Iran, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, is located in the Middle East. It shares borders with the countries of Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Slightly larger than the U.S. state of Alaska, Iran has an estimated population of 66,429,284 (est. July 2009).
The capital city of Iran is Tehran; other major cities, include: Mashhad, Esfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Karaj, Ahvaz, Qom, and Kermanshah. 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.
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling monarchy was overthrown and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced into exile. US-Iranian relations have been strained since a group of Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 and held it until 20 January 1981. During 1980-88, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with Iraq that eventually expanded into the Persian Gulf and led to clashes between US Navy and Iranian military forces between 1987 and 1988.
The government of Iran is lead by a Supreme Leader (head of state) and a President (head of government) with 290-member Majles (National Assembly, or Islamic Consultative Assembly). Universal suffrage begins at age 18. The Supreme Leader is appointed for life, by the Assembly of Experts; the President is elected by popular vote for a four-year term (eligible for a second term and a third nonconsecutive term). The last presidential elections were held June, 2009; the next presidential election is slated for June, 2013. Members of the Islamic Consultative Assembly serve four-year terms (last elected March, 2008; next to be held in 2012).
CIA World Factbook; U.S. State Department Background Notes, 11/2009; 9/2009