Official name Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Īrān (Islamic Republic of Iran)
Form of government unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house (Islamic Consultative Assembly )
Supreme political/religious authority Leader: Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei
Head of state and government President: Hassan Rouhani
Official language Farsī (Persian)
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit rial (Rls)
Population (2013 est.) 76,779,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 636,374
Total area (sq km) 1,648,200
- Urban: (2011) 69.1%
- Rural: (2011) 30.9%
Life expectancy at birth
- Male: (2010) 70.9 years
- Female: (2010) 74.7 years
Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate
- Male: (2008) 87.3%
- Female: (2008) 77.2%
GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2010) 4,520
1Includes seats reserved for Christians (3), of which Armenian (2); Jews (1); and Zoroastrians (1).
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling monarchy was overthrown and Shah Mohammad Reza PAHLAVI was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah KHOMEINI established a theocratic system of government with ultimate political authority vested in a learned religious scholar referred to commonly as the Supreme Leader who, according to the constitution, is accountable only to the Assembly of Experts - a popularly elected 86-member body of clerics. US-Iranian relations became strained when a group of Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held embassy personnel hostages until mid-January 1981. The US cut off diplomatic relations with Iran in April 1980. During the period 1980-88, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with Iraq that eventually expanded into the Persian Gulf and led to clashes between US Navy and Iranian military forces. Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism for its activities in Lebanon and elsewhere in the world and remains subject to US, UN, and EU economic sanctions and export controls because of its continued involvement in terrorism and its nuclear weapons ambitions. Following the election of reformer Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad KHATAMI as president in 1997 and a reformist Majles (legislature) in 2000, a campaign to foster political reform in response to popular dissatisfaction was initiated. The movement floundered as conservative politicians, through control of unelected institutions, prevented reform measures from being enacted and increased repressive measures. Starting with nationwide municipal elections in 2003 and continuing through Majles elections in 2004, conservatives reestablished control over Iran's elected government institutions, which culminated with the August 2005 inauguration of hardliner Mahmud AHMADI-NEJAD as president. His controversial reelection in June 2009 sparked nationwide protests over allegations of electoral fraud. The UN Security Council has passed a number of resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities and comply with its IAEA obligations and responsibilities. In mid-February 2011, opposition activists conducted the largest antiregime rallies since December 2009, spurred by the success of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Protester turnout probably was at most tens of thousands and security forces were deployed to disperse protesters. Additional protests in March 2011 failed to elicit significant participation largely because of the robust security response, although discontent still smolders. Deteriorating economic conditions due primarily to government mismanagement and international sanctions prompted at least two major economically based protests in July and October 2012.
Geography of Iran
Iran is bounded to the north by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea, to the east by Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and to the west by Turkey and Iraq. Iran also controls about a dozen islands in the Persian Gulf. About one-third of its 4,770-mile (7,680-km) boundary is seacoast.
A series of massive, heavily eroded mountain ranges surrounds Iran’s high interior basin. Most of the country is above 1,500 feet (460 metres), with one-sixth of it over 6,500 feet (1,980 metres). In sharp contrast are the coastal regions outside the mountain ring. In the north a strip 400 miles (650 km) long bordering the Caspian Sea and never more than 70 miles (115 km) wide (and frequently narrower) falls sharply from 10,000-foot (3,000-metre) summits to the marshy lake’s edge, some 90 feet (30 metres) below sea level. Along the southern coast the land drops away from a 2,000-foot (600-metre) plateau, backed by a rugged escarpment three times as high, to meet the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The Zagros (Zāgros) Mountains stretch from the border with Armenia in the northwest to the Persian Gulf and thence eastward into the Baluchistan (Balūchestān) region. Farther to the south the range broadens into a band of parallel ridges 125 miles (200 km) wide that lies between the plains of Mesopotamia and the great central plateau of Iran. The range is drained on the west by streams that cut deep, narrow gorges and water fertile valleys. The land is extremely rugged and difficult to access and is populated largely by pastoral nomads.
The Elburz (Alborz) Mountains run along the south shore of the Caspian Sea to meet the border ranges of the Khorāsān region to the east. The tallest of the chain’s many volcanic peaks, some of which are still active, is snow-clad Mount Damāvand (Demavend), which is also Iran’s highest point. Many parts of Iran are isolated and poorly surveyed, and the elevation of many of its peaks are still in dispute; the height of Mount Damāvand is generally given as 18,605 feet (5,671 metres).
VOLCANIC AND TECTONIC ACTIVITY
Mount Taftān, a massive cone reaching 13,261 feet (4,042 metres) in southeastern Iran, emits gas and mud at sporadic intervals. In the north, however, Mount Damāvand has been inactive in historical times, as have Mount Sabalān (15,787 feet [4,812 metres]) and Mount Sahand (12,172 feet [3,710 metres]) in the northwest. The volcanic belt extends some 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the border with Azerbaijan in the northwest to Baluchistan in the southeast. In addition, in the northwestern section of the country, lava and ashes cover a 200-mile (320-km) stretch of land from Jolfā on the border with Azerbaijan eastward to the Caspian Sea. A third volcanic region, which is 250 miles (400 km) long and 40 miles (65 km) wide, runs between Lake Urmia (Orūmiyyeh) and the city of Qazvīn.
Earthquake activity is frequent and violent throughout the country. During the 20th century—when reliable records were available—there were fully a dozen earthquakes of 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale that took large numbers of lives. In 1990 as many as 50,000 people were killed by a powerful tremor in the Qazvīn-Zanjān area. In 2003 a relatively weak quake struck the ancient town of Bam in eastern Kermān province, leveling the town and destroying a historic fortress. More than 25,000 people perished.
THE INTERIOR PLATEAU
The arid interior plateau, which extends into Central Asia, is cut by several smaller mountain ranges, the largest being the Kopet-Dag (Koppeh Dāgh) Range. In the flatlands lie the plateau’s most remarkable features, the Kavīr and Lūt deserts, also called Kavīr-e Lūt. At the lowest elevations, series of basins in the poorly drained soil remain dry for months at a time; the evaporation of any accumulated water produces the salt wastes known as kavīrs. As elevation rises, surfaces of sand and gravelly soil gradually merge into fertile soil on the hillsides and mountain slopes.
The few streams emptying into the desiccated central plateau dissipate in saline marshes. The general drainage pattern is down the outward slopes of the mountains, terminating in the sea. There are three large rivers, but only one—the Kārūn—is navigable. It originates in the Zagros Mountains and flows south to the Shatt Al-Arab (Arvand Rūd), which empties into the Persian Gulf. The Sefīd (Safid) River originates in the Elburz Mountains in the north and runs as a mountain stream for most of its length but flows rapidly into the Gīlān plain and then to the Caspian Sea. The Dez Dam in Dezfūl is one of the largest in the Middle East. The Sefīd River Dam, completed in the early 1960s at Manjīl, generates hydroelectric power and provides water for irrigation.
The Zāyandeh River, the lifeline of Eṣfahān province, also originates in the Zagros Mountains, flowing southeastward to Gāv Khūnī Marsh (Gāvkhāneh Lake), a swamp northwest of the city of Yazd. The completion of the Kūhrang Dam in 1971 diverted water from the upper Kārūn through a tunnel 2 miles (3 km) long into the Zāyandeh for irrigation purposes.
Other streams are seasonal and variable: spring floods do enormous damage, while in summer many streams disappear. However, water is stored naturally underground, finding its outlet in springs and tap wells.
The largest inland body of water, Lake Urmia, in northwestern Iran, covers an area that varies from about 2,000 to 2,300 square miles (5,200 to 6,000 square km). Other lakes are principally seasonal, and all have a high salt content.
Soil patterns vary widely. The abundant subtropical vegetation of the Caspian coastal region is supported by rich brown forest soils. Mountain soils are shallow layers over bedrock, with a high proportion of unweathered fragments. Natural erosion moves the finer-textured soils into the valleys. The alluvial deposits are mostly chalky, and many are used for pottery. The semiarid plateaus lying above 3,000 feet (900 metres) are covered by brown or chestnut-coloured soil that supports grassy vegetation. The soil is slightly alkaline and contains 3 to 4 percent organic material. The saline and alkaline soils in the arid regions are light in colour and infertile. The sand dunes are composed of loose quartz and fragments of other minerals and, except where anchored by vegetation, are in almost constant motion, driven by high winds.
Iran’s climate ranges from subtropical to subpolar. In winter a high-pressure belt, centred in Siberia, slashes west and south to the interior of the Iranian plateau, and low-pressure systems develop over the warm waters of the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean Sea. In summer one of the world’s lowest-pressure centres prevails in the south. Low-pressure systems in Pakistan generate two regular wind patterns: the shamāl, which blows from February to October northwesterly through the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and the “120-day” summer wind, which can reach velocities of 70 miles (110 km) per hour in the Sīstān region near Pakistan. Warm Arabian winds bring heavy moisture from the Persian Gulf.
Elevation, latitude, maritime influences, seasonal winds, and proximity to mountain ranges or deserts play a significant role in diurnal and seasonal temperature fluctuation. The average daytime summer temperature in Ābādān in Khūzestān province tops 110 °F (43 °C), and the average daytime winter high in Tabrīz in the East Āz̄arbāyjān province barely reaches freezing. Precipitation also varies widely, from less than 2 inches (50 mm) in the southeast to about 78 inches (1,980 mm) in the Caspian region. The annual average is about 16 inches (400 mm). Winter is normally the rainy season for the country; more than half of the annual precipitation occurs in that three-month period. The northern coastal region presents a sharp contrast. The high Elburz Mountains, which seal off the narrow Caspian plain from the rest of the country, wring moisture from the clouds, trap humidity from the air, and create a fertile semitropical region of luxuriant forests, swamps, and rice paddies. Temperatures there may soar to 100 °F (38 °C) and the humidity to nearly 100 percent, while frosts are extremely rare. Except in this region, summer is a dry season. The northern and western parts of Iran have four distinct seasons. Toward the south and east, spring and autumn become increasingly short and ultimately merge in an area of mild winters and hot summers.
Plant and animal life
Topography, elevation, water supply, and soil determine the character of the vegetation. Approximately one-tenth of Iran is forested, most extensively in the Caspian region. In the area are found broad-leaved deciduous trees—oak, beech, linden, elm, walnut, ash, and hornbeam—and a few broad-leaved evergreens. Thorny shrubs and ferns also abound. The Zagros Mountains are covered by scrub oak forests, together with elm, maple, hackberry, walnut, pear, and pistachio trees. Willow, poplar, and plane trees grow in the ravines, as do many species of creepers. Thin stands of juniper, almond, barberry, cotoneaster, and wild fruit trees grow on the intermediate dry plateau. Thorny shrubs form the ground cover of the steppes, while species of Artemisia (wormwood) grow at medium elevations of the desert plains and the rolling country. Acacia, dwarf palm, kunar trees (of the genus Ziziphus), and scattered shrubs are found below 3,000 feet (900 metres). Desert sand dunes, which hold water, support thickets of brush. Forests follow the courses of surface or subterranean waters. Oases support vines and tamarisk, poplar, date palm, myrtle, oleander, acacia, willow, elm, plum, and mulberry trees. In swamp areas reeds and grass provide good pasture.
