views updated


POPULATION: 69,400,000 (2005 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Farsi (Persian)
RELIGION: Islam (Shia Muslim)


Iran, known since ancient times as Persia, has had a long and turbulent history. Iran's location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia resulted in many invasions and migrations. Cultural influences have thus been great, with Afghans, Arabs, Chinese, Greeks, Indians, Russians, and Turks all leaving behind traces of themselves.

Archaeologists have determined that Iran was inhabited as far back as 100,000 BC. Knowledge about this era is sparse, however. There is evidence that Iran played a role in the emergence of civilization 10,000 years ago. It is known that settled communities and villages had engaged in farming, pottery, metalworking, and other activities on the Iranian plateau around 6000 BC. A kingdom known as Elam dominated southwest Iran around 3000 BC, establishing a very advanced culture. This culture could write, and had a system of kingship and an organized priesthood. During the Iron Age, around 1500 BC, members of the Aryan (Indo-European) peoples began migrating in waves through the Caucasus Mountains across Central Asia into Iran. Around 1000–900 BC, the forerunners of present-day Iranians began arriving in the country. These included the Bactrians, Medes, and Parthians. A group settled in the southern area then known as Parsa. They were given the name of Persians, and Persia then became the name of the entire region of Iran. In 553 BC, the leader of the Achaemenid clan of Parsa, Cyrus the Great, established the first Persian Empire, which extended to Egypt, Greece, and Russia. Under the Achaemenids, Persia extended the realm of civilization, giving distant countries the opportunity to learn art and culture from one another and to trade goods.

The Achaemenids were overthrown in 336–330 BC by Alexander the Great, of Greece. Persia became part of the Greek Empire and, for several centuries, was the focus of much fighting between the Greeks and Romans. Upon Alexander's death in 323 BC, control of Persia was seized by General Seleucus, who established Seleucid rule for almost a century. In the 3rd century BC, a group known as the Parni (immigrants from Central Asia) assumed power and set up the Parthian Empire, which later collapsed in the 3rd century AD. From AD 226 until 641, Iran was ruled by the Sassanids, a dynasty of local rulers who encouraged Persian art and literature to flourish. Sculptures commemorating Sassanid military victories still adorn hills and cliffs in Iran.

From the 7th through the 9th centuries AD, Iran was conquered by Muslims from Arabia whose goal was the spread of the Muslim religion. They were successful in converting many Persians from their native religion of Zoroastrianism (which dated from the 7th–6th centuries BC) to Islam. Most of the Zoroastrians who did not convert to Islam left the country and settled in India. The Arab rulers were followed by various Turkish Muslim rulers. Then, in the 13th to 14th centuries, Mongol leader Genghis Khan and his army subjected Persia to fierce destruction and killing. Between 1220 and 1258, one-fourth of Iran's population died as a result of the Mongol conquest. In 1380, Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), one of the last Mongol leaders, established the Timurid dynasty over Iran and Afghanistan. This was replaced centuries later, during the 16th century, by the Safavids, a local clan who were finally able to rid Iran of outside control. Under the rulership of these native Iranians, the arts once again flourished. Mosques and palaces built by the Safavids in their capital city, Esfahan, still stand in Iran. The Safavids were then conquered by Afghan invaders in 1722. An Iranian named Nadir Shah drove them out and established the Afshar dynasty in 1736. Another Turkish tribe, the Qajars, took power in the late 18th century.

The periodic foreign rule ended in 1921, when Reza Khan, an Iranian army officer, deposed the Qajars and established the Pahlavi dynasty. He became the emperor or shah, with the name Reza Shah Pahlavi. In 1935, the Shah changed the country's name to Iran, a variation on "Ariana," which means "country of the Aryan people." During World War II (1939– 45), Shah Pahlavi, angered by British and Russian troop deployments in Iran, sided with Germany instead of with the Allied powers. In 1941, the Allied powers forced him to abdicate his throne. Pahlavi's son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, then ruled Iran until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Under the Pahlavis, Western cultural influences grew, and Persia's oil industry was developed. By the 1950s, Iran was a world leader in petroleum production.

Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was a staunch advocate of Westernization. In the 1960s he introduced Iran to the "White Revolution," which replaced many of Iran's traditions with Western influences. He tried to propel Iran out of its traditions of agriculture and Islam into modern industrialization and Western culture. While the Shah enacted many measures for the benefit of Iranians, he also became increasingly dictatorial and restricted many freedoms. In 1975, the Shah outlawed all political parties except his own. His secret police force (SAVAK) became increasingly repressive and cruel. People who opposed the government, such as religious opponents, were jailed and tortured.

In 1978, Islamic opposition forces and Communist forces acted together to demonstrate and riot for political change in Iran. Their rebellion grew into a major revolution against the Westernization and oppression inflicted on Iran by the Shah. Shah Pahlavi fled the country and abdicated his throne under pressure. After a stay in the United States, he sought refuge in Egypt, where he and his wife were welcomed by President Anwar Sadat. The ailing Shah later died in July 1980 in Egypt. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was organized under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who returned from exile in Paris. On 11 February 1979, the twenty-second day of the Muslim month of Bahman, Khomeini and his supporters succeeded in replacing the secular government of the Shah with an Islamic republic. Symbolically, the words "God is Great" are repeated 22 times on the Iranian flag.

