In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics and Foreign Policy of Iran

  • Introduction
  • Dynasties, Unification, and Agreements
  • The Pahlavi Dynasty (1924–1979)
  • The 1979 Revolution
  • The Khomeini Era (1979–1989)
  • Pragmatists and Reformists
  • Reaction to the 9/11 Attacks
  • The Return of Islamic Populism
  • Nuclear Issues in the Context of Russia-Iran Relations
  • The Sanctions Policy
  • Reactions to the Arab Uprisings
  • The Victory of Moderates and Diplomacy

International Relations Politics and Foreign Policy of Iran
Mahmood Monshipouri
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0169


A nation of rich intellectual and historical background, Iran is indeed one of the oldest surviving civilizations in the world. Its political and intellectual depth has profoundly shaped a region of the world known as the Middle East. From the time of the prophet Zoroaster, to the potent and vast Persian empires, to the revolution of 1979, and to the 2009 Green Movement, its impact throughout the region has been remarkably real and consistent. Iran’s modern history began with Reza Khan (also known as Reza Shah), a military officer in Persia’s Cossack Brigade, who successfully staged a coup against the government of the Qajar dynasty and crowned himself the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. He was known for launching an ambitious campaign to modernize the country by laying down the infrastructure of a broad-based, nationwide education system, building a national railroad system, and improving the nation’s health care. By the mid-1930s, he officially renamed Iran as the heir and modern inception of the “Persian Empire.” Following the Second World War, the British and Soviets, who were suspicious of Reza Shah’s friendly relationship with and approach toward Germany, occupied western and southern Iran, forcing him to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who subsequently succeeded him. The young Shah then faced a significant challenge to his rule by Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq who attempted to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. The shah ultimately lost the power struggle with Mossadeq and left the country, only to be brought back with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency and MI 6, which collaborated with Pahlavi to carry out a coup to overthrow Mossadeq in August of 1953. The shah’s repressive apparatus, and his failed “White Revolution,” mismanaged economy, and fast-paced socioeconomic Westernization spurred widespread popular resentment and opposition that included a broad spectrum of dissent, culminating in the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. Spearheaded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (b. 1902–d. 1989), the 1979 revolution toppled the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, ending 2,500 years of monarchy. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran has guaranteed its political longevity by defending itself against real or imagined external enemies, thereby garnering the nationalist support of its population. By 2009, however, the Islamic Republic faced a new challenge: the Green Movement, which manifested in a green wave, reminiscent of the “color revolutions” in the Ukraine and Georgia posed a homegrown and popular threat to the country’s power structure. Although the suppression of that movement kept in check the reformist movement, the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 has held the prospects of much anticipated change and social freedom in a country that faces many formidable challenges, including the youth bulge, unemployment, as well as social and political restrictions. The conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 group (the United States, China, Russia, UK, and France, along with Germany) in 2015 promises the beginning of a new era in building a relationship between Iran and the West aimed at addressing broader issues—such as the stabilization of programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian war, the refugee crisis, and the future of the region’s tempestuous political composition.

Dynasties, Unification, and Agreements

Iran was reunified in the 19th century under the Qajar dynasty (1790–1890) but was subsequently defeated by the British in the south and Russia in the north. Historians appear to be in agreement over the Qajar kings’ modus operandi. Lacking a strong and centralized army, police, and infrastructure with which to govern the country, Iran’s central government had to rely on bribes, foster internal factional conflicts, divide opposing forces, and hold hostages (“guests”) from powerful tribes and families in Tehran. Keddie 2006 provides a comprehensive analysis about historical and sociocultural forces at work in late-19th-century Iran and is essential reading to learn more about the failure of the Qajar dynasty and the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty. Keddie 2006 notes that what proved more perilous than powerful tribes and families for the power of the government was in fact the great influence and authority of the Shi’ia ulama. Under the humiliating Treaty of Turkmanchai (1828), an agreement signed by Russia and Persia at the village of Turkmanchai, East Azerbaijan province, northwest of Iran, the Aras River was established as the common boundary between Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia. This treaty forced Iran to cede part of Persian Armenia to Russia and to grant extraterritorial rights. In the so-called Talbot Concession (1891), the Qajar regime granted a concession to Major Gerald Talbot for a monopoly on all tobacco sold in Iran—which was followed by the Tobacco Revolt. Protests against the Talbot Concession erupted in Shiraz, Tehran, and Tabriz. In December 1891 Mirza Hasan Shirazi (marja-i taqlid) declared the use of tobacco a war against the Hidden Imam (Mahdi). This fatwa (religious edict) led to the tobacco boycott. During the Tobacco Revolt (1891–1892) and subsequently during the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911), an important sector of the ulama helped lead popular movements against a government widely regarded as complacent to the encroachments of foreign imperialists. In the early 20th century the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement divided Iran between Russia and Britain. By the end of the First World War (1918), Iran had become a battleground, resulting in an economic catastrophe—northern Iran was the country’s breadbasket, and much farmland there was ruined by the invading armies. The Anglo-Persian Agreement (1919) practically rendered Iran a British protectorate, with Iran becoming dependent on outside support for maintaining an internal army and building its railroads and other infrastructure.

  • Akhavi, S. Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980.

    Akhavi discusses how various factions within the clergy have responded to the government’s efforts to foster modernization and secularization, while giving special attention to the changes in the madrasahs, or theological colleges. He examines the main themes of the Ayatullah Khymayni’s book, Islamic Government, and concludes by exploring the alignments among the clergy in the past that demonstrate how they may develop in the future.

  • Algar, Hamid. Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906: The Role of the Ulama in the Qajar Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

    Algar examines the interests of the ulama and their influence on political developments in the Qajar period up to 1906. His central argument is that they played a fairly consistent role throughout the 19th century. The efforts to reform and bolster the powers of the state by the Qajars were vehemently opposed by the ulama in large part because they threatened the powers and privileges of the ulama.

  • Arjomand, S. A. The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Organization and Societal Change in Shi’ite Iran from the Beginning to 1890. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226924809.001.0001

    Arjomand calls into question oversimplified and politically charged views of the politics of Shi’ite Islam. He offers a well-documented and well-researched sociological and historical study of Shi’ism and the political order of pre-modern Iran that lay at the heart of what later became Khomeini’s theocracy.

  • Gasiorowsky, Mark, and Malcolm Byrne. Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.

    Gasiorowsky and Byrne present one of the most authoritative accounts of the turbulent political climate that led to the overthrow of Mosaddeq, the confrontation between Iran and Britain for control over Iran’s oil, the strategic considerations that led US officials to opt for a coup, and the details of the coup itself. The book provides an in-depth analysis into not only the coup d’état itself but also the events that ultimately led to it.

  • Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Result of Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Keddie examines historical, socioeconomic, cultural, and political roots of the 1979 revolution. She also provides insightful commentary on Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy, its relations with the United Nations and the United States, increasing conservative and hardline proclivities in the government, and recent developments in the country’s social change, human rights issues, and political dynamics.

  • Litvak, M. Shi’i Scholars of Nineteenth-Century Iraq: The ‘Ulama of Najaf and Karbala. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Litvak writes that the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala in 19th-century Ottoman Iraq were the most prominent Shi’i centers of learning. The author examines the sociopolitical dynamics of these communities and the historical development of Shi’i leadership. The book’s unique contribution lies not only in providing the historical debates but also in broadening an understanding of modern Shi’ism.

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