Wildlife includes leopards, bears, hyenas, wild boars, ibex, gazelles, and mouflons, which live in the wooded mountains. Jackals and rabbits are common in the country’s interior. Wild asses live in the kavīrs. Cheetahs and pheasants are found in the Caspian region, and partridges live in most parts of the country. Aquatic birds such as seagulls, ducks, and geese live on the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, while buzzards nest in the desert. Deer, hedgehogs, foxes, and 22 species of rodents live in semidesert, high-elevation regions. Palm squirrels, Asiatic black bears, and tigers are found in Baluchistan. Tigers also once inhabited the forests of the Caspian region but are now assumed to be extinct.
Studies made in Khūzestān province and the Baluchistan region and along the slopes of the Elburz and Zagros mountains have revealed the presence of a remarkably wide variety of amphibians and reptiles. Examples are toads, frogs, tortoises, lizards, salamanders, boas, racers, rat snakes (Ptyas), cat snakes (Tarbophis fallax), and vipers.
Some 200 varieties of fish live in the Persian Gulf, as do shrimps, lobsters, and turtles. Sturgeon, the most important commercial fish, is one of 30 species found in the Caspian Sea. It constitutes a major source of export income for the government, in the production of caviar. Mountain trout abound in small streams at high elevations and in rivers that are not seasonal.
The government has established wildlife sanctuaries such as the Bakhtegān Wildlife Refuge, Tūrān Protected Area, and Golestān National Park. The hunting of swans, pheasants, deer, tigers, and a number of other animals and birds is prohibited.
Demography of Iran
- Ethnic groups
Iran is a culturally diverse society, and interethnic relations are generally amicable. The predominant ethnic and cultural group in the country consists of native speakers of Persian. But the people who are generally known as Persians are of mixed ancestry, and the country has important Turkic and Arab elements in addition to the Kurds, Baloch, Bakhtyārī, Lurs, and other smaller minorities (Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, Brahuis, and others). The Persians, Kurds, and speakers of other Indo-European languages in Iran are descendants of the Aryan tribes that began migrating from Central Asia into what is now Iran in the 2nd millennium bc. Those of Turkic ancestry are the progeny of tribes that appeared in the region—also from Central Asia—beginning in the 11th century ad, and the Arab minority settled predominantly in the country’s southwest (in Khūzestān, a region also known as Arabistan) following the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Like the Persians, many of Iran’s smaller ethnic groups chart their arrival into the region to ancient times.
The Kurds have been both urban and rural (with a significant portion of the latter at times nomadic), and they are concentrated in the western mountains of Iran. This group, which constitutes only a small proportion of Iran’s population, has resisted the Iranian government’s efforts, both before and after the revolution of 1979, to assimilate them into the mainstream of national life and, along with their fellow Kurds in adjacent regions of Iraq and Turkey, has sought either regional autonomy or the outright establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the region.
Also inhabiting the western mountains are seminomadic Lurs, thought to be the descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of the country. Closely related are the Bakhtyārī tribes, who live in the Zagros Mountains west of Eṣfahān. The Baloch are a smaller minority who inhabit Iranian Baluchistan, which borders on Pakistan.
The largest Turkic group is the Azerbaijanians, a farming and herding people who inhabit two border provinces in the northwestern corner of Iran. Two other Turkic ethnic groups are the Qashqāʾī, in the Shīrāz area to the north of the Persian Gulf, and the Turkmen, of Khorāsān in the northeast.
The Armenians, with a different ethnic heritage, are concentrated in Tehrān, Eṣfahān, and the Azerbaijan region and are engaged primarily in commercial pursuits. A few isolated groups speaking Dravidian dialects are found in the Sīstān region to the southeast.
Semites—Jews, Assyrians, and Arabs—constitute only a small percentage of the population. The Jews trace their heritage in Iran to the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century bc and, like the Armenians, have retained their ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity. Both groups traditionally have clustered in the largest cities. The Assyrians are concentrated in the northwest, and the Arabs live in Khūzestān as well as in the Persian Gulf islands.
Although Persian (Farsi) is the predominant and official language of Iran, a number of languages and dialects from three language families—Indo-European, Altaic, and Afro-Asiatic—are spoken.
Roughly three-fourths of Iranians speak one of the Indo-European languages. Slightly more than half the population speak a dialect of Persian, an Iranian language of the Indo-Iranian group. Literary Persian, the language’s more refined variant, is understood to some degree by most Iranians. Persian is also the predominant language of literature, journalism, and the sciences. Less than one-tenth of the population speaks Kurdish. The Lurs and Bakhtyārī both speak Lurī, a language distinct from, but closely related to, Persian. Armenian, a single language of the Indo-European family, is spoken only by the Armenian minority.
The Altaic family is represented overwhelmingly by the Turkic languages, which are spoken by roughly one-fourth of the population; most speak Azerbaijanian, a language similar to modern Turkish. The Turkmen language, another Turkic language, is spoken in Iran by only a small number of Turkmen.
Of the Semitic languages—from the Afro-Asiatic family—Arabic is the most widely spoken, but only a small percentage of the population speaks it as a native tongue. The main importance of the Arabic language in Iran is historical and religious. Following the Islamic conquest of Persia, Arabic virtually subsumed Persian as a literary tongue. Since that time Persian has adopted a large number of Arabic words—perhaps one-third or more of its lexicon—and borrowed grammatical constructions from Classical and, in some instances, colloquial Arabic. Under the monarchy, efforts were made to purge Arabic elements from the Persian language, but these met with little success and ceased outright following the revolution. Since that time, the study of Classical Arabic, the language of the Qurʾān, has been emphasized in schools, and Arabic remains the predominant language of learned religious discourse.
Before 1979, English and French, and to a lesser degree German and Russian, were widely used by the educated class. European languages are used less commonly but are still taught at schools and universities.
The vast majority of Iranians are Muslims of the Ithnā ʿAsharī, or Twelver, Shīʿite branch, which is the official state religion. The Kurds and Turkmen are predominantly Sunni Muslims, but Iran’s Arabs are both Sunni and Shīʿite. Small communities of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are also found throughout the country.
The two cornerstones of Iranian Shīʿism are the promise of the return of the divinely inspired 12th imam—Muḥammad al-Mahdī al-Ḥujjah, whom Shīʿites believe to be the mahdi—and the veneration of his martyred forebears. The absence of the imam contributed indirectly to the development in modern Iran of a strong Shīʿite clergy whose penchant for status, particularly in the 20th century, led to a proliferation of titles and honorifics unique in the Islamic world. The Shīʿite clergy have been the predominant political and social force in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
There is no concept of ordination in Islam. Hence, the role of clergy is played not by a priesthood but by a community of scholars (Arabic ʿulamāʾ). To become a member of the Shīʿite ʿulamāʾ, a male Muslim need only attend a traditional Islamic college, or madrasah. The main course of study in such an institution is Islamic jurisprudence (Arabic fiqh), but a student need not complete his madrasah studies to become a faqīh, or jurist. In Iran such a low-level clergyman is generally referred to by the generic term mullah (Arabic al-mawlā, “lord”; Persian mullā) or ākhūnd or, more recently, rūḥānī (Persian: “spiritual”). To become a mullah, one need merely advance to a level of scholarly competence recognized by other members of the clergy. Mullahs staff the vast majority of local religious posts in Iran.
An aspirant gains the higher status of mujtahid—a scholar competent to practice independent reasoning in legal judgment (Arabic ijtihād)—by first graduating from a recognized madrasah and obtaining the general recognition of his peers and then, most important, by gaining a substantial following among the Shīʿite community. A contender for this status is ordinarily referred to by the honorific hojatoleslām (Arabic ḥujjat al-Islām, “proof of Islam”). Few clergymen are eventually recognized as mujtahids, and some are honoured by the term ayatollah (Arabic āyat Allāh, “sign of God”). The honorific of grand ayatollah (āyat Allāh al-ʿuẓmāʾ) is conferred only upon those Shīʿite mujtahids whose level of insight and expertise in Islamic canon law has risen to the level of one who is worthy of being a marjaʿ-e taqlīd (Arabic marjaʿ al-taqlīd, “model of emulation”), the highest level of excellence in Iranian Shīʿism.
There is no real religious hierarchy or infrastructure within Shīʿism, and scholars often hold independent and varied views on political, social, and religious issues. Hence, these honorifics are not awarded but attained by scholars through general consensus and popular appeal. Shīʿites of every level defer to clergymen on the basis of their reputation for learning and judicial acumen, and the trend has become strong in modern Shīʿism for every believer, in order to avoid sin, to follow the teachings of his or her chosen marjaʿ-e taqlīd. This has increased the power of the ʿulamāʾ in Iran, and it has also enhanced their role as mediators to the divine in a way not seen in Sunni Islam or in earlier Shīʿism.
Those progeny of the family of Muḥammad who are not his direct descendents through the line of the 12th imam are referred to as sayyids. These individuals have traditionally been viewed with a high degree of reverence by believing Iranians and continue to have strong influence in contemporary Iranian culture. Many sayyids are found among the clergy, although in modern Iran they may practice virtually any occupation.
- RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are the most significant religious minorities. Christians are the most numerous group of these, Orthodox Armenians constituting the bulk. The Assyrians are Nestorian, Protestant, and Roman Catholic, as are a few converts from other ethnic groups. The Zoroastrians are largely concentrated in Yazd in central Iran, Kermān in the southeast, and Tehrān.
Religious toleration, one of the characteristics of Iran during the Pahlavi monarchy, came to an end with the Islamic revolution in 1979. While Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are recognized in the constitution of 1979 as official minorities, the revolutionary atmosphere in Iran was not conducive to equal treatment of non-Muslims. Among these, members of the Bahāʾī faith—a religion founded in Iran—were the victims of the greatest persecution. The Jewish population, which had been significant before 1979, emigrated in great numbers after the revolution.
- Settlement patterns
- RURAL SETTLEMENT
The topography and the water supply determine the regions fit for human habitation, the lifestyles of the people, and the types of dwellings. The deep gorges and defiles, unnavigable rivers, empty deserts, and impenetrable kavīrs have all contributed to insularity and tribalism among the Iranian peoples, and the population has become concentrated around the periphery of the interior plateau and in the oases. The felt yurts of the Turkmen, the black tents of the Bakhtyārī, and the osier huts of the Baloch are typical, as the tribespeople roam from summer to winter pastures. The vast central and southern plains are dotted with numerous oasis settlements with scattered rudimentary hemispherical or conical huts. Since the mid-20th century the migrations have shortened, and the nomads have settled in more permanent villages.
The villages on the plains follow an ancient rectangular pattern. High mud walls with corner towers form the outer face of the houses, which have flat roofs of mud and straw supported by wooden rafters. A mosque is situated in the open centre of the village and serves also as a school.
Mountain villages are situated on the rocky slopes above the valley floor, surrounded by terraced fields (usually irrigated) in which grain and alfalfa (lucerne) are raised. The houses are square, mud-brick, windowless buildings with flat or domed roofs; a roof hole provides ventilation and light. Houses are usually two stories high, with a stable occupying the ground floor.
Caspian villages are different from those of both the plains and the mountains. The scattered hamlets typically consist of two-storied wooden houses. Separate outbuildings (barns, henhouses, silkworm houses) surround an open courtyard.
- URBAN SETTLEMENT
Tehrān, the capital and largest city, is separated from the Caspian Sea by the Elburz Mountains. Eṣfahān, about 250 miles (400 km) south of Tehrān, is the second most important city and is famed for its architecture. There are few cities in central and eastern Iran, where water is scarce, although lines of oases penetrate the desert. Most towns are supplied with water by qanāt, an irrigation system by which an underground mountain water source is tapped and the water channeled down through a series of tunnels, sometimes 50 miles (80 km) in length, to the town level. Towns are, therefore, often located a short distance from the foot of a mountain. The essential feature of a traditional Iranian street is a small canal.