The Islamic Revolution targeted Western influences for having corrupted Iranian Islamic traditions. The United States, in particular, was seen as the evil nation whose culture was pervading Iran. In November 1979, revolutionary students seized control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 53 Americans hostage. In response to the hostage crisis, the United States froze Iranian assets that were banked or invested in the United States. The hostages were held for 14 months, and the crisis created extreme hostility between the two countries. The hostages were released in January 1981 following an agreement negotiated by Algeria, as the United States' leadership was changing hands from President Jimmy Carter to President Ronald Reagan.

Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran became a theocracy with the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Religious standards thus became the guiding principles for the government and society, and religious leaders known as mullahs led Iran along the Islamization route. Many Iranians holding secular views saw the strict religious system as an infringement on their personal liberties. Those who wanted to protect their Western ways of life left Iran and went to Europe and the United States. Khomeini was ruthlessly intolerant of those who opposed his theocracy, and thousands of his opponents were assassinated or arrested during his 10-year reign. Most Jews and Christians, fearing religious persecution, fled the country during the 1980s.

From 1980 until 1988, Iran fought a severe and costly war with its neighbor Iraq. The war began when Iraq invaded Khuzistan, in southwestern Iran, to resolve a longstanding dispute over control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Iraqi forces seized southwestern Iranian territory and an oil refinery along the Shatt al-Arab, resulting in a full-scale war between the two countries. More than 500,000 Iraqis and Iranians died, and, although Iran was able to expel Iraq from Khuzistan, neither side could really claim a victory. International access to Middle Eastern oil was adversely affected, as both Iran and Iraq attacked one another's oil freighters in the Persian Gulf. The United States and the Soviet Union, in the mid-1980s, arranged for Kuwaiti oil freighters to operate in the Gulf under protection of the American and Soviet flags, with both countries' naval forces positioned in the Gulf. The United States got involved in the battle in the late 1980s. First, an Iraqi bomber accidentally attacked a U.S. ship in 1987. Then, a floating mine damaged an American tanker, and an Iranian passenger plane was accidentally shot down by a U.S. warship in 1988. The war ended in the summer of 1988, with Iran and Iraq signing a cease-fire agreement arranged by the United Nations.

In June 1989, spiritual leader and head-of-state Ayatollah Khomeini died. Some 2 million Iranians attended Khomeini's funeral in Tehran. Thousands of mourners were injured, and several died in the chaos and hysteria that filled the streets. Shortly after Khomeini's death, Ali Khamenei replaced him as spiritual leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president. Rafsanjani was reelected to the presidency in June 1993 and remained in office until 1997.

Struggles for power between reformists and conservatives in Iran grew increasingly bitter during Rafsanjani's presidency. Rafsanjani favored economic and political reforms, but conservatives in Iran's legislature, known as the Majlis, often prevented his policies from taking effect. In Iran, the president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers do not make decisions on their own. They answer to the faqih, or spiritual leader, and to a group of religious scholars and judicial authorities whom the faqih appoints. In addition, the Majlis, which is elected by the people every four years, enacts laws that must be in keeping with the Islamic faith. A council made up of six clergy and six lawyers oversees the work of the Majlis. The power of religious leaders in Iran's government slowed the effort to introduce reforms through the mid 1990s.

Conservatives suffered a defeat in 1997 when reformist Muhammad Khatami won a landslide victory in the presidential election and when his supporters gained a majority in the Majlis in 2000. Khatami was then re-elected in 2001, despite conservative clerics who used their power to bring many of the reformists to trial on alleged political charges. Clerics then began a concerted effort to stop reforms. Nearly 100 reform proposals were blocked between 2000 and early 2004. Conservatives regained control of the Majlis in 2003, and Iranian voters began to regard the reformists as individuals who could not effectively create change.

While reformists and conservatives battled for political power in Iran, U.S. president George W. Bush began to accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons. The American president labeled Iran as a member of an "axis of evil," a statement that turned many of the conservatives in Iran against the United States. Rafsanjani ran for president in July 2005 in an effort to regain support for the reformist movement. However, he was defeated by a hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Soon after taking office, Ahmadinejad assumed a strident anti-American stance and announced in April 2007 that he was enriching uranium, a process that often leads to the building of nuclear weapons. The United Nations has responded by imposing sanctions on Iran. The election in August 2007 of Rajsanjani to the Assembly of Experts ensures that the reform-ist movement has not died out entirely because the Assembly of Experts has the power to dismiss Iran's highest authority. However, Ahmadinejad remains popular among Iranians who have embraced the conservative stance of their president.


