Islamic Republic of Iran
Area: 1.6 million sq. km. (636,294 sq. mi.);
slightly larger than Alaska.
Cities: Capital--Tehran. Other cities--Isfahan,
Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz.
Terrain: Desert and mountains.
Climate: Semiarid; subtropical along the Caspian
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Iranian(s).
Population (2005 est.): 69 million.
Population growth rate (2005): 0.86%.
Ethnic groups: Persians 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki
and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%,
Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%.
Religions: Shi'a Muslim 89%; Sunni Muslim 9%;
Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i 2%.
Languages: Persian and Persian dialects 58%,
Turkic and Turkic dialects 26%, Kurdish 9%, Luri
2%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, Turkish 1%, other 2%.
Education: Literacy (total population age
15 and over who can read and write,
Health (2005 est.): Infant mortality rate--41.58
deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy at
birth (2005)--total population: 69.96.
Work force (2001): Agriculture 30%, industry
25%, services 45% est. There is a shortage of
Type: Islamic republic.
Constitution: Ratified December 1979, revised
Branches: Executive--"Leader of the
Islamic Revolution" (head of state), president,
and Council of Ministers. Legislative--290-member
Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles).
Political parties: The following organizations
appeared to have achieved considerable success
at elections to the sixth Majles in early 2000:
Assembly of the Followers of the Imam's Line,
Freethinkers' Front Islamic Iran Participation
Front, Moderation and Development Party,
Servants of Construction Party, and Society of
Self-sacrificing Devotees. At elections to the
seventh Majles in February 2004, a new
apparently conservative group, the Builders of
Islamic Iran, won a majority of the seats.
Administrative subdivisions: 30 provinces.
Suffrage: Universal at 15.
GDP (2004 est.): $477.8 billion.
GDP real growth rate (2004 est.): 6.3%.
GDP composition by sector (2004): Agriculture
19%, industry 26%, services 55%.
Per capita income (est. 2004): $7,700.
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, and
some mineral deposits.
Agriculture: Principal products--wheat,
rice, other grains, sugarbeets, fruits, nuts,
cotton, dairy products, wool, caviar; not
self-sufficient in food.
petrochemicals, textiles, cement and building
materials, food processing (particularly sugar
refining and vegetable oil production), metal
fabricating (steel and copper), armaments.
Trade (2004): Exports--$38.79 billion:
petroleum 80%, carpets, fruits, nuts. Imports--$31.3
billion: food, machinery, and semifinished
goods. Major markets/suppliers--Germany,
Japan, France, China.
Almost two-thirds of Iran's people are of Aryan
origin--their ancestors migrated from Central
Asia. The major groups in this category include
Persians, Kurds, Lurs, and Baluch. The remainder
are primarily Turkic but also include Arabs,
Armenians, Jews, and Assyrians.
The 1979 Islamic revolution and the 1980-88
war with Iraq transformed Iran's class structure
politically, socially, and economically. In
general, however, Iranian society remains
divided into urban, market-town, village, and
tribal groups. Clerics, called mullahs, dominate
politics and nearly all aspects of Iranian life,
both urban and rural. After the fall of the
Pahlavi regime in 1979, much of the urban upper
class of prominent merchants, industrialists,
and professionals, favored by the former Shah,
lost standing and influence to the senior clergy
and their supporters. Bazaar merchants, who were
allied with the clergy against the Pahlavi
shahs, also have gained political and economic
power since the revolution. The urban working
class has enjoyed somewhat enhanced status and
economic mobility, spurred in part by
opportunities provided by revolutionary
organizations and the government bureaucracy.
Unemployment, a major problem even before the
revolution, has many causes, including
population growth, the war with Iraq, and
shortages of raw materials and trained managers.
Farmers and peasants received a psychological
boost from the attention given them by the
Islamic regime but appear to be hardly better
off in economic terms. The government has made
progress on rural development, including
electrification and road building, but has not
yet made a commitment to land redistribution.
Most Iranians are Muslims; 89% belong to the
Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state
religion, and about 9% belong to the Sunni
branch, which predominates in neighboring Muslim
countries. Non-Muslim minorities include
Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha'is, and Christians.
The ancient nation of Iran, historically known
to the West as Persia and once a major empire in
its own right, has been overrun frequently and
has had its territory altered throughout the
centuries. Invaded by Arabs, Seljuk Turks,
Mongols, and others--and often caught up in the
affairs of larger powers--Iran has always
reasserted its national identity and has
developed as a distinct political and cultural
Archeological findings have placed knowledge
of Iranian prehistory at middle paleolithic
times (100,000 years ago). The earliest
sedentary cultures date from 18,000-14,000 years
ago. The sixth millennium B.C. saw a fairly
sophisticated agricultural society and
proto-urban population centers. Many dynasties
have ruled Iran, the first of which was the
Achaemenid (559-330 B.C.), a dynasty founded by
Cyrus the Great. After the Hellenistic period
(300-250 B.C.) came the Parthian (250 B.C.-226
A.D.) and the Sassanian (226-651) dynasties.
