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The A-Z of Iran: part 1

The <em>New Statesman</em>’s A-Z guide to the Islamic Republic of Iran — a complex nation’s rich history, culture, economy and politics.

A is for Ahmadinejad

He is the man most associated with Iran in the eyes of the outside world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president of the Islamic Republic, was first elected to office in June 2005, having served as mayor of Tehran. Yet his re-election to the presidency in 2009, amid widespread allegations of voter fraud and ballot-rigging, provoked the country’s biggest riots since 1979 (see G for Green Movement).

Opponents describe Ahmadinejad as a populist, a demagogue and even a madman, and he was infamously accused of having threatened to “wipe Israel off the map” – a long-standing mistranslation that has helped governments in the United States and Israel justify their belli­gerent anti-Iranian rhetoric. In April, however, Israel’s deputy prime minister Dan Meridor conceded that the Iranian president had not used the phrase “wipe it out”.

Nevertheless Ahmadinejad has foolishly questioned the Holocaust (see J for Jews) and lent his support to conspiracy theories about the 11 September 2001 attacks. But critically, inside the complex and secretive politico-theological system that is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the president does not wield much power. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, an expert on Iranian affairs at Stanford University, has estimated that Ahmadinejad is roughly the 18th most powerful politician in Iran.

If Iran did end up building a nuclear bomb, for instance, it would not be the messianic Ahmad­inejad who had his finger on the button. That privilege would go to Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei (see K for Khomeini and Khamenei), the highest-ranking political and religious authority in the Islamic Republic and head of the nation’s armed forces. There was a time when Ahmadinejad was considered to be Khamenei’s agent and protégé, but in recent years a rift has opened up between the two men and Kham­enei has tightened his grip on the domestic political agenda.

Iran has a “supreme leader”; Ahmadinejad isn’t it. Next year his second term is up and he will be gone. After that, relations between Iran and the west might no longer be viewed only through the distorted prism of the bombastic, gaffe-prone president.

B is for Bazaaris

Across the Middle East and much of Asia, a bazaar (the word is Persian in origin) is much more than a marketplace. Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, located in the south of the city, is no exception. It is a five-mile sprawl of narrow alleyways, more than a dozen mosques, an Armenian church and even a fire station. For centuries, this is where Tehran’s inhabitants have come to trade, pray, drink tea and talk politics.

The bazaaris – a term that refers to all those who work there, from rich wholesalers and craftsmen to pedlars and porters – have been an influential group throughout Iranian history.

It is no accident that Iran’s first majlis, or parliament, was convened near the Grand Bazaar, or that the present Majlis sits only a mile away. The merchants have resisted foreign imports and what they see as undue government interference on several occasions. In 1890, when the shah granted a concession to a British tobacco company, the bazaaris’ complaints grew into the country’s first successful mass protest. In the 1940s, the bazaaris allied with the country’s middle class to support Muhammed Mossadeq (see M). And in the late 1970s, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made a grave error when he alienated the bazaaris by fining traders and giving preferential treatment to commercial supermarket chains (see I for Islamic Revolution).

Today, although the Grand Bazaar still bustles, the bazaaris face much the same problems as their compatriots and its traders’ fortunes reflect those of the country at large. The Iranian economy is in a spin, partly through sanctions (see E for Embassy and O for Oil) but also owing to mismanagement by the country’s leaders. Inflation is running at an eye-watering 21.8 per cent and employment is hovering around the
12 per cent mark. If business gets any worse, and the bazaaris become restive once more, the government will be facing a huge problem.

C is for Cinema

Ryan Gilbey writes: Iran had cause to rejoice this year when A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s riveting drama about the fallout from one couple’s estrangement, added the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film to its haul of awards. But this hit movie is not typical of the kind of film-making that brought Iran to the forefront of world cinema. While the central struggle between tradition and modernity, and the portrayal of schisms in family life, are to be found in other Iranian films, the urgent tempo of A Separation sets it apart from the quieter work that shaped the country’s reputation in cinema.

