Frontline World

IRAN - Forbidden Iran, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Forbidden Iran"

A Brief History

Undercover With the Underground

Nobel Prize Winner

Government, People, the Press

Human Rights, Blogs, Nuclear Threats




Images of Iranian landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• General Background
• People
• Government
• Economy
• Press Freedoms

General Background

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, and Arab.

About 70 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 30.

Shi'iah Islam is Iran's national religion, with 89 percent of the population practicing it. Sunni Muslims make up another 10 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, 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 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.

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 Iraq.

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 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 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 by parliament.

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 Economist.

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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Press Freedoms

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 18 papers.

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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Sources: 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.