With a history of balancing pro-Western and anti-Western regimes, Iran is a country facing major internal and external threats (Axworthy, 2016). The country’s political history is riddled with revolutions and overthrows. Nonetheless, Iran still produces a wealth of scholars, maintains a relatively impressive economy, and continues to be a major contributor to arts and other cultural aspects. This combination of interesting characteristics of Iran make it a country worthy of study. However, what makes Iran so interesting as a country is its political history. In many ways, Iran’s political history helps explain why it has been so fruitful economically, culturally, and scholarly. Explored in this paper is Iran’s political history, especially in relation to how its political history has contributed to its massive cultural, economic, and scholarly achievements. It is argued in this paper that Iran’s several periods of alliance with the West contributed to its economic achievements, while its periods of anti-West regimes contributed to its independent cultural achievements.
Numerous civilizations and peoples have inhabited the area that Iran currently occupies (Katouzian, 2010). The Medians and Persians helped developed early infrastructure and political systems in Iran. The Assyrians contributed further to the development of Iranian infrastructure, but contributed even more heavily to scientific and cultural achievements in Iran. Meanwhile, Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian societies dominated Iran for many years, contributing to the development of technology and science in Iran. All of these civilizations held territories in Iran before 1 AD. The rule of these civilizations in Iraq ultimately led Iran to have well-developed connections with other civilizations and societies in the region, opening up Iran for fast technological and political advancement. It is also worth noting, for the purposes of this paper, that Iran was largely isolated from much of the West during this time. Even though Iran may have some connections with European societies, such connections were usually indirect and in the form of connections established through other societies in the region.
Achaemenids, Sasanians, Parthians, and Abbasids each held Iran territory at different periods after 1 AD and before the 13th century (Axworthy, 2016). This period marks the diversification of Iranian cultures and the further advancement of Iranian political systems and technologies. Again, this was a period of relative isolation from the West, at least in political terms. Nevertheless, the reign of these societies in Iran reflect a period of strong cultural and technological advancement, especially in relation to others in the region.
The 16th century marked the beginning of the development of Iran as a military and religious power (Axworthy, 2016). From the 16th to the 19th century, Iran would be ruled by a few different civilizations, most notably the Ottomans. Politically, Islam was becoming much more influential in Iranian territory, as Iran converted from being a mainly Sunni territory to a mainly Shia territory. Culturally and religiously, this would have major impacts on Iran, with such impacts even being felt today, which will be discussed in more detail shortly. While Iran expanded its regional and international influence and relations, this was largely limited to Eastern countries, including other countries in the region, the Far East, and Russia. Iran did not, thus, enforce an isolationist policy, even though its cultural and religious development was quite exclusive. In other words, Iran was developing its own cultural and religious traditions, apart from those developed by its neighbors.
In the 19th century, Iran became much more active in international affairs (Axworthy, 2016). At the beginning of the 19th century, Iran entered into a number of wars against Russia. In fact, in the first half of the 19th century, Iran lost much of its territory. It was during this time that Iranian relations with the West, particularly European powers, increased. Nonetheless, Iran also fell way behind Western powers in technology, infrastructure, and industry. Just as war hurt its infrastructure, technological and industrial advancements in the West were slow to find Iran. Even so, Iran’s unique cultural and religious development continued in Iran. Politically, Iran faced major turmoil. A number of instances of civil unrest, protests, and similar events led to many questions about Iranian leadership to emerge. In fact, there were several challenges to Iranian monarchical power in the 19th century. This contributed heavily to major internal political turmoil and the rewriting of the Iranian Constitution at the turn of the century. Thus, this period marked a time in which the relative technological, industrial, and economic advancement of Iran slowed, even though its cultural and religious achievements remained impressive.
The 20th century saw Iran having wavering relations with the West, in particular the United States (Gheissari, Nasr, & Nasr, 2009). Iran was in the middle of a number of international scuffles, disagreements, and, of course, wars. The 20th century marks a period in which Iran, on several occasions, allied with Western powers. The U.S. helped Iranian leaders come to power at different times during the 20th century, creating major opportunities for development in Iran. As a result, Iran become quite industrialized, especially in relation to other countries in the region. In addition, Iran had increased access to technologies, granting Iran even greater economic advantages. Meanwhile, the U.S. also helped Iran develop its own military. Most notably, the Iran-Contra controversy was a case in which the U.S. sold arms indirectly to Iran. The strong development of Iran’s infrastructure, economy, and political systems with the help of the U.S. and other Western powers led to strong backlash against the Iranian government. Making matters worse, U.S.-supported Iranian leaders developed reputations for mistreating groups of citizens. Such backlash led to the overthrow of the U.S.-supported Iranian government. Ever since, Iran has enforced largely anti-Western and anti-U.S. policies. Its infrastructure and economy, nonetheless, remains quite well-developed. In addition, its majority Shia population remains unique in the Middle East and its cultural and religious achievements reflect this. Thus far in the 21st century, Iran remains a relatively strong power in the Middle East and a constant threat not only to the West, but also to its Sunni-majority neighbors.
The political history of Iran is one reflected isolationism from the West. However, beginning in the 19th century and flourishing in the 20th century, Iran became much more involved in Western affairs. It was during the 20th century that the U.S. helped install pro-Western leaders in Iran, which led to partnerships that improved the Iranian economy and infrastructure. Thus, Iran’s political history in the 20th century had a major impact on the Iranian economy and infrastructure, with the impacts being seen even today. However, the cultural and religious impacts of the Western on Iran are slight. Iran is not Westernized culturally and remains a predominantly Islamic state. A unique turning point in Iran’s history is the forced conversion of the Iranian population from Sunni to Shia. Again, this is a case in which the political history of Iran is very informative in determining why Iran developed certain religious and cultural traditions. In fact, many of Iran’s major cultural achievements can be directly attributed to its unique status as a relatively well-developed country in the region with a unique religious tilt. The development of Iran’s economy and infrastructure is likely associated with its previous associations with the West, particularly the U.S., while Iran’s unique cultural and religious achievements are most closely associated with its isolationism with the West and anti-West policies.
- Axworthy, M. (2016). A history of Iran: Empire of the mind. Basic Books.
- Gheissari, A., Nasr, V., & Nasr, S. V. R. (2009). Democracy in Iran: history and the quest for liberty. Oxford University Press.
- Katouzian, H. (2010). The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern Iran (pp. 1-452). Yale University Press.