Iran is located in southwest Asia. It is bordered to the north by Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and the Caspian Sea, by Turkey to the northwest, Iraq to the west, and by Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are to Iran's south and southwest, separated from Iran by the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf. Oman is to the southeast, separated from Iran by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Iran's location led to invasions and cultural influences by many ethnic and national communities. One of the major influences was a direct result of Iran's proximity to Saudi Arabia, known in the 7th century AD as the Hejaz. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arab Muslims from the Hejaz spread their new Islamic religion to Iran, converting most Iranian Zoroastrians to Islam by the 9th century AD.

With an area of 1,647,063 sq km (635,932 sq mi), Iran is slightly larger than the U.S. state of Alaska. Iran's geography

has three types of terrain. A vast, dry plateau in the center of the country is encircled by a ring of snow-topped mountain ranges that cover about half of Iran's area. Outside of the mountains to the north and south is coastal lowland. The rocky central plateau is a high plain with an average height of 1,200 m (4,000 ft) above sea level, covered with low hills. In northwest Iran, streams flowing down the slopes of mountains have facilitated the establishment of large cities. This region is the location of the capital city, Tehran, and Isfahan and Qom.

To the south and east of Tehran, on the plateau, lie two deserts: the Dasht-e-Kavir (Great Salt Desert), and the Dasht-e-Lut. The deserts, which make up about 25% of Iran's total land area, consist of very salty soil. Following rain, the soil dries into a white crust of salt crystals. Below the surface is salty quicksand, making travel over the desert dangerous. The Dasht-e-Lut has been described as a hostile wasteland, whereas the Dasht-e-Kavir has an occasional oasis. Iran has three major mountain ranges. The Zagros Mountains in the west have a height of up to 4,242 m (14,000 ft). The Elburz Mountains in the north have the highest peaks, with Mount Damavand reaching 5,736 m (18,934 ft). The Khorasan Mountains in the east have productive farmland and grasslands. Small mountain ranges are located in the south and southeast.

The climate of northern and eastern Iran is generally more moderate than in the southern and western parts. While the summers get very hot nationwide, in the areas of high elevation the evenings are cool and breezy, and even the days are comfortable. In the lower elevations, the climate is hot in the summer. It is hottest around the Persian Gulf, where temperatures reach 60°c (140°f) in the summer. In the winter, the Persian Gulf region sees high temperatures of 20°c to 30°c (70°–85°f).

Iran, considered an arid country, has several creeks, rivers, and lakes, many of which fill up with rain and melted snow in the spring, and then dry up during the summer. Even the Caspian Sea loses much of its water to evaporation. Lake Urmia in the northwest, Iran's largest inland body of water, covers an area of 5,200 sq km (2,000 sq mi). The three principal rivers are the Karun, the Atrek, and the Safid. Of these, only the Karun is navigable. It travels from the Zagros Mountains to the Shatt al-Arab, and then into the Persian Gulf. The lakes are salty and thus of little use for irrigation or drinking, but the rivers provide usable water. Underground irrigation tunnels carry water from springs, streams, and snow-topped hills. These canals are critical to this country with a water scarcity.

The name "Persian" is now used to refer to all Iranians (with a total population of about 69,400,000 people). Only 51% (or 35,954,000) of Iranians, however, are actually Persians, i.e., descendants of the Aryans who emigrated from Central Asia. Persians, the largest ethnic group, live either in the developed farm areas or in the large cities of the northern and western plateau. Another large ethnic group is the Azerbaijanis, descendants of Turkish settlers from the 10th century AD. They live in the northwest part of Iran and make up 24% of the population (or 16,600,000 people). The Zagros Mountains are home to several ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, who make up 7% of the total population (or 4,848,000 people), and the Lurs and the Bakhtiari, each of whom makes up 2% of the population (or 1,380,000 people).

The Kurds are a nomadic people whose origins are located in territory that extends into parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, with 33% of the Middle East's Kurdish population residing in Iran. They are also part of a political dilemma involving all of these states, because they wish to establish their own state of Kurdistan over Kurdish-populated territories. In fact, the Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims, demanded independence from Iran following the Shia Islamic Revolution of 1979. Relations between the Kurds and the government have gotten better.

The Lurs (or Luri) live in an area known as Luristan, and the Bakhtiari live west of Shiraz, in the mountains. Both are nomadic peoples, although the Iranian government since the 1960s has tried to modernize their lifestyle by settling them in farming villages. Another 2% of the population (or 1,380,000 people) are of the Baluchi tribe—farmers living in the Baluchistan region in southeastern Iran. Arabs make up 3% of the population (or 2,082,000 people). They live in Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf and in Khuzistan. Other ethnic groups include the Qashqai, Turkomans, Khamsheh, Mamasani, Shahsevan, Armenians, Brahui, Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis. The overwhelming majority of Iranians are Muslims, belonging to the Shia school of Islam. However, there are a significant number of minority religious groups in Iran, including Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians, Armenian and Chaldean Christians, and Jews. The 1979 constitution guarantees religious freedom, and is widely respected.

