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Special Reports Last Updated: Sep 14th, 2007 - 01:35:11

The Islamic Republic of Iran
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 14, 2007, 01:33

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Persia, as Iran was once called, was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. It is still distinct from the main body of the Islamic world in that it has maintained its language, Farsi, and is of the Shia strain of Islam as is the majority of the population of its neighbor, Iraq.

In 1979, Iran was the center of world attention when a popular revolution overthrew the American-supported Pahlavi monarchy and a unique Islamic republic was declared. The clergy, headed by Ayatollah Khomeni, who returned from exile in Europe, took over political control.

The following period was unstable and bloody as the revolution devoured its own children, the same youth of various political shades who fought against the tyranny of the Shah and for a free Iran. That period included an eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq, supported by who else but the USA, which cost a million lives and in which Iran's oil wealth plummeted.

On Khomeni's death in 1989, Ayatollah Khameni was named Supreme Leader for life. As such he appoints the chief of the powerful judiciary, military and security leaders and media chiefs.

Then, surprisingly, two decades after the 1979 revolution, Iran appeared to be entering an era of political and social transformation with the victory of liberal reformists over the clergy-backed conservative elite in parliamentary elections of 2000. The reformist President Mohammad Khatami's support for greater social and political freedoms made him extremely popular with youth, who today make up half of Iran's population of 80 million. Azar Nafisi describes that moment well in her best-seller, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

But reformist ideas put the new president at odds with the supreme leader and hardliners in the government and judiciary reluctant to lose sight of Islamic traditions. Khatami's reformist legislation was blocked during his eight years in office, his supporters disqualified, and he isolated.

In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran's ultra-conservative mayor, defeated former President Rafsanjani in run-off elections and became Iran's first non-cleric president in 24 years. In recent times, the relatively free press under reformist Khatami has been targeted by conservatives, pro-reform publications closed and reformist writers, journalists and editors jailed. The reform movement in the government has been crushed though it apparently is still alive and strong among youth.

Promising a new era for Iran, an era of peace and progress, President Ahmadinejad vowed to plough ahead with Iran's controversial nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad was born in the countryside near Tehran. He is a former Revolutionary Guards officer, was actively involved in the revolution, and participated in the occupation of the American Embassy in midtown Tehran in 1979. He is known as "the man of the barefoot people." That is, of the poor masses of Iran. Nowhere is the gap between rich and poor more evident than in Tehran itself. Built on the side of a mountain, the rich live well at the top and the poor masses at the bottom. Yet, the sewage of the rich runs down open ditches into the districts of the poor.

Europeans concede Iran the right to develop nuclear energy while realistically aware that control is next to impossible. Iran needs nuclear energy. But who trusts it not to make a bomb? Besides, Iran looks around and sees that many of its neighbors have nuclear weapons: Israel, India, Pakistan, China, Russia.

One immediate problem of the warlike Bush stance toward Iran is making an unpopular man in Iran, popular. Ahmadinejad is not loved by urban youth, for a great part English-speaking, in contact with the world via seven million internet accesses, cell phones, sms and TV. But they too love their country.

Here are some considerations: Iran is a big Middle Eastern country, and like Israel non-Arab.

Though Ahmadinejad is apparently the immediate problem, he is not the only power in Iran. In fact, it is unclear who really commands there. Ahmadinejad heads only one class, but most certainly not the modern part of the country, nor the clergy. A power struggle seems to be in progress. For that reason, Ahmadinejad needs an enemy. His fiery speeches show that.

In the same way, George Bush's administration needs an enemy. Washington aims in its language "at a regime change" in Iran. How that is to be achieved is the point. European observers warn that the USA cannot afford to err again as in Iraq, where, as Condoleeza Rice had admitted, "America has made thousands of mistakes." Iran is simply too strong. Europe recommends aiming at weakening Ahmadinejad internally and supporting youth and reformism.

Background to a revolution

In trying to grasp the Middle Eastern crisis, as every thinking person knows, it is good to keep on eye on oil. The motives for Western aggression in the Middle East have always had to do with oil. In 1944, US interests in oil output there was only 16 percent. In 1955, those interests had grown to 58 percent. Profits from Middle Eastern oil are greater than elsewhere because of low labor costs and the high productivity of the wells. The result is extremely high profits.

Western oilmen were shocked when, in 1951, the reformist Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq decided to nationalize the oil industry, then British controlled. After a lot of saber rattling, Great Britain retired from the scene and the USA stepped in. The coup d'�tat that overthrew Premier Mossadeq and reinstalled the amenable Shah on the throne was one of the newly founded CIA's first major actions. The justification of the then CIA Director Allen Douglas was: "Where there begins to be evidence that a country is slipping and Communist takeover is threatened (such was his English!), we can't wait for an engraved invitation to come and give aid."

Fifty years ago just as today!

When I worked in Tehran during 1979, Western businessmen, when warned that revolution was brewing and threatened their interests, answered with great assurance: "A regiment of US Marines will put things right."

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books of fiction, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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