In order to help promote world cooperation, here are 10 surprising facts many Americans do not know about Iran. With ISIS becoming the number one enemy and threat to peace in the Middle East, the United States is trying to form new friendships. First and foremost the Kurds are finally getting recognition after years of problems as their elite fighting forces, the Pershmerga, have become the front line against ISIS. Next, after debates last year on supporting the uprising in Syria, the United States finds itself unfortunately relying on the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a powerful ally against the terrorists. Finally, some feel that the United States should perhaps take another look at Iran as a possible friend rather than an entrenched foe. A strong Iran may be the Middle East’s best chance against ISIS. On a current tour of Iraq, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Sarif stated, “Iran considers Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability as its own stability and security.” He added that, “ISIL is a threat against Shias, Sunnis and Kurds and even against those who have been “compromising” with the terrorist group and supported it.” Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani noted that Iran was the first to provide much needed weapons to the Kurds to fight ISIS. Should Americans reassess their view of today’s Iran?
The complex relationship between Iran and the West began with the discovery of oil. British Petroleum and American oil companies wanted control of that oil and so desired a puppet government. Shah Reza and his son/heir Shah Reza Pahlavi were happy to comply. They were pro-western and modernized almost every aspect of Iranian culture. However, they were also autocratic dictators. After WWII there were hopes that Iran might become a constitutional monarchy; but when democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq gained support for nationalization of the oil industry MI-6 and the CIA orchestrated a coup, Shah Reza Pahlavi ruled as a totalitarian despot with his secret police, the SAVAK, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Understandably, resentment of Pahlavi and his western supporters grew during his reign. The resentment erupted in a violent revolution and overthrow of the government. Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, claimed power, and established an Islamic Republic. During the revolution, Iranian students took U.S. embassy personnel hostage. 66 Americans were held for 444 days. This event, along with a return to Islamic law and rejection of capitalism, forever embittered Americans against Iran. Now, almost 35 years later, what do Americans really know about Iran? Here are 10 facts that may surprise.
Iran was not originally an Islamic country.
Iran grew out of the Persian empire. The people speak Farsi, and retain many of their old customs. They were initially angry at being conquered by the Muslims in the 600s. Iranians adopted Islam between 800 and 1000. They actually retain traces of their ancient Zoroastrian beliefs in their culture.
Iran is incredibly old.
The earliest archaeological sites date back 100,000 years. Iran contains urban settlements from 4000 BCE. In fact, the foundations of Susa, the oldest known city in the world, date to 4395 BCE. The Medes unified Persia as a nation in 625 BCE and a continuous major civilization has existed ever since. The ancient capital, Persepolis, dates to 515 BCE and was mostly built during the reigns of Darius I and Xerxes the great. Throughout conflicts with the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, the Romans and Byzantines, the Muslims, the Mongols, and the Turks, Persia has retained its unique identity.
Iran may not be as devoutly religious as assumed:
Despite the rhetoric of it leaders and a minority of fundamental zealots, some reports say Iran is the least religious nation in the Middle East. 90 percent of the country practices Shi’i’ Islam, but there are also movements for separation of the church and the state, Christianity is growing, and many Iranians, especially young people, say they are not strongly religious.
Iran has a high population of young people:
The Iranian population is tipped heavily toward the young side. Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged large families when he took power in 1979. By 2009, 70 percent of the population was under 30. Khomeini envisioned creating an army for Islam. Instead, Iran is a country of young people who chafe under the strict rules and find the government’s ant-American rhetoric ridiculous.
It is a misconception that Iranian women must wear large, black Chadors:
Young Iranian women constantly rebel against against the dress codes despite the presence of “morality” police. Law says the hair must be covered and a coat must come to the knee. Pictures of women in Iran show a wide range of interpretation of the dress codes.
Women in Iran have limited rights.
While it is true that women are discriminated against by Iranian law and customs, they also benefit from access to good education and healthcare. 94 percent of girls in Iran attend school and women comprise 60 percent of university graduates. On the other hand, only 15 percent of women work outside the home and they are prohibited from holding political office. However, just yesterday Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said he was against gender segregation in the workplace.
Tehran is a modern city.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that Tehran is a large and modern city. It is also very clean because garbage is collected on a daily basis. In design and infrastructure it is very similar to a European metropolis. Pictures of Tehran show a magnificent city glowing with electricity. The wider metropolitan area of Tehran has a population of 14 million making it the largest city in Western Asia. It has been the capital for 240 years, but the site has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years. It is a beautiful mix of ancient palaces and gardens, mid century monuments and modern architecture.
Iranians can make almost everything they need.
Iran nationalized most industry after the 1979 revolution. They produce cars, refrigerators and electronics. There is an emphasis on heavy industry and a focus on scientific advancement and technology. Iran is part of the world trade network. The sanctions put on Iran by the United States and its allies do have an effect on the Iranian people. Rising inflation and limited access to goods like medical supplies are causing hardship, but are not crippling the government – yet.
Iranians value cordiality.
Iranian have many rules and rituals guiding social and business interaction. One of the most common and confusing for foreigners is ta’arof which is a complicated procedure in which a person providing a service initially refuses payment – as if he were just doing a favor. Most of the few visitors to Iran are astonished at the hospitality. Iranians are known as some of the friendliest and most generous people on earth.
“Death to America” is embarrassing to many Iranians.
An increasing number of Iranians, and almost all of the young people, find the government’s rhetoric embarrassing. Despite American sanctions and past conflicts, more Iranians have a positive view of the United States than people in Turkey or even India, but do not expect people to rise up and overthrow their religious anti-western government in a violent revolution. They did that once before and it has not worked out so well for the average person.
U.S. journalist and photographer Nile Bowie visited Iran in 2012. He says, “Promoting understanding and reconciliation between Iran and the United States needs to start by citizens of those countries exchanging ideas and getting familiar with each other.” It is time for Americans to rid themselves of misconceptions about Iranians and reevaluate the relationship between the two countries. The U.S. might find that fighting ISIS is more urgent than holding on to old enmity. Most Americans do not know enough about Iran to support or oppose political policy. Hopefully this incomplete list of 10 surprising facts will help Americans learn more about their world neighbors.
By: Rebecca Savastio