Most people today, know Persia or Iran through its carpets, its caviar, its costly war with its neighbor Iraq, or through its importance as one of the world's major oil-producing nations. Yet, Persia has one of the richest and oldest cultures in the world.

For more than three thousand years Persia was a melting pot of civilizations and demographic movements between Asia and Europe. Under Cyrus the Great, it became the centre of the world's first empire. Successive invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Turks developed the nation's culture through rich and diverse philosophical, artistic, scientific and religious influences.

Persia's first vigorous growth began in the Neolithic era, and by the third millennium B.C. it had developed into a civilization of great sophistication. The infiltration of the Aryan peoples into Iran during the second millennium B.C. paved that way for the Achaemenian dynasty, whose achievements were gloriously represented in the great palaces of Persepolis.

After 2500 years, the ruins of Persepolis still inspire visitors from far and near.

These monuments had been built to testify to the absolute power of the Achaemenian Empire, and yet they were razed to the ground in just one night by Alexander, who conquered Persia and begun the Hellenistic period. This was followed in less than two hundred years by the Parthian and then the Sassanian Empires.

Iran before the Iranians

The Elamite civilization in Iran, first developed in the Susian plain, under the influence of nearby Sumeria and Mesopotamia in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

Around 3500 B.C., animal drawn wheeled carts were in use in Sumeria. They also used ploughs to till their land, and oars to propel their ships on the Euphrates river. The Sumerians were the most advanced and complex civilization in the world at that time, and by 3100 B.C. they had invented a system of writing which was the first of its kind in the world.

In 3000 B.C a group of people called the Akkadians drifted into the northern Sumerian territory. The Akkadians adopted some aspects of Sumerian culture and for that reason, the region is sometimes referred to as Sumer - Akkad. Around 2340 B.C. Sargon, ruler of the Akkad defeated Sumer and went on to conquer Elam and the mountainous lands to the east. His empire spread from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caspian Sea in the north, and the Persian Gulf in the South.

The Guti, among other tribes living in the mountainous areas controlled many of the routes that crossed western Iran. They took advantage of periods of weakness in Babylonian power and, around 2200 B.C., even succeeded in invading Babylon, causing the fall of the empire of Akkad.

This fall allowed Elam to capture Susa, a city that was to become one of its capitals. Elam developed into a civilization that could be compared with that of Sumer, and during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., at the height of its glory, it succeeded in defeating Assyria and Babylon.

Throughout the centuries that followed, the Assyrian Empire continued to fight for control of the region, at times succeeding with great force. They waged war with deliberate frightfulness, sacking cities, and killing their inhabitants indiscriminately. By 900 B.C. Assyria was busy restoring its control over Babylonia, and by 700 B.C. the Assyrian Empire included the entire Tigris-Euphrates region, and all the Eastern Shore of the Mediterranean. It was the most powerful empire the world had yet seen.

The Medes(Mud)

During the second millennia B.C., successive Indo-European (Aryan) invaders broke through into the Iranian plateau, either from the Caucasus, or through Central Asia. Those who settled in Iran were divided into tribes that were distinguished from each other by their different dialects. The most famous of these tribes were the Persians (Parsa), and the Medes (Mada).

The Persians eventually settled in the province of Fars and in the Bakhtiari Mountains, while the Medes occupied the Hamedan plain. The Medes, were fierce warriors and skilled horse breeders, and at first were organised as independent tribes; however, this changed under the tribal chief, Deioces. The Median capital was established at Ecbatana or "Place of Assembly", modern Hamedan. Under the rule of Cyaxares (633-584 B.C.), the Medes put an end to centuries of war against the Assyrians. Their capture of Niniva in 612 B.C. finally brought down the Assyrian Empire. For more than half a century after the fall of Niniva, the Medes ruled over a vast empire with borders stretching from Afghanistan to Turkey.

The Achaemenians (Hakhamaneshian)

The Persians achieved unity under the leadership of Achaemenes, whose descendant Cyrus brought the Achaemenian Empire onto the centre stage of world history. Cyrus was the descendant of a long line of Persian kings and should be referred to as Cyrus II, having been named after his grandfather.