Iran had as many as 3 million refugees residing within its borders in the 1990s, as a result of the civil war in Afghanistan. The total number was less than 1 million in 2007. This drop in the refugee population resulted from the government's effort to return refugees from Afghanistan, following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2002 in that country. Other refugees were Shia Muslims from Iraq, who began returning to Iraq after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was Sunni. Refugees from southeastern Turkey and Azerbaijan also have entered Iran.


Iran's official language is Farsi, which is also known as Persian. Farsi, also spoken in parts of Turkey and Afghanistan, was brought to Iran when the Aryan people of Central Asia migrated across Iran's northern border. Farsi has since been influenced by other languages, predominantly Arabic. The Farsi alphabet is very similar to the Arabic alphabet and, like the latter, is written from right to left. Many Iranians understand Arabic, an important language since the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, is written in Arabic. The Azerbaijanis speak a Turkish dialect known as Azeri. The Lurs and Bakhtiari both speak the Luri language. The Baluchis speak an Indo-European language, and the Kurds speak a language known as Kurdish.


Many Muslims believe in jinns, spirits who can change shape and be either visible or invisible. Muslims sometimes wear amulets around their necks to protect them from jinns. Stories of jinns are often told at night, like ghost stories around a campfire.


Shia Islam is the state religion of Iran. Shia is one of the two schools of Islam. Sunni Islam is the major school, with a far greater number of adherents worldwide. Followers of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century AD engaged in a dispute, after his death, as to who the rightful successor to the Prophet's leadership was. Those who believed that the Prophet's son-in-law 'Ali should become khalifa (caliph), the Islamic leader, formed the Shia school, which took root in Iran and has dominated religious thinking there through the present day.

The overwhelming majority of Iranians (about 98%) are Muslims. Most Iranians (about 89%) belong to the Shia school of Islam, while the remaining population is Sunni Muslim (9%) or Zoroastrian, Armenian and Chaldean Christian, or Jewish. The latter groups make up about 2% of the population. The 1979 constitution guarantees religious freedom and is widely respected. However, non-Muslims must follow civil laws in Iran that are formed on the basis of Islamic principles.

Before the advent of Islam, most Iranians were Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian faith developed in Iran around the 7th to 6th centuries BC. Zoroastrians followed a teacher named Zoroaster or Zarathustra. They worshiped a god of good known as Ahura Mazda and believed in a god of evil known as Ahriman. Most Zoroastrians converted to Islam starting in the 7th century AD. Over the centuries, most of the remaining Zoroastrians fled Iran and resettled in India.


The major secular holiday is Now Ruz (or Nawruz), the ancient Persian New Year. The festival begins on March 21, which is also the first day of spring, and continues through March 24. Much socializing takes place on this very festive day. A gong is sounded or a cannon is fired in the cities to signal the beginning of the new year. Children are given money and gifts, and dancers perform at festivals. Oil Nationalization Day (March 20) commemorates the day in 1951 when Iran assumed ownership of the Iranian oil industry, which had been controlled principally by Great Britain. Other national holidays include Islamic Republic Day (April 1) and Revolution Day (June 5).

Iran is on the lunar Islamic calendar, so the dates of religious holidays change every year. Some of Iran's major religious holidays commemorate the birthdays of imams, or religious leaders, who were famous in history. One of these is the birthday celebration of an imam of particular importance to Iranians, known as the Twelfth Imam.

One major Muslim holiday comes at the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. During the month, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or having sexual relations during the daytime in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. Another major Muslim holiday commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham, as well as his son, to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son. This holiday signals the end of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, which every Muslim must undertake at least once during his or her lifetime.

Another significant month, particularly to the Shia Muslims of Iran, is the Islamic month of Muharram. During this month, the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad, Husayn and Hasan, were killed. Iranians mourn their death throughout the month, sometimes mourning in street processions in which they beat themselves. Those who can afford to do so give money, food, and goods to the poor. No weddings or parties can be held during the month of Muharram.


Marriage is the most important stage in a person's life, marking the official transition to adulthood. In the Islamic Republic, a woman traditionally could have been betrothed at age nine and a man at age fourteen. Iran's present day Civil Law sets the minimum age of marriage at fifteen for women and at eighteen for men. However, the law also allows for earlier marriage if a woman's legal guardian, and a judge or medical doctor felt that she was mature enough for marriage. For these reasons, most Iranian men and women marry between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. Although dating is not common in rural areas, college students and other couples who live in cities often will get to know a future spouse by going to movies, eating out in restaurants, or socializing together before marriage. Iranian laws also allow for couples to have a sigheh or temporary marriage in which men and women are able to test whether they wish to remain together. Many women enter such marriages for the sake of financial support.

There are two ceremonies in the marital tradition: the agd, and the arusi. The engagement is the arusi and is usually a very intimate and private affair among the families involved. The actual ceremony is the agd, which can involve the entire community. Iranian society is built on the importance of the family, and marriage is often arranged among families that have long-established ties. A potential suitor must seek the approval of the father before even speaking to his prospective wife. Women and men are raised to see marriage as their social and religious obligation, and it is valued as such.

