Iran, located in the Middle East, is bordered by the countries of Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. It is slightly larger than the state of Alaska, with an estimated population of 68 million and a median age of 24 years. The capital city of Iran is Tehran; other major cities, in order of population, are Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Karaj, Ahvaz, Qom, and Kermanshah. Iran’s water boundaries include the Caspian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf; its strategic location on the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz are vital maritime pathways for crude oil transport. Iran’s climate is mostly arid or semiarid, with rugged mountains, deserts, and discontinuous plains along its coastlines. The country’s main rivers are the Karun, the Safid Rud, the Kharkeh, and the Zayandeh Rud. Natural hazards include periodic droughts, floods, dust storms, sandstorms, and earthquakes. Iran lies in one time zone, which is three and one-half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979. Conservative clerical forces established a theocratic system of government with a unicameral legislative branch. The Majles, or National Assembly, consists of 290 members elected to four-year terms by popular vote. The 1979 Islamic revolution and the 1980-88 war with Iraq transformed Iran’s class structure politically, socially, and economically. In general, however, Iranian society remains divided into urban, market-town, village, and tribal groups.
From 1980-88, Iran fought an indecisive war with Iraq. The U.S. Government prohibits most trade with Iran. Some sanctions were imposed on Iran because Tehran is a state sponsor of terrorism, others because of the nuclear proliferation issues, and still more for human rights violations, including infringement of religious freedom. Following the elections of a reformist president and Majlis in the late 1990s, attempts to foster political reform in response to popular dissatisfaction have floundered as conservative politicians have prevented reform measures from being enacted. President Ahmadi-Nejad was elected to office in August 2005. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2009.
Unemployment, a major problem even before the revolution, has many causes, including population growth, the war with Iraq, and shortages of raw materials. The government has made progress on rural development, including electrification and road building, but has not yet made a commitment to land redistribution. Most Iranians are Muslims; 89% belong to the Shi’a branch of Islam, the official state religion, and about 9% belong to the Sunni branch, which predominates in neighboring Muslim countries. Non-Muslim minorities include Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha’is and Christians.
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes; LoC, Federal Research Division - Country, 3/2007; 10/2006; 3/2006