The Iranian new wave began with the release of Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s House? (1987). Like most post-revolutionary cinema from Iran, this gentle feature, about a boy who is trying to return his classmate’s homework book, was shot naturalistically and contained a subtext critical of authority. “I believe the films of Kiarostami are extraordinary,” said the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, not a man given to dishing out poster-quotes. Kiarostami, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997 for Taste of Cherry, premiered his latest film (Like Someone in Love) at the festival last month. He remains the dominant face of Iranian cinema.

Kiarostami helped generate a tension between fiction and documentary that created a new form arguably more inquisitive than either.
In 1990’s Close-Up, for instance, an impostor charged with posing as the Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is introduced to the very man he has impersonated. Makhmalbaf also straddles the life/art divide in his finest work, A Moment of Innocence (1997), in which he
reconstructs the events leading up to the stabbing of a policeman. In fact, it was the youthful Makhmalbaf who committed that crime, and served time for it. Both he and his victim appear in the picture.

The Makhmalbaf clan turns out groundbreaking films the way other people bake cakes. Mohsen’s wife, Marzieh, is a director who made her feature debut with The Day I Became a Woman (2000). So, too, are their daughters, Samira (The Apple, 1998) and Hana (Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, 2008). Both women were working as directors before they were 19.

Another film-maker, Jafar Panahi, has been in the headlines even more than Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in recent years, for all the wrong reasons. Panahi’s films include Offside (2006), about a young woman who dresses as a man to gain admission to a soccer match. His newest work, This Is Not a Film, shows him confined to his Tehran apartment, waiting to hear if his six-year prison sentence and 20-year film-making ban for working against the system will be upheld (see L for Law). Being an Iranian director with a distinctive voice is risky. Kiarostami now lives in France, as do Makhmalbaf and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). Panahi stayed put, kept working and paid the price.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman’s film critic

Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi, winner of the Oscar for the best foreign film.

A picture of Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi is displayed in a Tehran bookshop. Photograph: Getty Images

D is for Diaspora

Touradj Milani writes: The words “diaspora” and “Iran” did not fit together comfortably – until the 1980s. Historically, Iran has not been a nation of migrants. So population dispersal under political or severe economic pressure, which is at the heart of any diaspora, had in the past never applied to Iranians.

Until the last decades of the 20th century Iranian populations outside the country consisted largely of four groups. First, there were pious Shia families that in the 19th and early 20th centuries had settled in and around the holy places of Shia Islam in Iraq – Karbala, Najaf and Samara; second, traders and merchants who had moved to the Arab side of the Persian Gulf (mostly Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai) for straightforward commercial purposes; third, students who had gone to the west and decided to stay (this occurred mostly in North America); and fourth, the smallest category, pockets of merchants and carpet dealers who had moved to western Europe and set down roots – mostly in Germany (in places such as Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt).

None of these groups was driven away from Iran by poverty or political oppression. The one group whose exile was motivated entirely by politics was the small number of Tudeh (Communist) party members who fled to the Soviet Union after the failure of Azerbaijan’s short-lived, Soviet-inspired attempt to secede in 1946-47. Despite the highly autocratic nature of the shah’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s, very few Iranians left Iran for political reasons.

The 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic changed all that (see I for Islamic Revolution). The wave of emigration from Iran began immediately afterwards when, in the first few months of 1979, the creation of what can now properly be called a diaspora – permanent migrants from home base – started to take shape with the departure of people closely associated with the shah’s regime: government ministers, military and security personnel and members of the business community with close connections to the shah.

Gradually, as the character of the Islamic Republic started to take shape, middle-class families, too, began to leave in large numbers, concerned about the education and economic prospects of their children, anxious about military service for their sons during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and worried about their daughters in an environment that appeared to offer decidedly unpromising career prospects to women. At the same time many religious minorities, notably Jewish (see J for Jews) and Baha’i Iranians, fearful for their safety and well-being, left Iran.

The principal destination in all these departures was the English-speaking world, with the United States, Canada and Britain taking the vast majority of exiles, while a significant number also moved to Scandinavia and Germany. A smattering of ancien régime intellectuals and grandees ended up in Paris and on the Côte d’Azur. Most Jewish Iranians moved to California, though some chose Israel.

