Iran (pronunciation: ih-rahn) is dominated by rugged mountains, high basins, and desert, offering a unique and diverse geography ranging from snowy mountainous regions and hot and dry plains to subtropical lowlands. It borders seven countries and two large coastlines. In the west, it shares its longest border with Iraq and smaller ones with Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. To Iran’s north is the Caspian Sea and to its south are the Arab-Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman, which leads out to the Arabian Sea and the larger Indian Ocean. In the East, Iran borders Pakistan, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Socialist Republic Turkmenistan.
Iran has several prominent topographical features. It has two high mountain ranges, the Zagros Mountains and the Elburz Mountains. The Zagros Mountains run along most of Iran’s western edge. The Elburz runs east to west, between the Caspian Sea and Iran’s capitol, Tehran, and has Iran’s highest mountain Mount Damavand, at over 18,000 feet. In the center of Iran is a large, high-elevation basin that flows right into the Kavir Desert (Salt Desert). Between the Caspian Sea and the Elburz Mountains is subtropical lowland.
Iran faces several environmental problems. Like many of its neighbors, many parts of Iran suffer from a lack of drinking water, either because of the arid climate or water pollution. Iran is also prone to frequent droughts in some areas and flooding in others as well as dust/sand storms and earthquakes. In 2016 the most polluted city in the world is located in Iran, a distinction the country has held a number of times.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
It is hard to look past Iran’s involvement in foreign affairs, but there is more to Iran than what most Americans see or read. The territory that Iran occupies has a long and rich history filled with empires, battles, cultural achievements and events that changed the world. They were originally ruled by the Medes, an ancient Indo-Iranian (Aryan) people who inhabited an area known as Media in the western and northwestern portions of present day Iran from 678 BCE – 549 BCE. Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered the territory as he was expanding his empire. Alexander the Great helped conquer the Persian Empire, succeeding Darius III as the empire’s king. The next several decades were a time of many rulers, but it was also the time in which Iran rose to prominence in the scientific and cultural arena. The ancient Silk Road ran through its territories, allowing for such things as porcelain and silk from China to be brought to Europe, while also facilitating the exchange of knowledge, religion, technology, culture. Iran fell to the control of Arab Muslims in 1502 and it has remained under Muslim influence since; however, during World War I, both Russia and England tried to occupy the land due to its strategic location.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was formed in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution, a short conflict in which the Iranian monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a theocracy. The revolution was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a popular Shia cleric (Ulema), who then became its first leader, a position referred to as Supreme Leader.
The overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and the ascendance of Saddam Hussein in Iraq added to tensions that had been building between the two countries over their national borders on the Shatt al-Arab waterway. When Hussein ordered his military across the Iranian border in September 1980, it sparked a decade-long conflict that killed or wounded over 1 million soldiers and civilians and economically crippled both nations. Despite Iraq’s pro-Soviet tendencies, the United States and most Gulf nations supported Hussein over the staunchly anti-Western Iranian regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. The United States and Gulf nations supplied weapons to Iraq’s military and the U.S. Navy participated in limited naval warfare campaigns against Iran following repeated Iranian attacks on Gulf oil tankers.
The Iraqi military used chemical attacks against Iran during the ongoing war. Iran reciprocated by capturing the southern Al-Faw Peninsula, which was the main point of Iraqi access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The war finally ended in 1987 with the signing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598. This resolution effectively returned both countries to their pre-war borders, with very few gains on either side. Despite the resolution, tensions between the two countries remained high throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Iranians once again took to the streets for democratic rights in 2009 with the Green Movement. The next presidential election was scheduled for June 12, and the victory was expected to go to the incumbent president, Ahmadinejad. But a new character stepped into the race: Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister. Mousavi energized Iran’s emerging civil society, reformers, the women’s movement, and students, and he was met with large crowds to cheer him on. But the results of the election told a different story—Ahmadinejad had won by a landslide. Mousavi and others said the election was rigged to keep Ahmadinejad in power. Hundreds of thousands filled the streets of Iran wearing green, the color of a sash that had been given to Mousavi by former president Muhammad Khatami. These groups were met by security forces sent to deter them. Green Movement leaders were subjected to show trials by the government. Any newspapers, magazines, or websites that supported the Green Movement were shut down. Government response halted the movement’s momentum in 2010, but many still hope for its return and democratic reform.
Iran has regular elections, but they are closely ruled over by the top clergy. Moderates have often won powerful positions, which shows that Iranians do want a choice in their political affairs and that the government is not wholly conservative or radical.
As an Islamic republic, Islam is infused into much of society. Its legal system is based on Sharia, or Islamic law. People often believe that the Iranian president is the leading figure in power; however, the most powerful person in Iran is the Supreme Leader who is also the leading religious leader. He has the last say in all internal and external matters and appoints many powerful positions, including commanders of the military. The Supreme Leader is selected for a lifetime term by Assembly of Experts, a group of leading Islamic scholars (mujtahid) who are elected by popular vote. The Iranian president and the single legislative body, the Consultative Assembly, are also elected by popular vote.
