About Iran


Maps and data on Iran from the About Guide to Geography.

A variety of Iran maps from the National Geographic Society.


By Christine Foy for the Iran Project

Iran is over twice the size of Texas: an area of 1,629,807 sq. km. (634,293 sq. mi.). Armenia and Azerbaijan border Iran on the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, and Iraq and Turkey on the west. The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman lie south of Iran, and the Caspian Sea—the largest inland body of water in the world—lies to the north, providing Iran with most of the water needed for farming.

According to the 1996 census, the population is 61.3 million, approximately 60 percent of which live in cities. Over half of Iranians are under age 25.

Two-thirds of Iran is either desert or mountains. Overall, rain is scarce and seasonal. The climates can be extreme and vary in different regions of the country. The area between the Elburz Mountains and the Caspian Sea in the north contains the most fertile land, which makes the temperature more moderate than in the southern regions. This area also supports the last enduring thickly forested area in the Middle East. Important trees that grow in this region are the walnut—whose bark is exported for furniture—oak, lemon, date, and pistachio, to name a few. These may be found in the valleys of the Elburz Mountains.

The Plateau of Iran, lying within the center of the country and extending eastward into central Asia, contains two salt deserts which comprise 25 percent of Iran's land area. This area is hemmed in by mountains, from which three of Iran's largest rivers flow: the Atrek, Safid, and Karun. The capital of Iran is Tehran—the largest city in the country (population over 6 million)—and the most important industrial and cultural center.

Iranian flag.

The official site of the president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami.

A brief description of Iran's government from the InfoPlease encyclopedia.


By Christine Foy for the Iran Project

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1953 in a coup engineered by the CIA. He was praised in the West for his land reform and efforts to modernize Iran's industry and culture. But within Iran, he was seen as an increasingly brutal dictator. He instituted the SAVAK secret police in 1957 to oversee political activity and the work of the press, and in 1975 he decreed a one-party system. Mass demonstrations erupted in 1978, escalating until the Shah fled Tehran in January 1979.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shi’a Muslim spiritual leader, led the opposition to the Shah. He represented those conservatives who were uncomfortable with the Western type of modernization enforced by the Shah and those Iranians who felt the Shah had gone against Islam.

Iran was declared an Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution. Iranians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to establish an Islamic constitution. Under that constitution, the legislation of the country is guided by the code of Islamic law. Although a president and parliament are elected, supreme authority belongs to religious leaders. Tensions still exist today over how much Western influence should be allowed. Iranians also disagree on how much power should reside with popularly elected politicians or with religious leaders.

Iranian currency - 10000 Rial: 1000 To'man.

Analysis and background on Iran's economy and natural resources from the US Department of Energy.

Comments and speeches on the Iranian economy by President Mohammad Khatami.


By Christine Foy for the Iran Project

Iran has a GDP per capita of 5,817—with a real growth of 2.5 percent in 1998, down .7 percent from 1997. Iran's unit of currency is the rial, whose value has also dropped significantly from 70/US$1 in 1979 to 8000/US$1 in 2000.

The estimated total revenue and expenditure for 1999-2000 was 276,215 rials. Iran's economy was growing until the 1979 Revolution and ensuing wars with Iraq. The government now is committed to partial privatization of industry; although in 1991, 70 percent of industry was state owned. The country was scheduled to end its second five-year development plan (SFYDP) this year, having begun it in March of 1995.

Iran's economy is closely tied to its natural resources since 80 percent of the country's export revenues are derived from oil and gas. Iran contains 8.9 percent of proven global oil reserves, and its reserves contain 20 percent of the world's total amount of natural gas. Other important exports are carpets, pistachios, leather, and caviar. Important imports include motor vehicles, machinery, steel, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food.

Iron ore, coal, zinc, and lead follow petroleum as important resources. Agriculture also comprised 25 percent of Iran's GDP in 1997. Important crops include wheat, barley, rice, sugar beets, tobacco, and wool.

Industry became an important focus in 1963 when the Shah modernized methods of production. Large factories supported the mass production of goods. Although industry was affected by the revolution and the unrest Iran experienced afterward, industry is still relied upon to provide goods and jobs. Some main products include cement, foodstuffs, textiles, carpets, vegetables, oil, soap, furniture, and machine tools.

Iran's foreign debt in 1997 was US$11,816M.

Many people shop at the Great Bazaar.

Population data from the CIA World Factbook.

Data on Iran's refugee population from the U.S. Committee for Refugees.

The People

By Christine Foy for the Iran Project

The people of Iran, their history, diversity, and strong traditions dazzle anyone who takes the time to peer into this country's legacy. There are many different ethnicities of people living in Iran. The largest ethnic group is Persian. Although this term is used loosely, it describes Iranians who mostly live in the central plateau and speak Indo-Iranian dialects.

Millions of Azeris live in northern Iran near the border with Azerbaijan. Kurds comprise 8 percent of Iran's population, and they live mostly in northwestern Iran in the Zagros Mountains. Their ethnicity is tied to the Medes, an Aryan people whose migration to the area from central Asia dates back to the Iron Age.

The Lur, however, are considered the closest of any of the Iranian ethnic groups to the original Asian settlers. About half the Lur population are villagers and half are traveling herders.

The Bakhtiaris live near the Iraqi border, and the Baluchi live in the southeast and are a religious minority—being Sunni, rather than Shi’ite Muslims.

The family unit is perhaps the most important social institution of Iran—with the father of the family taking the head position, affecting all major decisions, including inheritance and marriage partners.

Women's role in society has turned to a more traditional one since the revolution brought the establishment of a government obedient to Islamic code. They are encouraged to wear chadors, a body covering from head to foot, and are prevented from using facilities that would bring them into contact with men. Women face widespread discrimination in employment and other areas. However, they retain the right to vote, established in 1963, and women make up over 50 percent of university students.

The Muslim religion runs deep in Iran, and has ever since its founding by Muhammad in the seventh and eighth centuries. There are two main sects of Islam: the Shi’ites and Sunnis. Ninety-eight percent of Iranians are Shi’ite. The two sects disagree over the role of the imam, or spiritual leader.

Farsi, an Indo-European language, is the official language of Iran. However, other languages that are spoken include Kurdish, Turkish dialects, and Arabic.

Iranians are artisans who excel at hand weaving. Their carpets are a major export, second only to oil. Another art form is the miniature—a small extremely detailed painting. Chess is popular in Iran as well as sports, such as wrestling, weight lifting, horsemanship, boxing, tennis, and track. Interestingly, ancient Persians claim to have invented polo and backgammon. There is also a sport unique to Iran. It is called zurkhaneh, a mix of gymnastics and wrestling.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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