Today, the post-revolution Iranian diaspora, estimated at roughly two million people, has its largest presence in California and other
parts of the US and Canada, followed by groups in the UK, continental Europe and the Persian Gulf. The first generation of emigrants has largely succeeded in preserving its cultural identity and, not being poor, it has managed to provide its offspring with good education and
a strong basis for career development and cultural assimilation.

As a result, members of the second-generation Iranian diaspora have had little difficulty in propelling themselves into the economic elite of whichever society they might find themselves in, rapidly adopting the habits and practices of those societies, whether in the east or the west.
And, as with all diasporas, the one characteristic that all the second-generation migrants have in common with each other, wherever they may be, is little more than a gentle curiosity about the homeland of their parents.

Touradj Milani is the pseudonym of an Iranian businessman who lives in London

E is for Embassy

Trita Parsi writes: It was early in the morning. The personnel at the US embassy in Tehran had almost got used to the students chanting slogans outside against the Americans and calling for them to hand over the deposed shah to the new revolutionary regime in Tehran. But this day was different. They broke through the gates and stormed the embassy, eventually taking 63 US diplomats and staff hostage. It was 4 November 1979, the beginning of what turned into a 444-day-long ordeal. Iran did not exist in the minds of most Americans until 1979. Hostility has characterised their perspective ever since. For the Iranians, US-Iran relations began 36 years earlier, in 1953, when the CIA and the British Secret Service orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and reinstated the shah (see M for Mossadeq).

With the hostage crisis, however, an enmity began between the two countries that is now deeply institutionalised by layers of legislation and the countless Iranian and US operatives who have made careers out of inventing ways of being nasty to each other. America was the “Great Satan” to Iran, and Iran was part of the “axis of evil” to the US – though many of their citizens held different views. Iranian people,
in particular, tend to hold positive views about Americans and American culture.

The enmity was deepened by the Reagan administration’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. In 1983, Reagan sent his personal envoy Donald Rumsfeld to meet Saddam in Baghdad and a process began to break Iraq away from the Soviet camp. The US supplied Iraq with weapons and intelligence. By 1986, the Iranians had all but lost the ability to mount surprise attacks because the US was feeding satellite images of their troop movements to Saddam. And when Saddam was caught using chemical weapons against Iraq’s Kurdish population, the US protected him and made sure that the UN Security Council Resolution did not explicitly identify Iraq has the perpetrator of the attack. Many Iranians still believe Saddam fought the war against their country at the behest of the US.

Then, in 1989, President George H W Bush signalled to the Iranians in his inaugural address that “goodwill begets goodwill”. In response, Iran pressured Hezbollah to release all American hostages and provided assistance to US efforts to expel Saddam’s armies from Kuwait. But by the time of Bill Clinton’s election, reciprocity had long been forgotten. The new priority was to contain and isolate Iran. The US cut off trade and imposed sanctions that punished other states and non-US firms for investing in Iran.

After the Iranian reformist Mohammad Kha­tami was elected president in 1997, optimism grew that the “wall of mistrust” between the US and Iran could be torn down. But despite Khatami’s good intentions, he lacked the political strength to steer Iran in a new direction.
America’s reluctance to talk to Iran gained an ideological foundation with the rise in 2000 of George W Bush. Under US neoconservative ideology, diplomacy became a reward reserved for states that deserved America’s company, rather than a tool for conflict resolution. In this world-view, Washington was the ultimate source of legitimacy, and so the administration largely withheld its legitimising powers by refusing to engage the Iranian regime bilaterally.

When the Iranians sent the US a secret negotiation proposal in 2003, offering comprehensive talks on matters ranging from nuclear power to Israel, the Bush White House nixed the proposal. “We don’t speak to evil,” hardliners in the administration declared.

During the eight years in which the White House sought to punish Iran by not talking to it, Tehran’s nuclear programme advanced from a few dozen centrifuges to more than 8,000 (see U for Uranium). Tehran expanded its influence in Lebanon, became kingmaker in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan, and its regional soft power grew precisely because it challenged an increasingly unpopular America.

Against this backdrop, Barack Obama did what no one else before him had done. He made diplomacy with foes of the US, and Iran in particular, a central theme of his foreign-policy platform. What would have been political suicide under normal circumstances became a winning card precisely because of the US public’s rejection of Bush’s failed foreign policy.

