Iran, a Middle Eastern country slightly larger in land mass than
Alaska, is located between Iraq and Pakistan, opening onto the
Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south and the Caspian
Sea in the north. Other neighboring countries include Turkey,
Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.
Iran's territories are mostly arid and semiarid mountains
and deserts, with the exception of the Caspian coast, which
has a subtropical climate.
Tehran, the nation's capital, is located in the north near
the Caspian coast.
Iran was once the center of the Persian Empire, which dates
back to 550 B.C., and today it is home to some of the world's
most ancient human settlements.
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More than half of Iran's 68 million people are Persian. Other
ethnic groups include Azeri, Gilaki, and Mazandarani, Kurd,
About 70 percent of Iran's population is under the age of
Shi'iah Islam is Iran's national religion, with 89 percent
of the population practicing it. Sunni Muslims make up another
The major languages spoken in Iran include Persian (also known
as Farsi) and Persian dialects, Kurdish, and Turkic and its
Iran's female literacy rate is 73 percent; male literacy rate,
86 percent. In 2002, for the first time, female students in
universities outnumbered male students.
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A shah, or king, ruled Iran from 1501 until 1979, before a yearlong
popular revolution led by the Shi'ite clergy, which resulted
in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an
Islamic republic. In late 1979, Islamic militant students occupied
the American embassy in Tehran and held dozens of Americans
captive for 444 days. The regime change has been known as the
After 14 years of exile, the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini (whose name means "inspired of God) returned
to Iran in 1979. Until his death a decade later, he held the
position of supreme leader.
In1980, Iran became embroiled in a bloody war with Iraq over
an Iraqi land grab in the Khuzestan province. A ceasefire was
negotiated 10 years later, after hundreds of thousands of people
were killed. The former Soviet Union and Western powers supported
After Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989, the position of
supreme leader was taken over by another hard-line cleric, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei. The United States started a trade embargo against
Iran on the grounds that Iran sponsored terrorist groups. The
embargo is still in effect.
Iran is a currently a theocratic republic. Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the chief of state. He is at the top
of Iran's power structure and dictates all matters of foreign
and domestic security. He is commander-in-chief of Iran's armed
forces and controls the republic's intelligence and security
The president is Iran's second-highest-ranking official, elected
every four years by popular vote. His power is limited by the
constitution, which subordinates the entire executive branch
to the supreme leader. All presidential candidates must be approved
by the Council of Guardians, Iran's most influential political
body. In the last presidential election, in 1997, only four
out of 230 declared candidates made it to the ballot.
Iran's constitution codifies Islamic principles of government,
and the constitution is interpreted by the 12-person Council
of Guardians -- half of whom are appointed by the supreme leader
and half of whom are nominated by Iran's judiciary and approved
Iran's parliament drafts legislation, ratifies international
treaties and approves the country's budget. Reformist candidates
won nearly three-quarters of parliamentary seats in the 2000
election. However, parliament continues to be held in check
by the Council of Guardians, which has the power to refuse passage
of any law proposed by parliament.
Moderate reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president
in 1997 and has since initiated a series of efforts aimed at
normalizing relations with the Western world. But the increasing
conflict between Khatami's liberal circles and the extremely
conservative theocracy of Khamenei has led many to doubt the
president's ability to implement reforms in Iran.
In December 2003, Iran signed a historic accord that gave
the United Nations full access to its nuclear facilities. A
month prior to Iran's signing, the International Atomic Energy
Agency, the United Nations' nuclear cooperation arm, passed
a resolution deploring the country's 18-year-long cover up of
its nuclear energy program.
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Iran's currency is the rial.
Today Iran is the second-largest oil producer among the member
nations of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries,
and oil is its leading export.
Agricultural products make up about 30 percent of Iran's non-oil
exports. The sector's share of Iran's gross domestic product,
however, has been declining since the 1930s. Today, services
make up more than half of Iran's GDP.
Japan and China are Iran's leading export partners; Germany
and Italy, its leading import partners.
Estimates of Iran's unemployment numbers vary. The U.S. government
estimates the jobless rate is about 16 percent. Only 10 percent
of Iran's women are part of the workforce, according to The
The average monthly income in Iran today is about US$100.
Iranians' incomes decreased by 30 percent during the 20-year
period of 1980 to 2000.
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In recent years, news agencies critical of Iran's government
and its policies have come under attack by the country's hard-line
clerics. A total of 85 newspapers have been shut down in Iran
since April 2000, and more than 1,800 journalists and photographers
have lost their jobs. In 2002 alone, Iran's hard-liners closed
In 1999, the closure of Salam, a reformist newspaper,
triggered fierce student protest at Tehran University that soon
spread to other campuses in 22 cities. The clerical regime responded
by sending police and armed militia to crack down on the uprising.
Iran is "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle
East," according to Reporters Without Borders. Although fewer
Iranian journalists were arrested in 2002 than the year before,
10 were still in prison at the end of 2002, serving sentences
ranging from three to eight years.
Iranian citizens have created more than 10,000 Weblogs, or
blogs, frequently-updated and chronologically-ordered online
journals, to communicate with each other about issues both personal
-- including dating and sex -- and political -- including political
criticism and accounts of student protests.
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CIA World Factbook; Reporters Without Borders; Encarta Encyclopedia;
BBC News; The Economist; The Wall Street Journal; The Iran Daily;
The Galt Global Review; and The New York Times.