Map of Iran
Map of Iran. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)

Iran, once known as Persia, is a country in Southwest Asia located at a strategic crossroads between Europe and Asia. More than 2,500 years ago, Cyrus the Great united the country and founded the great Persian Empire. Iran was long ruled by shahs, or kings. The last shah was overthrown in 1979, when an Islamic republic was established. In 1979 the country became an Islamic republic.


Islamic Republic of Iran is the official name of the country.

Location: Southwest Asia.

Area: 636,293 sq mi (1,648,000 km2).

Population: 68,000,000 (estimate).

Capital and Largest City: Tehran.

Major Language(s): Persian (Farsi).

Major Religious Group(s): Muslim.

Government: Islamic republic. Head of state-Supreme religious leader-faqih. Head of government-president. Legislature-Majles

Chief Products: Agricultural-wheat, rice, barley, sugar beets, sugarcane, fruits, livestock.

Manufactured-refined petroleum and petroleum products, textiles, processed foods, transportation equipment.

Mineral-petroleum, natural gas, metal ores, coal, manganese, gypsum.

Monetary Unit: Rial (1 rial = 100 dinars).


The Iranians are an Aryan people whose ancestors migrated to the Iranian plateau from Central Asia before 1000 B.C. Persian (Farsi), the official language, is written in an Arabic script but is related to the languages of Europe. The dominant culture is Persian. But Iran's many ethnic and tribal groups include Azerbaijani Turks, Kurds, Lurs, Bakhtiaris, Arabs, Qashqais, Baluchis, and Turkomans.

Religion. The great majority of Iranians are Muslims, or followers of Islam. Most Iranians belong to the Shi'a branch of Islam, which is described in the article on Islam. Iran is the major Shi'ite country in the Muslim world. Large numbers of Christians, Baha'is, and Jews left Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Education. The revolution brought about many changes in the educational system. Today the emphasis is on the integration of Islamic teachings and values into part of the course of study. Five years of primary education are required. Girls are taught separately from boys.

Way of Life. Iran is a land made up of more than 40,000 villages. A typical small village has a mosque (a Muslim place of worship), a public bathhouse, and a bazaar, or market. For centuries a great majority of the people were farmers or nomads who grew food for themselves, herded animals, and made rugs or other handicrafts. In recent decades millions of poor Iranians have moved to the cities in search of jobs and a better way of life. But many Iranians still live much as their ancestors did.


Land Regions. Iran is centered on a huge plateau surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides but the east. In the north, just below the Caspian Sea, are the Elburz Mountains. The Zagros Mountains extend along Iran's western and southern borders. The east central plateau is a vast desert region. It contains two of the most uninhabitable deserts in the world, the Dasht-i Kavir and the Dasht-i Lut.

Rivers, Lakes, and Coastal Waters. Iran is bordered on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The Caspian Sea forms part of its northern border. Iran has very few rivers, and most of its lakes contain salt water.

Climate. Iran's climate is generally dry. Almost all precipitation falls during the winter, much of it in the form of snow. Winters are mild in the north and warm in the south. Elsewhere, January temperatures average near or below freezing. Summers are usually very hot except in the mountains.

Natural Resources. The history of Iran has been deeply influenced by the presence or absence of water. Population centers have grown up where water is plentiful, and many struggles have taken place over water rights.

Oil is the most important of Iran's many natural resources. Iran has some of the world's largest reserves of oil and natural gas. Coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, manganese, gypsum, lead, zinc, bauxite (aluminum ore) and turquoise are also found there.


Historically, Iran was mainly an agricultural country, but today the production of petroleum and natural gas dominates the nation's economy. Food processing and the making of textiles and metal goods are also important. The chief product of the small fishing industry is caviar, the salted roe (eggs) of sturgeon from the Caspian Sea.

Trade. Oil and petrochemicals make up more than 90 percent of Iran's exports. Much of the money Iran makes selling oil to other countries is used to import food, particularly meat and grains. Other exports include carpets, cotton, dried fruits, and pistachio nuts. Iran trades mainly with Japan and the nations of western Europe.

Transportation. All of Iran's major cities are linked by highways and railroads. The two chief international airports are located near Tehran and at Abadan. Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf is the main terminus for oil exports.

Major Cities

Tehran, the capital, is the center of the nation's political and commercial activities.

Meshed, an important trade center, is located in a rich agricultural region in the northeast. It is surrounded by orchards, gardens, vineyards, and wheatfields. A holy shrine in Meshed is a destination of annual pilgrims, making the city a place of special significance to Shi'ite Muslims.

Isfahan was once the capital of the country. Its bazaar is considered one of the most magnificent marketplaces in the Middle East. The city also has many lovely tiled mosques and ancient palaces and stone bridges.

Cultural Heritage

Iran's history is rich in artistic traditions. Many famous poets, architects, and skilled artisans have come from Iran.

Literature. From the A.D. 900's onward, Persian poets have left their imprint on world literature. Among the most famous are Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), Saadi (1213?-92), and Hafiz (1325-89?). Poetry is still a major means of literary expression in modern Iran.

Art and Architecture. The magnificence of Iranian architecture is seen in the beautiful mosques found everywhere in the country. Iranian artists are also known for their intricate calligraphy (fine handwriting), miniatures (paintings), and metalwork. Perhaps the country's most famous craft is the weaving of Persian rugs.