Yet despite Obama’s sincere pursuit of diplomacy, domestic politics and the shadow of the 30-year-old ingrained enmity still obscured his efforts. Turmoil after the fraudulent 2009 presidential election (see G for Green Movement) paralysed the Iranian government and prevented it from reaching an agreement with the US that year. And by the time the Iranians were ready to broker a deal in May 2010, when Turkey and Brazil’s mediation secured Tehran’s agreement to a fuel swap built on the benchmarks of a US proposal from only six months earlier, US politics had taken its toll on Obama. With congressional midterm elections only months away, he had to choose between the breakthrough produced by Turkey and Brazil and sanctions at the UN Security Council. He chose the latter.

More than three decades on from the embassy siege, US-Iranian relations are still hostage to the fear and mistrust perpetuated by America, and to Iran’s missteps of yesteryear and today.

Trita Parsi is the author of “A Single Rollof the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran”
(Yale University Press, £18.99)

F is for Farsi

For a language that is spoken by approximately 110 million people, Persian (or Farsi) is relatively unknown beyond its native countries, especially compared to its dominant cousin, Arabic (spoken by approximately 310 million and studied the world over). The vast majority of native Persian speakers are in Iran, but the language is also used in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and other countries influenced by Persian culture.

The language of modern times is a direct continuation of Middle Persian, and before that Old Persian, which was the language of the
Persian empire in the Achaemenid era (in the 6th century BC). Native speakers call it Farsi, the arabicised form of “Parsi”. Persian speakers who migrated west continued to call it Farsi, but Iranian scholars argue that “Persian” is more appropriate, given its historical importance. The government-controlled Academy of Persian Language and Literature officially rejected the use of the word “Farsi” in 2005, stating that “Persian” has been used in a variety of publications including cultural, scientific and diplomatic documents for centuries and, therefore, it carries a very significant historical and cultural meaning.

There is, you might have guessed, a fierce national pride about the Persian language. It was the first to break through Arabic’s monopoly in the written word, and it has given rise to some of the finest poetic writing, by Rumi (see R), Saadi, Hafez, Ferdowsi and others. (The writing of poetry in Persian was established as a tradition through the imperial courts.)

Farsi owes a debt to Arabic, however – many of its words derive from Arabic lexical origins, even if they have changed their meaning over time. Nor is the borrowing confined to Arabic: the language has also taken from both Turkish and Mongolian.

G is for Green Movement

Maziar Bahari writes: Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (see K) should have interpreted the four days of peaceful demonstrations that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president in June 2009 as the last chance Iranians were giving him to reform his corrupt and inefficient regime. By marching silently past murals of the ayatollah, millions of Iranians were telling Khamenei that they could tolerate living under his leadership only if he backed democratic reform, even if half-heartedly, rather than the return of his stooge.

I was on the streets of Tehran during those days, and had never been prouder of my people. Iranians thought they were going to achieve something rare in a Muslim country. Hitherto, mass movements in such countries had been either in support of fundamentalist groups or in favour of western models of democracy. The people of Iran were choosing a third way. The goal of the Green Movement was to establish
a distinctively Iranian democracy, of a kind that entrenched indigenous Iranian democratic traditions, one that could have religious men
at its helm, such as the movement’s accidental leader, the presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, but would still respect human rights, freedom of expression and women’s rights.

Unfortunately, autocrats such as Khamenei are not usually capable of understanding the aspirations of their people or reforming their regimes. So, facing a disenchanted population, the Supreme Leader unleashed his thugs and brutally suppressed the peaceful protests. I was imprisoned on 21 June 2009, charged with having played a role in stirring up the public against “the Master”, Khamenei. My interrogators seemed literally to believe that such mass demonstrations against a “holy regime” could not happen without the help of evil western governments, especially the United States, and the financial help of the rich Zionists who run the western media. As a reporter for Newsweek magazine in Iran, I was, in effect, representing evil Zionists.

