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 or semiarid mountains and deserts, with the exception of the Caspian coast, which has a subtropical climate.
Tehran, the nation's capital, is in the north, near the Caspian coast.
Iran was once the center of the Persian Empire, dating 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, Mazandarani, Kurd and Arab.
About 70 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 30.
Shi'iah Islam is Iran's national religion, practiced by 89 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims make up another 9 percent.
The major languages spoken in Iran include Persian (also known as Farsi) and Persian dialects, Kurdish, and Turkic and its dialects.
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, when a yearlong popular revolution led by the Shi'ite clergy resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic. In late 1979, militant Islamic students occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and held dozens of Americans captive -- some for as long as 444 days. The regime change is known as the Islamic Revolution.
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.
In 1980, Iran became embroiled in a bloody war with Iraq over an Iraqi land grab in the Khuzestan province. A cease-fire was negotiated 10 years later, after hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The former Soviet Union and several Western powers supported Iraq. In 1987, the United States imposed a trade embargo against Iran on the grounds that Iran sponsored terrorist groups. That embargo is still in effect.
After Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989, the position of supreme leader was taken over by another hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 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 apparatuses.
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 12-person 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 Council of Guardians -- half of whom are appointed by the supreme leader and half of whom are nominated by Iran's judiciary and approved by Parliament.
Iran's Parliament drafts legislation, ratifies international treaties and approves the country's budget. Reformist candidates won nearly three-quarters of the 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.
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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 (OPEC), and oil is its leading export.
Recent high oil prices have allowed Iran to amass reserves
of about $30 billion, but Iran's domestic economy still struggles
from high unemployment and inflation.
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.
Estimates of Iran's unemployment numbers vary. The U.S. government estimates that the jobless rate is about 16 percent. Only 10 percent of Iran's women are in the workforce, according to The Economist.
Japan and China are Iran's leading export partners; Germany and Italy, its leading import partners.
The average monthly income in Iran today is about US$100. Iranians' incomes decreased by 30 percent during the 20-year period from 1980 to 2000.
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The Shah of Iran ordered Tehran University to create a nuclear research center in 1959, two years after Iran had signed an agreement with the United States by which the two countries would cooperate in the research and development of peaceful nuclear technology, and Iran could lease enriched uranium.
Iran was one of the first nations to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. By signing as a non-nuclear state, Iran pledged not to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran's plan to build 20 nuclear power plants generating 23,000
megawatts of electricity by 1994 was derailed by the Islamic
Revolution of 1979, which put a stop to all of Iranšs nuclear
efforts until 1984.
One of the stalled projects was the nuclear energy facility Bushehr, partially built by a West German company and bombed repeatedly during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Russia is now collaborating with the Iranians on the project, and Bushehr is expected to begin supplying electricity in 2006.
In 2002 an Iranian dissident group told the world that Iran's
government was building secret nuclear facilities in Arak and
Natanz, located south of Tehran. Iran confirmed to the International
Atomic Energy Agency that it was, indeed, building two uranium
enrichment plants at Natanz and a heavy-water production facility
at Arak. Highly enriched uranium, like the plutonium that could
be produced in a heavy-water reactor, can be used to fuel a
Iran insists that international suspicion is unfounded, that its nuclear program is benign and will not be used to make bombs.
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 (IAEA), the United Nations' nuclear cooperation arm, passed a resolution deploring the country's 18-year-long cover-up of its nuclear energy program.
Iran temporarily suspended its uranium enrichment efforts in November 2004, after negotiations with Britain, France and Germany.
By May 2005, Iran was becoming impatient with the pace of negotiations and announced it would soon resume its uranium enrichment activities.
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Sources: CIA World Factbook; Reporters Without Borders; Encarta Encyclopedia; BBC News; The Economist; The Wall Street Journal; The Iran Daily; The Galt Global Review; Nuclear Threat Initiative; U.S. Department of Energy; International Atomic Energy Agency; and The New York Times.