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Iran: Country Profile

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Basics:

Official country name: Islamic Republic of Iran
Area: 636,296 sq miles (1,648,000 sq km)
Population: 70.1 million (2006 est.) Median age: 25.8
Ethnic Groups: Persian 51 percent, Azeri 24 percent, Gilaki/Mazandarani 8 percent, Kurd 7 percent, Arab 3 percent, Turkmen and others, 7 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $204 billion and $2,910 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

A theocracy, Iran approved an amended Constitution in December 1979 “based on Islamic principles and norms.” A president is popularly elected to four-year terms (currently, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, elected in 2005). Members of the 270-seat Islamic Assembly, or Majlis, are also popularly elected to four-year terms. The president appoints ministers with the Majlis’ consent. The chief of state, however, and the ultimate arbiter of all domestic and foreign policy issues, is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei (in power since the death of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini on June 3, 2989).

Religion:

: Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim (about 89 percent), making it the world’s most populous Shiite nation. About 10 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The remaining 1 percent form small communities of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

Economy:

: While Iran is the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, and oil gas and petrochemicals account for $38 billion in exports (the overwhelming majority of Iranian exports) oil nevertheless accounts for just 10.4 percent of the economy. Industry accounts for 34.5 percent, services more than 50 percent, and agriculture accounts for the rest. Iran provided $13 billion in oil subsidies at home, keeping gas prices low, but also fueling consumption: Iran is a net importer of oil. Interest rates (at 12 percent) and inflation (14 percent) are high, crippling the economy.

Military:

: Iran has about 465,000 men and women in its military, including 200,000 arm,y conscripts and 100,000 air force personnel. Mandatory conscription applies only to 18-year-old men, and lasts 18 months, but boys and girls as young as 16 may volunteer for the armed forces. During the Iran-Iraq war, children as young as 9 years old were sent to the front. Iran has various missiles with a range of up to 45 to 50 miles, possibly more. Iran is reportedly working on a medium-range ballistic missile and negotiating with Russia to buy 250 Sukhoi Su-30 “Flanker” fighter-bombers and 20 mid-air tankers.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

A wave of xenophobia and moral fervor is punctuating the administration of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Recent months,” The Economist reported in August 2007, “have seen the largest crackdown on civil liberties since the 1980s.” The opposition press has been shut down. Universities have been purged of moderates and liberals. Women’s rights advocates, student leaders, journalists, trade unionists have all been imprisoned. Iran executed 177 people in 2006, the world's highest rate in proportion to population. Homosexuals, immodestly clad women and men who wear western haircuts are targeted by police.

Early History:

: The first Persian empire was founded by Cyrus in 529 B.C., followed by that of the Sasanians, which lasted until 637 A.D., when it was defeated by Arabs in the battle of Qadisiya, which opened Persia to Islam. Persia was part of the Abbassid empire during the Middle Ages until the emergence of new empires—the Seljuks in the late Middle Ages, the Safavids in the 16th century and the Qajars in the 18th, when the capital moved from Isfahan to Teheran. Russia and Britain competed for influence in Iran during the 19th century.

Modern History:

Riza Shah, an illiterate military officer and nationalist, overthrew the Qajar dynasty and consolidated dictatorial power by 1926. He modernized and westernized Iran, secularizing the legal and civil system, often brutally. He abdicated in 1941, when his son, Riza Shah, 21 years old at the time, uncertainly assumed power. A coup led by the CIA and British intelligence ended a nationalist movement led by Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, returning the Shah to power after he’d fled to Rome. The Shah ruled with dictatorial brutality for the next quarter century until he was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.

Current Issues:

Ironic parallels are unfolding between the highly unstable dictatorship of the Shah in the 1970s and the uncertain theocracy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad today. Iran is economically wracked by high unemployment and high inflation. It is internally repressed by security forces, and externally isolated because of its intransigence over the acquisition of nuclear technology, and possibly nuclear weapons. But the presence of American troops in nearby Iraq and Afghanistan help further radicalize the regime and rally the regime’s base.

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