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Seda: Voices of Iran

Lesson: Current Background on Iran (Teachable Moment)

 Some Facts

Iran is a Middle East country about the size of Alaska with a population of 65.4 million, a majority of whom are Shiite Muslims and ethnically Persian.

Iran's huge oil and natural gas reserves at a time of growing demand for both and its location on the Persian Gulf through which ships carry a great deal of the world's oil make it a major player in the global economy. A U.S. attack on Iran would have many serious consequences. One would probably be an interruption in the flow of oil from the Middle East.

Iran's economy is a fraction of America's. Its military spending is less than one-hundredth of U.S. military spending.

The people of other nearby Muslim countries are predominately Sunni Arabs, many of whom are not especially friendly to Shiite Persian Iran. The only exceptions among Arab countries are Iraq and Syria.

Iran has not invaded another country for more than 200 years.

Iran's government violates human rights and prevents the development of civil society by imprisoning journalists and other writers, dissidents and pro-democracy activists. Iranian women charge that Iran's laws make them second-class citizens.

Capsule History of U.S.-Iran Relations in the Past Half-century

In 1953 a democratically-elected Iranian government nationalized ownership of Iranian oil reserves, ending British control of them and compensating Britain. The Eisenhower administration mounted a successful CIA operation to overthrow this government. It then supported the installation of the Shah as Iran's ruler. U.S. companies gained from him a 40% share in Iran's oil riches.

Many Iranians hated the Shah's regime, especially its brutal secret police. In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted the Shah and established strict Shiite clerical rule. Demonstrators seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for more than a year. Since that time the U.S. has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran.

Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, launched an Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and began a war that ended inconclusively in 1988. The Reagan administration supported Iraq with military intelligence and weapons despite its knowledge that Iraq was using chemical weapons against both Iranian troops and Kurds in northern Iraq. Fearing imprisonment or worse, many Iraqi Shiite leaders, like its current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, fled to Shiite Iran. Today they continue to have close ties with its clerical leaders.

But because Al Qaeda and the Taliban of Afghanistan were common enemies, Iran supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and provided aid. According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (1/21/07): "In 2003, even after President Bush named Iran as one of the countries in his 'axis of evil,' Iran sent the U.S. a detailed message, offering to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions and warming up to Iran." The U.S. did not respond. (For Kristof's documentation see

For Discussion

  • What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
  • How would you explain why the U.S. subverted the Iranian government in 1953? Why Iranian demonstrators seized the U.S. embassy and took hostages in 1979? Why the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war on Iran in the 1980s? Why the U.S. rejected the Iranian offer of 2003? In each case, if you don't know enough, how might you find out more?
  • Why does Iran, a relatively small country, receive so much U.S. attention? Why did President Bush include it in the "axis of evil"? How does your explanation help to explain Iranian-American relations over the past half-century?

Source: Written by Alan Shapiro;



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