Lifting the Iranian Veil | Sarah Stook

When Qasem Soleimani, Commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force, was killed in a targeted drone strike on Baghdad Airport, there was a huge blowback from all sections of society.

Some celebrated, others did not. Whilst most did accept that Soleimani was not a good man, they also did not think that the action was right to do. Some, mainly Iranians, believe him to be a martyr and a fighter against Islamic State. As expected, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei immediately promised there would be revenge and severe repercussions for what happened. Whilst Soleimani was of course Iranian, he was also seen as the most second powerful man in Iran and has been an important military figure for decades.

The relations with Iran have been low since 1979, with the hostage crisis and the Iranian revolution. This recent attack from the United States came after their embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, was nearly overrun by protestors in a response to the death of several Hezbollah members. Those fighters had been killed by airstrikes in a response to an earlier attack on an air base in Iraq, which killed an American and injured several others. The Hezbollah fighters who were killed were Iranian backed and had been accused of the attack by the United States. Those who were trying to enter the embassy waved flags by a pro-Iranian Shia organisation and the United States believed the Iranians to be agitators.

For years, many have tried to take Soleimani out. Israel came close several years ago, but the US intervened by warning Tehran of what was to happen. The country has wanted Soleimani dead for many years, as a strident enemy and hater of Israel. Israel had warned the now deceased Commander that they were not afraid to assassinate him, whilst many thought he’d be a target for the increasingly hawkish Donald Trump.

To understand the tensions between Iran and the USA, we must take a look at the leadership of Iran and its ideology. For many, Iran is just a space on the map and a long-time enemy of the West. Whilst that is true, we also want to see what makes the country tick so that we can understand what the endgame is.



In 1953, a coup instigated by the United Kingdom and the States overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran to give the pro-Western Shah more powers. Twenty-six years later, this would all change. A variety of factors led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, one of three worldwide events that year would change the Middle East and Central Asia.

These factors included the more liberal policies of the Shah, which contrasted with the more conservative working classes, closer relations with Israel, perceived corruption, decadence, westernisation and the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini. Though the Iranian Revolution is classed as 1979, protests started as early as 1977. The cancer-stricken Shah’s image was ruined when he went away for his health, which had been kept private. Protests turned into riots, with the army returning fire. On 8th September 1978, the army opened fire on religious protestors in a market. This event, known as ‘Black Friday,’ was the turning point of the revolution.

After an international meeting, the Shah believed that he wouldn’t be backed by Western powers. Knowing he was dying and that he would not win, he decided to leave the country in January 1979. He travelled internationally, only receiving treatment in the United States after pressure on President Jimmy Carter by Republicans, notably Henry Kissinger. The Shah eventually died in Egypt, a year after the Revolution and his family live in the United States.

Whilst the newly returned Ayatollah Khomeini was asked to create a Vatican style state with democratic elections, but the new Supreme Leader refused and created his own government. A referendum on abolishing the monarchy with an Islamic Republic passed with 98% in support of the latter.

Since 1980, the United States and Iran have had no formal diplomatic relationship. Neither has an embassy in the other country, going through Pakistan and Switzerland respectively when channels are needed. Since 2018, direct talks have been banned by the Ayatollah. There has been a trade embargo since 1995, sanctions until 2016 (the Iranian Nuclear Deal with the Obama Administration) and then from 2018 onwards (when the USA withdrew from the deal under President Trump).



The Supreme Leader of Iran is the Ayatollah Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in that year. If one is to be considered as Supreme Leader, they must first be appointed by the 12-member Guardian Council (who are given their roles by the Ayatollah). Following this, they are elected by the Assembly of Experts.  The people considered must be Shia clerics.

The Supreme Leader is extremely powerful and is the highest ranked person in Iran. The President must be approved by him before inauguration, he can also fire said President at any time, declare war, veto laws and many other things. He appoints or oversees nearly every major figure, from the Head of the Supreme Court to the Commander of the Armed Forces.

The current President is Hassan Rouhani, who has served since 2013. The President of Iran has similar limitations to the American one, as in they can only serve two terms or eight years. Qualifications from the Constitution include Iranian nationality and origin. Whilst the Supreme Leader is Head of State, the President is also very powerful.