The seventh century Arab-Muslim conquest of
Iran was followed by conquests by the Seljuk
Turks, the Mongols, and Tamerlane. Iran
underwent a revival under the Safavid dynasty
(1502-1736), the most prominent figure of which
was Shah Abbas. The conqueror Nadir Shah and his
successors were followed by the Zand dynasty,
founded by Karim Kahn, and later the Qajar
(1795-1925) and the Pahlavi dynasties
Modern Iranian history began with a
nationalist uprising against the Shah (who
remained in power) in 1905, the granting of a
limited constitution in 1906, and the discovery
of oil in 1908. In 1921, Reza Khan, an Iranian
officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, seized
control of the government. In 1925, he made
himself Shah, ruling as Reza Shah Pahlavi for
almost 16 years and installing the new Pahlavi
Under his reign, Iran began to modernize and
to secularize politics, and the central
government reasserted its authority over the
tribes and provinces. In September 1941,
following the Allies' (United Kingdom-Soviet
Union) occupation of western Iran, Reza Shah was
forced to abdicate. His son, Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi, became Shah and ruled until 1979.
During World War II, Iran was a vital link in
the Allied supply line for lend-lease supplies
to the Soviet Union. After the war, Soviet
troops stationed in northwestern Iran not only
refused to withdraw but backed revolts that
established short-lived, pro-Soviet separatist
regimes in the northern regions of Azerbaijan
and Kurdistan. These were ended in 1946. The
Azerbaijan revolt crumbled after U.S. and UN
pressure forced a Soviet withdrawal and Iranian
forces suppressed the Kurdish revolt.
In 1951, Premier Mohammed Mossadeq, a
militant nationalist, forced the parliament to
nationalize the British-owned oil industry.
Mossadeq was opposed by the Shah and was
removed, but he quickly returned to power. The
Shah fled Iran but returned when supporters
staged a coup against Mossadeq in August 1953.
Mossadeq was then arrested by pro-Shah army
forces. In 1961, Iran initiated a series of
economic, social, and administrative reforms
that became known as the Shah's White
Revolution. The core of this program was land
reform. Modernization and economic growth
proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fueled by
Iran's vast petroleum reserves, the
third-largest in the world.
In 1978, domestic turmoil swept the country
as a result of religious and political
opposition to the Shah's rule and
programs--especially SAVAK, the hated internal
security and intelligence service. In January
1979, the Shah left Iran; he died abroad several
On February 1, 1979, exiled religious leader
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France
to direct a revolution resulting in a new,
theocratic republic guided by Islamic
principles. Back in Iran after 15 years in exile
in Turkey, Iraq, and France, he became Iran's
national religious leader. Following Khomeini's
death on June 3, 1989, the Assembly of
Experts--an elected body of senior
clerics--chose the outgoing president of the
republic, Ali Khamenei, to be his successor as
national religious leader in what proved to be a
In August 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani,
the speaker of the Majles, was elected President
by an overwhelming majority. He was re-elected
June 1993, with a more modest majority; some
Western observers attributed the reduced voter
turnout to disenchantment with the deteriorating
economy. (Ali) Mohammad Khatami-Ardakani,
elected President in August 1997 with an
overwhelming majority, was re-elected again with
a majority in June 2001. In February 2004 flawed
elections were held for the 7th
Majles in which many reformists were prohibited
from contesting their seats. The managed result
was that a much more conservative Majles took
its seats in May 2004.
Presidential elections took place on June 17,
2005, resulting in a two-candidate runoff
between Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad and Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani on June 24. On June 25,
Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad became President-elect; he
took office in August 2005. The next
presidential elections are scheduled for 2009.
The December 1979 Iranian constitution defines
the political, economic, and social order of the
Islamic republic. It declares that Shi'a Islam
of the Twelver (Jaafari) sect is Iran's official
religion. The country is governed by secular and
religious leaders and governing bodies, and
duties often overlap. The chief ruler is a
religious leader or, in the absence of a single
leader, a council of religious leaders. The
constitution stipulates that this national
religious leader or members of the council of
leaders are to be chosen from the clerical
establishment on the basis of their
qualifications and the high esteem in which they
are held by Iran's Muslim population. This
leader or council appoints the six religious
members of the Council of Guardians (the six lay
members--lawyers--are named by the National
Consultative Assembly, or Majles); appoints the
highest judicial authorities, who must be
religious jurists; and is commander in chief of
the armed forces. The Council of Guardians, in
turn, certifies the competence of candidates for
the presidency and the National Assembly.