City layout is typical of Islamic communities. The various sectors of society—governmental, residential, and business—are often divided into separate quarters. The business quarter, or bazaar, fronting on a central square, is a maze of narrow arcades lined with small individual shops grouped according to the type of product sold. Modern business centres, however, have grown up outside the bazaars. Dwellings in the traditional style—consisting of domed-roof structures constructed of mud brick or stone—are built around closed courtyards, with a garden and a pool. Public baths are found in all sections of the cities.
Construction of broad avenues and ring roads to accommodate modern traffic has changed the appearance of the large cities. Their basic plan, however, is still that of a labyrinth of narrow, crooked streets and culs-de-sac.
- Demographic trends
Nearly one-fourth of Iranians are under 15 years of age. The country’s postrevolutionary boom in births has slowed substantially, and—with a birth rate slightly lower than the world average and a low death rate—Iran’s natural rate of increase is now only marginally higher than the world average. Life expectancy in Iran is some 68 years for men and 71 years for women.
Internal migration from rural areas to cities was a major trend beginning in the 1960s (some three-fifths of Iranians are defined as urban), but the most significant demographic phenomenon following the revolution in 1979 was the out-migration of a large portion of the educated, secularized population to Western countries, particularly to the United States. (Several hundred thousand Iranians had settled in southern California alone by the end of the 20th century.) Likewise, a considerable number of religious minorities, mostly Jews and Bahāʾīs, have left the country—either as emigrants or as asylum seekers—because of unfavourable political conditions. Internally, migration to the cities has continued, and Iran has absorbed large numbers of refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan (mostly Persian [Dari]-speaking Afghans) and Iraq (both Arabs and Kurds).
Economy of Iran
The most formidable hurdle facing Iran’s economy remains its continuing isolation from the international community. This isolation has hampered the short- and long-term growth of its markets, restricted the country’s access to high technology, and impeded foreign investment. Iran’s isolation is a product both of the xenophobia of its more conservative politicians—who fear postimperial entanglements—and sanctions imposed by the international community, particularly the United States, which accuses Iran of supporting international terrorism. The Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 expanded an existing U.S. embargo on the import of Iranian petroleum products to encompass extensive bans on investment both by U.S. and non-U.S. companies in Iran. These prohibitions included bans on foreign speculation in Iranian petroleum development, the export of high technology to Iran, and the import of a wide variety of Iranian products into the United States. Overtures by reform-minded Iranian politicians to open their country to foreign investment have met with limited success, but in the early 21st century U.S. sanctions remained in place.
Iran’s long-term objectives since the 1979 revolution have been economic independence, full employment, and a comfortable standard of living for its citizens, but at the end of the 20th century the country’s economic future was lined with obstacles. Iran’s population more than doubled in that period, and its population grew increasingly young. In a country that has traditionally been both rural and agrarian, agricultural production has fallen consistently since the 1960s (by the late 1990s Iran was a major food importer), and economic hardship in the countryside has driven vast numbers of people to migrate to the largest cities. The rates of both literacy and life expectancy in Iran are high for the region, but so, too, is the unemployment rate, and inflation is regularly in the range of 20 percent annually. Iran remains highly dependent on its one major industry, the extraction of petroleum and natural gas for export, and the government faces increasing difficulty in providing opportunities for a younger, better-educated workforce, which has led to a growing sense of frustration among lower- and middle-class Iranians.
Still, the government has tried to develop the country’s communication, transportation, manufacturing, and energy infrastructures (including its prospective nuclear power facilities) and has begun the process of integrating its communication and transportation systems with those of neighbouring states.
- STATE PLANNING
The national constitution divides the economy into three sectors: public, which includes major industries, banks, insurance companies, utilities, communications, foreign trade, and mass transportation; cooperative, which includes production and distribution of goods and services; and private, which consists of all activities that supplement the first two sectors. The constitution also establishes specific guidelines for the administration of the nation’s economic and financial resources, and after the revolution the government declared null and void any law, or section of a law, that violated Islamic principles. This prohibition restricts individuals or institutions from charging interest on loans, an action considered illegal under Islamic law, and also places limits on certain types of financial speculation. These restrictions have heretofore made Iran’s participation in the international economic community problematic, which has led to harsh financial conditions and a strong reliance on local markets.
From the first years of the revolution, two different factions have sought to impose their own interpretation of Islamic economics on the government. Islamic leftists have called for extensive nationalization and expansion of a welfare state. Conservatives within the religious establishment, who have maintained strong ties to the merchant community, have defended the rights of property owners and insisted on maintaining privatization. Both factions, however, have generally supported the government’s restriction on Western banking practices. Although Iran’s first postrevolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, refused to takes sides in the leftist-conservative debate, the effects of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) prompted increased state intervention in the economy. The government gained a virtual monopoly over income-producing activities by nationalizing private banks and insurance companies and increasing state control of foreign trade.
The economy continued to lag despite Iran’s move away from public control of the financial system after the end of the war in 1990. The election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997 promised social and economic reform, and a number of key government positions were filled by reformist clergy and technocrats. Nonetheless, no steps have been taken on numerous proposed plans to reduce state control of the economy and encourage privatization, and the government’s economic policies have remained unclear. U.S. sanctions have also continued to hamstring Iran’s economy by restricting access to Western technology, despite the willingness of some European and East Asian companies to ignore these measures. Conservatives within Iran’s government have been willing, in limited instances, to ease the restriction on interest-bearing transactions but have continued to block reformists’ plans to introduce large amounts of foreign capital into the country, particularly investments from the United States. Foreign investment has remained a contentious issue because of the adverse social and political effects of foreign economic entanglements during Iran’s colonial past.
- Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Roughly one-third of Iran’s total surface area is arable farmland, of which less than one-fourth—or one-tenth of the total land area—is under cultivation, because of poor soil and lack of adequate water distribution in many areas. Less than one-third of the cultivated area is irrigated; the rest is devoted to dry farming. The western and northwestern portions of the country have the most fertile soils.
At the end of the 20th century, agricultural activities accounted for about one-fifth of Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed a comparable proportion of the workforce. Most farms are small, less than 25 acres (10 hectares), and thus are not economically viable, which has contributed to the wide-scale migration to cities. In addition to water scarcity and areas of poor soil, seed is of low quality and farming techniques are antiquated.
All these factors have contributed to low crop yields and poverty in rural areas. Further, after the 1979 revolution many agricultural workers claimed ownership rights and forcibly occupied large, privately owned farms where they had been employed. The legal disputes that arose from this situation remained unresolved through the 1980s, and many owners put off making large capital investments that would have improved farm productivity, further deteriorating production. Progressive government efforts and incentives during the 1990s, however, improved agricultural productivity marginally, helping Iran toward its goal of reestablishing national self-sufficiency in food production. The wide range of temperature fluctuation in different parts of the country and the multiplicity of climatic zones make it possible to cultivate a diverse variety of crops, including cereals (wheat, barley, rice, and corn [maize]), fruits (dates, figs, pomegranates, melons, and grapes), vegetables, cotton, sugar beets and sugarcane, nuts, olives, spices, tea, tobacco, and medicinal herbs.
Iran’s forests cover approximately the same amount of land as its agricultural crops—about one-tenth of its total surface area. The largest and most valuable woodland areas are in the Caspian region, where many of the forests are commercially exploitable and include both hardwoods and softwoods. Forest products include plywood, fibreboard, and lumber for the construction and furniture industries.
Fishing is also important, and Iran harvests fish both for domestic consumption and for export, marketing their products fresh, salted, smoked, or canned. Sturgeon (yielding its roe for caviar), bream, whitefish, salmon, mullet, carp, catfish, perch, and roach are caught in the Caspian Sea, Iran’s most important fishery. More than 200 species of fish are found in the Persian Gulf, 150 of which are edible, including shrimps and prawns.
Of the country’s livestock, sheep are by far the most numerous, followed by goats, cattle, asses, horses, water buffalo, and mules. The raising of poultry for eggs and meat is prevalent, and camels are still raised and bred for use in transport.
- Resources and power
Miners worked primarily by hand until the early 1960s, and mine owners moved the ore to refining centres by truck, rail, donkey, or camel. As public and private concerns opened new mines and quarries, they introduced mechanized methods of production. The mineral industries encompass both refining and manufacturing.
The extraction and processing of petroleum is unquestionably Iran’s single most important economic activity and the most valuable in terms of revenue, although natural gas production is increasingly important. The government-operated National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) produces petroleum for export and domestic consumption. Petroleum is moved by pipeline to the terminal of Khārk (Kharq) Island in the Persian Gulf and from there is shipped by tanker throughout the world. Iran’s main refining facility at Ābādān was destroyed during the war with Iraq, but the government has since rebuilt the facility, and production has returned to near prewar levels. The NIOC also operates refineries at Eṣfahān, Shīrāz, Lāvān Island, Tehrān, and Tabrīz; several were damaged by Iraqi forces but have since returned to production. These sites produce a variety of refined products, including aircraft fuel at the Ābādān facility and fuels for domestic heating and the transportation industry.
Iran’s vast natural gas reserves constitute more than one-tenth of the world’s total. In addition to the country’s working gas fields in the Elburz Mountains and in Khorāsān, fields have been discovered and exploitation begun in the Persian Gulf near ʿAsalūyeh, offshore in the Caspian region, and, most notably, offshore and onshore in areas of southern Iran—the South Pars field in the latter region is one of the richest in the world. The country’s gathering and distribution spur lines run to Tehrān, Kāshān, Eṣfahān, Shīrāz, Mashhad, Ahvāz, and the industrial city of Alborz, near Qazvīn. The two state-owned Iranian Gas Trunklines are the largest gas pipelines in the Middle East, and Iran is under contract to supply natural gas to Russia, eastern Europe, Pakistan, Turkey, and India through pipelines, under construction in neighbouring countries, that are intended to connect Iran’s trunk lines with those of its customers.
The petrochemical industry, concentrated in the south of the country, expanded rapidly before the Islamic revolution. It, too, was largely destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War but has mostly been restored to its prewar condition. The Rāzī (formerly Shāhpūr) Petrochemical Company at Bandar-e Khomeynī (formerly Bandar-e Shāhpūr) is a subsidiary of the National Petrochemical Company of Iran and produces ammonia, phosphates, sulfur, liquid gas, and light oil.
In addition to the major coal mines found in Khorāsān, Kermān, Semnān, Māzandarān, and Gīlān, a number of smaller mines are located north of Tehrān and in Āz̄arbāyjān and Eṣfahān provinces. Deposits of lead, zinc, and other minerals are widely scattered throughout the country. Kermān is the centre for Iran’s copper industry; deposits of copper are mined nationwide. Only since the 1990s has Iran begun to exploit such valuable minerals as uranium and gold, which it now mines and refines in commercially profitable amounts. Iran also extracts fireclay, chalk, lime, gypsum, ochre, and kaolin (china clay).'
Until the 20th century, Iran’s sources of energy were limited almost entirely to wood and charcoal. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are now used to supply heat and produce the bulk of the country’s electricity. A system of dams generates hydroelectric power (and also supplies water for cropland irrigation).
