Meanwhile, just across the street, so to speak, is Iraq, a made up nation with its own deep history and a profound desire to play in the Middle East big leagues. Iraq invades Iran and begins what is to become the longest conventional war in the 20th century, and a costly one at that. Half-a-million military and civilians die and nothing much changes. In the midst of this comes the Iran Contra affair, a clandestine action not approved of by the United States Congress. This depressing footnote in US history began in 1985 when President Ronal Reagan’s administration supplied weapons to Iran — already a sworn enemy — in hopes of securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah terrorists loyal to Khomeini. The US took millions of dollars from the weapons sale and routed them and guns to the right-wing "Contra" guerrillas in Nicaragua. The Contras were the armed opponents of Nicaragua's Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction, following the July 1979 overthrow of strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the ending of the Somoza family's 43-year reign. Are you following all this?
Khomeini dies in June 1989 (his coffin tipped over and the body spilled out), and his successor Ali Khamenei rules for awhile. Leaders come, leaders go; time flies. The Americans invade Iraq, and though Iran stays neutral, it allows Iraqi warplanes and refugees into the country. Remember now: just a few years earlier, Iran and Iraq were sworn enemies, not BFFLs.
During 2005 and 2006, Iran claimed that the US and Israel were planning to attack, mostly because the civilized world feared Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program which many are still pretty sure could and would lead to a nuclear weapons program. And, of course, there are issues of crude oil, and some saber rattling for electoral purposes in the US.
In 2009 the Iranian elections are marred by large protests. Reformist opponents allege voting irregularities and by 1 July 2009, 1000 people had been arrested and 20 killed in street demonstrations. Khamenei, of course, blames foreign powers for fomenting the protest.
So now it’s January 2012, and Iran isn’t that much of a player. In fact, other than oil and the nuclear weapons threat, nobody takes the country too seriously. It does appear that 30 years of economic sanctions have had some impact and the Iranian man-in-the-street, generally not a bad guy, would like things to be normal, but the government, hanging on for dear life, decides to make international headlines by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz through which about 20 percent of Middle Eastern oil flows. Oil prices briefly surge, and Iran gets a small windfall of much needed cash. More threats follow, not taken too seriously by anyone, which pisses off the Iranian nuclear wannabes.