While Sunnis believe that Muhammad's friend and adviser, Abu Bakr, was the legitimate successor, Shiites believe that 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's first cousin and son-in-law, was the rightful heir, and that the Prophet's legitimate lineage ended with the "occultation" of Muhammad al-Mahdi around A.D. 874. This Twelfth Imam is believed to have been hidden by God and is destined to return before the Last Judgment. Shiite religious scholars argued that they should take on some of the Imam's responsibilities in the meantime. (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini further expanded this concept to justify the clerical rule he imposed on Iran after 1979.) Shiite rulers brought Persia to another peak of power in the 16th and 17th centuries, creating a magnificent capital at Isfahan, where spectacular buildings like the Imam Mosque still testify to the empire's grandeur.
From this rich heritage, Iranians have developed a deep-rooted sense of national identity. The pride they take in their achievements, however, is mixed with resentment. Beginning in the 18th century, Persia descended from glorious heights to appalling depths. Weak and corrupt leaders allowed foreign powers to subjugate the nation. Afghan tribesmen overran and looted Isfahan in 1722. During the early 19th century, Russia seized large Persian territories in the Caspian provinces of Georgia, Armenia, Dagestan and Azerbaijan. In 1872, a British company bought a "concession" from the decadent Qajar dynasty that gave it the exclusive right to run Persia's industries, irrigate its farmland, exploit its mineral resources, develop its railway and streetcar lines, establish its national bank and print its currency. The British statesman Lord Curzon would call this "the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has ever been dreamed of, much less accomplished, in history."
Public outrage in Iran led to the withdrawal of the British concession in 1873, but the incident reflected Iran's new status as a vassal state and a pawn in great-power rivalries. For nearly 150 years, Russia and Britain dominated Iran's economy and manipulated its leaders. This history still stings. "Nationalism, the desire for independence, is a fundamental theme," says Shaul Bakhash, who teaches Iranian history at George Mason University in Virginia. "The memory of foreign intervention in Iran runs very deep. It is playing itself out again in today's stand-off with the United States over the nuclear program. Iranians think, ‘Once again the West wants to deny us technology and modernism and independence.' It's a very powerful history. Iran is extraordinarily sensitive to any indication of foreign influence or foreign direction."
A series of uprisings shaped modern Iranian nationalism. The first erupted in 1891, after the British Imperial Tobacco Company took control of Iran's tobacco industry, which reached deep into the national life of a country where many people survived by growing tobacco and many more smoked it. The morally and financially bankrupt Qajar leader, Nasir al-Din Shah, sold the industry to British Imperial for the laughably small sum of £15,000. Under the terms of the deal, Iranian tobacco farmers had to sell their crops at prices set by British Imperial, and every smoker had to buy tobacco from a shop that was part of its retail network. This proved one outrage too many. A national boycott of tobacco, supported by everyone from intellectuals and clerics to Nasir al-Din's own harem women, swept the country. Troops fired upon protesters at a huge demonstration in Tehran. After a series of even larger demonstrations broke out, the concession was canceled. "For a long time Iranians had been watching other people take control of their destiny," says John Woods, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago. "The tobacco revolt was the moment when they stood up and said they'd had enough."
That revolt crystallized the sense of outrage that had been building in Iran for more than a century. It also laid the groundwork for the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, in which reformers chipped away at the power of the dying Qajar dynasty by establishing a parliament and a national electoral system. Over the century that followed, many Iranian elections were rigged and many constitutional provisions were violated. Nonetheless, democracy is not a new idea for Iranians. They have been struggling toward it for more than 100 years. That makes Iran fertile ground for democratic transition in ways that most nearby countries are not.
"The ingredients are all there," says Barbara Slavin, recently a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. "Iran has an established history of elections that has put people in the habit of going to the polls. Iranians are used to hearing different opinions expressed in parliament and in the press. They turn out to vote in great numbers, and hold elected officials accountable for their actions."
Although the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 weakened the Qajar dynasty, it did not end it. That was fine with the Russians and British, who continued treating Iran like a colony. In 1907, the two nations signed a treaty dividing Iran between them. The British assumed control over southern provinces, guaranteeing them a land route to India, and Russia took over the north, ensuring it control over the region adjoining its southern border. No Iranian representative attended the conference in St. Petersburg at which this extraordinary treaty was signed.
Moscow's interest in Iran waned as Russia was consumed by civil war and then, in 1917, fell under Bolshevik rule. Britain moved to fill the vacuum. In 1919 it assumed control over Iran's army, treasury, transportation system and communications network through imposition of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, ensuring its approval through the simple expedient of bribing the Iranian negotiators. In a memorandum to his British cabinet colleagues, Lord Curzon defended the agreement, arguing that Britain could not permit the frontiers of its Indian Empire to descend into "a hotbed of misrule, enemy intrigue, financial chaos and political disorder." He garnished Britain's traditional rivalry with Russia with fears of Communist conspiracies: "If Persia were to be alone, there is every reason to fear that she would be overrun by Bolshevik influence from the north."
The Anglo-Persian Agreement, which all but ended Iran's status as an independent state, sparked a second uprising in 1921. The Qajar dynasty was removed from power and replaced by a fiercely reformist dictator—an illiterate former stableboy who came to call himself Reza Shah (shah being the Persian word for "king"). In appearance Reza was an intimidating figure, "six foot three in height, with a sullen manner, huge nose, grizzled hair and a brutal jowl," the British chronicler Vita Sackville-West wrote after attending his coronation in 1926. "He looked, in fact, like what he was, a Cossack trooper; but there was no denying he was a kingly presence."
That aptly captured Reza Shah's dual nature. He resorted to brutal tactics to crush bandits, tribal leaders and everyone else he saw as blocking his drive to re-establish Iran as a great power, but he also deserves credit for creating the modern Iranian state. He built the country's first railway, established a national bank and stripped clerics of much of their power. Shockingly, he banned the veil for women. The decree was so radical that many women refused to leave their homes.