According to the writings of Herodotus, the last ruler of the Medes, Astyages (585 - 550 B.C.) was defeated and captured by Cyrus in 549 B.C.. In all probability Cyrus had the support of the Babylonian sovereign Nabonidus. The Persian king overthrew the Median empire and seized Ecbatana (Place of Assembly), which became his capital. He spared the defeated ruler, preferring not to indulge in the mass killings, which until then had been a feature of Assyrian victories. On the contrary he brought nobles and civilian officials, both Median and Persian, into the government of his kingdom.

From 546 B.C., Cyrus II applied himself to the task of attacking the powerful kingdom of Lydia, where the famous Croesus ruled. There were two battles, then Cyrus besieged and captured Sardis before going on to subdue the rich Greek cities. From this point onwards Cyrus was master of all Asia Minor. He now turned his attention towards his eastern frontiers and conquered a string of provinces one after the other, even crossing the Oxus in order to reach another river, the Jaxartes, which flows into the Aral Sea. A number of fortresses were then built for the purpose of keeping out the nomads of Central Asia.

In 539 B.C., the Persian sovereign assembled the bulk of his army and left his capital, Ecbatana, to follow the course of the Tigris down to Babylon, where he attacked Nabonidus. The city which had been capital of Mesopotamia for a thousand years offered little resistance, and welcomed Cyrus as a liberator.

As usual, Cyrus showed magnanimity in victory. The respect he showed for the religions of others earned him the homage of all Babylonians; Syria and Phoenicia thus came under Achaemenian law. Cyrus the Great now held sway over all the kingdoms of the Near and Middle East. In the space of less than twenty years he had assembled the greatest empire the world had ever seen. All he needed now was Egypt! However, soon after his son Cambyses had been entrusted with making the preparations for such a campaign, Cyrus himself was killed in battle on the eastern frontier of his empire.

When Cyrus died in 530 B. C., the Achaemenian Empire was well established. The sovereign had founded a new capital city at Pasargadae in Fars. Similarly, he had worked out the administration of the empire, appointing a governor, or satrap, to represent him in each province. He imposed an annual tax in the form of a tribute on all the races he conquered, to which the Achaemenian power owed much of its wealth and magnificence.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (530-522 B.C.). After a victorious campaign against Egypt, he annexed the country to his father's empire, but during his absence the throne was seized by the Magus Gaumata, and the King died mysteriously. However, Darius I (522-486 B.C.) ended this reign, when he proclaimed himself the legitimate king. He then continued the work of Cyrus, creating 23 provinces, or satrapies, and building the administrative and religious cities of Susa and Persepolis.

A view over Persepolis from the mountain Kuh-i-Rahmat

The magnificent palace complex of Persepolis was founded around 518 B.C., although more than a century passed before it was completed.

Through his military campaigns, Darius extended the frontiers of the empire; in the east, around 512 B.C., he conquered Gandhara and the Indus Valley, while in the west, he attacked the Scythians, whom he never managed to subdue, and then turned against Greece.

While attempting to put down a rebellion in Egypt in 490 B.C., Darius suffered a humiliating defeat at Marathon, near Athens. He died in 486 B.C. without renewing his attack on Greece.

After the death of Darius, the immense empire established under the first Achaemenian rulers was threatened, as Persian authority could no longer contain the rebellions of the satrapies.

Xerxes (486-465 B.C.), the son of Darius, put down revolts in Egypt and Babylonia with great severity and renewed the struggle against Greece. He quickly subdued Thessaly and Macedonia, then captured Attica and Athens, which he burned down; however, in 480 B.C. the Persian fleet was destroyed at Salamis.

Discouraged, Xerxes returned to Persia, and never left again. Gradually, the immense empire disintegrated; the Greek cities in Ionia, Egypt, then Pheonicia and Syria broke away, followed by the regions to the west of the Euphrates. Artaxerxes III (358-338) made one last attempt to reunite the empire, brutally taking back Egypt and quelling the revolt of the satraps, but a new power was already emerging in West-Macedonia.

