By Karl Reiner
Iran, formerly known as Persia, has been a regional power since the time of the Greeks and the Roman Empire. Slightly smaller than Alaska, the proud (some say arrogant) country plainly states that it is Persian not Arab. An oil producer, with a population of 75 million, Iran has been under the sway of a theocratic system of government since 1979.
The relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran began badly. When Islamic revolutionaries seized power in February 1979, the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,appointed the moderate Bazargan provisional government to oversee the country until a new constitution was drafted and national elections held.
Although the provisional government attempted to restore order and reestablish government services, it had little support. The country was awash in heavily armed groups determined to implement their own radical ideological agendas.
By autumn, Iran's moderate and radical factions were arguing over the constitution. Filled with revolutionary vehemence, Khomeini pushed to implement his vision of an Islamic regime. Siding with the radicals, he furiously attacked the moderates, even calling them traitors.
On October 20, 1979 President Carter decided to admit the deposed Shah into the U.S. for medical treatment. On November 4, 1979, a group of radical Islamist students devoted to Khomeini and encouraged by his vitriolic speeches seized the U.S. embassy, taking its personnel hostage. Khomeini supported the seizure, refusing to reverse it.
After the embassy takeover, the provisional government resigned. Khomeini's revolutionary council governed until the draft constitution was approved in December. Presidential elections were held in January 1980. By May, parliamentary elections had completed the installation of the radical government Khomeini desired.
Revolutionary leaders often make big mistakes. The violation of diplomatic norms roused the ire of much of the world, discrediting the revolutionary regime. Focused on his revolution, Khomeini ignored the country's defenses. Iran's military was weakened by purges, desertions and low morale.
In neighboring Iraq, the secular leadership was outraged by Khomeini's constant incitement of Iraq's Shi'a population. They also dusted off claims to Iranian territory. Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, beginning eight years of war. By the time the war ended in August 1988, around 200,000 Iranians had been killed and perhaps three times as many wounded.
Iran's leaders had decimated their own military and ignored the Iraqi threat. Although they managed to fight to a draw, the country paid a high price. The need for strong deterrence measures was burned into the the national consciousness.
Iran's nuclear program is a problem. The rest of the world does not believe it is solely for peaceful purposes. To prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, UN, U.S. and European Union sanctions have been imposed. The policy is to tighten sanctions until Iran becomes willing to suspend its nuclear program.
Iran's leaders think the real goal of sanctions is regime change. The sanctions are having a severe economic impact and Iran's currency value has plunged. Sanctions do have a drawback. Clever regimes can minimize the damage to the ruling elite while the general population suffers from the damage inflicted by outsiders.
As the quarrel over the nuclear issue continues, mistrust and hostility grow. Iran's scientists have been assassinated. The cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear program computers were so sophisticated that they had to be launched by a government. In August 2012, Saudi Arabia's national oil company was the victim of a cyber attack that disabled 30,000 computers. It was believed to be retaliation by Iran.
Iran poses a challenge with its revolutionary culture, hostile stand toward Israel and its sponsorship of terrorism. Iran's President Ahmadinejad won reelection in 2009 in a disputed election considered to have been fraudulent. His wild rhetoric regarding Israel, nuclear weapons and conflict has helped define Iran's leaders as madmen. He helps make the case for isolating the country.
If the nuclear program is not suspended, Israel has threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran said it would retaliate. Iran controls one side of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a vital Persian Gulf oil shipping lane. Closure would disrupt world oil supplies. Iran has allies, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria, now engulfed in civil war, has become a problem of its own.
Some analysts believe the period up to March 2013 offers a good opportunity for negotiations. The U.S. elections are over and Iran's political silly season doesn't start until late March with elections scheduled for June. There are rumors that informal talks may have begun.
As negotiators grapple with the nuclear weapons issue and sanctions relief, the nagging deterrence factor (the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini) has to be taken into consideration. A country that barely survived a costly war can ill afford to fritter away its defenses without getting something in return. Despite the harebrained antics of its president, analysts do not believe Iran is a nation bent on committing national suicide.