Country profile: Iran
Iran was one of the first countries to be occupied by the early Islamic armies which burst out from Arabia in the seventh century.
Persia, as it was, had been one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, and has long maintained a distinct cultural identity within the Islamic world by retaining its own language and adhering to the Shia interpretation of Islam.
In 1979 the country became the centre of world attention when the monarchy was overthrown and a unique Islamic republic was declared, in which religious clerics – headed by Ayatollah Khomeini – wielded ultimate political control. There followed an unstable and bloody period, including an eight-year war with Iraq, in which the country’s oil wealth plummeted from its previous high levels.
Two decades later, Iran appeared to be entering another era of political and social transformation with the victory of the liberals over the long-ruling conservative elite in parliamentary elections in 2000.
But the reformists, kept on the political defensive by powerful conservatives in the government and judiciary, failed to make good on their promises.
Former President Mohammad Khatami’s support for greater social and political freedoms made him popular with the young – an important factor as around half of the population is under 25. But his liberal ideas put him at odds with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and hardliners reluctant to lose sight of established Islamic traditions.
Iran has come under strong pressure from the US since President Bush declared it part of an “axis of evil” in 2002. That pressure intensified after the US-led war against Iraq, with Washington accusing Tehran of attempting to develop nuclear weapons and of trying to subvert US efforts in Iraq. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.
With a diplomatic showdown looming over its nuclear programme, Iran resumed its uranium conversion process in 2005, with President Ahmadinejad saying the country had an “inalienable right” to produce nuclear fuel.
Iran has an abundance of energy resources, with reserves of natural gas second only to those of Russia and substantial oil reserves. But it faces the challenge of providing hundreds of thousands of new jobs for its youthful population.
- Population: 70.7 million (UN, 2005)
- Capital: Tehran
- Area: 1.65 million sq km (636,313 sq miles)
- Major language: Persian
- Major religion: Islam
- Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 72 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 10 Iranian rials = 1 toman
- Main exports: Petroleum, carpets, agricultural products
- GNI per capita: US $2,300 (World Bank, 2005)
- Internet domain: .ir
- International dialling code: +98
Supreme leader: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
The supreme leader – the highest power in the land – appoints the head of the judiciary, military leaders, the head of radio and TV and Friday prayer leaders.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate authority on matters of state
Moreover, he selects six members of the Guardian Council, an influential body which has to pass all legislation and which is able to veto would-be election candidates.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was appointed for life in June 1989, succeeding Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. He served two consecutive terms as president in the 1980s.
He has intervened on behalf of conservatives, coming into conflict with former president Mohammad Khatami and other reformists.
President: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s ultra-conservative mayor, won a run-off vote in elections in June 2005, defeating his rival, the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to become Iran’s first non-cleric president for 24 years.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defends Iran’s nuclear programme
Promising an administration of “peace and moderation”, Mr Ahmadinejad said his government would press on with Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Months into his presidency, a furore erupted over Mr Ahmadinejad’s comment at a conference that Israel should be “wiped off the map”. The UN secretary-general rebuked Tehran for the statement.
Born near Tehran in 1956, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former provincial governor and Revolutionary Guards officer. He was actively involved in the Islamic revolution and was a founding member of the student union that took over the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. But he denies being one of the hostage-takers.
His predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, was often frustrated in his attempts to deliver political and social changes.
Hardline conservatives repeatedly blocked legislation during his eight years in office and the disqualification of moderates from parliamentary elections left him politically isolated.
The relative freedom of the press, a tangible achievement of former President Khatami’s government, has been a target for conservatives. Many pro-reform publications have been closed and reformist writers and editors jailed. The conservative judiciary has campaigned against the liberal media.
There are some 20 major national dailies. But the press is not the main source of news and information, with under a quarter of the population reading a newspaper on a daily basis. Sports titles are the biggest sellers.
The broadcast media have seen some changes but remain more restricted than the press. Despite a ban on owning satellite dishes, viewing of satellite TV is widespread and largely tolerated by the authorities. Satellite TV stations operated by exiles in the US were said to have played a role in student protests in 2003.
State-run IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting) national networks are supplemented by provincial channels. The Jaam-e Jam international TV networks are available on most continents via satellite. Iran targets Arabic-speaking audiences in Iraq and the Middle East via its Al-Alam and Sahar TV networks.
Television is very popular in Iran; more than 80% of the population watch TV. The most popular network is the third state channel, the youth channel.
IRIB’s radio services include a parliamentary network and Radio Koran, which carries programmes on Islamic and Koranic subjects including recitation and interpretation.
The Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (VIRI) external radio service is available via shortwave and the internet.
Many foreign broadcasters target listeners in Iran; they include the Washington-backed Radio Farda, an entertainment-based station aimed at younger audiences.
Around seven million Iranians have access to the internet, which has been used as a way of circumventing the barriers of censorship.
Internet service providers are prevented from allowing access to sites deemed to be pornographic or anti-Islamic, but the internet remains the main forum for dissident voices.
Internet access is easy to arrange and affordable for middle-class households.