The last Achaemenian ruler, Darius III (336 - 330 B.C.) was weak, and his cowardice at two major campaigns, the first at Issus (333 B.C.) and the other at Gaugamela two years later surrendered the empire to Alexander.


The conquest of Persia by Alexander's armies left the Persian army in complete disarray. Alexander captured Babylon, Susa and then Persepolis. The splendour of Persepolis was short lived, as the palaces were looted and burned by Alexander in just one night.

The Greeks were then in possession of the ancient world from Egypt to Indus, and from Oxus to the Danube. Alexander followed a policy of integration between the Greeks and the Persian communities, encouraging marriages and applying the formula of magnanimity and generosity, which had formerly brought success to Cyrus II.

In 324 B.C., having traveled down the Indus as far as its delta, he returned to Babylon where he fell ill and died in 323 B.C., at the age of 32, without having nominated an heir to his empire.

Those who succeeded him, were the so-called Diadochi, who fought among themselves and after the battle of Ipsus (301 B.C.), Alexander's Empire was finally divided into three main segments. The Ptolemaic Dynasty ruling Egypt, the Macedonian monarchy ruling Europe and Seleucus I ruling the east including; Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria and Bactria.

(The Hellenistic period in Iran began in 331 B.C. and continued until c. 250 B.C. This was the time when the Greeks tried to impose their culture on Asia. During approximately a century and a half of Greek rule in Iran, very little construction took place, and ruins from this period remain few and far between.)

The Seleucids

The Seleucid capital was founded at "Antiochus" by Seleucus I. His son Antiochus, by an Iranian noblewoman, was put in charge of the eastern provinces.

The main difficulty that the Seleucid rulers faced was how to maintain the unity of an empire composed of a mosaic of different cultures and ethnic groups, and governed by independent-minded satraps. A new menace was added to this, that of the Parthians, a nomad people of Iranian origin who had settled in the region between the Caspian and Aral seas. In 250 B.C., Bactria proclaimed its independence, followed shortly afterwards by Parthia.

Antiochos III (223-187 B.C.) attempted to keep the empire together but in 189 B.C., the Roman army won a decisive victory against the Seleucids at the battle of Magnesia. Antiochos IV (175-164 B.C.) restored his position in western Iran, but failed to recoup Seleucid losses in the east.

The Seleucids tried on several occasions to force out the Parthians who had moved into northern Iran. However, the attempts of Demetrius I in 156 B.C., of Demetrius II in 141 to 140 B.C., and of Seleucus VII in 130 B.C. all failed.

The Parthian Empire

Under Mithridates I (171-138 B.C.), the Parthians continued their conquests and annexed Media, Fars, Babylonia and Assyria, creating an empire that extended from the Euphrates to Herat in Afghanistan. This in effect was a restoration of the ancient Achaemenian Empire of Cyrus the Great.

In addition to the nomads that were a constant menace on its eastern frontier the Parthians also had to face another powerful adversary, Rome. For almost three centuries, Rome and Parthia were to battle over Syria, Mesopotamia and Armenia, without ever achieving any lasting results.

The Parthian kings referred to themselves on their coins as "Hellenophiles", but this was only true in the sense that they were anti-Roman. In reality the Parthians sought to establish themselves as the direct heirs of the Achaemenian Empire, and Mithridates II (123-87 B.C.) was the first Parthian ruler to use the old Achaemenian title "King of Kings" on his coins.

The Sassanians

In A.D. 224 Ardeshir, a descendant of Sassan and ruler of Fars and Kerman, rebelled against the Parthian king, Artabanus V, and established the Sassanian dynasty.

Within twenty years, Ardeshir I (224-241) created a vast empire that stretched as far as the Indus.

His son Shapur I (241-272) continued this expansion, conquering Bactria, and Kushan, while leading several campaigns against Rome. In 259, the Persian army defeated the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa and more than 70,000 Roman soldiers were captured.


