Skip to main content

Seda: Voices of Iran

Lesson: Iran and the U.S. (Teachable Moment)

 Origins of Shia Islam

The words "Shia" and "Shiite," are short forms of a phrase that in English means "follower of Ali." Ali was a first cousin, as well as a son-in-law, of Islam's founder, Mohammad, and regarded by Shia as his legitimate successor. Both Ali and Hussein, Mohammad's grandson, were assassinated in a 7th century struggle between the followers of Islam's founder. This is the origin of the power of martyrdom in the Shia faith and the long-standing conflict with Sunnis, or "followers of the way" which became the majority branch of Islam.

With a population of about 70 million, Iran is the largest Shia-ruled nation and the only ethnically Persian Islamic country. The only other Shia-ruled countries are Iraq and tiny Bahrain. Other nearby Middle East Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are led by Sunnis who view Iran with a wary eye.

Oil reserves, economic woes, nuclear program

Despite its huge oil and natural gas reserves, which are its major sources of income, Iran suffers from economic problems, especially since the decline of oil prices. These economic problems have fueled many Iranians' criticisms of Ahmadinejad. At least 12.5%, perhaps as many as 25%, of Iranians are unemployed. As poverty has grown, so has the rate of inflation, which now stands at about 25%. Another criticism of the president has been that his harsh critique of other nations and confrontational approach have isolated Iran.

Nevertheless, in recent years, Iran has become a growing power in the Middle East. It commands a position on the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world's oil is shipped. It supports Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon with weapons and money. These two groups are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.

Iran is developing a nuclear program that Iranian leaders maintain is strictly for peaceful purposes. But many believe that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons. International criticism and off-and-on negotiations with Iran have failed to resolve this nuclear issue, which is a major reason for Iran's poor relations with the U.S.

Some U.S.-Iran history

The U.S.-Iran relationship today needs to be viewed against a background of events going back more than a half-century. They include :

1953: A new and democratically-elected Iranian government led by Mohammad Mossadegh ended British control of its oil reserves by nationalizing them and compensating Britain. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a CIA operation that, with some British help, overthrew Mossadegh and replaced him with Shah Pahlavi. U.S. oil companies gained a 40% share of Iran's oil. The Shah led a secular government for a quarter century whose secret police was feared and hated by Iranians.

1979: Returning from exile in France, the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted the Shah and established Shiite rule. Iranian students held U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days. The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since that time.

1980: Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in a war that lasted eight years, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians, and ended inconclusively. The administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and military intelligence despite Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Many of Iraq's Shiite leaders, including Nuri al-Maliki, its prime minister today, went into exile in Shiite Iran. The majority of Iraq's people then and now are Shiite but Sunni leaders governed the country until the American invasion in 2003.

2001: Despite this history and because Al Qaeda and the Taliban were common enemies, Iran actively supported the U.S invasion of Afghanistan.

2002: President George W. Bush declared that Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, made up an "axis of evil" because, he charged, they sought weapons of mass destruction and supported terrorists.

2003: Iran sent the U.S. an offer "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 [economic] sanctions and warming up to Iran." (Nicholas Kristof,

Obama and Ahmadinejad 

Responding to the turmoil in Iran, President Obama said on June 23 that he was "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days." Ahmadinejad said Obama should stop interfering in Iranian affairs and owed an apology to Iran for his comments.

Earlier, in a June 4 speech in Cairo, Obama acknowledged before a Muslim audience that the U.S. "played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government" (in 1953). This is something that no American president before him had acknowledged, though in fact the U.S. played more than "a role." Obama did not comment on other U.S. actions that have hurt Iran, such as U.S. support for Iraq's war on Iran. However, he declared that there are "many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect."

Given the current suppression of Iranian dissidents and what may have been a stolen election on behalf of Ahmadinejad, the future of U.S.-Iran relations is unclear. In the light of the brutal treatment of demonstrators, President Obama withdrew invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Fourth of July celebrations at U.S. embassies around the world.

For Discussion

  • What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
  • What is the origin of the split in Islam between Shia and Sunnis?
  • Why does martyrdom play a large role in Shia Islam? How might that explain why the authorities would not permit mourning ceremonies for Neda Agha-Soltan?
  • Why is Iran a country of major importance in the Middle East?
  • What are the sources of U.S.-Iran conflict? How has U.S. behavior fueled this conflict? How has Iranian behavior fueled the conflict?
  • Why do you think that President George W. Bush did not respond to Iran's 2003 offer? If you don't know, how might you find out?

Source: Written by Alan Shapiro;


←  Go back                                                  Next page