The Atomic Energy Organization (AEO) of Iran was established in 1973 to construct a network of more than 20 nuclear power plants. By 1978 two 1,200-megawatt reactors near Būshehr on the Persian Gulf were near completion and were scheduled to begin operation early in 1980, but the revolutionary government canceled the program in 1979. One of the two reactors was completed with Russian assistance and began operation in 2011, using nuclear fuel provided by Russia; there were no plans to complete the second reactor. The revelation in 2002 of a previously undeclared uranium enrichment facility under construction in Iran provoked suspicions that Iran was seeking to construct nuclear weapons. Since then, Iran’s nuclear program, which officials contend is for peaceful purposes only, has been a major source of international tension and since 2006 has provoked escalating international sanctions against Iran.
Tehrān is the largest market for domestic agricultural and manufactured products, which are shipped to the nearest town and thence to Tehrān and the provincial capitals by air, truck, rail, camel, mule, and donkey. Since craft production is localized, each city has created a market for its products in the capital and other major cities. Major manufacturing industries, which have transformed large parts of Iran since 1954, are scattered throughout the country, and their products are distributed nationwide.
Industrial development, which began in earnest in the mid-1950s, has transformed parts of the country. Iran now produces a wide range of manufactured commodities, such as automobiles, electric appliances, telecommunications equipment, industrial machinery, paper, rubber products, steel, food products, wood and leather products, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. Textile mills are centred in Eṣfahān and along the Caspian coast. Iran is known throughout the world for its handwoven carpets. The traditional craft of making these Persian rugs contributes substantially to rural incomes and is one of Iran’s most important export industries.
Until the early 1950s the construction industry was limited largely to small domestic companies. Increased income from oil and gas and the availability of easy credit, however, triggered a subsequent building boom that attracted major international construction firms to Iran. This growth continued until the mid-1970s, when, because of a sharp rise in inflation, credit was tightened and the boom collapsed. The construction industry had revived somewhat by the mid-1980s, but housing shortages have remained a serious problem, especially in the large urban centres.
The government makes loans and credits available to industrial and agricultural projects, primarily through banks. All private banks and insurance companies were nationalized in 1979, and the Islamic Bank of Iran (later reorganized as the Islamic Economy Organization and exempt from nationalization) was established in Tehrān, with branches throughout the country. Iran’s 10 banks are divided into three categories—commercial, industrial, and agricultural—but all are subject to the same regulations. In lieu of interest on loans, considered to be usury and forbidden under Islamic law, banks impose a service charge, a commission, or both. The Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tehrān issues the rial, the national currency.
Despite the government’s attempts to make Iran economically self-sufficient, the value of the country’s imports continues to be high. Foodstuffs account for a considerable proportion of total import value, followed by basic manufactures and machinery and transport equipment. The huge income derived from the export of petroleum products has generally created a favourable annual balance of trade. Other exports include carpets, fruits and nuts, chemicals, and metals. Iran’s leading trading partners are Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Despite efforts in the 1990s toward economic liberalization, government spending—including expenditures by quasi-governmental foundations that dominate the economy—has been high. Estimates of service sector spending in Iran are regularly more than two-fifths of the GDP, and much of that is government-related spending, including military expenditures, government salaries, and social service disbursements.
Until the early 1960s, little attention was paid to tourism. Lack of facilities made travel in Iran a rugged experience. The Pahlavi government began paving highways and constructing hotels, and the number of tourists increased steadily in the years 1964–78. However, the political turmoil of 1978, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy, practically destroyed the tourist industry. The Islamic regime subsequently discouraged tourism from non-Muslim countries in an effort to exclude Western influences, and the services that depended on tourism collapsed as a result. Despite government attempts to promote Iran as a tourist destination, services related to tourism remain a small sector of the economy.
- Labour and taxation
Although Iranian workers have, in theory, a right to form labour unions, there is, in actuality, no union system in the country. Workers are represented ostensibly by the Workers’ House, a state-sponsored institution that nevertheless attempts to challenge some state policies. Guild unions operate locally in most areas but are limited largely to issuing credentials and licenses. The right of workers to strike is generally not respected by the state, and since 1979 strikes have often been met by police action.
Roughly one-fourth of Iran’s labour force is engaged in manufacturing and construction. Another one-fifth is engaged in agriculture, and the remainder are divided almost evenly between occupations in services, transportation and communication, and finance. Women are allowed to work outside the home but face restrictions in a number of occupations, and the number of women in the workforce is relatively small in light of their level of education. Some of the numerous refugees in the country are allowed to work but, with the exception of a highly skilled minority, are generally restricted to low-wage, manual labour positions in construction and agriculture.
The minimum age for workers in Iran is 15 years, but large sectors of the economy (including small businesses, agricultural concerns, and family-owned enterprises) are exempted. The workweek is six days (48 hours), and the day of rest—as in many Muslim countries—is on Friday.
Income from petroleum and natural gas exports typically provides the largest share of government revenue, although this varies with the fluctuations in world petroleum markets. Taxes include those on corporations and import duties. In addition to these mandatory taxes, Islamic taxes are collected on a voluntary basis. These include an individual’s income tax (Arabic khums, “one-fifth”); an alms-tax (zakāt), which has a variable rate and benefits charitable causes; and a land tax (kharāj), the rate of which is based on the principle of one-tenth (ʿūshr) of the value of crops, unless the land is tax-exempt.
- Transportation and telecommunications
Iran’s large centres of population are widely scattered, and transportation is made difficult by mountainous and desert terrain. Low funding and poor maintenance long reduced the efficiency of the highways. Nevertheless, motor vehicles—buses and trucks in particular—are the most important means of transportation for both passengers and goods. Since the early 1990s the Iranian government has allocated considerable resources to road construction and repair, and about half the roads are now paved.
The principal line of the state-owned railway system runs between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, with spur lines to many provincial capitals. In 1971 the railway was linked through Turkey with the European system; the link stimulated trade and tourism appreciably, undercutting airfares and significantly reducing sea transportation time. The Iranian portion of a line eastward to Singapore was completed as far as Mashhad by 1971. There is also a connection with railroads in Transcaucasia via Jolfā in the northwest, and a line completed in 1991 between Bafq and Bandar ʿAbbās links Iran’s rail system to Central Asia; thus, Iran has begun to promote itself as a cost-efficient transport outlet for the states in that region.
The Kārūn is the only navigable river and is used to transport passengers and cargo. Lake Urmia has regular passenger and cargo ferry service between the port of Sharafkhāneh in the northeast and Golmānkhāneh in the southwest. Iran is served by five major ports on the Persian Gulf, the largest being Bandar ʿAbbās. Oil terminals at Ābādān and Khārk Island, destroyed or damaged in the war with Iraq, have since been rebuilt, as have port facilities at Khorramshahr and Bandar-e Khomeynī. Iran has expanded its facilities at the port of Būshehr and built a new port at Chāh Bahār (Bandar Beheshtī) on the Gulf of Oman. Caspian seaports, including Bandar-e Anzalī (formerly Bandar-e Pahlavī) and Bandar-e Torkaman (formerly Bandar-e Shāh), are primarily used for trade with nations to the north.
The state-owned airline, Iran Air, serves the major cities and provincial capitals. Some major European, Asian, and African airlines also serve Iran. Tehrān, Ābādān, Eṣfahān, Shīrāz, and Bandar ʿAbbās have international airports.
Telecommunications media in Iran are mostly state-owned, and during the 1990s the state committed significant resources to developing and expanding its communications infrastructure. During that time the number of telephones nearly doubled. Telephone service was increased to rural areas, and by 2000 virtually every Iranian had access to service. Cellular telephones and the Internet have provided Iranians, and especially Iranian youth, with a window to the outside world and accelerated interest in global culture.
Government and Society of Iran
Iran is a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.
The justification for Iran’s mixed system of government can be found in the concept of velāyat-e faqīh, as expounded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first leader of postrevolutionary Iran. Khomeini’s method gives political leadership—in the absence of the divinely inspired imam—to the faqīh, or jurist in Islamic canon law, whose characteristics best qualify him to lead the community. Khomeini, the leader of the revolution (rahbar-e enqelāb), was widely believed to be such a man, and through his authority the position of leader was enshrined in the Iranian constitution. The Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregān), an institution composed of ʿulamāʾ, chooses the leader from among qualified Shīʿite clergy on the basis of the candidate’s personal piety, expertise in Islamic law, and political acumen. The powers of the leader are extensive; he appoints the senior officers of the military and Revolutionary Guards (Pāsdārān-e Enqelāb), as well as the clerical members of the Council of Guardians (Shūrā-ye Negahbān) and members of the judiciary. The leader is also exclusively responsible for declarations of war and is the commander in chief of Iran’s armed forces. Most important, the leader sets the general direction of the nation’s policy. There are no limits on the leader’s term in office, but the Assembly of Experts may remove the leader from office if they find that he is unable to execute his duties.
Upon the death of Khomeini in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts elected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as his successor, an unexpected move because of Khamenei’s relatively low clerical status at the time of his nomination as leader. He was eventually accepted by Iranians as an ayatollah, however, through the urging of senior clerics—a unique event in Shīʿite Islam—and was elevated to the position of rahbar because of his political acumen.
The president, who is elected by universal adult suffrage, heads the executive branch and must be a native-born Iranian Shīʿite. This post was largely ceremonial until July 1989, when a national referendum approved a constitutional amendment that abolished the post of prime minister and vested greater authority in the president. The president selects the Council of Ministers for approval by the legislature, appoints a portion of the members of the Committee to Determine the Expediency of the Islamic Order, and serves as chairman of the Supreme Council for National Security, which oversees the country’s defense. The president and his ministers are responsible for the day-to-day administration of the government and the implementation of laws enacted by the legislature. In addition, the president oversees a wide range of government offices and organizations.
The unicameral legislature is the 290-member Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles-e Shūrā-ye Eslāmī), known simply as the Majles. Deputies are elected directly for four-year terms by universal adult suffrage, and recognized religious and ethnic minorities have token representation in the legislature. The Majles enacts all legislation and, under extraordinary circumstances, may impeach the president with a two-thirds majority vote.
The 12-member Council of Guardians is a body of jurists—half its members specialists in Islamic canon law appointed by the leader and the other half civil jurists nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council and appointed by the Majles—that acts in many ways as an upper legislative house. The council reviews all legislation passed by the Majles to determine its constitutionality. If a majority of the council does not find a piece of legislation in compliance with the constitution or if a majority of the council’s Islamic canon lawyers find the document to be contrary to the standards of Islamic law, then the council may strike it down or return it with revisions to the Majles for reconsideration. In addition, the council supervises elections, and all candidates standing for election—even for the presidency—must meet with its prior approval.
In 1988 Khomeini ordered the formation of the Committee to Determine the Expediency of the Islamic Order—consisting of several members from the Council of Guardians and several members appointed by the president—to arbitrate disagreements between the Majles and the Council of Guardians. The Assembly of Experts, a body of 83 clerics, was originally formed to draft the 1979 constitution. Since that time its sole function has been to select a new leader in the event of the death or incapacitation of the incumbent. If a suitable candidate is not found, the assembly may appoint a governing council of three to five members in the leader’s stead.
- Local government
The ostānhā (provinces) are subdivided into shahrestānhā (counties), bakhshhā (districts), and dehestānhā (townships). The minister of the interior appoints the governors-general (for provinces) and governors (for counties). At each level there is a council, and the Supreme Council of Provinces is formed from representatives of the provincial councils. The ministry of the interior appoints each city’s mayor, but city councilmen are locally elected. Villages are administered by a village master advised by elders.
The judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, a Supreme Judicial Council, and lower courts. The chief justice and the prosecutor general must be specialists in Shīʿite canon law who have attained the status of mujtahid. Under the 1979 constitution all judges must base their decisions on the Sharīʿah (Islamic law). In 1982 the Supreme Court struck down any portion of the law codes of the deposed monarchy that did not conform with the Sharīʿah. In 1983 the Majles revised the penal code and instituted a system that embraced the form and content of Islamic law. This code implemented a series of traditional punishments, including retributions (Arabic qiṣāṣ) for murder and other violent crimes—wherein the nearest relative of a murdered party may, if the court approves, take the life of the killer. Violent corporal punishments, including execution, are now the required form of chastisement for a wide range of crimes, ranging from adultery to alcohol consumption. With the number of clergy within the judiciary growing since the revolution, the state in 1987 implemented a special court outside of the regular judiciary to try members of the clergy accused of crimes.
- Political process
Under the constitution, elections are to be held at least every four years, supervised by the Council of Guardians. Suffrage is universal, and the minimum voting age is 16. All important matters are subject to referenda. At the outset of the revolution, the Islamic Republic Party was the ruling political party in Iran, but it subsequently proved to be too volatile, and Khomeini ordered it disbanded in 1987. The Muslim People’s Republic Party, which once claimed more than three million members, and its leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariat-Madari, opposed many of Khomeini’s reforms and the ruling party’s tactics in the early period of the Islamic republic, but in 1981 it, too, was ordered to dissolve. The government has likewise outlawed several parties—including the Tūdeh (“Masses”) Party, the Mojāhedīn-e Khalq (“Holy Warriors for the People”) Party, and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan—although it permits parties that demonstrate what it considers to be a “commitment to the Islamic system.”
Under the monarchy, Iran had one of the largest armed forces in the world, but it quickly dissolved with the collapse of the monarchy. Reconstituted following the revolution, the Iranian military engaged in a protracted war with Iraq (1980–88) and has since maintained a formidable active and reserve component. Since the mid-1980s Iran has sought to establish programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (Iran used the latter in its war with Iraq), and by the late 1990s it had achieved some success in the domestic production of medium- and intermediate-range missiles—effective from 300 to 600 miles (480 to 965 km) and from 600 to 3,300 miles (965 to 5,310 km) away, respectively. Outside observers, particularly those within the United States, have contended that Iran’s fledgling nuclear energy industry is in fact the seedbed for a nuclear weapons program.
Iran’s military obtains much of its manpower from conscription, and males are required to serve 21 months of military service. The army is the largest branch of Iran’s military, followed by the Revolutionary Guards. This body, organized in the republic’s early days, is the country’s most effective military force and consists of the most politically dependable and religiously devout personnel. Any security forces that are involved in external war or in armed internal conflict are either accompanied or led by elements of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran has only a small air force and navy. A national police force is responsible for law enforcement in the cities, and a gendarmerie oversees rural areas. Both are under the direction of the Ministry of Interior.
- Health and welfare
Health conditions appreciably improved after World War II through the combined efforts of the government, international agencies, and philanthropic endeavour. By 1964 smallpox had been eradicated, plague had disappeared, and malaria had been practically wiped out. Cholera, believed to have been controlled, broke out in 1970 and again in 1981 but was speedily checked. Health facilities are nevertheless inadequate, and there is a shortage of doctors, nurses, and medical supplies.
Public hospitals provide free treatment for the poor. These are supplemented by private institutions, but all are inadequate. All health services are supervised by the Ministry of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education, the branch offices of which are headed by certified physicians. Welfare is administered by the Ministry of State for Welfare, Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyād-e Mostaẕʿafān), and the Martyr Foundation (Bonyād-e Shahīd), the latter being particularly concerned with families of war casualties.
The flow of population to the cities has created serious housing shortages, and it was only in the 1990s that the government began to address the housing crisis, largely by providing government credits for private sector development. However, most of the nation’s energies have been devoted to urban developments—most of those in the larger cities, particularly Tehrān—and habitation in rural areas remains austere. In major cities, purified water is piped into the houses, while small towns and villages rely on wells, qanāts (underground canals), springs, or rivers. Central heating is not common, except for modern buildings in major cities, and portable kerosene heaters, iron stoves using wood and coal, and charcoal braziers are common sources of heat. Living conditions remain especially harsh among the urban poor and the enormous refugee population.
Education is compulsory between the ages of 6 and 11. Roughly four-fifths of men and two-thirds of women are literate. Primary education is followed by a three-year guidance cycle, which assesses students’ aptitudes and determines whether they will enter an academic, scientific, or vocational program during high school. Policy changes initiated since the revolution eliminated coeducational schools and required all schools and universities to promote Islamic values. The latter is a reaction to the strong current of Western secularism that permeated higher education under the monarchy. Adherence to the prevalent political dogma has long been an important factor for students and faculty who wish to succeed in Iranian universities. In fact, acceptance to universities in Iran is largely based on a candidate’s personal piety, either real or perceived.
The University of Tehrān was founded in 1934, and several more universities, teachers’ colleges, and technical schools have been established since then. Iran’s institutes of higher learning suffered after the revolution, however, when tens of thousands of professors and instructors either fled the country or were dismissed because of their secularism or association with the monarchy. Iran’s universities have remained understaffed, and thus student enrollment has dropped in a country that greatly esteems higher education. The shortage of skilled teachers has led the government to encourage students to study abroad, in an effort to improve the quality and quantity of advanced degree holders and faculty. While overall enrollment numbers have fallen, the rate of women’s admission at the university level has climbed dramatically, and by 2000 more than half of incoming students were women.
The public school system is controlled by the Ministry of Education and Training. Universities are under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education and Culture, and medical schools are under the Ministry of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education.
Culture Life of Iran
Few countries enjoy such a long cultural heritage as does Iran, and few people are so aware of and articulate about their deep cultural tradition as are the Iranians. Iran, or Persia, as a historical entity, dates to the time of the Achaemenids (about 2,500 years ago), and, despite political, religious, and historic changes, Iranians maintain a deep connection to their past. Although daily life in modern Iran is closely interwoven with Shīʿite Islam, the country’s art, literature, and architecture are an ever-present reminder of its deep national tradition and of a broader literary culture that during the premodern period spread throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Much of Iran’s modern history can be attributed to the essential tension that existed between the Shīʿite piety promoted by Iran’s clergy and the Persian cultural legacy—in which religion played a subordinate role—proffered by the Pahlavi monarchy.
Despite the predominance of Persian culture, Iran remains a multiethnic state, and the country’s Armenian, Azerbaijanian, Kurdish, and smaller ethnic minorities each have their own literary and historical traditions dating back many centuries, even—in the case of the Armenians—to the pre-Christian era. These groups frequently maintain close connections with the larger cultural life of their kindred outside Iran.
Daily life and social customs
The narrative of martyrdom has been an essential component of Shīʿite culture, which can be traced to the massacre in 680 of the third imam, al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī, along with his close family and followers at the Battle of Karbalāʾ by the troops of the Ummayad caliph, Yazīd, during al-Ḥusayn’s failed attempt to restore his family line to political power. As a minority in the Islamic community, Shīʿites faced much persecution and, according to Shīʿite doctrine, offered up many martyrs over the centuries because of their belief in the right of the line of ʿAlī to political rule and religious leadership. Each year on the anniversary of the massacre, Shīʿites commemorate the Karbalāʾ tragedy during the holiday of ʿĀshūrāʾ through the taʿziyyah (passion play) and through rituals of self-flagellation with bare hands and, sometimes, with chains and blades. These acts of mourning continue throughout the year in the practice of the rawẕah khānī, a ritual of mourning in which a storyteller, the rawẕah khān, incites the assembled—who are frequently gathered at a special place of mourning called a ḥosayniyyeh—to tears by tales of the death of al-Ḥusayn.
The commemoration of Karbalāʾ has permeated all of Persian culture and finds expression in poetry, music, and the solemn Shīʿite view of the world. No religious ceremony is complete without a reference to Karbalāʾ, and no month passes without at least one day of mourning. None of the efforts of the monarchy, such as the annual festivals of art and the encouragement of musicians and native crafts, succeeded in changing this basic attitude; public displays of laughter and joy remain undesirable, even sinful, in some circles.
Nōrūz: women lighting firecrackers [Credit: Atta Kenare—AFP/Getty Images]Iranians do celebrate several festive occasions. In addition to the two ʿīds (Arabic: “holidays”)—practiced by Sunnites and Shīʿites alike—the most important holidays are Nōrūz, the Persian New Year, and the birthday of the 12th imam, whose second coming the Shīʿites expect in the end of days. The Nōrūz celebration begins on the last Wednesday of the old year, is followed by a weeklong holiday, and continues until the 13th day of the new year, which is a day for picnicking in the countryside. On the 12th imam’s birthday, cities sparkle with lights, and the bazaars are decorated and teem with shoppers.
Persian cuisine, although strongly influenced by the culinary traditions of the Arab world and the subcontinent, is largely a product of the geography and domestic food products of Iran. Rice is a dietary staple, and meat—mostly lamb—plays a part in virtually every meal. Vegetables are central to the Iranian diet, with onions an ingredient of virtually every dish. Herding has long been a traditional part of the economy, and dairy products—milk, cheese, and particularly yogurt—are common ingredients in Persian dishes. Traditional Persian cuisine tends to favour subtle flavours and relatively simple preparations such as khūresh (stew) and kabobs. Saffron is the most distinctive spice used, but many other flavourings—including lime, mint, turmeric, and rosewater—are common, as are pomegranates and walnuts.
Kāshān carpet [Credit: Courtesy of the Osterreichisches Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Vienna; photograph, Eric Lessing/Magnum Photos]Carpet looms dot the country. Each locality prides itself on a special design and quality of carpet that bears its name, such as Kāshān, Kermān, Khorāsān, Eṣfahān, Shīrāz, Tabrīz, and Qom. Carpets are used locally and are exported. The handwoven-cloth industry has survived stiff competition from modern textile mills. Weavers produce velvets, printed cottons, wool brocades, shawls, and cloth shoes. Felt is made in the south, and sheepskin is embroidered in the northeast.
A wide range of articles, both utilitarian and decorative, are made of various metals. The best-known centres are Tehrān (gold); Shīrāz, Eṣfahān, and Zanjān (silver); and Kāshān and Eṣfahān (copper). Khorāsān is known for its turquoise working and the Persian Gulf region for its natural pearls. The craft techniques are as divergent as the products themselves. Articles may be cast, beaten, wrought, pierced, or drawn (stretched out). The most widespread techniques for ornamentation are engraving, embossing, chiseling, damascening, encrustation, or gilding.
Numerous decorative articles in wood are produced for both the domestic and export markets in Eṣfahān, Shīrāz, and Tehrān (inlay) and in Rasht, Orūmiyyeh (formerly called Reẕāʿiyyeh), and Sanandaj (carved and pierced wood). Machine-made ceramic tiles are manufactured in Tehrān, but handmade tiles and mosaics, known for their rich designs and beautiful colours, also continue to be produced.
Stone and clay are also used for the production of a wide range of household utensils, trays, dishes, and vases. Mashhad is the centre of the stone industry. Potteries are widely scattered throughout the country, Hamadān being the largest centre.