A rock relief beneath the tomb of Darius at Naqsh-e Rostam,
depicting the triumph of Shapur I over
the Roman Emperor Valerian, and Philip the Arabian


For nearly four centuries, foreign wars and internal struggles gradually exhausted the Sassanian Empire and a new enemy, the Hephtalite Huns, defeated them. It was not until the reign of Khosroe I (531-579), one of the greatest Sassanian rulers, that the Huns were beaten.

Khosroe I took Antioch in A.D. 540, while Khosroe II, who had rebuilt the empire until it rivaled that of the Archaemenians, laid siege to Byzantium in A.D. 626. However, the dynamic emperor Heraclius turned the tables, with the Byzantines invading Iran in 628. Khosroe II was deposed and murdered by his followers. After his death, over a period of 14 years and twelve successive kings, the Sassanian Empire weakened considerably, and the power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. This paved the way for the first Arab attacks in A.D. 633.

Arab Conquest: The Abbassid Caliphates

Abu Bekr, the first successor of the Prophet Mohammed, was head of the Moslem community from 632 to 634. He set about patching up the internal unrest between tribes. Then Omar, caliph (head of the Moslem community) from 634 to 644, initiated an explosive expansion of Islam. He seized Syria, then Jerusalem and finally Damascus in 638 after having defeated Heraclius. In 635, other Arab troops launched an assault on the Sassanian Empire, and crossed the Euphrates. The downfall of the empire was well underway when the Arab horsemen dealt the deathblow to the Sassanid dynasty and overran Persia first entering Ctesiphon in 637. Successive victories were to follow. They emerged victorious from the engagement at Nahavand in 642, which left the way open for them to enter the Iranian plateau. The conquest of Persia continued with the fall of Afghanistan (651) and then Transoxiana (674).

The Abbasid Dynasty (750-945) established its capital at Baghad, near the old Sassanian capital. For a century, the empire experienced a time of unprecedented cultural, artistic and economic development, particularly during the reigns of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Mamun (813-833). Persian scholars and artists played an important role in this intellectual activity; from the very beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate, they had been placed in charge of the highest court functions, and a large number of Iranian customs and traditions were rapidly adopted in Baghdad.

From the second half of the 9th Century a period of decline began, and by the middle of the 10th Century, the Abbassid caliphs at Baghdad had no real political control over Iran. The governors whom the caliphs had appointed to administer the frontier provinces displayed a tendency to establish virtually independent local dynasties. Some of these included the Tahirids of Khurasan (820 - 873), the Samanids of Khurasan and Transoxiana (819 - 1005) and their offshoot, the Ghaznavids of Khurasan, Afghanistan and northern India (977 - 1186).

In 945 the Buwayids, a local dynasty from Gilan occupied Baghdad. During their 110 years of rule, the Buwayids seized all political power from the Abbassid caliphs.

The Turkish Dynasties: The Seljuks

While early on the Turks had an important role to play as soldiers conscripted to the personal guard of the Abbassid caliphs, soon they were no longer satisfied with this subordinate position. Often they took matters into their own hands and elevated themselves to positions of influence.

In 976, one of these military leaders founded the Ghaznavid dynasty (977 - 1186). But the Ghaznavids were unable to prevent the arrival of yet another powerful force, the Seljuks. They derived their name from an ancestor called Seljuk, whose nomadic tribe was converted to Islam, and were themselves originally central-Asian Turks. Toghrul Beg, sultan from 1038, first defeated the Ghaznavids, then sacked Isfahan in 1051 and went on to seize Baghdad from the Buwayids in 1055. Named protector of the caliph, Togrul Begh showed himself to be a vigorous defender of Sunni doctrine.

The Advance of the Seljuks

In spite of the presence of the Turkish invaders, this era of Iranian revival, beginning with the publication of Ferdausi's Shah-namah,constitutes for Persia a period of intensely creative intellectual activity. Biruni, the most knowledgeable scientist of the Moslem middle ages, was interested in history, mathematics, astronomy and the physical and natural sciences. The poet, mathematician and astronomer Omar Khayyam, author of the famous Roubayyat, and the philosopher and theologian Ghazahli illustrate the wealth contributed by Persia to the sum of universal culture in the 11th and 12th Centuries.