There are several political parties across Iran, but not all are registered as such- they are movement and caucuses who hold power. The main political party/caucuses are as followed:

  • Combatant Clergy Association- A traditional movement that supports the Islamic leadership and clerical rule. They want to preserve the goals of the 1979 Revolution and what followed, though as they are not a political party they don’t actually have a manifesto. President Rouhani belongs to them.
  • Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom– An ultra conservative group that was created in support of the then exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. Supporters of revolutionary ideals, they are mainly used to keep checks on political rankings.
  • Islamic Coalition Party– A conservative political party, though not as revolutionary as the above. Whilst still socially conservative and traditional, they support economic liberalism and capitalism.
  • Society of Devotees of the Islamic Revolution– A conservative political party with many veterans in its ranks. It forms part of a very powerful movement.
  • Front of Islamic Revolution Stability– Considered the most right-wing party, it is also seen as extreme. They are Iranian populists and also fundamentalists.
  • YEKTA Front– One of the newer groups, an Iranian populist group.



Though it does have parts of a democracy, Iran is essentially a theocratic authoritarian state. Some old civil laws from pre-1979 have been retained, but currently everything legal is based on Sharia. There are several types of court, with the Islamic Revolutionary Courts devoted to crimes such as blasphemy and inciting violence against the government.

The death penalty occurs in Iran and executes the largest group of people per capita in the world. Whilst some crimes that can incur the death penalty are on par with other countries’ actions, many are based on Sharia law or religious traditions. These include adultery for people who are married, fornication also for those who are married, sodomy (for the passive partner), lesbianism and drinking alcohol.

In terms of ideology, Iran is an Islamic populist nature. It is extremely socially conservative and has a fiscal policy of central planning, a nationalised oil industry and private services. The Central Bank of Iran is nationalised and only Islamic labour unions are recognised. Oil and natural gases are the central part of Iran’s economy.


International Actions

Iran maintains a strong defence but is not notable on the world stage militarily. It supports causes such as Bashar al Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. They are believed to be proponents of state sponsored terror and are accused of being in cahoots with al Qaeda. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are classed as a foreign terrorist group by some countries.

It does not have many allies on the world stage, having full diplomatic relations with 97 nations. After Iraq, it is the second most hated country in the world and has held that position consecutively for the past three years according to The Reputation Institute. The vast majority of countries support economic hardships.

Iran is closely allied with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian authorities. Russia, China and Turkey tend to oppose sanctions in the United Nations.

Iran’s greatest enemy is the USA and they don’t recognise Israel, a country it has vowed to destroy since 1979 and has attacked before. These two countries are the only two that Iran will refuse to have direct and absolute relations with. They are also on frosty terms with Western countries such as the UK and Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia. They have trouble with the Arab states, as Iran overthrew the monarchy and is a Shia republic against many Sunni monarchies.


The Future

Iran has promised that the USA will suffer as a result of their recent attack. It has continued its strong pledge to destroy Israel.

It is hard to say what will happen. Iran has pledged to destroy Israel for four decades but has not come close, as its tiny enemy has might and strong allies- they may try rocket attacks, but these will not come close to a full scale attack.

As for the USA, Iran will also find it difficult to fight back.  They have already started bombing and sending missiles into American-backed areas such as military bases. It if wanted to fight, it would struggle to find allies. Though they may help covertly, no one would want to risk a full war as it would cause them problems too. President Trump has already started targeting more Iranian top brass, which may mean Iran will try.

A full blown war is unlikely and we can hope that it will not occur. There are several reasons for this, such as the likelihood of a USA victory, the potential deaths of soldiers and thousands of civilians, de-escalation in the area and problems in the Middle East. If the USA were to declare war, it is unclear how much support they’d receive. Whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson may send ships to patrol the area and other supportive measures, it’s doubtful he’d want to risk getting entangled in a war. Israel would likely help the USA, but considering the lack of support they got in the Second Gulf War, other countries would likely not bother.

We shall have to wait before we can truly see what will go on.

Photo by Top Breaking News on Flickr.

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