Masjed-e Emām: interior [Credit: Robert Harding—Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images]Iran’s ancient culture has a deep architectural tradition. The Elamite, Achaemenian, Hellenistic, and other pre-Islamic dynasties left striking stone testaments to their greatness, such as Choghā Zanbil and Persepolis—both of which were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979. Three monastic ensembles central to the Armenian Christian faith were collectively recognized as a World Heritage site in 2008; their architecture represents a confluence of Byzantine, Persian, and Armenian cultures. From the Islamic period the architectural achievements of the Seljuq, Il-Khanid, and Ṣafavid dynasties are particularly noteworthy. During that time Iranian cities such as Neyshābūr, Eṣfahān, and Shīrāz came to be among the great cities of the Islamic world, and their many mosques, madrasahs, shrines, and palaces formed an architectural tradition that was distinctly Iranian within the larger Islamic milieu.
Āzādī tower [Credit: Photos.com/Jupiterimages]Under the Pahlavi monarchy, two architectural trends developed—an imitation of Western styles, which had little relevance to the country’s climate and landscape, and an attempt to revive indigenous designs. The National Council for Iranian Architecture, founded in 1967, discouraged blind imitation of the West and promoted the use of more traditional Iranian styles that were modified to serve modern needs. Perhaps the most striking example of the Pahlavi architectural program is the Shāhyād (Persian: “Shah’s Monument”) tower—renamed the Āzādī (“Freedom”) tower after the 1979 revolution—which was completed in Tehrān in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Achaemenian dynasty.
- ISUAL ARTS
Islamic culture never developed strong indigenous schools of visual arts, perhaps because of the religion’s rejection of any form of idolatry or graphic depiction of any form. A significant exception to that rule was the development in Iran of highly refined miniature painting—noteworthy were the Jalāyirid, Shīrāz, and Eṣfahān schools. Persian miniature, however, largely died out by the late Ṣafavid period (early 18th century). That did not prevent Iranian artists from working in other media, such as calligraphy, illumination, weaving, ceramics, and metalwork. Western classical painting and sculpture were introduced in the late 19th century and were adapted to Iranian themes. The trend toward Islamization after the 1979 revolution restricted visual arts, but the medium nevertheless continued to develop through exhibits and, more recently, through access to the Internet.
For centuries Islamic injunctions inhibited the development of formal musical disciplines, but folk songs and ancient Persian classical music were preserved through oral transmission from generation to generation. It was not until the 20th century that a music conservatory was founded in Tehrān and that Western techniques were used to record traditional melodies and encourage new compositions. That trend was reversed, however, in 1979, when the former restrictions on the study and practice of music were restored. Although officially forbidden—even after the liberal reforms of the late 1990s—Western pop music is fashionable among Iranian youth, and there is a thriving trade in musical cassette tapes and compact discs. Iranian pop groups also occasionally perform, though often under threat of punishment. In 2000, Iranian authorities permitted Googoosh, the most popular Iranian singer of the prerevolutionary era, to resume her career—albeit from abroad—after 21 years of forced silence.
Shīrāz: gardens at the tomb of the poet Ḥāfeẓ [Credit: Paolo Koch/Photo Researchers]Iranian culture is perhaps best known for its literature, which emerged in its current form in the 9th century. The great masters of the Persian language—Ferdowsī, Neẓāmī, Ḥāfeẓ, Jāmī, and Rūmī—continue to inspire Iranian authors in the modern era, although publication and distribution of many classical works—deemed licentious by conservative clerics—have been difficult. Persian literature was deeply influenced by Western literary and philosophical traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries yet remains a vibrant medium for Iranian culture. Whether in prose or in poetry, it also came to serve as a vehicle of cultural introspection, political dissent, and personal protest for such influential Iranian writers as Sadeq Hedayat, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, and Sadeq-e Chubak and such poets as Ahmad Shamlu and Forough Farrokhzad. Following the Islamic revolution of 1979, many Iranian writers went into exile, and much of the country’s best Persian-language literature was thereafter written and published abroad. However, the postrevolutionary era also witnessed the birth of a new feminist literature by authors such as Shahrnoush Parsipour and Moniru Ravanipur.
The most popular form of entertainment in Iran is the cinema, which is also an important medium for social and political commentary in a society that has had little tolerance for participatory democracy. After the 1979 revolution the government at first banned filmmaking but then gave directors financial support if they agreed to propagate Islamic values. However, the public showed little interest, and this period of ideology-driven filmmaking did not last. Soon films that dealt with the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) or that reflected more tolerant expressions of Islamic values, including Sufi mysticism, gained ground. The religious establishment, however, generally frowns upon the imitation of Western films among Iran’s filmmakers but encourages adapting Western and Eastern classic stories and folktales, provided that they reflect contemporary Iranian concerns and not transgress Islamic restrictions imposed by the government. In the 1990s the fervour of the early revolutionary years was replaced by demands for political moderation and better relations with the West. Iran’s film industry became one of the finest in the world, with festivals of Iranian films being held annually throughout the world. Directors Bahram Bayzaʾi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Dariyush Mehrjuʾi produced films that won numerous awards at international festivals, including Cannes (France) and Locarno (Switzerland), and a new generation of women film directors—among them Rakhshan Bani Eʿtemad (Blue Scarf, 1995) and Tahmineh Milani (Two Women, 1999)—has also emerged.
Iran’s filmmakers are celebrated for films that deal with the lives of children (Bashu the Stranger, 1989; The White Balloon, 1995; Children of Heaven, 1997), the concerns and issues of teenagers (The Need, 1991; Sweet Agony, 1999), the beauty of nature (Gabbeh, 1996), and social and psychological abuse in marriage, divorce, and polygyny (Leila, 1996; Two Women; Red, 1999).
Iran has few museums, and those that exist are of relatively recent origin. The two exceptions are the Golestān Palace Museum in Tehrān, which was opened in 1894, and the All Saviour’s Cathedral Museum of Jolfā (Eṣfahān), which was built by the Armenian community in 1905. The only gallery devoted solely to art is the Tehrān Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1977. Other well-known museums include the National Museum of Iran (1937) and Negārestān (1975) in Tehrān and Pārs (1938) in Shīrāz.
Among the learned societies, all of which are located in Tehrān, the most important are the Ancient Iranian Cultural Society, the Iranian Mathematical Society, and the Iranian Society of Microbiology. There are also a number of research institutes, such as those devoted to cultural, scientific, archaeological, anthropological, and historical topics. In addition to libraries at the various universities, there are public and private libraries in Tehrān, Mashhad, Eṣfahān, and Shīrāz.
Sports and recreation
Wrestling, horse racing, and ritualistic bodybuilding are the traditional sports of the country. Team sports were introduced from the West in the 20th century, the most popular being rugby football and volleyball. Under the monarchy, modern sports were incorporated into the school curricula. Iran’s Physical Education Organization was formed in 1934. Iranian athletes first participated in the Olympic Games in 1948. The country made its Winter Games debut in 1956. Most of Iran’s Olympic medals have come in weightlifting, martial arts, and wrestling events.
Estili, Hamid [Credit: Michael Euler/AP]Football (soccer) has become the most popular game in Iran—the country’s team won the Asian championships in 1968, 1974, and 1976 and made its World Cup debut in 1978—but the 1979 revolution was a major setback for Iranian sports. The new government regarded the sports stadium as a rival to the mosque. Major teams were nationalized, and women were prevented from participating in many activities. In addition, the Iran-Iraq War left few resources to devote to sports. However, the enormous public support for sports, especially for football, could not be easily suppressed. Since the 1990s there has been a revival of athletics in Iran, including women’s activities. Sports have become inextricably bound up with demands for political liberalization, and nearly every major event has become an occasion for massive public celebrations by young men and women expressing their desire for reform and for more amicable relations with the West.
Media and publishing
Daily newspapers and periodicals are published primarily in Tehrān and must be licensed under the press law of 1979. The publication of any anti-Muslim sentiment is strictly forbidden. Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance operates the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Foreign correspondents are allowed into the country on special occasions. Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, censorship of the broadcast media and the Internet by conservative elements within the government is widespread. Regardless, print media—newspapers, magazines, and journals—contributed greatly to the growth of political reform in Iran during the late 1990s. In the 2000s reformist and opposition groups increasingly circulated their messages on the Internet, while the authorities correspondingly intensified their efforts to shut down online dissent. The most widely circulated newspapers include Eṭṭelāʿāt and Kayhān. Radio and television broadcasting stations in Iran are operated by the government and reach the entire country, and some radio broadcasts have international reception. The government made possession of satellite reception equipment illegal in 1995, but the ban has been irregularly enforced, and many Iranians have continued to receive television broadcasts—including Persian-language programs—from abroad. Programs are broadcast in Persian and some foreign languages, as well as in local languages and dialects. Though basic literacy increased substantially in the years following the revolution, audiovisual media have remained much more effective than print material for disseminating information, especially in rural areas.
History of Iran
Early History to the Zand Dynasty
Iran has a long and rich history. For a detailed description of the Persian Empire, see Persia. Some of the world's most ancient settlements have been excavated in the Caspian region and on the Iranian plateau; village life began there c.4000 B.C. The Aryans came about 2000 B.C. and split into two main groups, the Medes and the Persians. The Persian Empire founded (c.550 B.C.) by Cyrus the Great was succeeded, after a period of Greek and Parthian rule, by the Sassanid in the early 3d cent. A.D. Their control was weakened when Arab invaders took (636) the capital, Ctesiphon; it ended when the Arabs defeated the Sassanid armies at Nahavand in 641. With the invasion of Persia the Arabs brought Islam. The Turks began invading in the 10th cent. and soon established several Turkish states. The Turks were followed by the Mongols, led by Jenghiz Khan in the 13th cent. and Timur in the late 14th cent.
The Safavid dynasty (1502–1736), founded by Shah Ismail, restored internal order in Iran and established the Shiite sect of Islam as the state religion; it reached its height during the reign (1587–1629) of Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great). He drove out the Portuguese, who had established colonies on the Persian Gulf early in the 16th cent. Shah Abbas also established trade relations with Great Britain and reorganized the army. Religious differences led to frequent wars with the Ottoman Turks, whose interest in Iran was to continue well into the 20th cent.
The fall of the Safavid dynasty was brought about by the Afghans, who overthrew the weak shah, Husein, in 1722. An interval of Afghan rule followed until Nadir Shah expelled them and established (1736) the Afshar dynasty. He invaded India in 1738 and brought back fabulous wealth, including the legendary Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor diamond. Nadir Shah, a despotic ruler, was assassinated in 1747. The Afshar dynasty was followed by the Zand dynasty (1750–94), founded by Karim Khan, who established his capital at Shiraz and adorned that city with many fine buildings. His rule brought a period of peace and renewed prosperity. However, the country was soon again in turmoil, which lasted until the advent of Aga Muhammad Khan.
- The Qajar Dynasty
A detested ruler (assassinated 1797), Aga Muhammad Khan defeated the last ruler of the Zand dynasty and established the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925). This long period saw Iran steadily lose territory to neighboring countries and fall under the increasing pressure of European nations, particularly czarist Russia. Under Fath Ali Shah (1797–1834), Persian claims in the entire Caucasian area were challenged by the Russians in a long struggle that ended with the Treaty of Gulistan (1813) and the Treaty of Turkmanchay (1828), by which Iran was forced to give up the Caucasian lands. Herat, the rich city on the Hari Rud, which had been part of the ancient Persian Empire, was taken by the Afghans. A series of campaigns to reclaim it ended with the intervention of the British on behalf of Afghanistan and resulted in the recognition of Afghan independence by Iran in 1857.
The discovery of oil in the early 1900s intensified the rivalry of Great Britain and Russia for power over the nation. Internally, the early 20th cent. saw the rise of the constitutional movement and a constitution establishing a parliament was accepted by the shah in 1906. Meanwhile, the British-Russian rivalry continued and in 1907 resulted in an Anglo-Russian agreement (annulled after World War I) that divided Iran into spheres of influence. The period preceding World War I was one of political and financial difficulty. During the war, Iran was occupied by the British and Russians but remained neutral; after the war, Iran was admitted to the League of Nations as an original member.
In 1919, Iran made a trade agreement with Great Britain in which Britain formally reaffirmed Iran's independence but actually attempted to establish a complete protectorate over it. After Iranian recognition of the USSR in a treaty of 1921, the Soviet Union renounced czarist imperialistic policies toward Iran, canceled all debts and concessions, and withdrew occupation forces from Iranian territory. In 1921, Reza Khan, an army officer, effected a coup and established a military dictatorship.
- The Pahlevi Dynasty
Reza Khan was subsequently (1925) elected hereditary shah, thus ending the Qajar dynasty and founding the new Pahlevi dynasty. Reza Shah Pahlevi abolished the British treaty, reorganized the army, introduced many reforms, and encouraged the development of industry and education. In Aug., 1941, two months after the German invasion of the USSR, British and Soviet forces occupied Iran. On Sept. 16 the shah abdicated in favor of his son Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi. American troops later entered Iran to handle the delivery of war supplies to the USSR.
At the Tehran Conference in 1943 the Tehran Declaration, signed by the United States, Great Britain, and the USSR, guaranteed the independence and territorial integrity of Iran. However, the USSR, dissatisfied with the refusal of the Iranian government to grant it oil concessions, fomented a revolt in the north which led to the establishment (Dec., 1945) of the People's Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kurdish People's Republic, headed by Soviet-controlled leaders. When Soviet troops remained in Iran following the expiration (Jan., 1946) of a wartime treaty that also allowed the presence of American and British troops, Iran protested to the United Nations. The Soviets finally withdrew (May, 1946) after receiving a promise of oil concessions from Iran subject to approval by the parliament. The Soviet-established governments in the north, lacking popular support, were deposed by Iranian troops late in 1946, and the parliament subsequently rejected the oil concessions.
In 1951, the National Front movement, headed by Premier Mussadegh, a militant nationalist, succeeded in nationalizing the oil industry and formed the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). Although a British blockade led to the virtual collapse of the oil industry and serious internal economic troubles, Mussadegh continued his nationalization policy. Openly opposed by the shah, Mussadegh was ousted in 1952 but quickly regained power. The shah fled Iran but returned when monarchist elements forced Mussadegh from office in Aug., 1953; covert U.S. activity was in large part responsible for Mussadegh's ousting.
In 1954, Iran allowed an international consortium of British, American, French, and Dutch oil companies to operate its oil facilities, with profits shared equally between Iran and the consortium. After 1953 a succession of premiers restored a measure of order to Iran; in 1957 martial law was ended after 16 years in force. Iran established closer relations with the West, joining the Baghdad Pact (later called the Central Treaty Organization), and receiving large amounts of military and economic aid from the United States until the late 1960s.
Starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, the Iranian government, at the shah's initiative, undertook a broad program designed to improve economic and social conditions. Land reform was a major priority. In an effort to transform the feudal peasant-landlord agricultural system, the government purchased estates and sold the land to the people; it also distributed large tracts of crown land. In the Jan., 1963, referendum, the voters overwhelmingly approved the shah's extensive plan for further land redistribution, compulsory education, and a system of profit sharing in industry; the program was financed by the selling of government-owned factories to private investors. Within three years, 1.5 million former tenant farmers were plot owners.
The shah held close reins on the government as absolute monarch, but he moved toward certain democratic reforms within Iran. A new government-backed political party, the Iran Novin party, was introduced and won an overwhelming majority in the parliament in the 1963 and subsequent elections. Women received the right to vote in national elections in 1963.
- Reaction, Repression, and Conflict
The shah's various reform programs and the continuing poor economic conditions alienated some of the major religious and political groups, and riots occurred in mid-1963. The general political instability was reflected by the assassination of Premier Hassan Ali Mansur and an unsuccessful attempt on the shah's life in Jan., 1965. Amir Abbas Hoveida succeeded as premier. In Oct., 1971, Iran commemorated the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great with an elaborate celebration in the desert at Persepolis. Iran's pro-Western policies continued into the 1970s; however, opposition to such growing Westernization and secularization was strongly denounced by the Islamic clergy, headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been exiled from Iran in 1964. Internal opposition within the country was regularly purged by the Shah's secret police force (SAVAK), created in 1957.
Improved relations in the 1970s, especially in the economic sphere, were established with Communist countries, including the USSR. However, relations with Iraq were antagonistic for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in great part due to conflict over the Shatt al Arab waterway. A number of armed clashes took place along the entire length of the border. In Apr., 1969, Iran voided the 1937 accord with Iraq on the control of the Shatt al Arab and demanded that the treaty, which had given Iraq virtual control of the river, be renegotiated.
In 1971, Britain withdrew its military forces from the Persian Gulf. Concerned that Soviet-backed Arab nations might try to fill the power vacuum created by the British withdrawal, Iran increased its defense budget by almost 50%, and with the help of huge U.S. and British defense programs, emerged as the region's strongest military power. Although Iran renounced all claims to Bahrain in 1970, it took control (Nov., 1971) of three small, Arab-owned islands at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iraq protested Iran's action by expelling thousands of Iranian nationals.
In Mar., 1973, short of the end of the 25-year 1954 agreement with the international oil-producing consortium, the shah established the NIOC's full control over all aspects of Iran's oil industry, and the consortium agreed (May, 1973) to act merely in an advisory capacity in return for favorable long-term oil supply contracts. In the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War of Oct., 1973, Iran, reluctant to use oil as a political weapon, did not participate in the oil embargo against the United States, Europe, Japan, and Israel. However, it used the situation to become a leader in the raising of oil prices in disregard of the Tehran Agreement of 1971. Iran utilized the revenue generated by price rises to bolster its position abroad as a creditor, to initiate domestic programs of modernization and economic development, and to increase its military power.
- The Islamic Revolution
The rapid growth of industrialization and modernization programs within Iran, accompanied by ostentatious private wealth, became greatly resented by the bulk of the population, mainly in the overcrowded urban areas and among the rural poor. The shah's autocratic rule and his extensive use of the secret police led to widespread popular unrest throughout 1978. The religious-based protests were conservative in nature, directed against the shah's policies. Khomeini, who was expelled from Iraq in Feb., 1978, called for the abdication of the shah. Martial law was declared in September for all major cities. As governmental controls faltered, the shah fled Iran on Jan. 16, 1979. Khomeini returned and led religious revolutionaries to the final overthrow of the shah's government on Feb. 11.
The new government represented a major shift toward conservatism. It nationalized industries and banks and revived Islamic traditions. Western influence and music were banned, women were forced to return to traditional veiled dress, and Westernized elites fled the country. A new constitution was written allowing for a presidential system, but Khomeini remained at the executive helm as Supreme Leader. The Revolutionary Guard was established separately from the military as an ideologically based corps charged with defending the revolution. Clashes occurred between rival religious factions throughout 1979, as oil prices fell. Arrests and executions were rampant.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American hostages. Khomeini refused all appeals, and agitation increased toward the West with the Carter administration's economic boycott, the breaking of diplomatic relations, and an unsuccessful rescue attempt (Apr., 1980). The hostage crisis lasted 444 days and was finally resolved on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as U.S. president. Nearly all Iranian conditions had been met, including the unfreezing of nearly $8 billion in Iranian assets.
- War and its Aftermath
On Sept. 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, commencing an eight-year war primarily over the disputed Shatt al Arab waterway (see Iran-Iraq War). The war rapidly escalated, leading to Iraqi and Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in 1984. Fighting crippled both nations, devastating Iran's military supply and oil industry, and led to an estimated 500,000 to one million casualties. Khomeini rejected diplomatic initiatives and called for the overthrow of Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein. In Nov., 1986, U.S. government officials secretly visited Iran to trade arms with the Iranians, in the hopes of securing the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, because Iran had political connections with Shiite terrorists in Lebanon. On July 3, 1988, a U.S. navy warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing all aboard. That same month, Khomeini agreed to accept a UN cease-fire with Iraq, ending the war.
Iran immediately began rebuilding the nation's economy, especially its oil industry. Tensions also eased at that time with neighboring Afghanistan, as Soviet troops there began withdrawal (completed in 1989), after a presence of nearly 10 years. During the Soviet occupation, Iran had become host to nearly 3 million Afghan refugees. Khomeini died in 1989 and was succeeded by Iran's president, Sayid Ali Khamenei. The presidency was soon filled by Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who sought improved relations and financial aid with Western nations while somewhat diminishing the influence of fundamentalist and revolutionary factions and embarking on a military buildup. A major earthquake hit N Iran on June 21, 1990, killing nearly 40,000 people.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in Aug., 1990, Iran adhered to international sanctions against Iraq. However, Iran condemned the use of U.S.-led coalition forces against Iraq during the Persian Gulf War (1991), and it allowed Iraqi planes fleeing coalition air attacks to land in the country. As a result of the war and its aftermath, more than one million Kurds crossed the Iraqi border into Iran as refugees.
Rafsanjani was reelected president in 1993. The United States suspended all trade with Iran in 1995, accusing Iran of supporting terrorist groups and attempting to develop nuclear weapons. In 1997, Mohammed Khatami, a moderately liberal Muslim cleric, was elected president, which was widely seen as a reaction against the country's repressive social policies and lack of economic progress. Also in 1997, Iran launched a series of air attacks on Iraq to bomb Iranian rebels operating from Iraq. Several European Union countries began renewing economic ties with Iran in the late 1990s; the United States, however, continued to block more normalized relations, arguing that the country had been implicated in international terrorism and was developing a nuclear weapons capacity.
In 1999, as new curbs were put on a free press, prodemocracy student demonstrations erupted at Teheran Univ. and other urban campuses. These were followed by a wave of counterdemonstrations by hard-line factions associated with Ayatollah Khamenei. Reformers won a substantial victory in the Feb., 2000, parliamentary elections, capturing about two thirds of the seats, but conservative elements in the government forced the closure of the reformist press. Attempts by parliament to repeal restrictive press laws were forbidden by Khamenei. Despite these conditions, President Khatami was overwhelming reeelcted in June, 2001. Tensions between reformers in parliament and conservatives in the judiciary and the Guardian Council, over both social and economic changes, increased after Khatami's reelection. In Aug., 2002, a frustrated Khatami called for legislation to limit the powers of the Guardian Council and restore presidential powers to act as head of state and enforce the constitution, and in June, 2003, there were ongoing demonstrations by students in Tehran in favor of reform. In August, however, the Guardian Council rejected a bill aimed at curbing its ability to bar candidates from elections.