By the second half of the 12th Century, the power of the Seljuks gave way to local dynasties set up by provincial governors. One of these provinces, Khorassan was governed by the princes of Khwarezm (1153), who set up a kingdom extending from the frontiers of China to those of Afghanistan. In 1217, the Khwarezmi armies reached as far as the Zagros Mountains but were never able to consolidate their conquests before the arrival of the Mongols.

Mongol Invasions: 13th to 15th Centuries

The Mongol conquest of the Persian world brought with it terrible destruction and large-scale massacres. In 1219, Genghis Khan's army attacked the state of Khwarezm, capturing Transoxiana, Samarkand (1220) and Khorassan (1221), while a detachment penetrated as far as Azerbaijan. In 1256, a second expedition led by Hulagu (1217-1265), Genghis Khan's grandson, subdued the whole of Persia. In 1258, Baghdad was captured and the caliph put to death, bringing the Abbasid Caliphate rule to an end. Hulagu's successors, who took the title of il-Khan, established their capital at Tabriz.

The death of Sultan Abu Said in 1335 lead to the division of the Mongol Empire in Persia. Once again, local chiefs took advantage of this to declare themselves independent: a Persian Shi'ite dynasty, the Sardebarians (1337-1381), settled in the northwestern part of Khorassan while the Mozzafferids (1340-1392) took control of the south from Fars to Kerman. But these dynasties were short-lived as a third invasion, this time by the Turko-Mongol nomads lead by Tamerlane, swept across the region. The east of Iran fell in 1380, and Azerbaijan, Iraq and Fars a few years later.

The Timurids

Tamerlane (Timurid dynasty) dominated all of Persia from 1387. His invasion of Isfahan alone, led to more than 70,000 deaths where the heads of his victims were heaped up into pyramids. Nevertheless, after having established his capital at Samarkand, he drew artists, calligraphers, writers, philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians, from all parts of his empire, the majority of whom came from Shiraz and Isfahan.Thus, ironically, this ruthless warrior and appalling killer initiated a true civilization in the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Herat, Balkh and Mashad. In the time of Shah Rukh (1405-1447) and Oleg Begh the whole of Persia became covered with admirable monuments and the art of miniature reached its peak at Shiraz and Herat.

The Safavids

During the same period as the Mongols and the Timurids, north-western Iran went through a different historical development. It was here that Turkoman groups fought with each other for power. The Turkoman Dynasty of the Kara-Koyunlu, or "Black Sheep" (1275-1468) was set up at Tabriz, and it was later replaced by the Ak-Koyunlu, or "White Sheep" (1434-1514). However, there was a third dynasty, called the Safavids (1502-1737), that emerged in Azerbaijan, and had as its leader Shah Ismail (1487-1524). He successfully conquered a vast territory which extended from Herat (Afghanistan) to Baghdad (Iraq).

The Safavid dynasty takes its name from Sheikh Safi-od-Din of Ardabil, who was the ancestor of the Safavid kings and spiritual leader of the Safavid Sufi order, founded in 1301.

The Safavid order was initially indistinguishable from the many other Sufi orders in existence in the Muslim world at that time. But Junayd, who became the head of the order in 1447, transformed it into a revolutionary Shi'ite movement that aimed at seizing power in Iran. Though the Safavid family itself was of Iranian origin, the bulk of its supporters were Shi'ite Turkoman tribesmen from Anatolia, Syria, Upper Mesopotamia, and Armenian highlands.

The Safavids were successful in bringing the whole of the Iranian plateau under unified control, and they made Iran a "national state" in the modern sense of the word. The height of Safavid glory was at the time of the reign of Shah Abbas I (1571-1629), who encouraged contact and trade with Europe and transformed his new capital, Isfahan, into one of the most magnificent cities of Persia. The presence at the Safavid court of foreign envoys and the growing number of merchants and travellers in Iran was later to have a great influence on the arts and literature in Europe.

