Iran (pronounced ee-RAHN), formerly known as Persia, is situated at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Arab states of the Middle East. This strategic position—and its access to the Persian Gulf in the south—have made Iran an important country throughout its history.
Much of Iran is cut off from the outside world by a beautiful but often lonely landscape. High, rugged mountains create a barrier with Iran's neighbors in the west, and the eastern region is covered by a barren, salty desert.
In Iran's north, a narrow, fertile strip borders the Caspian Sea, and in the south, lowlands rim the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Most people in Iran live along the edges of a high plateau that runs through the middle of the country.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Strong religious beliefs have been part of Iranians' lives for thousands of years. Almost all Iranians are Muslim, or followers of Islam. The religion is central to daily life.
Iran has a long history of scholarship that has created a rich culture of art, literature, poetry, music, cuisine, and architecture. Ancient Iranian thinkers wrote influential texts on philosophy and medicine, and it was an Iranian mathematician who invented algebra. Iran's universities are among the most respected in the Middle East.
Not long ago, Iran was home to many lions, tigers, and other big cats. Unfortunately these sleek hunters are now very rare, and some species have gone extinct. Only a handful of Asiatic cheetahs and Persian leopards remain.
Iran has several reserves and parks where wildlife thrives. One, called Kavir National Park, is located in the north-central region and is known as "Little Africa" because its plants and animals resemble those of Africa. This park is home to Iran's only cheetahs.
Iran's mountains in the north and west have dense forests that offer habitat for brown bears, wild goats, wolves, and leopards. The country's central plateau is home to deer, gazelles, hyenas, and jackals, among other animals.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Iran's government is controlled by a religious figure called the supreme leader, who is appointed by a group of Islamic clerics called the Assembly of Experts. A president, elected by the people, is second in command.
Iran has extensive oil reserves, but its economy has been hit hard by a trade ban imposed by the United States since the shah was ousted in 1979. Allegations that Iran supports terrorism and a belief that it is developing nuclear weapons has led to further isolation in recent years.
Iran is one of the oldest nations in the world, with a history dating back tens of thousands of years. The country's first great city, Susa, was built on the central plateau around 3200 B.C.
In 559 B.C., the Persian Empire arose in southwestern Iran and conquered the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. The empire eventually extended from the Mediterranean Sea to what is now Pakistan, but it was conquered by the Greeks in 330 B.C.
Around 260 B.C., nomads called Parni ousted the Greeks and ruled for some 500 years. The Sassanids came into power in A.D. 224, and in A.D. 642, Persia became part of the Islamic Empire. In 1501, the kings, or shahs, of the Safavid Empire began their reign.
In the late 18th century, foreign powers, including Russia and Britain, took control of parts of Persia. In 1921, a Persian army officer named Reza Khan took control and sought to end outside influence. In 1935, he renamed the country Iran. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, became shah in 1941.
In 1979, many Iranians who felt Pahlavi was corrupt forced him to flee, ending the reign of the shahs in Iran. Since then, religious leaders have ruled the country. The first was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose ten years in power were marked by a long war with Iraq and tensions with the United States and many other nations. Khomeini died in 1989, but much of those tensions still exist today.