The birth of a child is an important event. Relatives and friends typically will bring a gift. Children's birthday parties are attended mostly by adults, and children gather to eat and play traditional games. Girls traditionally will have a party at school at age nine and fifteen.

Respect toward the deceased is also an important ritual. Loved ones gather at the home of the recently deceased to sit and quietly pray or reflect. Those who knew the deceased casually pay their respects at the mosque. The death of a community member in urban areas is announced in the local paper. Mourning lasts for 40 days, and special dark attire is worn to show grief for the deceased.


It is customary to greet others with a handshake and slight bow of the head in Iran. Men, however, will not shake the hand of a woman unless the woman offers her hand first. It is also customary to stand when an elder individual or prominent person enters the room.

Most people in Iran employ an elaborate system of courtesy, known in Farsi as taarof. Polite and complimentary phrases are used to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. For example, when an Iranian finds he or she has had their back to someone, which is considered offensive body language, he or she will apologize. The other person will usually reply, "A flower has neither back nor front." At times, taarof can complicate or delay things, such as when two people each insist that the other should proceed first through a door. Since it brings honor to the one who insists, there could be a long struggle before one person finally gives in.

Another aspect of taarof is the elaborate display of courtesy when one entertains a guest. For example, a host will always offer a guest food or other treats, even on a brief visit. Hungry or not, a guest will most often take the offering in order to please the host. A host will make sure to make the guest feel comfortable and well-liked. The host will go to great lengths to please the guest, but the guest also must behave with the utmost courtesy and politeness toward the host.

Iranians, like many people of the Middle East, are very hospitable. They serve their guests as much as they can afford. Iranians typically place a large basket of fruit on their table for guests and family to consume. This display symbolizes abundance and mirth, which all Iranians want to share. Women in the family cook for the enjoyment of their guests. Tea is boiled in a metal (usually copper) urn known as a samovar and is served to guests in small glasses with lots of sugar. Visitors return the courtesy by removing their shoes when they enter the carpeted areas of a home.

Iranians are very demonstrative with their facial and hand gestures. Some gestures that have specific meanings in the United States are interpreted differently in Iran. For example, the American hand gesture meaning "come here," with the forefinger pointed outward and waved toward one's body, in Iran is a gesture used by men to beckon suggestively to women. The American "thumbs up" gesture, indicating something well done, in Iran is an aggressive gesture that can create ill feeling.


Almost 70% of Iran is uninhabited because of the harshness of the deserts and mountains. The population density is about 148 persons per sq km (92 per sq mi). Most of the population lives in the western and northern parts of the country, with the highest concentration of people in Tehran, the capital city, which has a population of 7,315,000. The second-largest city is Mashhad, with a population of 2,150,000. The third-largest cities are Tabriz and Isfahan, each with a population of about 1,350,000. Other highly populated areas are in Azerbaijan in the northwest and along the coast of the Caspian Sea in the north. The population of more than 69,400,000 is highly urban. About 67.5% of Iranians lived in cities in 2007 compared with about 31% in 1951. The cities, however, are finding it difficult to keep up with the needs of the migrants. Sanitation and housing in the cities are thus inadequate.

A rise in the number of young Iranians has accompanied the migration of people from rural to urban areas. The average life expectancy at birth for Iranians was 70.7 years in 2004 compared with 55.3 years in the early 1970s. As a result, nearly one-third (29.8%) of the population was under age 15 in 2004. This large percentage of youth has created a large workforce, with 23.1 million workers as of March 2007. About 600,000 new job-seekers enter the labor market each year. Although Iran's economy is rich with oil reserves, the country is finding it difficult to employ its young people. As a result, more than 200,000 Iranians leave the country each year in search of better work opportunities in Europe and the United States.

The cities of Iran are very spacious, and the streets are lined with trees. Despite the space, city streets are often very congested with automobiles. Larger cities have many high-rise apartments built during the Shah's renovations, and some have modern supermarket complexes that are several stories high. Tehran underwent extensive modernization during the 20th century, resulting in modern skyscrapers overlooking ancient mosques. Tehran is the industrial and cultural center of Iran. Cities also have marketplaces, or bazaars. Tehran's bazaar has more than 6,000 businesses. Wooden houses are common along the Caspian coast and square houses made of mud brick are found on the slopes in the mountain villages. Nomadic tribes in the Zagros Mountains live in round black tents made of goat hair. The people of Baluchistan, in the southeast, are farmers who live in huts.

Although Iran exports oil, fuel for use in homes is not always available. Appliances used for cooking include grill-like charcoal heaters and coal stoves. Hydroelectric power has increasingly been made available in the country.


In the cities, the family unit is the extended family, including one's aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The concerns of all members of the extended family have a bearing on the nuclear family, consisting of the mother, father, and children. Although large families were traditionally prized, the Iranian government has been taking steps to reduce the country's population. Couples must now attend a family planning course before they marry, and men are only allowed more than one wife if they are able to provide for each spouse equally. Government policies have helped reduce the average size of the nuclear family to about six children per family.

