Iran is one of the world's most mountainous countries. Its mountains have helped to shape both the political and the economic history of the country for several centuries.
Iran ranks sixteenth in size among the countries of the world with an area of 1,648,000 square kilometers. Iran is about one-fifth the size of the continental United States, or slightly larger than the combined area of the contiguous states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Iran Located in southwestern Asia, Iran shares its entire northern border with the Soviet Union. This border extends for more then 2,000 kilometers, including nearly 650 kilometers of water along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Iran's western borders are with Turkey in the north and Iraq in the south, terminating at the Shatt al Arab (which Iranians call the Arvand Rud). The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman littorals form the entire 1,770-kilometer southern border. To the east lie Afghanistan on the north and Pakistan on the south. Iran's diagonal distance from Azarbaijan in the northwest to Baluchestan va Sistan in the southeast is approximately 2,333.
Written history in Iran begins with the Proto-Elamites around 3000 BCE, and continues with the arrival of the Aryans and the establishment of the Median dynasty, followed by the Achaemenids, who built the world's first global empire, under Cyrus the Great in 546 BCE. The name Persia is derived from Persis, the ancient Greek name for the empire, although Eratosthenes also mentions the name Iran. Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 331 BCE, soon only to be succeeded by the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, who followed the Achaemenids as Persia's greatest pre-Islamic empires.
The Middle Ages saw the unfolding of many crucial events such as the Islamic Conquest of Iran, the destruction of Iran under the Mongol invasion begining in 1220, the conquest of Tamerlane, and the establishment of Iran's first Shi'a Islamic state under the Safavid dynasty in 1501. From then on Persia increasingly became the arena for rival colonial powers such as Russia and the United Kingdom. With the arrival of modernization in the late 19th century, Iranians longed for a change and thus the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905/1911 followed.
In 1953 Iran's prime minister Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, was removed from power in a plot orchestrated by British and US intelligence agencies to protect their oil interests (dubbed "Operation Ajax"). The operation was conducted following the Prime-Minister's nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It reinstated the Iranian monarchy, handing power back to former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Following Dr. Mosaddegh's fall, the Shah's rule became increasingly dictatorial, particularly in the late 1970s. With strong support from the USA and the UK, the Shah further modernized Iranian industry but crushed civil liberties. His autocratic rule led to the Iranian revolution in 1979. An Islamic republic was soon established under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The new theocratic political system instituted some conservative Islamic reforms as well as introducing an unprecedented level of direct clerical rule. It also engaged in an anti-Western course due to Western support of the Shah. In particular Iranian-American relations were severely strained after the Iranian seizure of U.S. embassy personnel in 1979, Iran's subsequent attempts to export its revolution, and its support of anti-Western militant groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
In 1980 Iran was attacked by neighbouring Iraq and the destructive Iran-Iraq War continued until 1988. The struggle between the reformists and conservatives over the future of the country continues today through electoral politics and was a central Western focus in the 2005 elections where conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triumphed.
Iran has a variable climate. In the northwest, winters are cold with heavy snowfall and subfreezing temperatures during December and January. Spring and fall are relatively mild, while summers are dry and hot. In the south, winters are mild and the summers are very hot, having average daily temperatures in July exceeding 38° C. On the Khuzestan plain, summer heat is accompanied by high humidity.
Most Iranians are Muslims; 90% belong to the Shi'a branch of Islam, the official state religion, and about 9% belong to the Sunni branch (many of whom are Kurds). The remainder consists of non-Muslim religious minorities, mainly Bahá'ís, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians.
An educational problem in Iran since the early twentieth century has been the general perception among the upper and middle classes that foreign education is superior to Iranian. Thus, there have been large numbers of Iranians studying abroad. As long as the foreign-educated students returned to Iran, they were able to apply their skills for the overall benefit of the country; however, under both the monarchy and the Republic, thousands of Iranians have elected not to return to their homeland, creating a veritable "brain drain." Since the Revolution, the government has tried to discourage Iranians from going abroad to study, although it has not prevented the practice.