the Iranian political system is that the most significant characteristics of each are manifested in it.”

The words of an expert on Iran like Dr. Mosad makes it clear why average readers keep getting contradicting messages about the nature of the Iranian political systems.

Elections on different levels are carried out regularly, the president cannot serve more than two terms, the formation of political parties is allowed, and a dynamic civil society exists; however, the kind of authority given to the Supreme Leader makes him an extremely strong figure in the Iranian political system.

In this context, the terms commonly used to describe political forces and movements, such as the Right vs. the Left and extremism vs. moderation, lose much of their meaning when applied to the Iranian case.

Such contradictions leave observers perplexed and make it difficult to give a clear-cut answer to the question of democracy in Iran.

Is Iran Ethnically and Religiously Homogeneous?

The Iranian society is characterized by diversity, given the different ethnic and religious backgrounds of its members. The main ethnic groups in Iran, according to the World Factbook, are: Persians (51 percent), Azeris (24 percent), Gilaki and Mazandarani (8 percent), Kurds (7 percent), and Arabs (3 percent). The remaining 7 percent consists of Baluchis, Lurs, Turkmens, Qashqai, Armenians, Persian Jews, Georgians, Assyrians, Circassians, Tats, Pashtuns, and others.

While 89 percent of the population are Shiite Muslims, only 9 percent of the population are Sunnis. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity are recognized and protected by the state, and their adherents have representatives in parliament.

In Iran, there are three minorities, in particular, that are the focus of much attention: Jews, Arabs, and Kurds.

Since the victory of the Revolution, Dr. Mosad argues, Iranian Jews have been keen to express their support for if; a group of 500 Jews, headed by Grand Rabbi of the Iranian Jewish community, was among those who received Khomeini upon his arrival at Tehran. Also, Jews have criticized harshly the Israeli claims of them being discriminated against by the Iranian government, calling it Israeli propaganda.

Iranian Jews, furthermore, have declared more than once their agreement with their government’s policies on Israel and Zionism. It is important to note that, in several incidents, numbers of Iranian Jews were executed upon charges of spying for Israel.  

The Sunni Arab minority in Iran has been a constant source of instability, given their calls for autonomy and the interference of some Arab countries. The inhabitants of the Khuzestan province are predominantly Arab. In 1980, a group of gunmen from the “Political Organization of the Arab People in Arabistan” took over the Iranian embassy in London. A couple of months later, however, the same group held a press conference in Baghdad, expressing the grievances of the Arab community in Iran.

Despite the Iraqi attempts to co-opt the Arabs of Khuzestan during the Iran-Iraq war, there was no evidence that they conspired against their government. However, under Rafsanjani and Khatami, the seizure of Arab inhabitants’ lands by the government caused unrest in the province.

Khatami, who urged for better relations with Arab neighbors, was keen to integrate Arabs into the Iranian political system. During his presidency, for instance, the defense minister, Ali Shamakhani, was an Arab from the tribe of Bani Tamim. The Iraqi-born head of the judicial system, Mahmoud Shahroudi, who was appointed during Khatami’s presidency, still occupies the same position.

The Kurds are not a less problematic minority, given that the region where they are concentrated has huge oil resources. The first and only Kurdish state was established in Iran with the help of the Allies under the name of “Mahabad,” during World War II. Like other Kurdish minorities in the Middle East, the Kurds in Iran have been calling for some form of autonomy. Their relationship with the government went through different phases based on many different factors, including the intensity of their calls for self-rule and their relationship with neighboring countries who usually play Kurdish factions off against one another.

Clashes erupted between Kurds and Iranian security forces in Mahabad region last February, resulting in the death of three Kurdish demonstrators.

Is Iran Making a Nuclear Bomb?

Iran was able to launch its nuclear program with the help of the United States in the 1950s.

The history of the Iranian nuclear program goes back to the 1950s. Under Muhammad Reza Shah, Iran was able to launch its nuclear program with the help of the United States. After the Islamic Revolution, however, the program was dismantled.

In 2002, Iranian exiles from the Islamic leftist group Mujahedin-i Khalq (militant political party advocating overthrowing the government in Iran) leaked information about Iran building a huge uranium enrichment plant and a heavy water plant. Since then, “the carrot or the stick” policy has been pursued by the West towards Iran.

In 2004, the godfather of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan, confessed that he had transferred the nuclear technology to Iran as well as Libya and North Korea. It was revealed, also, that Russia had been helping Iran with its nuclear program.

After accepting to suspend the production of enriched uranium, the Islamic Republic, after the election of President Ahamdinejad, decided to resume its nuclear program in November 2004.    

Iran is a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranian argument is based mainly on the fact that the treaty gives the parties the right to make fuel for their reactors and that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The West, however, is deeply concerned because nuclear fuel can be used for manufacturing nuclear weapons.

According to the West and the IAEA, Iran has not been totally open about its nuclear program, an accusation that the Islamic Republic strongly denies. 

Iranian officials make the argument that the West adopts a policy of double standards; India, for instance, is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and its nuclear program is not monitored in any way; the same thing can be said about Israel.

Iran opened its nuclear program to inspections; nevertheless, the IAEA was still convinced that the Islamic Republic was withholding information. Nuclear inspections came to a halt based on an Iranian decision after a harshly worded United Nations resolution was issued.

February 21, 2007 was the deadline given to Iran to stop enriching uranium. However, in face of what was considered Iranian defiance, the issue was refereed to the UN Security Council, a step that means that further sanctions may be imposed on the Islamic Republic. China, however, hinted at the possibility of using its veto power to block a Security Council resolution against Iran.

The resolution adopted by unanimously by the UN Security Council on March 25 imposed more sanctions on Iran, blocking Iranian arms exports and freezing assets of many involved in nuclear and missile work.


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Dina Abdel-Mageed is an editor at’s Muslim Affairs section and a freelance journalist. A graduate of the American University in Cairo, she holds a BA in political science with a specialization in public and international law. She has written articles for several online and print publications, including al-Jazeera International, Daily News Egypt/International Herald Tribune, the Edinburgh Middle East Report, and the Middle East Times. Click here to reach her.