On March 20 on the eve of the traditional Iranian New Year, President Obama offered the Iranians a “new beginning,” but acknowledged three decades of strained relations between the United States and Iran. Iran’s supreme leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei rebuffed this overture. Here’s a bit of background.
In November 2002, my wife and I took a 16-day tour of Iran. We visited Tehran, Shiraz, Kerman, Yazd, Esfahan, Persepolis, and Bam. (Tragically, Bam was severely damaged a year later in an earthquake.) We walked around without fear; everyone was extremely friendly and curious about us and about America. We have found in our many travels that it is U.S. foreign policy, not individual Americans that many foreigners object to. Why did we visit Iran? Because there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, representing about 27 percent of the world’s population. This means that one in four persons is a follower of Islam. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. Thus, we feel it is important to try to understand this religion and countries with a Muslim majority, especially since this is the world’s current hotspot. We have visited Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia, as well as Israel.
Not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims. Only about 13 percent of practicing Muslims are Arab. Iranians prefer not like to be calleds Arabs. They are Persians. The word “Iran” comes from the word “Aryan.” The Persian language is Indo-European; it is barely related to Arabic. About half of Iran’s estimated 65 million people are Persian. One fourth are Turks. Eight percent are Gilanis and Mazandaranis; 7 percent are Kurds; and the rest are Arabs, Lurs, Beluchis and Turkmens. Only 58 percent speak Persian or Farsi; 26 percent speak some sort of a Turkish dialect. And presently there are thousands of Afghan refugees in the country. Persia was the first superpower of the ancient world. It started in the 7th Century B.C. as a small southern province named Parsa (now Fars). Hence the names Persia and Farsi.
Ninety-nine percent of Iran’s population is Muslim, of which 80 percent are Shiites and about 19 percent are Sunnis. The remaining 1 percent are Christians, Jews, Bahais, and Zoroastrians. The Shiites believe that Ali, Mohammad’s first cousin and son-in-law, succeeded Mohammad at his death in AD 632, because that’s what the Prophet decreed. The Sunnis believe that after the Prophet died, the leader must be selected in the pre-Islamic way, i.e., through consensus among the community’s elders, and do not recognize Ali as the Prophet’s successor. Although Shiites are the majority in Iran, they make up a minority in the rest of the Muslim world.
By looking at a map, it is clear that Iran is strategically located in the Middle East. It is the only land bridge between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Iran shares borders with Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. It is one of the few countries whose borders were not carved out by European colonial powers. It is considered the intellectual giant of the region. It has 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and has the second largest natural gas reserves. After oil, the major exports are carpets and pistacchio nuts.
In 1979, Iran’s monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), the leader of the revolution. The Islamic Revolution is still ongoing, trying to balance Islamic principles with democratic principles.
Why does Iran consider the United States its enemy? Among our crimes are formenting a military coup that restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne and bolstering him with millions of dollars in arms; tilting toward Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war; shooting down a civilian Iran passenger plane in 1988, killing all 290 passengers (the warship’s commander was not punished; he was given the Legion of Merit); favoring Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and in 1995 imposing a total embargo on dealings with Iran by U.S. companies, including blocking much needed loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. (While there is an official embargo, trade between the United States and Iran did skyrocket in 2008.)
Of course, the United States cannot forget the 1979 seizing of the American embassy in Tehran and the holding of Americans hostage followed by the ill-fated attempt to rescue them. In addition, Iran is suspected of complicity in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut killing more than 60 people; and later that year, bombing a U.S. military compound killing 241 American servicemen; supporting the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah; aiding “terrorist” activity in the current Iraq war; and finally U.S. concern about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.
However, Iran can no longer blame an American conspiracy for every ill faced by the country. Most Iranians don’t buy this anymore. The country’s economic system is extremely inefficient largely because of corruption and mismanagement. Eighty percent of the economy is controlled by the government. The constitution mandates that the economy be managed according to Islamic principles, but nobody seems to know what that means. The population of the country is about 70 million with two-thirds of the population under 30. The unemployment rate for the 15 to 24 age group is 24.6 percent. This age group is too young to remember the Shah or the Islamic Revolution. They want more freedom and more fun.
I agree that President Obama must attempt sincere diplomacy with Iran. After all, this is much more productive than sabre-rattling. But with all this historical baggage, the task will not be an easy one.
Ralph E. Stone is a retired Bay Area attorney.