The tribe ruled by a tribal chief is the basic social unit among nomads. Tribes have elaborate customs that govern individuals' behavior. In the villages, clans and families are the most important social units. This creates a strong sense of belonging in the villages, as all the families share much in common.

The father is the head of the Iranian household, yet there is a tacit recognition of the mother's role and preeminence. There is a respect within the family for males and a ranking by age, with the young showing respect toward older siblings. Respect, especially toward one's elders, is an integral part of the family structure. However, Iranians extend their respect beyond their immediate and extended families. For instance, an Iranian is expected to rise to her or his feet when any person of equal or greater age or status enters the room.

There is no pension system and little state welfare for the elderly. Aging parents are taken care of by their children until death. The elderly are venerated for their wisdom and place at the head of the family. Thus, taking care of them is seen as their children's responsibility.

Because most workers and students take two-hour lunch breaks, families are able to spend time together in the afternoons, as well as in the evenings. They also see much of each other on Fridays, the Muslim day of rest and prayer. It is typical on Fridays for families to go on an outing, usually to the park to watch children play, talk about current events, and eat prepared food. Schools and government offices close early on Thursdays to honor this tradition.


Iranians value personal cleanliness, a value that is reflected in how they dress. Western clothing for both men and women was popular until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then, women have been forced to cover their hair and wear the Iranian chador, a long cloak, when in public. Although the chador most often seen in Western images of Iran is black, many Iranian women wear very colorful chadors. Some women wear only a head-covering or use the chador to cover more fashionable, Western-style clothing. It also is common for Iranian women to wear make-up.

Most men wear slacks, shirts, and jackets. Most usually do not wear ties, because religious leaders have condemned the accessory as a symbol of Western influence. Some men, especially religious leaders, wear floor-length, jacket-like garments, and cover their heads with turbans.

Mountain-dwellers continue to wear their traditional clothing. For Kurdish men, this consists of a long-sleeved cotton shirt over baggy pants that taper down to fit tightly at the ankles. A thick belt of cloth, much like a cummerbund, is wrapped around the waist, and a turban adorns the head. Some tribal women wear long, embroidered vests, and skirts or dresses adorned with beads. They wear an elaborate head covering with coin trimming. In general, great importance is placed on one's presentability. This being the case, both women and men dress in their best clothing to create a good impression.


There is no doubt that the multitude of invasions and migrations by foreign peoples contributed to Iranian cuisine. The influence of Turkey, Greece, India, and Arab countries is seen, respectively, in shish kabob, stuffed grape leaves, spicy curry stews, and dishes made of lamb, dates, and figs. Iranian bread and rice are a must at the table. Breads come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Sang-gak is made of whole meal flour and baked over hot stones. Nan is a round, flat bread that can either be baked or cooked over a bed of small stones. Iranians make a popular skewered kabob known as chelo kebab. Boneless cubes of lamb are marinated in spicy yogurt and arranged with vegetables on metal skewers. These are then grilled over hot coals and served on a bed of rice.

One of Iran's most popular dishes is sweet orange-peel rice, also known as "wedding rice." The color and taste of the rice make it an appropriate dish to serve to wedding guests. The cook prepares a sauce made of orange peel, shelled almonds and pistachios, sugar, butter, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange juice. The sauce is cooked for about five minutes and then added to partially cooked (steamed) rice. The rice is then cooked for another 30 minutes.

Yogurt is a main part of the Iranian diet. It is rich and creamy and is used in many different ways. It can be used to marinate meats, it is added to salads, it is used in soups, and it is enjoyed as a cool drink in the summer. Tea, the national beverage, is grown in the Caspian region and on the slopes of mountains. Tea is made in metal urns called samovars. It is served in glasses. Iranians have a particular tea-drinking method: they place a cube of sugar on the tongue and sip the tea through the sugar. Pork and alcoholic beverages are forbidden in Islam.


Iran underwent large-scale educational reform in the 1960s, building many schools and colleges. Emphasis was placed on training teachers, and by 1968, some 35,000 Literacy Corps teachers had been trained to teach adults and young children. Illiteracy has dropped from 70% in the 1960s to about 33% as of 2002. There is a gender gap in literacy rates, with only about 70.4% of women able to read and write, compared to 83.5% of men. Iran's younger children enjoy much higher literacy rates than adults, with 96.5% of those between ages six and twenty-nine able to read and write as of 2005.

The school year begins in September and ends in June. There is a two-week holiday in March. July and August are the months of summer vacation. Students attend school from Saturday morning until Thursday at noon. Elementary schooling lasts five years and is required for children between the ages of seven and twelve. Schools are operated by the state. Elementary schools are free, with pupils also receiving free textbooks.