The present government of Iran, established under a new constitution approved in 1979, is unique in Iranian history. All branches of the government are subject to the faqih, Iran's spiritual leader, who is the highest political authority in the land. Ruhollah Khomeini, better known as Ayatollah Khomeini, held this office until his death in 1989. ("Ayatollah" is a religious title meaning "reflection of Allah"). Ayatollah Khomeini was succeeded by Ali Hussein Khamenei.

Iran's chief executive is the president, who is elected by the people for a 4-year term. The legislature, known as the Majles, has 270 members elected to 4-year terms. All laws passed by the Majles must be approved by the Council of Guardians to ensure that they agree with Islamic principles.


Early Empires. The Iranians arrived in the region from the north about 3,000 years ago. They included several related tribes, of which the Medes (Marda) and Persians (Parsa) were the most important. The first Iranian empire, that of the Medes, lasted until the 500's B.C., when the Persian ruler Cyrus, known as the Great, of the Achaemenid dynasty, united the Iranians under his rule and created a vast empire. Later Persian kings, notably Darius I, expanded this empire.

The Achaemenid dynasty eventually collapsed, in 330 B.C., under the onslaught of Alexander the Great, whose successors established the Greek-speaking Seleucid Empire. They were succeeded by the Parthians, another Iranian people, who ruled until about A.D. 224. The last of the great Persian empires, that of the Sassanians, lasted until A.D. 642. The Sassanian Empire fell before the attacks of mounted Arab warriors who carried with them a new religion and way of life known as Islam.

Between the 600's and the 1400's, Persia experienced political and social chaos. Beginning in the 1000's, outside invaders such as the Seljuks, the Mongols, and the Timurids conquered and devastated the Persian plateau. Persia did not begin to reclaim its national identity and power until 1501.

The Safavid Dynasty. In the year 1501, a 13-year-old boy known as Shah Ismail Safavid marched triumphantly into Tabriz. Shah Ismail made Shi'ite Islam the official religion of Persia. The Safavid kings created a unified nation that was able to hold off repeated challenges from the Ottoman Turks to the west, the Uzbeks to the northeast, and the Moguls to the east.

The greatest Safavid king was Shah Abbas the Great, who ruled from 1587 to 1629. He moved his capital to Isfahan, modernized the government and the army, and established relations with various Western nations.

The Safavid dynasty began to decline in the late 1600's. In 1736 a Turkic warrior known as Nadir deposed the last Safavid heir and crowned himself shah. Nadir Shah extended Persia's boundaries significantly before he was assassinated in 1747. Between 1750 and 1779, most of Persia was ruled by the Zands, a local tribe, from their capital in Shiraz.

The Qajar Dynasty. Beginning in 1779, a warrior from the Turkish Qajar clan named Agha Mohammed Khan fought to establish a new ruling dynasty in Persia. By the time of his death in 1797, he had brought the country under Qajar control and had made Tehran the capital city.

The Qajar family ruled Persia until 1925. During this time, Britain and Russia extended their influence into Persia, and Russia took over large areas of former Persian territory in the north. The Qajar shahs were often weak and ineffective, but they managed to maintain Persia's independence.

A reform movement in 1905-06 led to the creation of a parliament and the adoption of a European-style constitution. During World War I (1914-18), neutral Persia was used as a battleground by the great powers, and Britain and Russia continued to intervene in its internal affairs.

In 1921 the last Qajar shah was overthrown. One of the leaders of this coup was an illiterate but strong-willed army officer named Reza Khan. In 1925 he became the shah of Iran.

The Pahlavi Dynasty. Reza Shah Pahlavi was a dictator who used his position to gather great wealth for himself and his family. But he was also a strong nationalist who built a powerful nation. Rebellious tribes were defeated; Western codes of law were adopted; and a modern educational system was set up. In 1935, Reza Shah officially changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran.

In 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union forced the shah to give up the throne because of his pro-German sympathies. His son, Mohammed Reza, succeeded him.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, ruled for 37 years. He built a powerful military and police organization while introducing various reforms. The shah survived a serious challenge to his power from popular prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the early 1950's, but by the early 1970's, opposition to his rule mounted among Iranians from all walks of life. Students and professional people criticized the shah's absolute rule and the harsh treatment of his opponents by the secret police. Among the shah's most powerful critics were the Shi'ite religious leaders, who became the major organizers of the opposition. The confrontation with the shah led to a year of violence (1978-79) in which more than 10,000 Iranians died.

The shah was driven from his country on January 16, 1979. The Constitution of 1906 was set aside, and Iran became an Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Islamic Republic of Iran. The first years of the Islamic Republic were stormy and violent. Most of the people had opposed the shah, but they did not agree on the kind of society Iran should become. The new government faced opposition from leftist guerrillas, Westernized moderates, and right-wing supporters of the old Pahlavi regime. On November 4, 1979, soon after the shah was admitted to the United States for medical treatment, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They held Americans there as hostages and demanded the return of the shah and his fortune to Iran. Even after the shah died in Egypt on July 27, 1980, the hostages were not released. They were finally freed on January 20, 1981, but Iran's relations with the United States remained strained.

In 1980, Iraq launched an invasion of Iran, laying claim to the Shatt al Arab, the river that makes up part of their shared border. The long Iran-Iraq War cost Iran more than a million casualties before it ended in 1988.

When Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, he was succeeded as faqih by former president Ali Khamenei. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who then was elected president, had some success in ending Iran's diplomatic isolation. Iran remained neutral in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the first free presidential election since 1979. In 2000, reformers demanding greater freedoms won a majority in parliament. Khatami was re-elected by a landslide in 2001.

James A. Bill
College of William and Mary
Coauthor, Politics in the Middle East

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