The cultural growth was accompanied by considerable development in all forms of art. The Persian carpet, for example was at its finest during the Safavid era. Miniature paintings, Chinese and Arabic designs had an important influence in carpet motifs, and carpets became a major Persian export to Europe, India, and even the Ottoman Empire.

The Safavids adopted Shi'ism as their state religion, which had an important role in unifying the Persians against the strict Sunni Ottoman Empire. Two centuries of intermittent wars followed which produced only minor territorial changes.

By 1722 the Safavid rulers had lost much of their power leading to rebellions within the empire. A small force of Afghans, led by the Ghilzai chief Mahmud, took advantage of this, invading Khorassan, and capturing Isfahan.

The Qajar Dynasty(1794-1925)

Afghan rule in eastern Iran lasted only a short period of time (1722-1729); the second ruler, Ashraf Shah, was overthrown by a young chieftain from Khorassan, Nader Khan, who had rallied to the cause of the last remaining Safavid prince, Tahmasp.

The Safavid Dynasty was briefly restored; however, Nader Khan (1736-1747) put a final end to its rule when he set himself on the throne in 1736. Nader Shah then expelled Afghan, Turkish and Russion troops from Iranian soil. He managed in the space of four years to conquer Afghanistan and to capture New Delhi, Bukhara and Khiva, thus creating a greater kingdom than that of Shah Abbas. He was however, considered to be a dictator and was assassinated in 1747. His empire broke up after his death.

There followed half a century of civil war in Iran between the rival Zand and Qajar factions. Finally in 1795 the Qajar leader Agha Muhammed Khan, emerged victorious and established the new Qajar dynasty. He brought the whole country under his authority and was crowned "Shah" (king) in Tehran in 1796.

The 19th and early 20th Century was dominated by a growing conflict of interest between Russia and Great Britain. Russia hoped to reach the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean through Iran, and Great Britian wanted to protect its sea and land routes to India and to slow down Russian expansion. Both obtained concessions from Iranian governments under Naser od-Din Shah (1848-1896) and his successor Muzzaffer od-Din Shah (1896-1907). The Qajar monarchs were incapable of establishing a sound fiscal policy, and to compensate for this, they progressively disposed of Iran's economic resources to foreign powers in return for small sums of money that satisfied their immediate financial needs.

Increasing dissatisfaction with the incompetence and corruption of the government together with resentment of foreign political and economic control, led to the formation and revolts by various secret societies and religious groups. This social unrest ultimately focused on the demand for a constitution, which was signed by Muzzaffer od-Din Shah on December 30th 1906. This led to the formation of the first "Majlis" (parliament).

During the Qajar dynasty, the Russians and the British fought for economic control of the area, and during World War I, Iran's neutrality did not stop it from becoming a battlefield for Russian and British troops. A coup in 1921 brought Reza Kahn to power. In 1925, he became shah and changed his name to Reza Shah Pahlavi. He subsequently did much to modernize the country and abolished all foreign extraterritorial rights.

The country's pro-Axis allegiance in World War II led to Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran in 1941 and deposition of the shah in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi's Westernization programs alienated the clergy, and his authoritarian rule led to massive demonstrations during the 1970s, to which the shah responded with the imposition of martial law in Sept. 1978. The shah and his family fled Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, and the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic theocracy. Khomeini proceeded with his plans for revitalizing Islamic traditions. He urged women to return to wearing the veil; banned alcohol, Western music, and mixed bathing; shut down the media; closed universities; and eliminated political parties.

Revolutionary militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, seized staff members as hostages, and precipitated an international crisis. Khomeini refused all appeals, even a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council demanding immediate release of the hostages. Iranian hostility toward Washington was reinforced by the Carter administration's economic boycott and deportation order against Iranian students in the U.S., the break in diplomatic relations, and ultimately an aborted U.S. raid in April 1980 aimed at rescuing the hostages.