Tensions with the United States increased after the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in Mar., 2003, as U.S. officials increasingly denounced Iran for pursuing the alleged development of nuclear weapons. Iranian government support for strongly conservative Shiite militias in Iraq also further soured U.S.-Iranian relations. In October, however, Iran agreed, in negotiations with several W European nations, to tougher international inspections of its nuclear installations. Concern over Iran's nuclear program nonetheless continued, and in early 2004 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that the country had failed to disclose all aspects of its nuclear program. Meanwhile, an earthquake, centered on Bam in SE Iran, killed more than 26,000 people in Dec., 2003.
In the Feb., 2004, elections conservatives won control of parliament, securing some two thirds of the seats. The Guardian Council had barred many reformers from running, including some sitting members of parliament, and many reformers denounced the move as an attempt to fix the election and called for a electoral boycott. Many Iranians, however, were unhappy with the failure of the current parliament to achieve any significant reforms or diminish the influence of the hard-liners. A significant number of the hard-line conservative members of the new parliament had ties to the Revolutionary Guards, who increased their economic and political influence, but they also faced opposition from more traditional conservatives such as former president Rafsanjani.
In mid-2004 Iran began resuming the processing of nuclear fuel as part of its plan to achieve self-sufficiency in nuclear power production, stating the negotiations with European Union nations had failed to bring access to the advanced nuclear technology that was promised. The action was denounced by the United States as one which would give Iran the capability to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA said that although Iran had not been fully cooperative, there was no concrete proof that Iran was seeking to develop such arms; however, the IAEA also called for Iran to abandon its plans to produce enriched uranium. In Nov., 2004, Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, but also subsequently indicated that it would not be held to the suspension if the negotiations the EU nations failed. Iran signed an agreement with Russia in Feb., 2005, that called for Russia to supply it with nuclear fuel and for Iran to return the spent fuel to Russia; despite the apparent safeguards in the agreement, it was denounced by the United States. Iran's nuclear energy program remained a contentious international issue in subsequent months.
The presidential elections in June, 2005, were won by the hardline conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ran on a populist, anticorruption platform. The Guardian Council had initially rejected all reformist candidates, including one of Iran's vice presidents, but permitted him and another reformist to run after an appeal. Ahmadinejad and former president Rafsanjani were the leaders after the first round, but in the runoff Ahmadinejad's populist economic policies combined with Rafsanjani's inability to pick up sufficient reformist support assured the former's win. Ahmadinejad's victory, which was marred by some interference in the balloting from the Revolutionary Guards, gave conservatives control of all branches of Iran's government.
After Iran resumed (Aug., 2005) converting raw uranium into gas, a necessary step for enrichment, the IAEA passed a resolution that accused Iran of failing to comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and called for the agency to report Iran to the UN Security Council. The timetable for the reporting, however, was left undetermined.
In the fall of 2005 Ayatollah Khamenei broadened the responsibilities of the Expediency Council by delegating to it some of his governmental oversight responsibilities. The move enhanced the standing and power of Rafsanjani, who had become head of the council in 1997, and was regarded as an attempt to establish a counterweight to the new president (who had been elected with the ayatollah's support) and the more radical conservative elements associated with Ahmadinejad's presidency. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, issued strong anti-Israel, anti-Holocaust statements, and sought to set a more conservative course for Iran. The country also continued to move forward with its nuclear research program.
In Feb., 2006, the IAEA voted to report Iran to the UN Security Council. In response Iran resumed uranium enrichment and ended surprise IAEA inspections and surveillance of its nuclear facilties. The Security Council called (March) for Iran to suspend its nuclear research program in 30 days, but the statement left unclear what if any response there would be if Iran refused. For its part, Iran remained defiant, and its slow response to a European Union–led negotiating effort and the revelation of an additional, previously unknown enrichment program caused the nations involved (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and the EU) to refer the issue back to the Security Council in July, 2006. The Council set an Aug. 31 deadline for Iran to stop enrichment, but Iran insisted it would continue its program and ignored the deadline. The Council's veto-holding nations were divided over the subsequent U.S. call for sanctions, but in Dec., 2006, they agreed on sanctions that barred the sale of technology and materials that could be used in Iran's nuclear program. and the international assets of certain companies associated with program were frozen. After a new deadline for stopping enrichment also passed without Iranian action, additional sanctions were imposed in Mar., 2007, but Iran continued with its enrichment activities. A subsequent IAEA report (Aug., 2007) indicated that Iran was continuing to expand its enrichment capabilities while utilitizing them at lower than expected levels.
Also in Dec., 2006, Ahmadinejad's supporters and allies suffered losses in elections for local councils and the Assembly of Experts; more moderate conservatives were the biggest winners, and reformists did sufficiently well to reemerge as a political force. The most significant winner was Rafsanjani, who was reelected to the Assembly of Experts and received the most votes of any Tehran Assembly candidate.
Fifteen British naval personnel were seized in Mar., 2007, by Revolutionary Guards forces in what Iran asserted were its waters. The British disputed the claim, and called for them to be released. After two weeks marked by behind-the-scenes negotiations and Iranian broadcasts of the British personnel saying they had violated Iranian waters (which the personnel, after their release, said were coerced), the British were released.
Tensions between Iran and the United States over Iran's nuclear program and over accusations that Iran was providing support for Shiite groups that had attacked U.S. forces in Iraq became increasingly pronounced in the second half of 2007. There were press reports of Bush administration plans to launch air strikes against Iran, and the United States pressed, unsuccessfully, for stiffer UN sanctions on Iran. In Oct., 2007, the United States imposed additional sanctions on Iran, aimed mainly at Iranian banks, which it said were supporting Iran's nuclear program, and at Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which it charged supported terror attacks against U.S. forces and others.
A November IAEA report indicated that Iran was cooperating with the IAEA (but on a more limited basis than in the past), and a December U.S. intelligence assessment said that Iran appeared to have stopped nuclear weapons design development in 2003 in response to international pressure and now seemed less determined to develop such weapons. Nonetheless, concerns remained with respect to Iran's continuing expansion of its enrichment capabilities and, after the IAEA said that Iran had not proved it did not have a nuclear weapons development program, the UN Security Council imposed a third round of sanctions in Mar., 2008. In the Mar.–Apr., 2008, parliamentary elections, conservatives won roughly 70% of the seats; many reformist candidates were again barred from running.
In May and subsequent months, the IAEA said that Iran continued to fail to provide information about its nuclear programs that would clarify whether it was developing nuclear weapons. Iran subsequently tested longer-range missiles that were capable of hitting Israel, but U.S. intelligence sources indicated that it believed at least one test was not fully successful; in Feb., 2009, Iran successfully launched a satellite for the first time. A value-added tax on shopkeepers provoked a weeklong strike by them in several cities in Oct., 2008, and the government postponed the imposition of the tax for a year.
In the June, 2009, presidential election Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and two other candidates challenged Ahmadinejad, who was seen as favored by Khamenei. Mousavi appeared to gain broad support as the campaign progressed, but when the tally was announced Ahmadinejad was declared the winner with 63% of the vote. The rapidity of the vote count and other anomalies, including overvoting in 50 of 170 districts and dramatic shifts in voting patterns since 2005, strongly suggested vote rigging, and Mousavi and others denounced the result as fraudulent. There were large demonstrations in support of Mousavi, but the Guardian Council affirmed the result, and after two weeks security forces had forcibly suppressed most public protests.
Mousavi, former president Khatami, and others nonetheless continued to denounce the election, and Rafsanjani criticized the government response to the protests. Opposition members were tried in group trials that antigovernment groups decried as show trials, though Mousavi, Khatami, and other opposition leaders were not arrested. In Dec., 2009, the funeral and memorials for Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri, who was Khomeini's chosen successor until he criticized (1989) the Iranian government on human rights, turned into large antigovernment demonstrations and led to clashes with security forces, but the government soon regained control in the streets.
In Sept., 2009, Iran acknowledged constructing a second nuclear enrichment facility, leading to international calls for IAEA inspections of the site. Although Iran agreed that inspectors could enter the site in October, other discussions concerning its nuclear enrichment were less successful. Western nations asserted that Iran had agreed in principle to shipping enriched uranium outside the country for further enrichment, but Iranian sources and officials insisted that Iran was interested in purchasing enriched uranium and that Iran did not accept an enrichment agreement proposal made by IAEA. The IAEA found nothing of concern at the second enrichment site, but said that Iran's secrecy raised issues about whether other secret sites existed, and later (Mar., 2010) said that Iran was not fully cooperative and as a result the IAEA could not verify that Iran's nuclear program was only for peaceful purposes. The IAEA voted to censure Iran over the site. In Nov., 2009, Iran announced plans for 10 more sites, and indicated that it did not intend to notify the IAEA about them until six months before they were operational, in contravention of Iran's 2003 agreement. In subsequent months no progress was made concerning the shipment of fuel outside Iran for enrichment, but in Feb., 2010, Iran announced that it was beginning to enrich its uranium to higher levels for use as medical isotopes. In May, 2010, Brazil and Turkey negotiated a deal that called for Iran ship most of its enriched fuel to Turkey in a swap but did not call for Iran to end its enrichment program, and in the face of a new UN sanctions resolution and Iran's continuing with enrichment, it failed to resolve the situation.
The IAEA subsequently (May and Nov., 2011) reported it had evidence that Iran had undertaken work involved in the development of a nuclear weapon, including experiments involving nuclear triggers, and in Jan., 2012, Iran began the process of enriching nuclear fuel to a higher level (20%, used in medicine and a precursor to weapons-grade uranium) than before. The United States and other Western nations imposed additional sanctions in 2011–12 following those revelations; those imposed on many Iranian banks complicated Iran's ability to conducted international trade, leading to a drop in petroleum revenues and financial liquidity problems in Iran. The sanctions also contributed to high inflation and increased unemployment in Iran. In addition to sanctions, since 2010 a number of assassinations of scientists linked to Iran's nuclear program and at least one cyberattack at a nuclear facility have taken place in Iran. In retaliation for the sanctions and other measures, Iran apparently engaged in cyberattacks in the West and Middle East. The IAEA continued its calls for Iran to cooperate, but talks did not produce any resolution until after Hassan Rowhani's election (Aug., 2013) as Iran's president (see below).
In Dec., 2010, the government began reducing subsidies on food and energy; the reductions were forced in part by the high cost of maintaining them in the face of international sanctions against the country. An opposition demonstration in Tehran in Feb., 2011, in support of Egyptian antigovernment protesters was suppressed by the government, which also placed Mousavi and former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest after they called for the protest. Mousavi and Karroubi were later reported to have been transferred to a prison. The moves were part of a broader government crackdown in early 2011 that was believed to be in reaction to the antigovernment demonstrations in many Arab nations. In subsequent months a split developed between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, and the ayatollah and hardline clerics moved to limit the president's power. The Mar.–May, 2012, parliamentary elections were largely boycotted by reformists and were mainly a contest between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad supporters, with the former winning a sizable majority of the seats. Tensions between Ahmadinejad and his opponents, particularly the parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, continued into 2013.
Six candidates were permitted to run in the 2013 presidential election; former president Rafsanjani was among the many who were disqualified. Hassan Rowhani, a pragmatic cleric and former diplomat who was regarded as the moderate candidate, won the first round with not quite 51% of the vote; the four most conservative candidates combined for some 30% of the vote. The vote was widely regarded as a rejection of both Ahmadinejad's allies and his hardline opponents. Subsequent negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program led (Nov., 2013) to an interim agreement that called for Iran to stop enriching uranium above 5% and for it to impose other restrictions on its nuclear programs. In return, Western nations agreed to a limited, but reversible, easing of sanctions; Iran began implementing the restrictions in Jan., 2014.
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