Iran - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Islamic Republic of Iran
Formation 1502 / 1990
Population 75.1 million / 119 people per sq mile (46 people per sq km)
Total area 636,293 sq. miles (1,648,000 sq. km)
Languages Farsi*, Azeri, Luri, Gilaki, Mazanderani, Kurdish, Turkmen, Arabic, Baluchi
Religions Shi’a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 9%, Other 2%
Ethnic mix Persian 51%, Azari 24%, Other 10%, Lur and Bakhtiari 8%, Kurdish 7%
Government Islamic theocracy
Currency Iranian rial = 100 dinars
Literacy rate 85%
Calorie consumption 3042 kilocalories
According to historians and scholars, the earliest people to inhabit the Iranian plateau were the Elamites, who founded the city of Shush in the southwestern part of the country. The city was situated on the east side of the Tigris River about 150 miles to the north of the head of the Persian Gulf. The Indo-Europeans came into the region of Iran in the second millennium B.C.E., bringing with them agricultural as well as domestic skills. In the sixth century the Achaemenian king Cyrus the Great (c. 585–c. 29) ruled the region, and it was during this period that the history of Persia began to be documented.
In the fourth century, Alexander the Great (356–23) invaded Persia. Despite the efforts of King Darius III (c.
380–30) to negotiate peace with Alexander, Alexander destroyed most of Persepolis, the capital of the region. After Alexander’s death in 323 his empire was torn asunder by feuds and factions, and Persia came to be controlled by the Macedonian Seleucids. Seleucus I (358/54–281) was the Macedonian general who, as one of Alexander’s successors, acquired the vast eastern section of the empire centered on the territory of the old Babylonian Empire. It was from him that the Seleucid Dynasty was established which lasted for 225 years. The Seleucids ruled Persia from 312 to 247, but they had a hard time controlling the ethnic minorities.
Among these ethnic minorities were the nomadic Parthians who controlled most of the territory of Persia until the third century C.E. Next came the Sassanians. They hailed from the central regions of Persia which were not under the Parthians’ control. They were Zoroastrians by faith and very hardworking. They went on to promote trade and urban development but were overrun by the Arabs in 637, who ruled until 1050.
The Arabs converted most of the population to Islam and were instrumental in introducing the new Persian script and Islamic culture. They in turn were overpowered by a Turkish dynasty that captured Isfahan, an important city in central Iran, in 1051.
Isfahan had served as the capital of both the Seljuk and Safavid Dynasties and was the cultural hub of the eastern Islamic world in terms of language and art.
Under the rule of the Safavid Dynasty (1502–1722) the Persian Empire reached the pinnacle of glory and power. The noted ruler Shah Abbas I and his successors made strenuous efforts to promote Shiism and let it flourish. Moreover they also restored the city of Isfahan, which had been ravaged by invaders and plunderers.
The Safavids were succeeded by Afghans in the early 18th century. Unfortunately the Afghans could not hold onto power for long and hence followed a period of utter chaos, virtual anarchy, and frequent change of rulers. In 1779 Agha Muhammad Khan (1742–97), chief of a Turkish tribe, the Ghajars, established a capital in Tehran, at the time a mere village. The Ghajars introduced an era of peace to Iran until 1921. Though Iran remained neutral during World War I, it was unable to prevent partial occupation by the British forces that were keen to maintain an uninterrupted supply of oil.
One of the later Ghajar kings supported the idea of elections and a legislative assembly (majlis), but the idea took a concrete shape when Reza Khan (1877–1944), a military chief, made his political debut in 1923. Reza became prime minister and undertook the challenging task of upgrading and modernizing the country. In 1925 Reza Khan adopted the title of pahlavi and claimed himself to be the shah (emperor) of Iran. The country made a fair amount of progress during his rule.
The name Iran was officially adopted in 1934.
During World War II Britain and Russia established spheres of influence in the country to successfully thwart Germany’s advance. In 1941 Reza was forced into exile in South Africa and was succeeded by his son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878–1944).
After the war, the United States persuaded the Russians to vacate the country; Mohammad Reza regained absolute power.
Over the next 30 years, discontent brewed with regard to Shah Mohammad Reza’s regime of repression and modernization. With gradual deterioration of the economy (due to the shah’s post-boom mismanagement), the growing opposition expressed its resentment through sabotage and massive demonstrations.
The shah retaliated by enhanced brutality and suppression. The U.S.
support for the shah wavered, and the latter finally fled the country in January 1979. Two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–89), the leader of the growing opposition, returned from exile to a hero’s welcome. The ayatollah’s supporters helped to establish a clergy-dominated Islamic Republic.
Shortly afterward, the ayatollah was proclaimed imam, or leader. Around this time Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made an attempt to grab land in Khuzestan province. It was a disastrous move that resulted in a war that killed innumerable people before a ceasefire was negotiated in 1988.
