What's going on in Iran?
Lots of trouble it seems. Supporters of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the recent presidential race are claiming President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the election.
There are riots in the streets of the capitol Tehran which have spread to other cities, and reports of demonstrators being killed.
So did Ahmadinejad steal the election, as all three opposition candidates claimed? It's hard to tell. It's not like he wouldn't, the results were announced suspiciously quickly and nobody really believed that he'd go quietly if he did lose.
Obviously, given the looming danger that a country ruled by crazy people will soon be a nuclear power, a lot of folks in Washington must be hoping this is the beginning of the end of the reign of the ayatollahs.
On the other hand, every time America meddles with Iran it gets burned. Iranians are still mad about Mohammad Mosaddeq, Prime Minister of Iran from 1951 until 1953 when he was overthrown by a coup d'état sponsored by the U.S. and Britain after he nationalized foreign oil companies.
They hold grudges longer than we do, since we seem to have all but forgotten the Iranian hostage crisis when Islamic radicals held American diplomatic personnel for 444 days in 1979-80. Former hostages say they seem to remember a guy who looked a lot like Ahmadinejad among their captors.
President Obama has taken a cautious, non-committal stance, though for once France and Germany are actually making forceful protests.
So who are these people in this “far off country of which we know little”? (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on Czechoslovakia after the German invasion.)
Iran is an ancient country, once one of the largest, most powerful empires in the world back when it was called Persia. Iranians are not Arabs and get testy if you make that mistake. Iran means “Land of the Aryans,” and today is still the 18th largest country in the world with a population of over 70 million. And of course, they have oil.
Iranians are mostly Muslims, but Shia, a sect whose adherents make up about one-third of all Muslims worldwide. And to make things interesting, there are minority communities of Baha'is, surviving Zoroastrians (the ancient indigenous religion of Persia), Yazidis, Iranian Jews, and no-fooling devil worshipers.
There are doctrinal differences between Shiites and the majority Sunni Muslims, but the division basically goes back to an ancient power struggle over the leadership of Islam.
When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 A.D. Shiites believe Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was his rightful successor. However, Ali didn't take power for 35 years, while three Caliphs rose and fell. He finally took power in 656 A.D. after the third Caliph was assassinated, and ruled until 661 A.D. when he was assassinated in turn. After that it gets really complicated.
What makes it so difficult for westerners to wrap their heads around politics in the Islamic world is, there's little difference between religion and politics.
Until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran was a monarchy ruled by a dynasty all of three generations old which ruled from 1925. It replaced another dynasty which ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925. That's the pattern, from time to time a vigorous new dynasty from the outlands rides in a takes over, but must rule through the educated administrative class which provides continuity.
The tradition was broken when the revolution did away with kings because the last Shah was a cruel tyrant – that and he was trying to drag Iran kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
So are the demonstrators going to overthrow the tyrant and create a liberal democracy so we can all be buds again? Would be nice.
However we should remember that Ahmadinejad is only the president. Above him is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of the council of Muslim jurists that wields the real power.
Khamenei can always throw Ahmadinejad to the mob and say, “See? All fixed now.”