Persia and Babylonia were unified into the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great in 549 B.C. Though Alexander the Great conquered Persia about two hundred years later, Persia did regain its independence after Alexander's death. The Persian Sassanian empire established in 226 A.D. was a formidable rival to the Roman Empire. It remained until Islam swept into the region in 641, displacing Zoroastrianism which had been the principal religion. The Mongols arrived in the early 1200s and their rule persisted until 1502. The Safavid dynasty ruled until 1736 but its end ushered in two hundred years of decline for Persia. Britain and Russia began to assert control over Persia in the 19th century. The defacto situation was formalized in a 1907 agreement between the two powers that divided Persia into specified spheres of influence. After the First World War, Persia was independent -- but in reality, the country was still treated as a protectorate of Britain. By 1921, the Soviet Union had given up all claims to Persian territory. That year, a military dictatorship was established by Reza Khan -- who then declared himself, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the first of what was to be a hereditary monarchy in 1925. The country became Iran in 1935. During the Second World War, the British (with an eye on Iran's oil) occupied the country and forced Reza Shah to abdicate. His son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, took his place. In the early 1950s, the Shah was briefly ousted but returned in 1953, with the support of the US and British. The Shah was pro-Western, pro-progress and anti-communist. He was also repressive to his people and used the secret police to keep dissent buried. The Shah was exiled in 1979 after widespread violence erupted provoked by the religious fundamentalist elements in the country. The new government, led by austere Ayatollah Khomeini, was Islamic and totalitarian: thousands were executed as the new regime established itself. Militants took over the US embassy in 1979, holding over sixty Americans hostage for over a year. In 1980, war broke out between Iraq and Iran. It raged for most of the decade and cost the lives of at least a half-million people and probably closer to a million. In 1989, Khomeini died. Though Iran was no friend of the West, it tacitly supported the Gulf War against Iraq (its old enemy) by observing UN sanctions against Iraq and by grounding Iraqi planes that landed in Iran seeking haven from Allied bombing raids. Though a relatively 'moderate' government came into power in 1997, Iran remains deep in the grip of Muslim fundamentalism, showing few signs of moving towards democracy any time soon.

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