On June 4, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini died, plunging the country into chaos. Two months later, in August 1979, Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president, and Khomeini’s position as supreme leader was occupied by the former president, Ayatollah Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei.
Following the 1997 landslide election of the moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, people expected relations with other countries to improve. However relations with Germany (and most of Europe) reached a nadir in 1997 after a German court gave the verdict that the Iranian government had been involved in the assassination of Iranian Kurds in Germany.
Khatami’s re-election encouraged Iranian reformers, but real power still remained with the Islamic clerics. In the early years of the 21st century, Iran has come under international pressure regarding its nuclear ambitions.
In 2003 the country was hit with one of the severest earthquakes in living memory. With its epicenter near the city of Bam in southeastern Iran, it killed 40,000 people and left the city utterly devastated.
In the 2004 elections the conservatives won control of parliament in a process marred by controversy.
At present the spiritual leader of Iran is Ayatollah Ali Hosseini-Khamenei, while the head of the government is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Iran’s interior region is fringed by a chain of huge, heavily eroded mountains. Most of the country lies above the 1,500 feet level. Outside the mountain ring in the north, the 400-mile strip of coastal plain along the Caspian Sea is never more than 70 miles wide (frequently narrowing to 10 miles). It falls sharply from the 1,864-foot altitude to 17 miles below sea level. In the south the land drops away from a plateau to meet the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
The Zagros range stretches from the border with the Republic of Armenia in the northwest to the Persian Gulf and onward into Baluchistan. The Alborz mountain range runs along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea to meet the border ranges of Khorassan situated in the eastern part of the country. The snowcovered Mt. Damavand (18,606 feet) is the highest peak in Iran. On the border of Afghanistan the mountains gradually fall away to merge into sand dunes.
The vast desert tracts of the country stretch across the plateau from the northwest, close to Tehran and Qom, for a distance of about 400 miles to the southeast and beyond the frontier.
Approximately one-sixth of the total area of Iran is barren desert. The largest desert areas are Kavir-e-Lut and Dasht-e-Kavir or Great Salt Desert. The Caspian Sea, which is the largest landlocked body of water in the world, is 385,000 square miles and lies some 85 feet below sea level. Its salt content is considerably less than that of the oceans; hence it abounds in an unusual variety of fish. The important ports on the Caspian coast are: Bandar Anzali, Noshahr, and Bandar Turkman.
Along the Iran–Afghanistan border are several marshy lakes that expand and contract according to the season of the year. Freshwater lakes are rare in Iran. There are several large rivers—the Sefidrood, Karkheh Mand, Karun, and Qara-Chay Atrak; but the only navigable one among them is Karun.
Iran has a complex climate, ranging from subtropical to subarctic. In winter a high-pressure belt, centered in Siberia, sweeps over the central Iranian Plateau, while low-pressure systems develop over the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean Sea. These result in wet spells and a phase of very cold weather coupled with frost and snow. The area adjacent to the Persian Gulf has very high temperatures during summer though winters may be quite cool at the northwestern extremities. Dust storms and haze are common features during summer.
In the summer temperatures vary from a high of 122° F in Khuzestan province (known as Arabistan to locals and Iraqi Arabs) near the Persian Gulf to a low of 34° F in the northwest. Rainfall varies from less than 2 inches in the southeast to about 77 inches in the Caspian region. The annual average is about 14 inches. The rainy season occurs in the winter.
Iran is OPEC’s (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) second largest oil producer and holds 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. It possesses the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia. Iran’s economy relies heavily on oil export revenues, which comprise approximately 80–90 percent of total export earnings.
In March 2004, the incumbent American President George W. Bush renewed the sanctions originally imposed by his predecessor (President William J. Clinton) in 1995 by another year, arguing that Iran posed “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the U.S. The sanction prohibits U.S.
companies and their foreign subsidiaries from conducting business with Iran, while banning any “contract for the financing of the development of petroleum resources located in Iran.” The bulk of the country’s crude oil reserves are located onshore in the southwestern Khuzestan region in the vicinity of the Iraqi border as well as the Persian Gulf. Iran has 32 producing oil fields, of which 25 are onshore and seven located offshore.
Iran exports around 2.5 million bbl/d (barrels per day), with major customers being Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Europe.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Traditional religious fervor is the most outstanding feature of Iranian culture, and it deeply permeates all aspects of people’s lives; the most visible expressions are the modest dress code and etiquette observed at the mosques. In Iran (as in all Islamic countries), the nature of art is nonrepresentational and stylized.
Persian carpets are Iran’s most famous cultural export, dating back to the fifth century B.C.E. They are very much an integral part of both religious and cultural activities.
Persian poetry first made its debut in the ninth century C.E. and slowly grew into a vast anthology of epic poems and nonrhyming couplet poems, which are still intact. Other notable Persian crafts include metalwork, glassware, and woodwork.