As the first anniversary of the embassy seizure neared, Khomeini and his followers insisted on their original conditions: guarantee by the U.S. not to interfere in Iran's affairs, cancellation of U.S. damage claims against Iran, release of $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets, an apology, and the return of the assets held by the former imperial family. These conditions were largely met and the 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, ending 444 days in captivity.

The sporadic war with Iraq regained momentum in 1982, as Iran launched an offensive in March and regained much of the border area occupied by Iraq in late 1980. The stalemated war dragged on well into 1988. Although Iraq expressed its willingness to stop fighting, Iran stated that it would not end the war until Iraq agreed to pay for war damages and to punish the Iraqi government leaders involved in the conflict. On July 20, 1988, Khomeini, after a series of Iranian military reverses, agreed to cease-fire negotiations with Iraq. A cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 20, 1988. Khomeini died in June 1989 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded him as the supreme leader.

By early 1991 the Islamic revolution appeared to have lost much of its militancy. Attempting to revive a stagnant economy, President Rafsanjani took measures to decentralize the command system and introduce free-market mechanisms.

Mohammed Khatami, a little-known moderate cleric, former newspaperman, and national librarian, won the presidential election with 70% of the vote on May 23, 1997, a stunning victory over the conservative ruling elite. Khatami supported greater social and political freedoms, but his steps toward liberalizing the strict clerical rule governing the country put him at odds with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Signaling a seismic change in Iran's political environment, reform candidates won the overwhelming majority of seats in Feb. 2000 parliamentary elections, thereby wresting control from hard-liners, who had dominated the parliament since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The parliament's reformist transformation greatly buttressed the efforts of Khatami in constructing a nation of lasting pluralism andIslamic democracy.Khatami walked a jittery tightrope between student groups and other liberals pressuring him to introduce bolder freedoms and Iran's military and conservative clerical elite (including Khamenei), who expressed growing impatience with the president's liberalizing measures. In June 2001 presidential elections, Khatami won reelection with a stunning 77% of the vote.

In Jan. 2002, U.S. president Bush announced that Iran was part of an axis of evil, callingit one of the most active state sponsors of international terrorism.

By 2003, Iran was fanning much of the world's suspicions that it had illegal nuclear ambitions. In June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized Iran's concealment of much of its nuclear facilities and called on the country to permit more rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites. Under intense international pressure, Iran reluctantly agreed in December to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow for thorough IAEA inspections.

On Dec. 26, the most destructive earthquake of 2003 devastated the historic city of Bam, killing an estimated 28,000 to 30,000 of its 80,000 residents.

In Feb. 2004, conservatives won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, a setback for Iran's reformist movement. The hard-line Guardian Council had disqualified more than 2,500 reformist candidates, including more than 80 who were already members of the 290-seat parliament. The IAEA again censured the country in June 2004 for failing to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections. Neither U.S. threats nor Europe's coaxing managed to halt Iran's alarming defiance.

In June 2005, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line conservative and a devout follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won the presidential election with 62% of the vote. Ahmadinejad was highly popular among Iran's rural poor, who responded to his pledge to fight corruption among the country's elite. In Aug. 2005, he rejected an EU disarmament plan that was backed by the U.S. and had been under negotiation for two years. Ahmadinejad has been defiantly anti-Western and venomously anti-Israeli, announcing that Israel was a disgraceful blot that should be wiped off the map.

In Jan. 2006, Iran removed UN seals on uranium enrichment equipment and resumed nuclear research. France, Britain, and Germany called off nuclear talks with Iran, and along with the United States, threatened to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, a step avoided thus far. Russia and China, both of whom have strong economic ties to Iran, refused to endorse sanctions. In April Iran announced it had successfully enriched uranium. In July a Security Council resolution was finally passed, demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities by the end of August or face possible sanctions.

In December elections for local councils in Iran, moderate conservatives and some reformist candidates won the majority of the seats. The results were seen as a sign of public dissatisfaction with President Ahmadinejad and his hard-line stances.


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