Although it is true that the CIA and MI6 were involved in changing regimes in some countries during the cold war, and though it is likely they did whatever they could to help the dissidents in Iran, it was absurd to blame millions of people’s dissatisfaction with their government on foreign intelligence agencies and media. Demonstrations such as the ones I had witnessed sprang from the people, not from outside. Anyone on the streets of Tehran after the election would have known just how spontaneous – even leaderless – the protests had been. But the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guard, which had arrested me, was quite sure that the western media had been the main vehicle used to provoke the demonstrations.

Khamenei likes to warn Iranians about a “cultural Nato” as threatening as the military organisation – a network of journalists, acti­vists, scholars and lawyers who supposedly are seeking to undermine the Islamic Republic from within. The Revolutionary Guard’s duty was to maintain the myth that Khamenei’s subjects – that is, the Iranian people – had re-elected Ahmadinejad, the ayatollah’s favoured candidate. The Guard was convinced that the Green Movement was driven by westernised urbanites trying to bring decadence and moral corruption to Iran, and that it couldn’t have done anything without the support of the west, and the Americans in particular.

These days, I am often asked if the Green Movement is dead. My answer is no. People may not be able to demonstrate their anger at the government, but the movement is getting stronger every day. The protests in the streets of Tehran and many other Iranian cities in 2009 were manifestations of a civil rights movement through which people peacefully demanded their rights as citizens. Those who expected the Green Movement to topple Khamenei’s des­potic regime and bring a western-style democracy to power were wrong.

The Green Movement is a collective cry for a normal life. In fact, for the first time in the history of Iran, there has been a movement based on fundamental respect for life, rather than an ideological notion that people must sacrifice themselves for a cause. Whereas during the 1979 Islamic Revolution nothing was more sacred than martyrdom, the new generation of Iranians does not believe that any idea or cause is worth dying for. These young people want to remain alive and celebrate life.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian journalist and is the author of the memoir “Then They Came for Me” (Oneworld, £12.99)

H is for Heroin

It is not surprising that Iran, sitting on one of the main drug smuggling routes from Afghanistan to the west, should have some kind of heroin problem. But according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the country is suffering from the world’s second worst epidemic of addiction to opiates and is home to an estimated 1.2 million addicts. The crisis has grown since the 1980s, made worse by widespread sharing of needles, which has also resulted in a soaring rate of Aids infection.

Yet Iran, which under Ayatollah Khomeini (see K) punished addicts by executing them, is now a pioneer of more progressive treatments. Subsidised clinics offer clean needles and syringes to addicts, as well as a safe place to shoot up. Medical treatment and advice about clean equipment are on offer. Several years ago, the government made methadone treatment available in prison – a bold measure that applies to only a handful of jails in the US, for instance. In a further twist, the mayor of Tehran responsible for initiating this approach of building scores of drop-in centres was no bleeding-heart liberal, but the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (see A).

I is for Islamic Revolution

Like the French and Russian Revolutions, the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 was a phenomenon of mass popular participation. In other respects, however, it was sui generis. As the Iran expert Abbas Milani has observed, “despite the requisite popular agency of a revolution . . . the founding father” of the revolt “denigrated popular sovereignty as a colonial construct”.

That “founding father” was Ayatollah Kho­meini (see K), who in the late 1970s was living in exile in France. In January 1978, a newspaper article accused him of homosexuality and “other misdeeds”. Police broke up a demonstration against the article by the ayatollah’s supporters with savage force. Despite the ferocity of the official response, popular mobilisation against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi spread throughout the country, culminating in protests in December 1978 in which 17 million people took part.

The shah fled Iran on 16 January 1979. When Khomeini returned from exile two weeks later five million people lined the streets of Tehran to greet him. Following a national referendum, he declared an Islamic republic on 1 April and began cracking down on leftist and liberal intellectuals who had supported the uprising. Liberal newspapers were shut down and left-wing parties proscribed.

J is for Jews

The Islamic Republic of Iran has the biggest Jewish population of any country in the Middle East outside Israel – between 25,000 and 30,000 Jews live in Iran. There are more than a dozen synagogues in Tehran and there is even a seat reserved in the Majlis for a Jewish MP.

