Country profile: Iran

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Country Profile: Iran


A traditional teahouse in Isfahan. (Patricia White/Alamy)

The West has an image of Iran as a threat and home of terrorists. This image has continued with the TV drama Homeland – it looks at the world from the view of the CIA. Not many people know all the different parts of this country –ski slopes in the north to sandy beaches of the Persian Gulf – or how the people love to live peacefully together.


Women eating lunch by the road in Shiraz. (Cordelia_persen)

On public holiday days, the Chaloos Road from Tehran to the Caspian Sea is always packed with cars full of people looking for fun. Families, rich or poor, are always going for outings or meals out with the family. Public parks are filled with people eating and people even eat in a bit of green at the centre of a busy roundabout.

At the other end of the country, Kish Island in the Persian Gulf has sandy beaches, coral-edged clear lakes, ancient buildings with an underground city, duty-free shopping malls and expensive hotels. Before 1979, this was only for the rich, and had a casino. Now, gambling is banned as it is an Islamic Republic, but the Dariush hotel, with Persian type columns, is still just like Las Vegas.

But there is not much international tourism because of the sanctions (actions against Iran by other countries). The sanctions are because Iran is a problem to the West. Before 1979, people thought Iran was a plaything of the Great Powers. In 1906, because of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain, they lost their hope of democracy. By 1953, because of the Cold War, the US and Britain came together to end the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh.


Selling fish in Kermanshah. (Ensie & Matthias)

‘Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhori-Eslami’ (‘Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic’)the country shouted during the revolution of 1979. This started the rule of the mullahs – the first one was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Then, Iraq attacked Iran, and the war between 1980 and 1988 killed more than a million people. Khomeini died in 1989, but there was no change in the control by the government. The next Supreme Leader was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has controlled the country since then, no matter who is President.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected again in 2009. And many people protested across the country because they believed that their votes for the moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had been stolen. The leaders, including Ayatollah Khamenei, were on the side of Ahmadinejad. In 2013, a new moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, won a big election victory by almost repeating the promises Mousavi had made: economic prosperity, democracy and an end to Iran’s international isolation.

So Ayatollah Khamenei must now support what he did not want to support in 2009: a reformist government that has promised greater freedom and a closer relationship with the West. We must wait to see what happens, but it looks good so far: Rouhani and US President Obama recently became the first leaders of their countries to speak since 1979. And Rouhani’s government has signed an agreement that might stop the West worrying about Iran’s civil nuclear programme starting to make nuclear-weapons. And the economy might improve if they negotiate to cut the sanctions.

Country Profile: Iran Fact File

Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of state since 1989; Hassan Rouhani, head of government since 2013.

Economy GNI per capita $4,520 (Turkmenistan $4,110, Canada $45,560).

Money Rial. The rial lost two-thirds of its value last year.

Main exports Oil exports are 80% of Iran’s total export earnings but the export of crude oil has decreased by more than half since the beginning of 2012, and production is now at its lowest rate for 23 years. Sanctions have cut off Iranian banks from international finance.

People 75.6 million. Annual growth 1.0%. People per sq km 46 (UK 257).

Health Infant mortality 21 per 1,000 live births (Turkmenistan 75, Canada 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 2,400 (Canada 1 in 5,200). HIV rate 0.2%. Drug addiction is a big national health problem, with 1.8 million addicts.

Environment Three big environmental challenges are water stress, desertification and pollution. Three of the five most polluted cities in the world are in Iran: Ahwaz, Kermanshah and Sanandaj (according to WHO).

Culture Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Arab 2%, Other 3%.

Religion Shi’a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 9%, other 2%. Other religious groups have representatives in parliament but the Baha’i face persecution. Tehran has synagogues and churches but no Sunni mosques are allowed.

Language Farsi/Persian (official) 53%, Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects 18%, Kurdish 10%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 7%, Luri 6%, Other 6%.

Human development index 0.742 (Turkmenistan 0.698, Canada 0.911).

Country Profile: Iran ratings in detail

Income distribution Official figures mean very little because a lot of the national wealth is in institutions that pay no tax and are outside the formal economy. There are now powerful billionaires.

Life expectancy 73 years (Turkmenistan 65, Canada 81).

Position of women More than 60% of university students are women but there are about twice as many unemployed women as men. Rouhani has told the country's morality police to stop arresting women who break the modesty laws.

Literacy 85% (male 89%, female 81%).

Freedom There are more reformists now (in the 2009 elections, unarmed protesters were killed). But many political activists – including the leadership of the Green Movement – are still in prison.

Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and homosexuals are put to death. But health insurance companies must pay the full cost of sex-change operations, after a special ruling by Ayatollah Khomeini.

NI Assessment (Politics) Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei still has control and during Ahmadinejad’s two terms the Islamic Revolutionary Guard increased its control of economic and political affairs. But now, Rouhani is in a honeymoon period. He would not have won the election if had he not got more than 70% of the vote in two of the country’s poorest provinces: Sistan & Baluchestan, and Kurdistan. Important dissidents such as Emadeddin Baghi have openly supported the new government.

Last review 2004

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