The president of the republic is elected by
universal suffrage to a 4-year term by an
absolute majority of votes and supervises the
affairs of the executive branch. The president
appoints and supervises the Council of Ministers
(members of the cabinet), coordinates government
decisions, and selects government policies to be
placed before the National Assembly. The
National Assembly consists of 290 members
elected to a 4-year term. The members are
elected by direct and secret ballot from among
the candidates approved to run by the Council of
Guardians. All legislation from the assembly
must be reviewed by the Council of Guardians.
The Council's six lawyers vote only on limited
questions of the constitutionality of
legislation; the religious members consider all
bills for conformity to Islamic principles.
In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini created the
Council for Expediency, which resolves
legislative issues on which the Majles and the
Council of Guardians fail to reach an agreement.
Since 1989, it has been used to advise the
national religious leader on matters of national
policy as well. It is composed of the heads of
the three branches of government, the clerical
members of the Council of Guardians, and members
appointed by the national religious leader for
3-year terms. Cabinet members and Majles
committee chairs also serve as temporary members
when issues under their jurisdictions are
Judicial authority is constitutionally vested
in the Supreme Court and the four-member High
Council of the Judiciary; these are two separate
groups with overlapping responsibilities and one
head. Together, they are responsible for
supervising the enforcement of all laws and for
establishing judicial and legal policies.
The military is charged with defending Iran's
borders, while the Revolutionary Guard Corps is
charged mainly with maintaining internal
security. Iran has 30 provinces, each headed by
a governor general. The provinces are further
divided into counties, districts, and villages.
Principal Government Officials
Leader of the Islamic Revolution--Ali
First Vice President--Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi
Foreign Minister--(Ali Naqi) Kamal Kharazii
Ambassador to the United Nations--Mohammad Javad
Iran's post-revolution difficulties have
included an 8-year war with Iraq, internal
political struggles and unrest, and economic
disorder. The early days of the regime were
characterized by severe human rights violations
and political turmoil, including the seizure of
the U.S. Embassy compound and its occupants on
November 4, 1979, by Iranian militants.
By mid-1982, a succession of power struggles
eliminated first the center of the political
spectrum and then the leftists, leaving only the
clergy. There has been some moderation of
excesses internally, but Iran still has a
serious human rights problem. Internationally,
Iran remains a major state sponsor of terrorism.
The Islamic Republican Party (IRP) was Iran's
dominant political party until its dissolution
in 1987; Iran now has a variety of parties and
groups engaged in political activities, some
oriented along ideological lines; others more
akin to professional groupings engaging in
political activities. The Iranian Government is
opposed by a few armed political groups,
including the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (People's
Mojahedin of Iran), the People's Fedayeen, and
the Kurdish Democratic Party.
Pre-revolutionary Iran's economic development
was rapid. Traditionally an agricultural
society, by the 1970s, Iran had achieved
significant industrialization and economic
modernization. However, the pace of growth had
slowed dramatically by 1978, just before the
Islamic revolution. Since the revolution,
increased government involvement in the economy
has further stunted growth. Iran's current
difficulties can be traced to a combination of
factors. Economic activity, severely disrupted
by the revolution, was further depressed by the
war with Iraq and by the decline of oil prices
beginning in late 1985. After the war with Iraq
ended, the situation began to improve: Iran's
GDP grew for 2 years running, partly from an oil
windfall in 1990, and there was a substantial
increase in imports.
A decrease in oil revenues in 1991 and
growing external debt, though, dampened
optimism. In March 1989, Khomeini had approved
Rafsanjani's 5-year plan for economic
development, which allowed Iran to seek foreign
loans. But mismanagement and inefficient
bureaucracy, as well as political and
ideological infighting, have hampered the
formulation and execution of coherent economic
policies. Today, Iran's economy is a mixture of
central planning, state ownership of oil and
other large enterprises, village agriculture,
and smallscale private trading and service
ventures. Former President Khatami followed the
market reform plans of his predecessor,
President Rafsanjani, and indicated that he
would pursue diversification of Iran's
oil-reliant economy, although he made little
progress toward that goal.
Unemployment was estimated to be 11.2% for
2004. Although Islam guarantees the right to
private ownership, banks and some
industries--including the petroleum,
transportation, utilities, and mining
sectors--were nationalized after the revolution.
Iran has, however, been pursuing some
privatization. The import-dependent industrial
sector is further plagued by low labor
productivity and shortages of raw materials and
Agriculture also has suffered from shortages
of capital, raw materials, and equipment, as
well as from the war with Iraq; in addition, a
major area of dissension within the regime has
been how to proceed with land reform.
Increases in the price of oil starting in
2003 have increased state revenue enormously and
permitted a much larger degree of spending on
social programs than previously anticipated.
