Iran: Middle East’s Shiite powerhouse

iran-electionsTEHRAN: Iran, rocked by days of violent demonstrations, is the largest Shiite Muslim country in the Middle East and a rival of Sunni giant Saudi Arabia.

Large oil, gas reserves

Iran sits on the world’s fourth-biggest oil reserves and the second-largest gas reserves, after Russia.

It is a founding member of the influential Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC.

The country has been under economic sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme. Some were lifted in January 2016, allowing Tehran to resume oil exports and pick up trade with the European Union.

However, foreign investment is only trickling in, because of US sanctions still in force.

An austerity budget was adopted in March 2015 after plummeting crude prices weighed on the economy.

In 2016 income per capita was US$5,470, according to the World Bank, against US$6,950 in 2013.

Unemployment among the population of more than 80 million officially stands at 12.5%, including 27% of young people.

Islamic revolution

Iran was long a monarchy ruled by a shah and dominated by the Pahlavi dynasty from 1925 to 1979.

A popular revolt drove out shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in January 1979.

This led exiled revolutionary religious cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to make made a triumphant return on February 1.

The shah’s government fell 10 days later and an Islamic republic was proclaimed on April 1 with Khomeini later becoming its first all-powerful supreme leader.

Supreme leader

The highest political authority in Iran is the supreme leader, who has the final say on all national issues.

Former president Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 78, currently holds this position, taking over from Khomeini on his death in 1989.

The Assembly of Experts of elected religious clerics selects, oversees and can even dismiss the supreme leader.

Next in line is the president, who is elected for four years by universal suffrage, and who nominates the government.

President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, took office in August 2013. In May 2017, Rouhani, now 69, won a second term with 57 percent of the vote.

He replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose re-election in June 2009 sparked a massive political crisis and a crackdown on nationwide protests.

Parliament’s powers are limited when compared to other institutions.

It is vetted by the Guardian Council, a 12-strong group of clerics and jurists with the authority to interpret the constitution.

Deeply embedded in life in Iran are the Revolutionary Guards, an elite branch of the army that are considered to be the country’s ideological army.

Rivalry with Saudis

For centuries, Shiite-majority Iran has competed with Turks and Arabs for regional supremacy. Its main rival today is Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

The two countries have taken opposing sides in wars in Syria and Yemen.

In Syria, Tehran is the main regional military and financial backer of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni rebels supported by Riyadh.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia fights in support of pro-government forces against Iran-backed rebels and their allies.

Iran also fought a war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988 in which more than a million people were killed.

Historic nuclear accord

On becoming president, Rouhani relaunched formal negotiations with major powers on Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.

An historic accord was signed on July 14, 2015 and implemented on January 16, 2016, bringing a 12-year dispute to a close.

Terms of the accord stipulate that Tehran will not try to build a nuclear bomb, an ambition it has always denied.

In exchange, many international sanctions were lifted, although remaining US sanctions continue to stifle trade.

In October 2017, US President Donald Trump refused to “certify” Tehran’s compliance with the accord.