The Islamic Republic of Iran, formerly known to outsiders as Persia, is one of the centers of ancient human civilization. The name Iran comes from the word Aryanam, meaning "Land of the Aryans."
Sited on the hinge between the Mediterranean world, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Iran has taken several turns as a superpower empire and been overrun in turn by any number of invaders.
Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the more formidable powers in the Middle East region-a land where lyrical Persian poetry vies with strict interpretations of Islam for the soul of a people.
Capital and Major Cities
Capital: Tehran, population 7,705,000
Mashhad, population 2,410,000
Tabriz, population 1,379,000
Karaj, population 1,377,000
Shiraz, population 1,205,000
Qom, population 952,000
Since the Revolution of 1979, Iran has been ruled by a complex governmental structure. At the top is the Supreme Leader, selected by the Assembly of Experts, who is Commander-in-Chief of the military and oversees the civilian government.
Next is the elected President of Iran, who serves for a maximum of two 4-year terms. Candidates must be approved by the Guardian Council.
Iran has a unicameral legislature called the Majlis, which has 290 members. Laws are written in accordance with law, as interpreted by the Guardian Council.
The Supreme Leader appoints the Head of Judiciary, who appoints judges and prosecutors.
Population of Iran
Iran is home to approximately 72 million people of dozens of different ethnic backgrounds.
Important ethnic groups include the Persians (51%), Azeris (24%), Mazandarani and Gilaki (8%), Kurds (7%), Iraqi Arabs (3%), and Lurs, Balochis, and Turkmens (2% each).
Smaller populations of Armenians, Persian Jews, Assyrians, Circassians, Georgians, Mandaeans, Hazaras, Kazakhs, and Romany also live in various enclaves within Iran.
With an increased educational opportunity for women, Iran's birth rate has declined markedly in recent years after booming in the late 20th century.
Iran also hosts over 1 million Iraqi and Afghan refugees.
Not surprisingly in such an ethnically diverse nation, Iranians speak dozens of different languages and dialects.
The official language is Persian (Farsi), which is part of the Indo-European language family. Along with the closely related Luri, Gilaki and Mazandarani, Farsi is the native tongue of 58% of Iranians.
Azeri and other Turkic languages account for 26%; Kurdish, 9%; and languages like Balochi and Arabic make up about 1% each.
Some Iranian languages are critically endangered, such as Senaya, of the Aramaic family, with only about 500 speakers. Senaya is spoken by Assyrians from the western Kurdish region of Iran.
Religion in Iran
Approximately 89% of Iranians are Shi'a Muslim, while 9% more are Sunni.
The remaining 2% are Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Baha'i.
Since 1501, the Shi'a Twelver sect has dominated in Iran. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 placed Shi'a clergy in positions of political power; the Supreme Leader of Iran is a Shi'a ayatollah, or Islamic scholar and judge.
Iran's constitution recognizes Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism (Persia's main pre-Islamic faith) as protected belief systems.
The messianic Baha'i faith, on the other hand, has been persecuted since its founder, the Bab, was executed in Tabriz in 1850.
At the pivot point between the Middle East and Central Asia, Iran borders on the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Caspian Sea. It shares land borders with Iraq and Turkey to the west; Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to the north; and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east.
Slightly larger than the US state of Alaska, Iran covers 1.6 million square kilometers (636,295 square miles). Iran is a mountainous land, with two large salt deserts (Dasht-e Lut and Dasht-e Kavir) in the east-central section.
The highest point in Iran is Mt. Damavand, at 5,610 meters (18,400 feet). The lowest point is sea level.
Climate of Iran
Iran experiences four seasons each year. Spring and fall are mild, while winters bring heavy snowfall to the mountains. In the summer, temperatures routinely top 38°C (100°F).
Precipitation is scarce across Iran, with the national yearly average at about 25 centimeters (10 inches). However, the high mountain peaks and valleys get at least twice that amount and offer opportunities for downhill skiing in the winter.
Economy of Iran
Iran's majority centrally-planned economy depends upon oil and gas exports for between 50 and 70% of its revenue. The per capita GDP is a robust $12,800 US, but 18% of Iranians live below the poverty line and 20% are unemployed.
About 80% of Iran's export income comes from fossil fuels. The country also exports small amounts of fruit, vehicles, and carpets.
The currency of Iran is the rial. As of June 2009, $1 US = 9,928 rials.
History of Iran
The earliest archaeological findings from Persia date to the Paleolithic era, 100,000 years ago. By 5000 BCE, Persia hosted sophisticated agriculture and early cities.
Powerful dynasties have ruled Persia, beginning with the Achaemenid (559-330 BCE), which was founded by Cyrus the Great.
Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 300 BCE, founding the Hellenistic era (300-250 BCE). This was followed by the indigenous Parthian Dynasty (250 BCE - 226 CE) and the Sassanian Dynasty (226 - 651 CE).
In 637, Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula invaded Iran, conquering the whole region over the next 35 years. Zoroastrianism faded away as more and more Iranians converted to Islam.
During the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Iran bit by bit, establishing a Sunni empire. The Seljuks sponsored great Persian artists, scientists, and poets, including Omar Khayyam.
In 1219, Genghis Khan and the Mongols invaded Persia, wreaking havoc across the country and slaughtering entire cities. Mongol rule ended in 1335, followed by a period of chaos.
In 1381, a new conqueror appeared: Timur the Lame or Tamerlane. He too razed entire cities; after just 70 years, his successors were driven from Persia by the Turkmen.
In 1501, the Safavid dynasty brought Shi'a Islam to Persia. The ethnically Azeri/Kurdish Safavids ruled until 1736, often clashing with the powerful Ottoman Turkish Empire to the west. The Safavids were in and out of power throughout the 18th century, with the revolt of former slave Nadir Shah and the establishment of the Zand dynasty.
Persian politics normalized again with the founding of the Qajar Dynasty (1795-1925) and Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979).
In 1921, the Iranian army officer Reza Khan seized control of the government. Four years later, he ousted the last Qajar ruler and named himself Shah. This was the origin of the Pahlavis, Iran's final dynasty.
Reza Shah tried to rapidly modernize Iran but was forced out of office by the western powers after 15 years because of his ties to the Nazi regime in Germany. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, took the throne in 1941.
The new shah ruled until 1979 when he was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution by a coalition opposed to his brutal and autocratic rule. Soon, the Shi'a clergy took control of the country, under the leadership of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Khomeini declared Iran a theocracy, with himself as the Supreme Leader. He ruled the country until his death in 1989; he was succeeded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.