However, this has not eased economic hardships
such as high unemployment and inflation. The
proportion of the economy devoted to the
development of weapons of mass destruction
remains a contentious issue with leading Western
Khomeini's revolutionary regime initiated sharp
changes from the foreign policy pursued by the
Shah, particularly in reversing the country's
orientation toward the West. In the Middle East,
Iran's only significant ally has been Syria, but
Iran has made great strides in improving
relations with its Gulf neighbors, particularly
Saudi Arabia. Iran's regional goals are
dominated by wanting to establish a leadership
role, curtail the presence of the United States
and other outside powers, and build trade ties.
In broad terms, Iran's "Islamic foreign policy"
Despite these guidelines, however, bilateral
relations are frequently confused and
contradictory due to Iran's oscillation between
pragmatic and ideological concerns.
- Vehement anti-U.S. and anti-Israel
- Eliminating outside influence in the
- Support for Muslim political movements
- A great increase in diplomatic contacts
with developing countries.
The country's foreign relations since the
revolution have been tumultuous. In addition to
the ongoing U.S. hostage crisis, Iraq invaded
Iran in September 1980. Much of the dispute
between the two countries centered around
sovereignty over the waterway between the two
countries, the Shatt al-Arab, although
underlying causes included each nation's overt
desire for the overthrow of the other's
government. Iran demanded the withdrawal of
Iraqi troops from Iranian territory and the
return to the status quo ante for the Shatt
al-Arab as established under the 1975 Algiers
Agreement signed by Iraq and Iran. After 8
punishing years of war, in July 1988, Iran
agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 598,
which called for a cease-fire. The cease-fire
was implemented on August 20, 1988; neither
nation had made any real gains in the war.
Iran's relations with many of its Arab
neighbors have been strained by Iranian attempts
to spread its Islamic revolution. In 1981, Iran
supported a plot to overthrow the Bahrain
Government. In 1983, Iran expressed support for
Shi'ites who bombed Western embassies in Kuwait,
and in 1987, Iranian pilgrims rioted during the
Hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Nations with strong fundamentalist movements,
such as Egypt and Algeria, also mistrust Iran.
Iran backs Hizballah, Hamas, the Palestinian
Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine-General Command--all
groups violently opposed to the Arab-Israeli
peace process. Relations with west European
nations have been uneven, with growing
commercial ties largely having failed to deliver
dividends on key European political concerns
such as human rights and weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) acquisition efforts,
particularly in the nuclear field, where the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has
been strongly critical of Iran.
Iran maintains regular diplomatic and
commercial relations with Russia and the former
Soviet republics. Both Iran and Russia believe
they have important national interests at stake
in developments in Central Asia and the
Transcaucasus, particularly regarding energy
resources from the Caspian Sea. Russian and
other sales of military equipment and technology
to Iran concern Iran's neighbors and the United
Iran spends about 3.3% of its GDP on its
military. Branches of its military include
ground forces, a navy, an air force, and
Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iran-Iraq war
took a heavy toll on these military forces. Iran
is trying to modernize its military and acquire
weapons of mass destruction; it does not yet
have, but continues to seek, nuclear
On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian students
occupied the American Embassy in Tehran with the
support of Ayatollah Khomeini. Fifty-two
Americans were held hostage for 444 days. On
April 7, 1980, the United States broke
diplomatic relations with Iran, and on April 24,
1981, the Swiss Government assumed
representation of U.S. interests in Tehran.
Iranian interests in the United States are
represented by the Government of Pakistan.
In accordance with the Algiers declaration of
January 20, 1981, the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal
(located in The Hague, Netherlands) was
established for the purpose of handling claims
of U.S. nationals against Iran and of Iranian
nationals against the United States. U.S.
contact with Iran through The Hague covers only
Commercial relations between Iran and the
United States are restricted by U.S. sanctions
and consist mainly of Iranian purchases of food
and medical products and U.S. purchases of
carpets and food. The U.S. Government prohibits
most trade with Iran. Some sanctions were
temporarily waived in the wake of the
devastating Bam earthquake of December 2003.
U.S. officials and relief workers actively
assisted in relief and reconstruction efforts.
There are serious obstacles to improved
relations between the two countries. As a state
sponsor of terrorism Iran remains an impediment
to international efforts to locate and prosecute
terrorists. Operation Iraqi Freedom removed the
Iranian Government’s greatest security threat,
but officially Iran remained neutral and
critical of U.S. policy. Iran has cultural ties
to elements of both the Iraqi and Afghan
populations and it remains to be seen whether
they will be a constructive force in the
reconstruction of those countries or not. The
U.S. Government defines its areas of
objectionable Iranian behavior as the following:
The United States has had discussions with
Iranian representatives on issues of concern.
The United States believes, however, that normal
relations are impossible until Iran's policies
- Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear
weapons and other weapons of mass
- Its support for and involvement in
- Its support for violent opposition to
the Middle East peace process; and
- Its dismal human rights record.