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Iran is situated in the Middle East and is roughly one-fifth the size of the United States. It borders three main bodies of water—the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea—as well as seven countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
The population of Iran is estimated to be 76.9 million (July 2010, State Department). Iran is a country comprising many different ethnic groups and cultures, and is predominantly Muslim. More than 60% of its population is under 30 years old.
Iran (which was known as Persia until 1935) experienced a revolution in 1979, when the ruling Shah was forced into exile and Islam was introduced as a form of government. At this time, Iran’s new rulers began to support militant allies around the world.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran became strained when a group of Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy and its occupants in the capital city of Tehran in November 1979. On April 7, 1980, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran. The 52 hostages were released on 20 January 1981, after 444 days of captivity.
Between 1980 and 1988, Iran and Iraq fought a war over territory that caused massive casualties on both sides, and included some clashes between the U.S. Navy and Iranian military forces in the Persian Gulf.
In the 1990s, a movement toward some political reforms began, but momentum shifted toward more conservative politics in the 2000s. This culminated in the inauguration of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President in 2005. His controversial reelection in June 2009 was considered neither free nor fair by most observers, and sparked a national uprising over allegations of electoral fraud.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians—young and old—took to the streets throughout the country. The spontaneous mobilization quickly crystallized into the Green Movement. This led to the arrest and subsequent trials of more than one hundred Iranian thinkers, intellectuals, and activists. Despite the crackdown, the new opposition movement maintained momentum in sporadic protests and acts of civil disobedience, often led by Iranian youth, who continue to make active use of new technologies including social media platforms.
Relations between the U.S. and Iran remain strained. The U.S. government, by executive orders issued by the President as well as by congressional legislation, prohibits nearly all trade with Iran. Sanctions have been imposed on Iran because of its sponsorship of terrorism, its nuclear weapons ambitions, and its human rights violations. Iran refuses to recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist, and its arming of militant groups in the region has hindered the broader Middle East peace process. At the same time, the U.S. continues to explore options for advancing its own important strategic interests in the region.
The United States Institute of Peace is working on multiple tracks to encourage dialogue and peaceful negotiations in this volatile situation.
USIP’s work focuses on: increasing the breadth and depth of knowledge about developments in Iran among the foreign policy community; shedding light on domestic and regional challenges in the region and identify non-violent political reform strategies; and assessing opportunities and obstacles in pursuing a negotiated solution to the conflict with Iran.
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