Political parties are a relatively new phenomenon in Iran, and traditionalists still prefer to work through pressure groups. The party system in Iran is unique in that parties often form prior to elections and disband soon thereafter. Iran has two major political ideologies: traditional conservative religious side and reform-minded. Recently, these two sides have increasingly become at odds with one another, leading the reformers to stage mass protests against the conservatives in power.
Ali Khamenei is the current Supreme Leader, a position held since 1989. Hassan Rouhani, the current president of Iran, was elected in 2013. The previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took advantage of his image as a modest, simple man, and drew significant attention and often ire from the rest of the world for his rheoric. In 2002, U.S. President Bush, in his State of the Union Address, labeled Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” accusing it of supporting terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The Revolutionary Guard
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the country’s most powerful security and military organization. Established after the 1979 revolution by Ayatollah Khomeini, its sole purpose is to protect the regime. This role has become increasingly important as the ayatollah’s authority declined amid new calls for political reform. It also is responsible for executing war plans in the event of a military attack from an enemy country, such as Israel. The Guard is divided into land, sea, and air forces, and its men number up to 150,000, mostly apportioned to the land. Additionally, there is a secretive Qods Force which carries out Iran’s proxy warfare strategies, training and arming such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas. Another notable organization under the IRGC is the Basij Resistance Force, which is a paramilitary auxiliary force that primarily maintains internal security and has steadily gained power since uprisings of the 2009 Green Movement.
In addition to its conventional military role, the IRGC wields tremendous economic power through its affiliate companies, which are involved in many sectors of Iran’s economy. The Guard dominates everything from construction to banking and finance. The Guard has actually benefited in Iran’s sanctioned economic climate, standing tall over its competitors with its ability to withdraw government funds and inherent connections for government contracts.
History & Government Resources
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
Iran, much maligned for its nuclear weapon aspirations, finally struck a peaceful agreement with other world powers in 2016 with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or simply the Nuclear Deal. With this deal, Iran’s nuclear program would exist only as a peaceful resource. All previously existing facilities for building a nuclear arsenal would now be converted for scientific research, and low-enriched uranium stockpiles would be reduced by 98%. Iran also agreed to supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency. With these new restrictions, Iran’s “breakout” time, the amount of time to produce bomb-grade material for one nuclear weapon, has been extended to at least one year instead of the current 2-3 months. In exchange for these concessions, the rest of the world will lift some of the economic restrictions, or embargoes, that have been in place for decades. Iran will receive access to billions in frozen assets, and its economy will recover from its prolonged isolation.
Iran enjoys a certain regional influence, and it actively seeks to preserve its interests, even if those interests are in other countries. Iranian officials openly claim to control four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa. Here are a few of the times it has reached across borders.
Iraq: Iran supported the Shia prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected in 2006 after the American-led coalition that had invaded in 2003 allowed Iraq to select its own government. It was Iran’s support that allowed al-Maliki to stay in office after a weak 2010 election, and pressure from Tehran often determined his agenda, such as blocking negotiations with Obama from succeeding or allowing Iranian planes in Iraqi airspace en route to Syria. Al-Maliki’s rule has dramatically heightened sectarian tensions in the region, acting in the interests of Shiites.
Lebanon: Iran has ties with Lebanon based on its Shiite community, which is the largest sect in Lebanon—their clerics are trained in Iran. Most importantly, Iran gave rise to Lebanon’s most infamous militia, Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s main purpose is to oppose Israel, and was begun in 1982 when 1,500 Revolutionary Guards were deployed in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley after Israel invaded it. Iran was mired in war with Iraq, and it sought to create a new front. Hezbollah bombed two American embassies, took hostages, and inflicted severe damage on the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon. To this day, Hezbollah is part of the proxy wars waged by Iran.
Syria: Iran has had a constant ally in Syria since the 1979 revolution, mainly because Iran and Syria’s ruling family, the Alawites, are both Shia. Historically, Syria has aided Iran in its regional interests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Most recently, Iran has acted to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the midst of Syria’s Civil War, which began in 2011. Tehran has sent military advisors, equipment, and billions of dollars in aid. It has even assembled a fighting group called the National Defense Forces; made up of 80,000 Alawites, Shiites, and regime loyalists who fight alongside the Syrian army.
Yemen: Iran has been heavily involved in the ongoing civil war in Yemen between the government and the Houthi rebels, a group that practices Zaydi Shiism. Iran has provided money and training for the Yemeni rebels in order to wage proxy war with Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of 10 Sunni nations in airstrikes against Houthi rebels, and has denounced Iran’s participation in the war. As recently as April of 2016, the U.S. Navy intercepted a shipment of arms from Iran bound for Yemen.