That is not to deny the existence of discrimination or hostility towards Jews. Many left the country after 1979 (see D for Diaspora) and in 1999 the regime imprisoned 13 Jews from the southern city of Shiraz on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel. Nonetheless, the treatment of Iranian Jews isn’t as bad as, say, the treatment of the 150-year-old Baha’i community, which is systematically persecuted by the authorities. Tensions between Iran and Israel on the international stage rarely translate into anti-Semitic attacks at home. And the Holocaust denial of President Ahmadinejad (see A) is neither official state policy nor rife among ordinary Iranians.

Jews are believed to be among the oldest inhabitants of Iran, tracing their presence back to the 6th century BC. The tomb of the Old Testament prophet Daniel lies in the town of Shush, in western Iran. The biblical Jewish queen Esther is buried in Hamadan, also in the west of the country; Iranian Jews are often referred to as “Esther’s Children”.

K is for Khomeini and Khamenei

Juan Cole writes: From the mid-1960s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had two main goals. The first was the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was regarded by many Iranians as slavish to US interests. Khomeini attempted to lead a religious uprising against the shah in 1963, but he was arrested and sent into exile. He went to Turkey briefly and then settled in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where
he taught and wrote, and ended up leading the opposition from Paris. In 1978-79, his revolution finally cast down the Peacock Throne and Khomeini pronounced checkmate.

His other goal was to turn Shia Islam from an informal relationship between believers and clerics into a system of government. Khomeini reinterpreted early Islamic texts to argue that seminary-trained clergy should be guardians over the whole of society, claiming that the word for mediator (hakam), often used to refer to Muslim clerics, has the same root as the term for ruler (hakim).

On his return to Iran in 1979, Khomeini translated his theory into a strict system of guardianship by Islamic jurists (see V for Vilayat-i faqih), creating the office of Supreme Leader, the clerical dictator who stands at the apex of government, subordinating the elected president and parliament. The 86 elected members of the Assembly of Experts are all clerics, as are the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians (which decides what bills may become law and who may run for president or parliament). The clerics of the Expediency Council, nearly 40 of them at present are selected by the Supreme Leader and are responsible for mediating in the event of conflict between parliament and the Council of Guardians, and for advising the Supreme Leader.

Khomeini initially faced opposition to his new orthodoxy from grand ayatollahs senior to him, especially outside of Iran – but ever since
it became illegal inside the Islamic Republic to question the guardianship, only ayatollahs with the stomach for trouble have done so openly. However, discontent with the doctrine is re­putedly widespread. Many of the leading office-holders among the ayatollahs who hold posts of critical importance in government institutions are not esteemed for their erudition.

When Khomeini died in 1989, the then president, Ali Khamenei, was promoted to Supreme Leader. He had impeccable revolutionary credentials, having been a lifelong activist against the shah and a principal player in the rise of the Islamic Republic. But although he was a cleric, he was hardly scholarly or widely respected, and he was somewhat implausibly declared an ayatollah only so that he could take up the post of Supreme Leader.

Khamenei has never attracted a wide personal following as a jurist and public mentor in the practice of Islamic law, and his frankly partisan support of President Ahmadinejad (see A), as well as his endorsement of election results that many or most Iranians found dubious, have deeply damaged the authority of his position. On 19 June 2009, in the Friday sermon at Tehran University, he insisted that he would not yield in the face of the protests and warned against further agitation. The next day the regime cracked down (see G for Green Movement). Khamenei may be able to deploy the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij to quell popular disturbances for now, but in doing so he risks losing the consent of the governed.

Khamenei is Supreme Leader, but it is believed that he is outranked in purely religious authority by more than two dozen grand ayatollahs. They may be among the chief beneficiaries of the damage to his standing, and a shift in public support towards the more reform-minded among them could signal a sea change in Iranian politics.

Juan Cole is the Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of “Engaging the Muslim World” (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99). He writes for the blog Informed Comment

Iranians hold pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iranians hold pictures of Khamenei and Khomeini as Ahmedinihad delivers a speech. Photograph: Getty Images

L is for Law

After a referendum approved the constitution of the new Islamic Republic in December 1979, the apparatus of religious or sharia law was grafted on to the existing inquisitorial legal system that had been established by the shah.