The traditional folk art of Iran has been preserved by the ethnic minorities like the Turkmen, Azaris, Kurds, and Lors. The exquisite Persian painting style dates back to the Seljuk period (1040 to 1220); it disappeared until the 16th century, when it was revived and flourished again, along with calligraphy, across the country, but especially in the region of Shiraz.
In June 2004 Iranian officials prohibited by law the smoking of the water pipe (hookah, narguileh, or hubble-bubble) in all restaurants and other public places. Interestingly water-pipe smoking has been a traditional Middle Eastern practice and an integral part of Iranian culture through the centuries. The official ban is in response to concern about the health of the Iranian youth, among whom there has apparently been rising addiction to the water pipe.
Rice is the staple food of the Iranians, who take pains to cook it superbly. The meat used in cooking is usually lamb or mutton minced or cut into small chunks. Meat is rarely the dominant ingredient, except in kebabs. Fresh vegetables and herbs also form an integral part of Iranian gastronomy. Wellknown dishes include chelo khoresh (rice topped with vegetables and meat in a nut sauce), polo chele (pilau rice), polo sabzi (pilau rice cooked with fresh herbs), polo chirin (sweet and sour saffron tinged rice cooked with raisins, almonds and pieces of orange), chelo kebab (rice with skewered meats cooked over charcoal), kofte (minced meatballs), khoreshe badinjan (mutton and eggplant stew), and mast-o-khier (cold yogurt-based soup flavored with mint, chopped cucumber, and raisins) among others. Iranians eat their meals with a spoon and fork Fruit and vegetable juices are popular, and tea is widely enjoyed and drunk in the many teahouses (ghahve khane). The Iranian chay (tea) is always served hot, black, and strong. The consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden for the Muslims in Iran.
The birth of a new child is a time of great rejoicing in the Iranian Muslim community, because children are considered a token of Allah’s compassion. Children are often referred to in Islam as “wealth.” Immediately after the birth the baby is thoroughly washed in order to remove all impurities. According to Islamic tenets the first sound that a baby ought to hear should be the sacred name of Allah, customarily uttered by the baby’s father or male relative. The father whispers the adhan, or call to prayer, into the child’s right ear and then the left. The idea is to make the child aware of Allah’s omnipresence and his power over the lives of mortals.
When the child is between three days and seven days old, the head is shaved to remove the natal impurities. This ceremony is known as the aqiqah, and it symbolizes the removal of misfortune, evil, and dross, so that the child can embark on a good and trouble-free life. In earlier times the hair used to be collected and weighed and the equivalent weight in silver was given to the poor. Nowadays the hair is generally buried. In some Iranian families an animal is sacrificed on such occasions, and the meat distributed to neighbors and friends.
On the day of purification the child is also given a proper name. Muslim children are not named at birth. The local imam is often consulted, and one particular name is picked from among the numerous names of Allah for a male child. Girls are often called Fatima after Muhammad’s daughter.
COMING OF AGE
Muslim boys generally experience a major change in status—circumcision (khitan in Arabic or khatneh in Persian)—when they have recited the entire Koran once thoroughly. In Iran, as in all other Islamic countries where this procedure is followed, the boy undergoes the operation between 10 and 12 years of age. This is a puberty rite, separating the boy from childhood and introducing him to his new status as an adult. In Iranian Muslim families there is a good deal of festivity, music, special food, and many guests on such occasions.
S Most Muslim marriages in Iran are conducted in a traditional manner with the matches being finalized by the parents on both sides. However according to Islamic tenets, both the individuals (the bride and the groom) are free to refuse the spouse that has been selected by their parents or guardians or elders.
Prior to the actual wedding the two families involved decide upon a specific amount of money or articles in kind that the groom’s family must give to the bride. This sum of money is in reality a security amount for the bride in case the marriage breaks up.
As in all Islamic societies weddings in Iran take place in the home of the bride. The rites are conducted by an Imam, who also leads the prayers in the mosque.
All religions accept death as a part of human life.
Since death is unpredictable and can happen at any time, anywhere, Muslims are exhorted to be always prepared for the inevitable. Muslims are always buried, unlike Hindu and Buddhists who are cremated.
Cremation and other modes of disposal are prohibited. Muslims are taught to treat the dead body with gentleness and respect. In Iran (as in all Islamic societies) it is customary for the Muslims to ritually wash the dead body, perfume it, and drape it in a fresh new white cloth before burial. Also the burial ought to take place as soon as possible after death. When an individual is breathing his last, he or she is encouraged to recite and declare his or her faith. The dead person’s face is turned toward Mecca, the arms and legs straightened out, and the mouth and eyes closed. Babies who die at birth, including the stillborn child, must be given a name.