Protestors have surged into the streets of Tehran this week, claiming that their candidate of choice has clinched the election while the nation’s military and religious leaders attempt to swing public support behind the electoral results like a teacher attempting to bring a class full of recalcitrant Year 9s to order on a sweltering Friday afternoon.

“Why is this important?”, you might ask. It’s not as if Iran is entirely alone in having trouble getting the whole democracy thing right. Sure, the United States likes to grumble that Iran longs, nay, yearns to lob nuclear missiles at their buddy Israel and further afield, but Iran is not entirely alone in that regard either. North Korea, for example, is much more maniacal in its saber-rattling.

The simple answer is that Iran provides a fascinating case study in a nation attempting to find a balance between secular, democratic rule and the powerful sway of dictatorship or theocracy.

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The nation we know today as Iran arose out of squabbling Aryan tribespeople (hence the name, ‘Iran’), into a series of empires and regimes. Some of these were very successful and broke their traditional borders to subsume surrounding nations. You might remember Xerxes, represented as a bald, pierced, oiled, rather effete chap in the motion picture 300. His mob went so far as to sack Athens and gave the Greeks a very hard time indeed.

He was eventually defeated, however and the country fell to another leader to point it in the right direction. The pattern of dynasty, overthrow, empire, overthrow, dynasty, overthrow is one that would pretty much continue from the beginnings of recorded history for two millenia.

Order, for Iranians, finally began to take shape in the late eighteenth century, althought this was only due to attacks by the Russian and British Empires. Nothing like conflict to draw a nation together! To their credit however, Iran was able to resist the invasion and colonization of their lands by the Imperial powers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries unlike pretty much every other single country surrounding them

Iran’s revolving door of total rule finally slowed to a halt in the 1920s, when Reza Khan, a young soldier, staged a coup d’etat. For the next 20 years, Khan would rule as Shah, modernizing much of the nation and rapidly bringing the country up to pace with the rest of the world. He built a government — a great thing for nation to have! Yes, Khan was a good bloke, if you can ignore his habit of having his rivals murdered, or his tendency to antagonize the clergy, who had long occupied a central place in Iranian society, dictacting customs and societal structures.

The clergy might have soon snapped and incited his overthrow, were it not for the British and Russians, who did the job for them. Horrified at the prospect of Nazi Germany getting their hands on all of Iran’s vast oil reserves and petroleum-refining infrastructure, the Allies effectively rode up to the Shah’s palace one day in 1941 and asked very nicely if he’d mind abdicating in favour of his son, who was much more aligned to their interests. He didn’t have much of a choice, surrounded by all the military hardware pointed at him.

Khan’s son, Shah Pehlavi, continued his father’s reforms, bringing a western style of government to the nation, developing infrastructure, bringing investment into the country and generally acting as a much better fellow than his father — not quite so many were thrown into prison and so blatantly rubbed out under his rule.

Having swung so far in one direction under charismatic leadership, the pendulum of Iranian political rule swung back in 1979 after months of protests lead by a chap called Ruhollah Khomeini, an Ayatollah, or high-ranking Shia Muslim cleric. Khoemini, a intensely driven and popular individual, considered the rule of the Shah to be debasing Iranian society, and wasting the country’s resources, which left many in poverty. Khoemini was a very organized fellow and good at directing his followers.

His revolution was incredibly rapid and lacked quite as much bloodshed as many other revolutions occuring around the world at the time. Consider Khoemini the ‘Nerdy Accountant’ of the revolutionary leader set.

Since 1980, Iran has existed as an Islamic republic, something intensely troubling to successive US administrations. Relations between Iran and the United States have been shaky for pretty much the 30 year span of the Republic, occasionally inflamed by such events as the hostage crisis of 1979, where a bunch of Iranian students, backed by religious leaders, took most of the US Embassy staff in Tehran hostage for over a year.

The latest surge of ill-will came with the election of Ahmedinejad as President in 2003. More conservative than previous leaders and a lot more willing to express his feelings, Ahmedinejad has talked a lot about Iran building a nuclear weapons program and annihilating Israel (something he just loves to rattle on about). This talk has made him intensely unpopular, particularly at home, and coupled with his autocratic rule and occasional use of the military to quiet discontent, this talking out of turn has led to what is most likely his electoral defeat — something he’s not quite ready to acknowledge.

So, we find ourselves in front of our laptops and desktops, watching for more news of the situation. Which way will the pendulum swing this time? Will the voice of the people win out? Will the nation take another stop towards a true democracy?

Or will the miltary tighten the reigns on the theocratic Islamic republic? It’s another chapter in the story of Iran’s journey towards a stable form of government, a political laboratory that can tell us much about how church and state can co-exist within a nation.

Mike Stuchbery works with cultural institutions to make their collections accessible to students, teachers and the general public. He is also the Editor of Macabre Melbourne.

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