The organising principle of the constitution is the “guardianship of the jurist” (see V for Vilayat-i faqih). The Supreme Leader appoints six of the 12 jurists who constitute the Council of Guardians, the body responsible for ensuring that the legislation passed by parliament is in line with religious precepts.

In 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini (see K) appointed Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti as the first chief justice of the Islamic Republic. Beheshti, who died in a bomb attack in Tehran the following year, introduced a system of judicial committees whose job it was to draw up criminal codes grounded in Shia theology. Among the laws established were prohibitions on alcohol consumption, prostitution, adultery, blasphemy and homosexuality. The blurring of the line between religion and law was evident in 1989 when Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill the British novelist Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

Today, the Iranian judiciary pursues homosexuals with fearsome vigour (see S for Sex) and human rights abuses of all kinds have grown worse in Iran since the mass protests of 2009 (see G for Green Movement). A recent Amnesty International report notes that “the authorities [have] tightened restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly” and “repression [has] intensified against human rights defenders, including lawyers”.

M is for Mossadeq

Christopher de Bellaigue writes: To Britons who were born around the end of the Second World War, Muhammed Mossadeq was their first, puzzling experience of foreign affairs. Who was this geriatric political guerrilla, fulminating against Albion while propped up in an iron bed? It was troubling that such a man could defy a great empire. And yet he was a herald of imperial decline.

Mossadeq was easily underestimated. He was quite bald and had a long, drooping, rather mournful nose. He fainted and howled in public and was a terrible hypochondriac. He ran Iran, which is a big and complicated country, while wearing a pair of pyjamas. But he was also a brilliant and inspirational nationalist, the first true democrat to lead a country in the Middle East, and he was adored by his countrymen.

He had spent the five decades leading up to the 1950s as an MP needling those foreign powers – Britain and Russia – which had meddled most brazenly in Iran’s affairs. The British had developed a highly sophisticated oil industry in the south of the country, but the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company paid Iran a paltry royalty and had an unhealthy influence over domestic politics. Nationalist resentment grew and in April 1951 Mossadeq steered oil nationalisation into law and then overcame his famed aversion to office and became prime minister.

The British government cried foul and rejected his offer of first refusal on Iranian oil and substantial compensation for the loss of the concession. Pride and solvency were at stake. The British persuaded the US to participate in an oil embargo with the aim of driving Mos­sadeq from power (sound familiar?) – but the Americans were also preoccupied by the red menace. If Mossadeq went, they feared, Iran’s communists would seize power.

Caught in the middle was the young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He burned with resentment when his prime minister insisted that he reign, not rule. Iran became a constitutional monarchy in more than name.

US agents launched the coup that led to the overthr0w of the most democratic regime in Iran’s history, and a later secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, apologised on their behalf. But the coup had British support, because Prime Minister Winston Churchill was determined to take revenge on “Mussy Duck”.

At the beginning of 1953, British officials fed the Americans a story they knew to be untrue: that it was communists who were keeping Mos­sadeq in situ and Iran might soon fall behind the Iron Curtain. The Americans were convinced. Not for the last time, the US launched a hostile action on a fallacious premise.

An incompetent coup attempt was foiled on 15 August 1953. A second one, four days later, could also have been stopped if Mossadeq had called his supporters into the streets, where they would have outnumbered the CIA’s rented mobs and army units. But Mossadeq refused to entertain civil war. He was almost killed when his house was bombarded, but lived to give himself up the following day. The shah, heavily implicated in the coup, vowed never again to tolerate a strong prime minister.

And so it went over the next quarter of a century. Nationalisation was reversed, the shah became a dictator and the Americans used him as their anti-Soviet bulwark. The shah sent Mossadeq to his rural estate to rot, out of sight, until his death in 1967. Yet he lives on for millions of Iranians – if not for the Islamic Republic; he was too secular for the ayatollahs – as an example of virtue and patriotism. As he told the shah, “Good days and bad days go past. What stays is a good name or a bad name.”

Christopher de Bellaigue is the author of “Patriot of Persia: Muhammed Mossadeq and a Very British Coup” (Bodley Head, £20)

Click here for Part 2: Nose jobs to Zoroastrianism.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran