National name: Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran
Chief of State: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (1989)
President: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005)
Land area: 631,659 sq mi (1,635,999 sq km); total area: 636,293 sq mi (1,648,000 sq km)
Population (2007 est.): 65,397,521 (growth rate: 0.7%); birth rate: 16.6/1000; infant mortality rate: 38.1/1000; life expectancy: 70.6; density per sq mi: 104
Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Tehran, 7,796,257 (city proper)
Other large cities: Mashad, 2,061,100; Isfahan, 1,378,600; Tabriz, 1,213,400
Monetary unit: Rial
Languages: Persian and Persian dialects 58%, Turkic and Turkic dialects 26%, Kurdish 9%, Luri 2%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, Turkish 1%, other 2%
Ethnicity/race: Persian 51%, Azerbaijani 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%
Religions: Islam 98% (Shi'a 89%, Sunni 9%); Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i 2%
Literacy rate: 79% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2005 est.): $552.8 billion; per capita $8,100. Real growth rate: 4.8%. Inflation: 16%. Unemployment: 11.2% (2004 est.). Arable land: 9%. Agriculture: wheat, rice, other grains, sugar beets, fruits, nuts, cotton; dairy products, wool; caviar. Labor force: 23.68 million; note: shortage of skilled labor; agriculture 30%, industry 25%, services 45% (2001 est.). Industries: petroleum, petrochemicals, textiles, cement and other construction materials, food processing (particularly sugar refining and vegetable oil production), metal fabrication, armaments. Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur. Exports: $55.42 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): petroleum 80%, chemical and petrochemical products, fruits and nuts, carpets. Imports: $42.5 billion f.o.b. (2005 est.): industrial raw materials and intermediate goods, capital goods, foodstuffs and other consumer goods, technical services, military supplies. Major trading partners: Japan, China, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Netherlands, Germany, France, UAE, South Korea, Russia (2004).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 14,571,100 (2003); mobile cellular: 3,376,500 (2003). Radio broadcast stations: AM 72, FM 5, shortwave 5 (1998). Television broadcast stations: 28 (plus 450 low-power repeaters) (1997). Internet hosts: 5,269 (2004). Internet users: 4.3 million (2003).
Transportation: Railways: 7,203 km (2004). Highways: total: 167,157 km; paved: 94,109 km (including 890 km of expressways); unpaved: 73,048 km (1998). Waterways: 850 km (on Karun River and Lake Urmia) (2004). Ports and harbors: Assaluyeh, Bushehr. Airports: 305 (2004 est.).
International disputes: Iran protests Afghanistan's limiting flow of dammed tributaries to the Helmand River in periods of drought; Iraq's lack of a maritime boundary with Iran prompts jurisdiction disputes beyond the mouth of the Shatt al Arab in the Persian Gulf; Iran and UAE engage in direct talks and solicit Arab League support to resolve disputes over Iran's occupation of Tunb Islands and Abu Musa Island; Iran stands alone among littoral states in insisting upon a division of the Caspian Sea into five equal sectors.
Iran, a Middle Eastern country south of the Caspian Sea and north of the Persian Gulf, is three times the size of Arizona. It shares borders with Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The Elburz Mountains in the north rise to 18,603 ft (5,670 m) at Mount Damavend. From northwest to southeast, the country is crossed by a desert 800 mi (1,287 km) long.
Iran has been an Islamic theocracy since the Pahlavi monarchy regime was overthrown on Feb. 11, 1979.
The region now called Iran was occupied by the Medes and the Persians in the 1500s B.C., until the Persian king Cyrus the Great overthrew the Medes and became ruler of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, which reached from the Indus to the Nile at its zenith in 525 B.C. Persia fell to Alexander in 331–330 B.C. and a succession of other rulers: the Seleucids (312–302 B.C.), the Greek-speaking Parthians (247 B.C.–A.D. 226), the Sasanians (224–c. 640), and the Arab Muslims (in 641). By the mid-800s Persia had become an international scientific and cultural center. In the 12th century it was invaded by the Mongols. The Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), under whom the dominant religion became Shiite Islam, followed, and was then replaced by the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925).
During the Qajar dynasty, the Russians and the British fought for economic control of the area, and during World War I, Iran's neutrality did not stop it from becoming a battlefield for Russian and British troops. A coup in 1921 brought Reza Kahn to power. In 1925, he became shah and changed his name to Reza Shah Pahlavi. He subsequently did much to modernize the country and abolished all foreign extraterritorial rights.
The country's pro-Axis allegiance in World War II led to Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran in 1941 and deposition of the shah in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi's Westernization programs alienated the clergy, and his authoritarian rule led to massive demonstrations during the 1970s, to which the shah responded with the imposition of martial law in Sept. 1978. The shah and his family fled Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, and the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic theocracy. Khomeini proceeded with his plans for revitalizing Islamic traditions. He urged women to return to wearing the veil; banned alcohol, Western music, and mixed bathing; shut down the media; closed universities; and eliminated political parties.
Revolutionary militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, seized staff members as hostages, and precipitated an international crisis. Khomeini refused all appeals, even a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council demanding immediate release of the hostages. Iranian hostility toward Washington was reinforced by the Carter administration's economic boycott and deportation order against Iranian students in the U.S., the break in diplomatic relations, and ultimately an aborted U.S. raid in April 1980 aimed at rescuing the hostages.
