United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Politics and Art of Iran’s Revolutionary Tulips

Garrett Nada


      Their petals are on the national flag. They line the dome above Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb. They adorn billboards of martyrs from the war with Iraq. They have been depicted on coins and postage stamps. And hotels, parks and restaurants are named after them.
      In Iran, the tulip―laleh in Farsi―is ubiquitous.
The Flag's Tulip
      The tulip became one the most common symbols of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Its new flag featured a red tulip in the center to commemorate the revolution’s martyrs. The sword and the four crescent-shaped petals form the word “Allah” and symbolize the five pillars of Islam― faith, prayer, charity, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

            The revolution has always had a soft spot for the fragile spring flower, a symbol of martyrdom in Shiite Islam. In early Shiism's history, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hossein fell in battle against the Umayyad Dynasty near Karbala, now part of modern Iraq. Tulips sprang from Hossein’s blood, according to tradition.

Art of War

       During the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, the government featured the tulip in posters, billboards and art. Iranians referred to the war as the “Holy Defense” and considered fallen soldiers martyrs. “Every soil is Karbala,” was a slogan during the war.

      The painting on the left shows a soldier’s blood forming a tulip. Hossein sits on a white horse in the background.


72 Tulips in Mourning


      Iran’s late supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died on June 3, 1989. The tomb of the revolutionary cleric is decorated with 72 stained glass tulips. The flowers represent the 72 martyrs who fought and died with Hossein in Karbala.

      Hossein’s forces knew they were grossly outnumbered, but they believed it was better to die fighting for justice than to live with injustice. Sacrifice in the name of justice has been central to the Shiite sect ever since then.


Tulips in Opposition

      Ironically, the tulip also became a symbol of Iran’s opposition after the June 2009 presidential election. At its peak, millions took to the streets of cities across Iran to challenge the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After a brutal government crackdown, the tulip became the metaphor for the Green Movement’s struggle to survive—and to fight for justice. 

      On her blog, activist Melody Moezzi compared the opposition to tulips. “Tulips are delicate flowers by nature. A mild wind properly timed can prove fatal. But tulips do not die. They are perennial. Between blooms, they prepare.”

A Tulip Love Story
       The tulip’s importance in Iranian culture actually dates to ancient times. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. Tulips are a common sight during Nowruz, which marks the coming of spring. Each year, Iranians sing, “This spring be your good luck, the tulip fields be your joy.”

      In a legend about sixth-century Iran, the young prince Farhad heard rumors that Shirin, his great love, had been killed. He was so overcome with grief that he jumped off a cliff. But the story had a Romeo-and-Juliet twist. A jealous rival actually spread a false rumor to sabotage the relationship. According to lore, tulips then grew where his blood had dripped. Ever since, the flowers have been associated with eternal love and sacrifice.

The Tulip on Facebook

       Fifteen centuries later, the tulip is now even used on Facebook as a logo for a website that commemorates the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

      Laleh is a motif common in culture and commerce as well. Laleh Park is one of the capitals’ largest recreation areas. The Tulip Hospital is a major health care facility in Tehran. And the old Intercontinental Hotel was even renamed the Laleh International after the revolution.

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Center for Conflict Management.

Photo credits:
• Tulips on stamp by Rozita (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
• Iran flag via www.en.iran.ir
• Khamenei with stairs and soldiers via Beheshte Zahra
•"Certitude of Belief" (ca. 1981) via University of Chicago Library
•Tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini via http://en/imam-khomeini.ir
•Green Movement tulip via Facebook and www.greenfriend.info
•Farhad meets Shirin via Wikimedia Commons
•Tulip logo via Lalehaa and Facebook

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Hagel: Arms Deal Clear Signal to Iran

            U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is a “clear signal" that all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Hagel arrived in Israel on April 21 for his first visit as defense chief. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Hagel agreed that economic sanctions and diplomacy should be exhausted before considering a strike.

            Ya’alon emphasized that a “credible military option” is necessary to convince Iran to abandon suspected military dimensions of its nuclear program. “[W]e keep our right and capabilities to defend ourselves by ourselves,” he warned. Hagel acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself and make its own calculations. He spent three days in Israel before heading to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The following are excerpted remarks by Hagel and top Israeli officials.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
            “[A]ll military options and every option must remain on the table in dealing with Iran.  That's been a consistent position of mine, regardless of the positions I've held as United States senator and civilian. 
            I support the president's position on Iran. And it's very simple. And I have stated it here, and I've said it many times, as the president has. Our position is, Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, the prevention of Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, period…”
[R]egarding your point about whether Israel should strike Iran, as I said on that trip over here, Israel is a sovereign nation.  Every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself.  That calculation has to be made by the sovereign nation. 
            As to your question regarding any minor disagreements about timing, what I was referring to is intelligence agencies always are within ranges of their positions based on measurement of intelligence on all issues. And that doesn't necessarily always come out exactly the same way or in the same time schedule. 
            But I also believe I said that there was no question about our intelligence agencies working very clearly and closely together on this issue, and we are not only in complete agreement on the policy about Iran, but also we are in total agreement on -- if a time should get to a point here, where we will then have to develop other strategies or other options, and I don't think there's any daylight there or any gap…
            Well, the sanctions on Iran are, I believe, as potent and deep and wide set of international sanctions that we've ever seen on any country.  And those will continue to increase, but I -- I believe -- and there's a rather significant metrics and measurements that give you this information, that those sanctions are causing a tremendous amount of difficulty for Iran. 
            It is the policy of the United States that -- and many of our allies -- to work many tracks in dealing with Iran, and certainly international sanctions are one.  And they are having an effect. Whether it leads to an outcome that we desire remains to be seen. 
            But in any event, that's why you use all the different tools that nations have working together. And as I said, the military option is always an option, and it is always on the table…” April 22, at a joint press conference with Defense Minister Ya’alon
            “Israel and the United States see the threat of Iran exactly the same as do many other countries, not just in the Middle East.  So I don't think there's any daylight there. 
            When you break down into the specifics of -- of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences, but our -- generally -- and, again, I can't speak for General Clapper -- I believe our intelligence is -- is generally pretty close to each other, as well as other intelligence agencies. 
            But the bottom line is that Iran is a threat.  It's a real threat.  And the United States' policy has been very clear on this.  And I think everyone knows it.  As other nations, the -- the Iranians must be prevented from developing that capacity to build a nuclear weapon and deliver it.  And you work out from there…
            I think the United States' course of action, as well as other nations' in the P5-plus-one and many others, working many tracks with Iran, the diplomatic track, the economic sanctions track.  I mean, if you stop just for a moment and look at the U.N. sanctions, international sanctions on Iran, I don't know of an international regime of sanctions that have been more effective, have been more unified and tougher than what's being applied to Iran.
            We know through many measurements that those sanctions are hurting Iran significantly.  Now, does that assure that Iran is brought to a bargaining table or Iran would give up the possibility of achieving a goal of -- if that's their goal?  And I'm not certain we know that, that that decision's been made alone, maybe not.  
            But I think we look at all the dynamics in play and use all the tracks.  I've said, the president's said, all the leaders of the last couple of administrations have said that the military option is -- is one option that remains on the table, must remain on the table.  So we've never taken an option off the table, but military options, I think most of us feel, should be the last option. 
            If that is an option that's required, then we'll have to make that decision, but I think it's our sense, the United States and many of our allies, that these other tracks do have some time to continue to try to influence the outcome in Iran. 
            There's an election coming up in June in Iran.  No one can predict how that might affect the further direction of Iran in policy.  So I think our policy is the correct policy.  Certainly, Israel has every right and responsibility to make their own assessments, but we're working very closely and will continue to work very closely with Israel…
          I don't think there's any question that that's [the arms deal under negotiation] another very clear signal to Iran.  But I think that signal and that reality and that policy has been very clear to Iran for some time.  But this -- this new set of military capabilities to Israel is not new in the sense that it has been the policy of the United States to continue to enhance the military qualitative edge for Israel.  And so this just continues that policy and -- and that dimension...
            When I said that Iran is a real threat, it isn't just the potential of being a nuclear threat.  Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.  That in itself is a threat to not just the region, but to our interests in -- in the region and around the world.  When you further expand that threat to the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons, it becomes pretty clear the dimension of the threat…” April 21, to the media enroute to Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
              “Israel appreciates deeply, the support, the military and security support, that it enjoys from the United States – it reflects a very deep alliance between our two countries and the defense of our common interests and our common values.
            Nowhere are these values and interests challenged more than by the arming of terrorist groups by Iran with sophisticated weapons, and equally, Iran’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons. This is a challenge that Israel cannot accept, and as you and President Obama have repeatedly said, Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. In any case, it is good to have you in Jerusalem.  It is good to have the support, friendship and alliance of the United States.  We deeply appreciate it.” April 23, at a meeting with Hagel  
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon
            “The United States and Israel face common threats and challenges in our tough neighborhood, the Middle East, above all from Iran
            Iran not only threatens the security and stability of the Middle East, but of the entire world.  Iran threatens to wipe Israel off the map.  It backs Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  And it is assisting the Syrian regime to kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians.  Iranian regime is involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, and more.  And Iran is developing nuclear weapons…
            But without a credible military option, there is no chance that the Iranian regime will realize that he has to stop the military nuclear project.  And in certain circumstances, the military option should be exercised.  So this is our very clear policy.  And, of course, we keep our right and capabilities to defend ourselves by ourselves.” April 22, at a joint press conference with Hagel
President Shimon Peres
            “The Iranian people are going to have elections very soon.  I try to understand what do they want.  Iran doesn't have a single enemy.  Nobody threatened Iran.  Why did their leaders decide to become a threat to others?  
            It's hard to understand because they don't need neither any sort of weapons.  And if I were an Iranian, I would really try to see that our children are having enough food for breakfast and young people have an occasion to be educated and live in peace.  
            What's wrong with peace?  Even if peace is not enriched uranium -- you know, you can make anything even without enriched uranium if nobody is threatening you. 
            And I think from that point of view, your visit is timely and meaningful.  It is not just to pay a visit in this country.  But it means that the message coming from you is that you are determined, as really a leader of the free world, not to permit Iran to make this terrible mistake and become nuclear. 
            If it can be achieved by diplomatic means, the better.  Otherwise, they must know that just by diplomacy, it will not be forgiven.  And the president spoke very clearly.  I was watching your interview now on the television.  You said actually the same thing. 
            And I have the full trust in your position, in your seriousness, because, really, Israelis understand that Iran is not just a threat to Israel.  It's really a threat to the peace in the world, for no reason whatsoever.  The world doesn't threaten Iran. 
            And it's a message, don't wait.  You have a choice.  You don't show animosity to Iran.  You simply tell them not to make the Middle East a terrible place of threats and the mass destruction weapons.  You can see what's happening now in Syria…
            We can and we should help other people to overcome their existential problems without going into politics or religion.  And we can prevent the Iranians from making themself a catastrophe for their own sake and for the rest of the world.” April 22, to the media with Hagel

