Iraq and Iran did not exist prior to World War I

Map of Iraq and Iran
Map of present day Iraq and Iran

For all their revolutions and wars over the last four decades, you must remember that Iraq and Iran are relatively new nations on the world scene.  Neither existed as we know them today prior to World Wars I and II.  Since then, these 2 very different Muslim nations, with similar sounding names, have had a long history of dynasties, revolutions and republics.  Let’s take a look at them one at a time.


Prior to World War I, the Iraqi area was the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by the Turks for Five Centuries after they conquered the region from the Persian Empire.  Baghdad was key due to its rich cultural history and central location on the Tigris River.  But it was ruled with an iron fist by the Ottoman Sultans, who kept all the warring tribes under control.

In World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with the losing side of Germany and Austro-Hungary.  The end of that war marked the end of the Ottoman Empire as well.  Britain and France won control over ALL the Middle East.  The Turks were left with the footprint of modern Turkey.

A British/French plan called the ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’ essentially carved up the Middle East between them.  In 1920, the Iraqi region became a ‘British Mandate’ under the League of Nations, formally called the “State of Mesopotamia,” with the modern straight-line borders we know today.  Britain brought in a Sunni king from Arabia to rule over the new constitutional monarchy, which included both Shiite Muslim and northern Kurdish tribes.

In 1927, an event happened which would change the region forever, Britain discovered oil in Iraq.

In 1932, “IRAQ” gained independence as a constitutional monarchy, with a British-appointed King Faisal I. From the 1930s to the 1950s, Iraqi politics were dominated by pro-Western prime ministers who began drilling for more oil and modernizing the country.  The Hashemite family ruled until 1958, when King Faisal II was assassinated (along with the entire royal family!) in a bloody coup led by General Abdul Qasim. This marked the beginning of a military-dominated republic.

Qasim ruled for 5 years, before being overthrown himself and murdered by Colonel Abdul Arif in 1963. Five years later, he too was deposed by a Ba’ath Party coup in 1968. The Ba’ath Party was remarkably dominated by Sunni Muslims in a predominately Shiite nation. Iraq’s abundant oil revenues were used to develop the economy, build schools and hospitals, but also substantially grow its military. The Ba’ath leaders were then pushed out of power by a familiar name, General Saddam Hussein.

Hussein seized power as president in 1979. The following year, he launched an invasion of Iran that led to the bloody Iran-Iraq War. Iraq was heavily backed with aid by the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia – Iran by the Soviet Union and China.  It ended with a stalemate after 8 long years.  In 1990, Hussein invaded its neighbor Kuwait.  This set off a US-lead counter invasion by the 1st President George Bush beginning the First Iraqi War.  This was of courser followed by the 2nd President George Bush and the Second Iraqi War in 2003. This finally led to the fall of the Ba’ath regime, and Hussein’s ultimate capture and hanging in 2006. It has since been a parliamentary republic once again.

Sunni & Shiite in one, all too short, paragraph

Sunnis and Shiites are both Muslims.  The Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran and founded Islam and the first Islamic state in Arabia in 622.  The dispute and difference comes over who was Muhammad’s rightful successor.  The Sunnis believes that the first four Caliphs–Muhammad’s successors—are the rightful leaders of Islam.  Shiites believe that only the heirs of the fourth Caliph Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, are the legitimate successors.  The split in Islamic leadership and religion has remained ever since.  Shiites are concentrated in Iraq and Iran, while Sunnis dominate 85% of all Muslims (1.5 billion worldwide) in North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Southeast Asia.


Prior to WWI, the Iranian region was the center of the Persian Empire, ruled by the Qajar Dynasty.  Discontent boiled over into revolution. In 1906, the last Qajar shah, Muzaffar al-Din was forced to introduce a parliament, the Majlis, and a constitution, in what is known as the Constitutional Revolution.  However, the next shah, Mohammad Ali, did not care for the Majlis and attacked parliament with his artillery in 1908, introducing Martial Law. This led to another uprising in 1909 and Shah Ali was forced to abdicate in favor of his son.

Britain, the US and Soviet Union in the meantime ALL became increasingly interested in Iran following the World War II, due to its vast oil reserves.  In 1921, a British-backed Iranian officer Reza Khan seized control of the government in a yet another coup. He ousted the last Qajar ruler and named himself Shah. This began what would be Iran’s final royal dynasty – the Pahlavis.

Reza Shah tried to both modernize and westernize Iran, but after 15 years, was forced out as well by Britian and Soviet Russia and into exile because of his ties to Adolf Hitler’s Nazis. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took the throne in 1941.  In 1943, at the Tehran Conference, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin signed the Tehran Declaration, accepting an independent “IRAN,” under the young Shah Reza. 

British Petroleum (BP) in the meantime was making millions in Iran and Iraq.  The next ruler, Mohammed Mosaddeq, fought to nationalize the oil industry and repatriate the wealth.  Needless to say, that did not go over well with the west.  In 1953, the US CIA and Britain orchestrated a coup to oust Prime Minister Mosaddeq, bringing the pro-western Shah Pahlavi back to power in the so called White (bloodless) Revolution.

In following years, Iran forged closer and closer ties with Washington, receiving huge amounts of military and economic aid until the late 1970s. Iran began ramping up its military and became one of the region’s strongest military powers.  The country also saw more westernization, including greater freedom for women. This came much to the dismay of the strict Muslim clerics, who denounced western influences on Islam.

By 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the leading opposition to the Shah.

Khomeini claimed the shah had reduced the Iranian people to “American dogs.”  The Shah responded by banishing Khomeini from Iran.  The Shah ruled until 1979, when he too was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution by a coalition of military generals and Muslim clerics opposed to his despotic rule. The Shiite Clergy took control, under the leadership of none other than Ayatollah Khomeini, who returned from exile, forcing the Shah out of the country.

Khomeini declared Iran a theocracy with himself as the Supreme Leader, and a ‘President’ with lesser powers. Iran entered the aforementioned Iran-Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein invaded western Iran, ending in a stalemate 8 years later.  Khomeini ruled the country until his death in 1989.  He was succeeded by the current Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continued his predecessor’s policies.

Iraq and Iran flags
Iraq and Iran flags

So you see, Iraq and Iran are relatively new, but critical, entries into the global scene.  The bubbling hot pots of Iraq, Iran, plus their neighbors, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been stirred and supplemented for decades by European, Russia, American, tribal and Muslim spoons.  Each has attempted democracy, only to fall back into military or religious dictatorships.  One regime is a trusted ally and supported by the US and Europe, the next one is a dangerous enemy and taken to war.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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