For many Americans, Iran is barely on the radar screen. They confuse Iran with its neighbor, Iraq, and they tend to think of Iran as an Arab country.
In fact, Iran is not an Arab nation. Iran is the descendant of ancient Persia. The official language of Iran is not Arabic but modern Persian, also known as Farsi.
Though Iran is a Muslim majority nation, most Iranian Muslims are Shia Muslims, a minority in Islam. It differs from nations like Saudi Arabia, where the majority are Sunni Muslims. The division goes back centuries to disagreement over the successor to Mohammad .
American feelings about Iran are mixed with the horror of 9/11 and other terrorist activities. While Iran is certainly implicated in upheavals and bloodshed in the Middle East, none of the 9/ll terrorists were Iranians. Fifteen were Saudi Arabians and the others came from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon.
Columbia University professor Gary Sick served under President Jimmy Carter while American diplomats were hostages in Iran (1979-1981). In writing my novel If Winter Comes, set during that period, I read his book, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, during my research.
In a recent article in The Foreign Service Journal, Sick highlights Iran’s unique culture, going back 2,500 years. Also unique among most Middle Eastern nations, “Iran has experienced at least five major political upheavals in just 100 years” and has “a remarkable record of political activism.” (“Iran Inside and Out,” October 2017)
Religious leaders exert outsize influence over who competes in Iranian elections. Nevertheless, Iran has a more active record of political engagement than many of its neighbors. All Iranian citizens can vote. Regular elections are held for presidential, parliamentary, and municipal offices.
Reform minded candidates do manage to make it through the process. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, is a reformist, though he does not hesitate to stand up for his country in verbal battles with President Donald Trump.
Americans would profit by a deeper understanding of this fascinating country and the complex negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear deal. Iran, more than many Middle Eastern nations, holds promise of change. We should not lightly dismiss our agreement with them.