As the first anniversary of the embassy seizure neared, Khomeini and his followers insisted on their original conditions: guarantee by the U.S. not to interfere in Iran's affairs, cancellation of U.S. damage claims against Iran, release of $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets, an apology, and the return of the assets held by the former imperial family. These conditions were largely met and the 52 American hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, ending 444 days in captivity.
The sporadic war with Iraq regained momentum in 1982, as Iran launched an offensive in March and regained much of the border area occupied by Iraq in late 1980. The stalemated war dragged on well into 1988. Although Iraq expressed its willingness to stop fighting, Iran stated that it would not end the war until Iraq agreed to pay for war damages and to punish the Iraqi government leaders involved in the conflict. On July 20, 1988, Khomeini, after a series of Iranian military reverses, agreed to cease-fire negotiations with Iraq. A cease-fire went into effect on Aug. 20, 1988. Khomeini died in June 1989 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei succeeded him as the supreme leader.
By early 1991 the Islamic revolution appeared to have lost much of its militancy. Attempting to revive a stagnant economy, President Rafsanjani took measures to decentralize the command system and introduce free-market mechanisms.
Mohammed Khatami, a little-known moderate cleric, former newspaperman, and national librarian, won the presidential election with 70% of the vote on May 23, 1997, a stunning victory over the conservative ruling elite. Khatami supported greater social and political freedoms, but his steps toward liberalizing the strict clerical rule governing the country put him at odds with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Signaling a seismic change in Iran's political environment, reform candidates won the overwhelming majority of seats in Feb. 2000 parliamentary elections, thereby wresting control from hard-liners, who had dominated the parliament since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The parliament's reformist transformation greatly buttressed the efforts of Khatami in constructing a nation of “lasting pluralism and Islamic democracy.” Khatami walked a jittery tightrope between student groups and other liberals pressuring him to introduce bolder freedoms and Iran's military and conservative clerical elite (including Khamenei), who expressed growing impatience with the president's liberalizing measures. In June 2001 presidential elections, Khatami won reelection with a stunning 77% of the vote.
In Jan. 2002, U.S. president Bush announced that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” calling it one of the most active state sponsors of international terrorism.
By 2003, Iran was fanning much of the world's suspicions that it had illegal nuclear ambitions. In June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized Iran's concealment of much of its nuclear facilities and called on the country to permit more rigorous inspections of its nuclear sites. Under intense international pressure, Iran reluctantly agreed in December to suspend its uranium enrichment program and allow for thorough IAEA inspections.
On Dec. 26, the most destructive earthquake of 2003 devastated the historic city of Bam, killing an estimated 28,000 to 30,000 of its 80,000 residents.
In Feb. 2004, conservatives won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, a setback for Iran's reformist movement. The hard-line Guardian Council had disqualified more than 2,500 reformist candidates, including more than 80 who were already members of the 290-seat parliament. The IAEA again censured the country in June 2004 for failing to fully cooperate with nuclear inspections. Neither U.S. threats nor Europe's coaxing managed to halt Iran's alarming defiance.
In June 2005, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line conservative and a devout follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won the presidential election with 62% of the vote. Ahmadinejad was highly popular among Iran's rural poor, who responded to his pledge to fight corruption among the country's elite. In Aug. 2005, he rejected an EU disarmament plan that was backed by the U.S. and had been under negotiation for two years. Ahmadinejad has been defiantly anti-Western and venomously anti-Israeli, announcing that Israel was a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map.”
In Jan. 2006, Iran removed UN seals on uranium enrichment equipment and resumed nuclear research. France, Britain, and Germany called off nuclear talks with Iran, and along with the United States, threatened to refer Iran to the UN Security Council, a step avoided thus far. Russia and China, both of whom have strong economic ties to Iran, refused to endorse sanctions. In April Iran announced it had successfully enriched uranium. In July a Security Council resolution was finally passed, demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities by the end of August or face possible sanctions.
In December 2006 elections for local councils in Iran, moderate conservatives and some reformist candidates won the majority of the seats. The results were seen as a sign of public dissatisfaction with President Ahmadinejad and his hard-line stances.
In May 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran is using about 1,300 centrifuges and producing fuel for nuclear reactors, evidence that the country has flouted another deadline to stop enriching uranium. The fuel would have to be further enriched to make it weapons grade, however. In September, Iran followed the IAEA's finding with the announcement that it had reached its goal of developing 3,000 active centrifuges.
A National Intelligence Estimate, released in December 2007 and compiled by the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, reported "with high confidence" that Iran had frozen its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report contradicts one written in 2005 that stated Iran was determined to continue developing such weapons. The report seemed to immediately put the brakes on any plans by the Bush administration to preemptively attack Iran's weapons facilities and to impose another round of sanctions against Iran. The report suggests that Iran has bowed to international pressure to end its pursuit of an atomic bomb. "Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issues than we judged previously," it said. After the release of the intelligence report, President Bush, however, said Iran remains a threat and can not be trusted to pursue enriching uranium for civilian use. "Look, Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous, if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he said. "What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?"