Known formally as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling Shah was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces subsequently crushed Westernisation and also any liberal/left-wing influences. Iranian student protesters seized the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 and held hostages for 444 days -until 20 January 1981. From 1980 to 1988, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with neighboring Iraq over disputed territory. Key current issues affecting the country include the pace of accepting outside modernising influences and reconciliation between clerical control of the regime and popular government participation and widespread demands for reform. Inflation and unemployment particularly among youth are major key economic challenges.


Iran has a diverse climate. In the northwest, winters are cold with heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures during December and January. Spring and fall are relatively mild, while summers are dry and hot. In the south, winters are mild and the summers are very hot, having average daily temperatures in July exceeding 38° C 100° F and can hit 50° C in parts of the desert. On the Khuzestan plain, summer heat is accompanied by high humidity.

In general, Iran has an arid climate in which most of the relatively scant annual precipitation falls from October through April. In most of the country, yearly precipitation averages 25 centimetres or less. The major exceptions are the higher mountain valleys of the Zagros and the Caspian coastal plain, where precipitation averages at least 50 cm annually. In the western part of the Caspian, rainfall exceeds 100 cm annually and is distributed relatively evenly throughout the year.

Ethnic groups and languages

Humans have inhabited the area that makes up modern Iran since the Stone Age. The ancient Persians arrived about 1500 BC, one branch of the great movement of people that also brought northern India and most of Europe their modern populations. The name Iran is from the same root as "Aryan" which, until Hitler perverted it, was just an ancient name for those arriving peoples. Persian or Farsi is an Indo-European language; ancient Persian was related to Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and all the others in that family. Persians are ethnically and linguistically unrelated to their neighbours on the west, the Arabs and Turks.

Iran has many people other than ethnic Persians. The northwestern region, Azerbaijan, is largely populated by Azeris, who are ethnically and linguistically related to Turks. The province of West Azerbaijan is both Azeri and Kurd. Other regions are mostly Kurds in parts of west and northwest and Baluchis in parts of southeast. There are also Armenians, Arabs, and last but not least Jews, who have been living since a long time in Iran peacefully.

There are also two substantial communities of people of Iranian descent in India and Pakistan — Parsis who have been there for over 1,000 years, and Iranis who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries — both Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in Iran.


Rugged, mountainous rim; high, central basin with deserts, mountains; small, discontinuous plains along both coasts. The highest point is Mount Damavand 5,610 m.Desert: Two great deserts extend over much of central Iran: the Dasht-e Lut is covered largely with sand and rocks, and the Dasht-e Kavir is covered mainly with salt. Both deserts are inhospitable and virtually uninhabited. Mountain: The Zagros range stretches from the border with the Republic of Armenia in the north-west to the Persian Gulf, and then eastward into Baluchistan. Zagros is extremely hard, difficult to access, and populated largely by pastoral nomads. The Alborz mountain range, narrower than the Zagros, runs along the southern shore of the Caspian to meet the border ranges of Khorasan to the east. Forest: Approximately 11 percent of Iran is forested, most extensively in the Caspian region. Here one finds the broad-leafed, vigorous deciduous trees, usually oak, beech, linden, elm, walnut, ash, and hornbeam, as well as a few broad-leafed evergreens. Thorny shrubs and fern also abound.The narrow Caspian coastal plain, in contrast, is covered with rich brown forest soil.


Throughout history, Persia has generally been an empire, one whose fortunes varied enormously. In ancient times, Persia controlled most of what we now call the Middle East, and came close to conquering Greece. A few centuries later, Alexander of Macedonia conquered among other things the entire Persian Empire. Later, Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the expansion of Islam in the centuries immediately after the time of Muhammad; Persian and other languages of the region are still written with the Arabic alphabet. About 1250, Persia was overrun by the Mongols. Marco Polo passed through just after that, learned Persian, and wrote extensively of the region.

At other times, Persia conquered many of her neighbours. Her empire often included much of what we now call Central Asia Polo counted Bukhara and Samarkand as Persian cities, and sometimes various other areas. A few generations after the Mongols took Persia, the dynasty they founded there took all of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and most of India. The Indian term "Moghul" for some of their rulers is from "Mongol", via Persia. Even in periods when she did not rule them, Persia has always exerted a large cultural influence on her neighbours, especially Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Safavid dynasty re-united Persia as an independent state in 1501, established Shi'a Islam as the official religion, and ushered in a golden age of Persian culture. They were overthrown in 1736 by Nadir Shah, the last great Asian conqueror, who expanded the Empire to again include Afghanistan and much of India. His short-lived dynasty and its successor lasted until 1795. Then the Qajar dynasty ruled 1795-1925, a period of heavy pressure from foreign powers, notably Britain and Russia who jointly occupied Iran during World War I. In 1906, Qajar rule became a constitutional monarchy and the Majlis Persian for parliament was established.