IRAN'S TURMOIL & Relations with the U.S.

July 1, 2009

Three student readings provide an overview of recent events in Iran and outline that country's post-World War II relationship with the U.S. Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiries follow.

To the Teacher:

The first two student readings below provide an overview of recent events in Iran. The third reading outlines that country's post-World War II relationship with the United States. The quotes from various sources may help to demonstrate that as one correspondent writes, Iran is "a real country with real people rather than a bunch of zealous clerics posing a nuclear problem." Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiries follow.
For additional background information on the U.S.-Iran relationship, see "Presidential Election 2008: The U.S. & Iran."

Student Reading 1:

Turmoil in Tehran

A "fraudulent" election result
"Dark smoke billowed over this vast city in the late afternoon...Garbage burned. Crowds bayed. Smoke from tear gas swirled. Hurled bricks sent phalanxes of police, some with automatic rifles, into retreat to the accompaniment of cheers...
"I looked up through the smoke and saw a poster of the stern visage of Khomeini above the words, 'Islam is the religion of freedom.' Later, as night fell over the tumultuous capital, gunfire could be heard in the distance. And from rooftops across the city, the defiant sound of 'Allah-u-Akbar'-'God is Great'-went up yet again, as it has every night since the fraudulent election." (Roger Cohen, op-ed columnist in Tehran, New York Times, 6/21/09)
The city was Tehran, Iran. The huge crowds were demonstrators protesting the official announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected on June 12 by an 11-million vote landslide. Many Iranians viewed this result as fraudulent.
The "stern visage of Khomeini" refers to Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah, a title of high rank for one who is regarded as an expert in Islamic studies. Khomeini was the leader who brought Shia Islamic rule to the country for the first time, in the wake of a 1978-1979 revolution.
After Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei became the Supreme Leader, and it was he who declared Ahmadinejad's victory. Khamenei and his clerical associates control the power centers in Iran: Khamenei is the Commander-in Chief of all Iran's military, including the Revolutionary Guard, an elite force. His appointees run the Guardian Council, which controls elections; he oversees the president and can fire him.
But the people of Iran have voted every four years to elect a president. Only candidates approved by Iran's religious leaders have been allowed to run, but the elections have otherwise been regarded as fair.
Moussavi and Ahmadinejad
In the June 12 election that set off the current protests, Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former president, and others challenged the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Moussavi told voters he believed in Islamic revolutionary principles, but was an independent. Many Iranians who voted for him also support those principles, but sought greater freedom of speech and press, less interference in social behavior, and better relations with other nations.
Many of Ahmadinejad's supporters came from conservative rural areas. Others were civil servants in the government who owe their jobs to Ahmadinejad and who favor his suppression of dissent and criticisms of Israel, Britain and the U.S. A New York Times news analysis by Neil MacFarquhar cited evidence that since his election four years ago, Ahmadinejad "has filled crucial ministries and other top posts with close friends and allies...[and] replaced 10,000 government employees." (6/25/09)
After previous elections, days passed before a presidential winner was announced. This time, after what seemed to be a record turnout of 40 million voters, the announcement came only four hours after the polls closed. The people in the streets of Tehran did not believe the votes had even been counted. Most of these urban voters had supported Moussavi. How could he have been defeated even in his own ethnic Azeri area? Moussavi called on the Iranian people to protest. Later, the Guardian Council announced that there had been three million more votes in 50 cities than there had been voters—but that this did not change the results.
Iran's leaders appeared to be divided not just between those who supported supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a revolutionary hero, and Mohammad Baqer Galibaf, the mayor of Tehran, were critical of Ahmadinejad but, at least publicly, remained loyal to the Ayatollah. Another sign of internal divisions was the Iranian press report that on June 23 only 105 of 290 Parliament members appeared for Ahmadinejad's victory celebration. But the Iranian parliament is not one of Iran's power centers.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Identify: Ahmadinejad; Khomeini; Khamenei; Moussavi; Rafsanjani; Galibaf
3. What powers does the supreme leader have?
4. Why have so many Iranians protested that country's election results?
5. What are political differences between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi?
6. What evidence is there for divisions among Iran's top leaders?

Student Reading 2:

Crackdown on demonstrators

Blood in the streets of Tehran
On June 15, a million or more Iranians protested the election results in Tehran without interference from the authorities. An anonymous author wrote in a "Letter from Tehran" published in the New Yorker magazine: "The demonstrators around me represented an impressive cross-section of Iranian society... dominated by young people and many of the girls wore the regulation maghna'eh, or hooded cloak, that they wear in class. There were also elderly men and women, and families whose dress and appearance suggested that they had come from modest precincts of Tehran or the provinces..."
There were also "pious middle-aged Iranians. This is the generation that took part in the 1979 revolution...fought in the long war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and, finally grew tired of all the lies...
"If the afternoon of June 15th was hope, the evening was despair. Seven protestors were killed during a clash with Basijis [militia] and pro-Moussavi demonstrators who had set fire to trash carts and buses. Drivers sounding their horns in support of Moussavi were dragged out of their cars and beaten, and the Basijis damaged and looted houses where they suspected Moussavi supporters had taken sanctuary...
"On June 19th, after a week of steady—and peaceful—protests, and clashes after nightfall, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader—the man who has the last word on all matters of state, and who is an unabashed supporter of Ahmadinejad—made it clear while addressing a large congregation at Friday prayers that the demands of Moussavi and his supporters would not be met. 'The Islamic Republic state would not cheat and would not betray the vote of the people,' he said, effectively ruling out annulment of the vote. If the street protests, which he described as 'not acceptable,' did not end, there was the possibility of 'bloodshed and chaos.'" (The New Yorker, 6/29/09)
Among those killed in the protests was Neda Salehi Agha-Soltan, 26. She was shot in the chest on June 20 by a militia sniper from a rooftop moments after she stepped out of a car stuck in traffic. Mobile phone footage of her final moments, as she lay dying in her own blood, was posted on the internet and viewed around the world. Neda Agha-Soltan became an instant symbol of martyrdom.
The role of women
New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen repeatedly emphasized the role of women in the protests. "From Day 1, Iran's women stood in the vanguard. Their voices from rooftops were loudest, and their defiance in the streets boldest...Women marched in 1979, too. But when the revolution was won women were pushed. Their subjugation became a pillar of the Islamic state...
"In a way it is simple: laws that can force a girl into marriage at 13; discriminatory laws on inheritance; the segregated beaches on the Caspian; the humiliation of arrest for a neck revealed or an ankle-length skirt (a gust of wind might show a forbidden flash of leg)...Today 60 percent of university students are women, about double the figure in 1982...Women are angry with the state, of course. But they are also angry with the passive way men have accepted discrimination...Their courage and pain haunt me."
Cohen also pointed out that, "One benefit of the massive show of resistance to a stolen vote, and future, has been to awaken Americans to the civic vitality of Iranian society—a real country with real people rather than a bunch of zealous clerics posing a nuclear problem." (6/27/09)
A severe crackdown
By June 24 Iran's Revolutionary Guard and security forces dominated the streets of Tehran and other cities, beating and arresting demonstrators. The official Iranian news agency reported that those forces had determined that the Moussavi campaign office was a center for "illegal gatherings, the promotion of unrest, and efforts to undermine the country's security." It shut the office down and later closed Moussavi's website. Ayatollah Khamenei said on national television, "I was insisting and will insist on implementation of the law. That means we will not go one step beyond the law. Neither the system nor the people will yield to pressure at any price."
Security forces arrested former high-ranking government officials and hundreds of others they viewed as supporting opposition to Ahmadinejad. "The government banned foreign news media members from leaving their offices, suspended all press credentials for the foreign press, arrested a freelance writer for the Washington Times, continued to hold a reporter for Newsweek and forced other foreign journalists to leave the country. (New York Times, 6/25/09)
A British newspaper reported that Iranian officials forbade Neda Agha-Soltan's family from holding mourning ceremonies at their apartment, forced them to move out, did not return her body to them, and did not permit them to conduct a funeral. Secret police patrolled the street. (, 6/24/09)
With street demonstrations being suppressed violently, more people were now expressing their opposition across the rooftops of Tehran with 10 p.m. shouts of "God is great" and, increasingly, "Death to the dictator." During the day "the streets remained quiet. Many businesses and shops stayed shut as life appeared frozen in the grip of wait and see." New York Times, 6/26/09)
Moussavi no longer appeared in public and may be under house arrest.
"TEHRAN: An eerie silence has settled over this normally frenetic city." (Nazila Fathi, New York Times, 6/28/09)
Whether or not organized resistance continues, the Iranian government appears to have lost its legitimacy in the minds and hearts of many Iranians. The consequences remain to be seen.
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. How have Iranian authorities responded to public demonstrations? Why?
3. What reasons does Adam Cohen cite for the prominence of women in the demonstrations?
4. Why do you suppose that Iranian officials would not allow Neda Agha-Soltan's family to hold mourning ceremonies, even forced the family to leave its home? What does this tell you about how Iran's top leaders view their positions?
5. Why do you suppose the Iranian government has also cracked down on foreign reporters but not domestic reporters?

Student Reading 3:

Iran and the U.S.

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
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What is the origin of the split in Islam between Shia and Sunnis?
3. 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?
4. Why is Iran a country of major importance in the Middle East?
5. What are the sources of U.S.-Iran conflict? How has U.S. behavior fueled this conflict? How has Iranian behavior fueled the conflict?
6. 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?

For inquiry

Most American students know little about Iran or its relationship with the U.S. and other countries since the end of World War II. Several possible subjects for independent and small-group inquiry are listed below.
The teacher can help students focus their inquiries by assigning them to prepare two or three questions about a subject. Then meet with students to discuss and possibly refine and approve the questions. Since good questions are crucial, see "Thinking is Questioning." 
  • The origins of Shi'ism
  • The 20th century origins of Iran
  • Iran's relationship with Sunni-led Middle Eastern countries
  • The Mossadegh government
  • The CIA plot to overthrow Mossadegh
  • The rule of Shah Pahlavi
  • The 1978-1979 revolution
  • The 1979-1980 hostage crisis
  • U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq's war with Iran
  • Iran's 2001 support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan
  • Iran's oil wealth
  • Iran's nuclear program
  • Divisions among Iranian leaders today
  • Iran's women
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: