turmoil & relations with the U.S.
To the Teacher:
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.
additional background information on the U.S.-Iran relationship, see "Presidential
Election 2008: The U.S. & Iran" in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org.
Turmoil in Tehran
"fraudulent" election result
smoke billowed over this vast city in the late afternoon
Crowds bayed. Smoke from tear gas swirled. Hurled bricks sent phalanxes of police,
some with automatic rifles, into retreat to the accompaniment of cheers
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
the June 12 election that set off the current protests, Mir Hussein Moussavi,
a former president, and others challenged the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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.
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
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.
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.
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
Identify: Ahmadinejad; Khomeini; Khamenei; Moussavi; Rafsanjani; Galibaf
What powers does the supreme leader have?
Why have so many Iranians protested that country's election results?
What are political differences between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi?
What evidence is there for divisions among Iran's top leaders?
Crackdown on demonstrators
in the streets of Tehran
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
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
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
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)
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.
role of women
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
marched in 1979, too. But when the revolution was won women were pushed. Their
subjugation became a pillar of the Islamic state
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
courage and pain haunt me."
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)
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."
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)
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. (www.guardian.co.uk,
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,
no longer appeared in public and may be under house arrest.
An eerie silence has settled over this normally frenetic city." (Nazila Fathi,
New York Times, 6/28/09)
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.
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
How have Iranian authorities responded to public demonstrations? Why?
What reasons does Adam Cohen cite for the prominence of women in the demonstrations?
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?
Why do you suppose the Iranian government has also cracked down on foreign reporters
but not domestic reporters?
Iran and the U.S.
of Shia Islam
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
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.
reserves, economic woes, nuclear program
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.
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
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.-Iran relationship today needs to be viewed against a background of events
going back more than a half-century. They include:
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.
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
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.
Despite this history and because Al Qaeda and the Taliban were common enemies,
Iran actively supported the U.S invasion of Afghanistan.
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.
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,
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.
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."
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.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they
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?
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.
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" in the high school section of www.teachablemoment.org.
origins of Shi'ism
20th century origins of Iran
relationship with Sunni-led Middle Eastern countries
CIA plot to overthrow Mossadegh
rule of Shah Pahlavi
1979-1980 hostage crisis
support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq's war with Iran
2001 support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan
among Iranian leaders today
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.