After the compulsory period ends, students take a major qualifying examination to determine if they qualify to attend secondary school. These schools are free except for small fees. Secondary schools are academically demanding, and students take a major examination at the end of each school year. Failing one of the subjects could mean repeating the whole year. About three-fourths of all children enter secondary school, which consists of three years of general education and three years of high school. After completing the six years of school, students have the option to take a seventh year of "pre-college" schooling.

Universities in Iran also are free. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, two Islamic universities were built: the Free Islamic University, and the International University of Islamic Studies. The universities have suffered from financial problems, and many wealthy Iranian families send their children overseas for education.


Iran is known for its magnificent mosques and architecture commissioned by rulers throughout history. One of the most beautiful of these buildings is a mosque located in the city of Mashhad that was built by Tamerlane's daughter-in-law. The mosaics of tile that embellish the mosque are brilliantly colored. The city of Isfahan is known for the blue tiles of some of its historic buildings, such as the mosque named Masjid-i-Shah. This 17th-century mosque has an intricately patterned domed ceiling that is intensely geometric in design.

Iran also has palaces and monuments built centuries ago that document both the tremendous influences of foreigners and the power of the ancient Persian Empire. Carved stone structures depict various aspects of Persian life and history. The ruins of Persepolis, the capital city of the Persian Empire that was built in 520 BC, are located near Shiraz in south-central Iran. The ruins consist of rock slabs and pillars with elaborate carvings. One stone pillar is topped with a large sculpture of an animal's head. Carved soldiers and courtiers bedeck some of the stone remains, providing much information about the ancient customs of Persia.

One of the most fascinating items of Iranian artwork is the Peacock Throne, on which all Iran's kings since the 18th century have sat. It is part of the priceless crown jewels collection, which is now the property of the state. The throne bears more than 20,000 precious gems and serves as the backing for Iran's currency.

Many writers known around the world have contributed to a very rich literary tradition among Iranians, and Iranian music is often inspired by the country's rich heritage of poetry. By far the most famous of Iranian poets was a man named Firdawsi (AD 940–1020), who wrote Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). A fictional poem based on facts, the 120,000-line story relates the adventures of four ancient Iranian dynasties. Many of the copies made of this epic are illustrated with miniature art. Another internationally known Iranian poet was Omar Khayyam (11th century AD), who was also a mathematician and astronomer. His four-line rhyming verses, known as ruba'is, became famous when Edward Fitzgerald, a British writer, translated 101 of the poems in his volume The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One of the more famous of the translated verses is:

    The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on; nor all the Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The city of Shiraz was home to two other great poets: Sadi (13th century AD) and Hafez (14th century AD). Sadi's poems were among the first examples of Persian literature introduced to Europe. Hafez wrote a collection of about 700 poems, which is known as the Divan.


About one-fourth of Iran's work force is composed of industrial employees. They engage in petroleum extraction and refinery; mineral mining (coal, chromite, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, salt, sulfur, and zinc); production of steel; food processing; and many other industries. One of the most important industries is cement production.

About one-third of the work force is employed in agriculture. This category includes farming, raising livestock, forestry, and fishing. Fishers off the Caspian coast provide about 20% of the world's supply of caviar. Iran's major cultivated crops include barley, cotton, dates, raisins, rice, sugar beets, tea, tobacco, and wheat.

The remainder of Iran's work force is engaged in the service sector. The typical Iranian urban work-day is eight hours long, often starting at 7:00 am. Workers commonly take a two-hour lunch break. During the hot summer months, workers might take longer lunch breaks and then work later into the evening when it is not so hot. Farmers and herders work from sunrise to sunset. They rely predominantly on manual labor; modern mechanical equipment is uncommon. While some farmers have the luxury of animals to assist in plowing and other fieldwork, in some regions such animals are unavailable, so the farmer relies on his own and his family's efforts.


Iran's most popular sports are wrestling, weight lifting, soccer, martial arts, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, and horse-racing. The Zur Khaneh, or House of Strength, is a physical training and wrestling center where young men undergo vigorous training with heavy clubs and perform in wrestling matches for spectators. Tennis and squash are popular, especially among urban Iranians. Gymnastics is encouraged in schools and is becoming popular. Camel- and horse-racing are popular in rural areas.


In rural areas, people are entertained by traveling groups of actors who recite poetry and perform plays. Generally, the plays tell stories about Iran's history, reliving important episodes and highlighting the lives of famous Iranians.

In urban areas, men enjoy spending their leisure time in teahouses, socializing and smoking the hookah, or water pipe. Going to movies also is becoming more popular. Women enjoy entertaining family and friends in the home. They often spend time engaged in leisurely craftwork. Iranians enjoy the game of chess, and many argue that chess was invented in their country. Many Iranians attend the mosque every Friday, both for prayer and to socialize with friends.