International & Regional Issues Resources
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
Iran’s population is as diverse as its geography. It has nine ethnic groups: Persian, Azeri, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Kurd, Turkmen, Arab, Lur and Balochi. For the most part, however, these groups are not meshed in one big melting pot, but rather occupy their own distinct communities in different regions of the country. By far, the Persians are the largest group accounting for over half the entire population. The Azeri make another quarter of the population, while the remaining 22 million people compose the rest of the ethnic groups.
In the southwestern province of Khuzestan which borders Iraq, the majority Arab population most of whom are based in the capital city, Ahvaz, have engaged in periodic separatist activities including several bombing attacks in 2005. The Ahvazi Arabs have made claims of discrimination and have been the subject of studies by such groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
A large majority of Iran’s population (over 45 million) lives in urban areas. It has seven cities with over one-million people. While Iran has a decent health care system that extends into the rural areas, it faces increases in air and water pollution, especially in urban areas. Iran’s growing urbanization will be a challenge for Iran’s future.
The wealth that oil has brought to Iran has enabled a virtually free and modern education system at all levels, from elementary school through university. The only stipulation at the university level, however, requires all students to serve the government for every year spent at the university. Iran’s education system, which was originally revamped in the early 1970s, has raised the literacy rate to around 87%. Iran’s biggest literacy challenge is to get education to be extended further into the many rural areas as well as to ensure that women are guaranteed a basic education.
People & Language Resources
Although Iran has several different ethnic groups, the majority of the population, around 90 percent, adheres to Shia Islam, while most of the remainder follows Sunni Islam. Approximately 10-20% of all Muslims follow Shia Islam. Of the several sects of Shia Islam, Twelvers are dominant in Iran, as they are in Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran has the largest population of Shia Muslims in the world.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. It was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Iran approximately 3,500 years ago. For 1000 years Zoroastrianism was one of the most powerful religions in the world. It was the official religion of Persia (Iran) from 600 BCE to 650 CE. Zoroastrians are not fire-worshippers but believe that the elements are pure and that fire represents god’s light or wisdom. The most recent estimates of Zoroastrian adherents, range between 124,000 to 190,000. They are found in small communities across the world with regional concentrations in Iran, India and Pakistan.
Iranians are famous for more than just Persian rugs; they also have developed beautiful paintings, calligraphy, pottery and metal and stone pieces. Up until the 1950s art could only be created for an academic purpose. This change happened after the death of the famous painter Kamal-ol-Molk, who symbolized the strict rules of academic paintings. While it is no longer created for purely academic purposes, it is still highly influenced by social and religious conditions. Paintings tend to portray people, rather than just landscapes.
There is a rich history of musical tradition in Iran. Archaeological evidence of musical instruments dates back to 800 BCE, and records show that music was important to each new succession of Persian society. Rulers were often patrons of the arts. Instruments such as harps, lutes, flutes, and bagpipes were played, expressing the joys, loves, and sorrows of the human experience and Iranian life. Persian music became the foundation for Islamic music. However, as the Shia influence grew in Iran, music became less popular because some Shia clerics looked unfavorably upon it. In the 19th century, elements of western music began to influence Persian music.
The finest examples of Persian music were exhibited with the Golha Radio Programs from 1956-1979. Beautiful music was broadcast by the Iranian government, as well as the best of classical and modern poetry, recited with musical accompaniment. It was the prestigious nature of these broadcasts that shifted public view of music as a fine art and its creators as virtuosos and maestros.
Today, Persian pop music is growing in popularity throughout the Middle East led by pop bands such as the Arian Band. Persian pop, also known as Iranian pop and Farsi pop, is the combination of pop music style with lyrics in Persian and Farsi. Hip hop is burgeoning in the country as well, particularly with the youth population, going under the name 021, the zip code for Tehran, where most of the artists are. The artist Hichkas is considered the godfather of hip hop in Iran, and he started the movement in the early 2000s. Most of the rap artists making this music are working underground or abroad, like Salome MC, Iran’s first female rapper who lives in Japan.
Iranian officials have deemed this music appropriate to listen to as long as it is decent by religious standards. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must issue a permit before an album can be released. They are also responsible for deeming the music “decent.” The Ministry estimates that only 20 percent of the music reviewed is identified as appropriate.
Evidence of Iran’s rich history can be seen in its ancient cities and in the artifacts housed in museums. The ruins of Persepolis, which was the center of power and grandeur of the Persian Empire, is located near the city of Shiraz. Iran has also built modern structures and cultural centers that bridge the traditional and modern cultures. The following is a list of famous sites of interest in Iran.
Soccer, wrestling and bodybuilding are all popular sports in Iran, especially among the younger generations. Of the three, soccer is the most popular. The Iranian team has qualified for the World Cup several times and many Iranians play on European and American soccer teams.