Latest on the Race: Khamenei’s Do’s and Don’ts

            The supreme leader has warned presidential candidates against demeaning each other and promising more than they can accomplish. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has published a list of 25 campaign do’s and don’ts ahead of the June presidential election. At least 30 candidates have indicated their intention to run. They must first register for vetting in mid-May. Only candidates approved by the Guardian Council will contest the June 14 election. The following is a translation of the list posted on Khamenei’s personal website. 


Click here for Khamenei’s election page.

Iran’s Self-Inflicted Wounds

            Iran is facing double-digit inflation, high consumer prices, rising unemployment, and anemic economic growth, according to a new report by Jahangir Amuzegar, a former executive board member of the International Monetary Fund. But not all of Iran’s economic problems are caused by sanctions. Many are self-induced and rooted in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to curb inflation during his first term from 2005 to 2009. The government tried to control rising costs by holding the exchange rate, interest rates and basic energy prices in check. But that short-term fix led to long-term problems, such as worsening Iran’s dependence on oil, hampering companies’ ability compete internationally, and cutting industrial production capacity by up to 40 percent, concludes Amuzegar, who was finance minister in 1963. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.

Self-Inflicted Wounds
            Of the thorny economic problems which Iran is going to face in the coming year, independent of sanctions, almost all are self-induced. They are rooted in a wrong-headed populist strategy of combating endemic inflation by hoodoo remedies. Faced with protracted double-digit price rises caused by perennial budget deficits and excess spending, President Ahmadinejad decided early in his administration to combat this demand-caused economic disequilibrium by focusing on the supply side. Thus, instead of trying to raise revenues or reduce wasteful expenditures, he chose a crowd-pleasing, short-term economic policy of controlling costs - with scant regard for its harmful long-term implications. To keep household and business expenses in check, the government proceeded to hold three vital cost factors -- the exchange rate, interest rates and the basic energy prices— in check through government diktats. The outcome has been a near disaster in all three areas.
            The short-sighted policy of keeping the exchange rate artificially overvalued in order to hold import costs down led to a number of troublesome consequences such as: (a) reducing domestic producers’ ability to compete with foreign suppliers; (b) bringing down domestic production capacity of import-competing industries by some 30-40%; (c) idling thousands of workers with each additional billion dollar of imports; (d) worsening Iran’s non-oil trade balance; and (d) giving a hefty subsidy to foreign farmers and manufacturers  The over-valued exchange rate also resulted in increased national dependence on the world economy (even for essential food items). Thus, with the imposition of new tough sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its central bank operations announced in late 2011, the long dormant pressure on the rial blew up and the current era of exchange instability ensued.