Iranians have long been recognized as a people of artistic distinction, renowned for the crafts made by their goldsmiths during the Sassanid dynasty of the 3rd to 7th centuries AD. The city of Isfahan is famous for its abundance of artists and craftspeople. The cities of Shiraz and Tabriz are famous for their rugs. Iran's handwoven carpets and rugs are made of either silk or wool and use special knots dating from the Middle Ages. They come with many designs and patterns that vary from region to region, with geometric shapes being the most common. Persian carpets are sold in all parts of the world. Shiraz and Isfahan are famous also for their tradition of crafting metal, such as silver and copper, into ornamental plates, cups, vases, trays, and jewelry. Picture frames and jewelry boxes are embellished with a form of art known as khatam. This involves the use of ivory, bone, and pieces of wood to create geometric patterns.

Calligraphy (ornate writing) is also a fine art in Iran, as it is in much of the Islamic world. Verses from the Quran are skillfully handwritten and painted in beautifully flowing lettering. The calligraphy has adorned many books and manuscripts produced in Iran through the centuries. Iranians, influenced by a Chinese art style, developed an art of painting very detailed small images on their manuscripts. Known as "miniature painting," this art form was especially prized during the 15th century. Masterpieces created at that time by an artist named Bihzad are now prized the world over.


Iran's development has fluctuated considerably since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In the early 21st century, the government's opposition to the United States and its war against Islamic terrorists has led to many reactionary practices. The 2008 Amnesty International report on the state of the world's human rights noted that Iranian authorities shut down media outlets critical of the Islamic regime, jailed journalists, and closed many non-governmental organizations operating in Iraq. Nearly 350 people were executed in 2007 and harsh punishments of flogging, stoning, and amputation were handed down by the courts.

One of Iran's greatest challenges in the early 21st century has been balancing the country's older cultural and social traditions against the attitudes of its younger citizens who are more influenced by Western ideas and globalization. Nearly one-third of Iran's population is under age 25. Young people often challenge the Islamic clergy's rules on attire and socialization between the sexes by wearing Western clothing and gathering together in streets, particularly in Tehran. The government has responded by arresting those who defy Islamic based laws.

The war in Iraq (begun in 2003) has made Iranians vulnerable to external threats, as well as to threats from militants who are said to be hiding in Iran. Despite a modest increase in per capita GNP, unemployment is a severe problem, swelling the numbers of urban and rural poor. Women in rural areas particularly have suffered from the economy, where handi-crafts and other commodities are given a small market value and where they have to compete with men for work. In addition, U.S. pressure on Iran's economy (through sanctions) has curbed Iran's potential for investment and growth. Overall efforts are being made by the Iranian government to compensate for this loss of revenue.

The state of the Iranian press and intellectuals in Iran today is a source of concern for human-rights activists both within and abroad. Members of the Iranian intelligentsia are frequently arrested and tortured for their so-called "un-Islamic" writings, and most live in fear for their lives. In spite of this, visitors to Iran have observed the active efforts within the intellectual community to solve various problems in the Islamic Republic, and to contribute to a lively discourse.


Information on the status of women in Iran can often be colored by Western prejudice against the Islamic Revolution. However, numerous accounts documented the repression of women accused of such things as improper veiling. The condition of women in Iranian society began to improve in the 1990s and women have gained more educational opportunities, employment options, and rights to seek compensation from their former husbands in the event of divorce. In addition, rules on the dress code for women began to relax in the 1990s. In 1995, a journalist asked President Rajsanjani why women's veils had to be black. The president suggested that women could wear veils in any color of their choice. Iranian women responded by donning veils of numerous colors, including light blue and pink. The example illustrates how many women are willing to push for more social freedoms while still remaining respectful of Islamic traditions.

The advances have been pushed back with the new dominance of conservatives loyal to fundamentalist Islamic clerics in Iran. Amnesty International reported that thousands of women were arrested in 2007 for not complying with the Islamic dress code. In early 2008, the Iranian government shut down the feminist magazine Zanan for publishing articles that the government found detrimental to Iranian society. The magazine had been in circulation for 16 years and was among 42 publications that the government had suspended since 2005.

Iranian women continue to seek an end to legalized discrimination through the Campaign for Equality. The activist group has been trying to collect a million signatures in Iran in support for their cause. The government responded in 2007 by arresting several women working with the campaign.


"A man for nearly all seasons." The Economist (US) 3 June 2000, 46.

Amnesty International Report 2008: State of the World's Human Rights. (retrieved August 3, 2008)

Economist Intelligence Unit: Country Profile: Iran. Economist Intelligence Unit Inc., 2007

Iran: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.

Islamic Republic of Iran. Culture Grams: World Edition. Ann Arbor, Mich.: ProQuest LLC, 2008.

"The house of strength; Tehran diary; Our correspondent admires Iranian tradition." Global Agenda (3 July 2007).

Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Rajendra, Vijeya, and Gisela Kaplan. Cultures of the World: Iran. New York: Times Books, 1993.

Sanders, Renfield. Iran. New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

Seelhoff, Cheryl Lindsey. "Government closes down leading feminist magazine," Off Our Backs 37.4 (April 2008): 5(2)

Tremayne, Soraya. "Modernity and early marriage in Iran: a view from within." JMEWS: Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 2:1 65(30), 2006

—revised by H. Gupta-Carlson