            The government’s extensive interest rate regulation must take its share of the blame. Holding interest rates on saving deposits below the inflation rate and keeping bank charges on commercial and investment loans below free-market levels in the bazaar have inflicted immeasurable damage to the economy. Low (and negative) returns on deposits have discouraged savings and parsimony, stifled productive investments had led savers to move their funds from bank accounts to such other outlets as real estate, precious metals and US dollars.  Losing savings deposits has led the banks to steadily borrow from the CBI for their voluntary as well as state-mandated loans. Government dictated loans to favored, but money-losing, projects have been a main cause of the banks’ non-performing assets. Sizeable differences between mandated bank interest rates and the rates prevailing in the bazaar, combined with the small penalty for late repayments of loans, have induced some well-connected businessmen to borrow money from the state banks at rates in the low 20s, lend the borrowed sum in the bazaar at percent rates in the 30s, and postpone repayments of the loans for years at an annual penalty of only 6%! Poor and unprofessional assessments of borrowers’ proposed projects and the concentration of bank loans on a few selected mega borrowers have been other causes of the banking system’s problems. Nearly 80% of the total bank loans are now reportedly in the hands of less than 12% of active businessman.  In the absence of real banking system reforms in the coming year, the situation is likely to get worse - particularly if the sanctions are not removed.

            Finally, keeping energy prices artificially down for years has resulted in profligate energy consumption, the continuation of energy inefficiencies, the rise of energy-intensive industries vulnerable to external shocks, a growing need for energy imports, intolerable air pollution and a clear rise in energy smuggling to neighboring countries.
Click here for the full text.

U.S. Slams Iran in New Human Rights Report

            On April 19, the State Department’s new human rights report charged that Iran engaged in “egregious” abuses, including “cruel, inhuman or degrading” punishments as well as “judicially sanctioned” amputation and flogging. It cited “beatings and rape” as evidence of Tehran’s politically motivated repression, especially in the four years since the disputed 2009 presidential election. The following are excerpts from “The 2012 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” on Iran:

            “The human rights situation in Iran remained very poor in 2012. The government continued its crackdown on civil society, which has progressively intensified since the 2009 presidential elections. Throughout the year, authorities arrested numerous journalists, students, lawyers, artists, and ethnic and religious activists. The judiciary continued to impose harsh sentences against those who participated in oppositionist or pro-reform demonstrations. The government committed extrajudicial killings and executed persons for criminal convictions on minor offenses, sometimes in public or group executions.
            “Citizens remain unable to change their government through free and fair elections. The government severely restricted freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion and significantly increased its surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ online activities by blocking or filtering content and detaining numerous Internet users for content posted online. Security forces under the government’s control committed acts of politically motivated violence and repression, including torture, beatings, and rape. Iran’s government also sought to increase violent repression outside its borders by continuing to assist the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown against its own people…
            “According to NGO reports, the government executed a total of 523 persons in 2012, many after trials that were secret or did not provide due process. Prosecutors often charged persons arrested for political and human rights-related activities with moharebeh, ‘enmity towards god,’ a vague and overly broad charge that carries the death penalty. The government promulgated new and sweeping restrictions on women’s activities, education, and employment.”
            According to the report, the most widespread abuses human rights problems in Iran were:
        •   the government’s severe limitations on citizens’ right to peacefully change their government
             through free and fair elections
        •   restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press
        •   and the government’s disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and
             unlawfully killed, tortured, and imprisoned
        •   disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
        •   continued impunity of security forces
        •   arbitrary arrest and denial of fair public trials, sometimes resulting in executions without
             due process
        •   severe restrictions on freedoms of speech (including via the Internet) and press.
The following is a link to the full report, which was released after a press conference by Secretary of State John Kerry. http://paei.state.gov/documents/organization/204571.pdf

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