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Facts about Iran




Country name: Islamic Republic of Iran

Location: Western Asia

Neighbouring countries: Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan

Area: 1,648,195 sq km

Climate: Arid, semiarid, subtropical

Population: 78 mln

Structure: 5 regions, 31 provinces

Government: A theocracy with a Supreme Leader, an Assembly of (Theological) Experts, a Council of Guardians and elected Parliament and President

Major religion: Muslim (Shia)

Language: Farsi (an Indo-Aryan language)

Other languages: Azeri, Kurdish, Lurish, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Turkmen, Arabic, Baluchi

Capital: Tehran

Other major towns: Mashhad, Esfahan, Karaj, Tabriz, Shiraz

Currency: Iranian rial (IR)

Time: GMT + 03:30, in summer GMT + 04:30

Electric power: 220 V/50 Hz; standard two-pin plug socket

Domain zone: .ir

Country Code: + 98

For millennia Iran was called Persia. However, Reza Shah hated the name and in 1934 changed it to Iran - derived from the term for Aryan, 'the land of the nobles'.

With an area of 1,648,000 sq km, Iran is more than three times larger than France and nearly one-fifth the size of the USA. Iran shares borders with seven countries: Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Iran is an Islamic Republic and while most travellers find Islam is not nearly as all-pervasive as they had expected, the Shiite faith remains an important part of Iranian life. Iran is one of those countries, like others in the Middle East and elsewhere, where issues concerning religion and the modern world confront you at all turns and compel you to consider your own stance.

Iran is a country under intense pressure. The isolation of international sanctions, dangerous levels of inflation, high unemployment and the ever-present threat of a targeted military strike is Iran today.

The country has parallel governments. The 'normal' government comprises an elected president and majlis (parliament), plus lower levels of government with a mix of elected and appointed officials. On the unelected side, the aptly named Supreme Leader is the head of state. He sits above the Guardian Council, a 12-man group with six Muslim clerics who are appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six Islamic jurists appointed by the head of the judiciary, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader. The Guardian Council can veto any law passed by the majlis and decides who is fit to run for elected office. The Supreme Leader also has what amounts to a huge private army, with the revolutionary Basij, Sepah and Pasdaran militias reporting to him, not the president.

Many new visitors to Iran presume that all Iranian theologians speak with one voice, but since the 1980s there have been many outspoken declarations among the ulama, not always finding favour with the authorities. Some feel that having established an Islamic state to its satisfaction, the ulama should withdraw from active political life and resume its former pastoral responsibilities; presently the official view is that active involvement in politics should continue. The evolving relationship between Islam, Iran and the modern world is avidly discussed and the passion these debates arouse should not be underestimated.

Iran believes it has a right to nuclear energy and has a sophisticated program to deliver this. Iran insists it has no plan to build nuclear weapons, yet it has refused to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and regularly boasts of its capacity to enrich uranium to a level beyond that needed in a power plant. The result has been repeated threats of an Israeli air strike on nuclear facilities, numerous UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, and a swathe of economic sanctions. In effect, these sanctions have cut Iran off from the international banking system.

The rapid urbanisation of Iranian society started well before 1979, but was intensified by the Iran-Iraq War. Now more than 70% of the population is estimated to live in cities and large towns. Traditional rural life still exists, but as in any other developing country, the pull of the big city is leaving rural villages populated largely by the old. Almost 70% of the population is aged under 30 years old and about one-third under 15, making unemployment and underemployment serious issues in Iran.

Despite the Islamic government and Sharia laws, Iranians are not frightening people. They are generally warm and charming. Iranians take their role as hosts very seriously, it comes from a genuine desire to put others' needs first and please where possible. In daily life, this manifests itself as taarof, the Iranian system of courtesy, which can be a minefield if unknown but for travellers means you will be treated with politeness wherever you go.

Western women often feel hostility towards the Iranian regime, and in particular to its treatment of women. This is largely based on a understanding of the situation in pre-revolutionary Iran - and a personal reaction to the official stipulation requiring headcoverings for all women in Iran. Over half of the Iranian population is female, and the government cannot afford to ignore them. In the 1970s, opportunities for Iranian women were in fact virtually confined to the upper social circles, and indeed 'grass-roots' women's groups played an important role in bringing about the Islamic Revolution, as they often remind the authorities. Generally speaking, women across the social classes have a more strident public voice and greater participation now. Since 1980, there has been positive discrimination in education and certain professions, eg: doctors, dentists, and teachers, because Islamic social convention prefers that women should 'deal' with women. Some 50% of university students and at least 33% of faculty members are women. Their political involvement has amended laws on employment, divorce, maternity leave and child custody.

Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, and since 1990 in particular, tourism has slowly picked up again in Iran. The great majority of foreign visitors are still Turkish and Pakistani nationals, but the renewed interest in Iran in some European countries and in Japan has lead to a big increase in the number of tourists from those regions too. Even before the 1979 Revolution, Iran was not a destination for mass tourism, and although tourism is tolerated today it should be remembered that a policy of openess to the outside world is still far from unanimously accepted in the government. Outside the main cities, tourists are relatively rarely seen and likely to attract attention, particularly when they arrive by the bus load, with expensive cameras at the ready.

Of course, there have been changes since the early days of the Revolution when officialdom frowned on all music save for martial tunes and religious songs; as of August 2000, Western instruments such as pianos may now be purchased, and Iranian 'rap' is broadcast on the airwaves. But not all changes are occasioned by official policy. Women wear more black chadors and black or dark blue manteaux on the streets of Tehran, instead of the pastel coats worn earlier. Maybe this was responding to a new government directive as more women were working for the government (where black is the standard uniform), and that Tehran's increasing pollution was persuading many to wear darker colours to reduce washing and dry-cleaning bills.

Tourists in Iran have to face certain problems caused by the inadequacy of the infrastructure, and by the strict rules concerning clothing which apply in this Islamic republic. Lack of hotel rooms, especially in the better categories, difficulties in obtaining aeroplane tickets, the unreliability of flight schedules, long distances by road between the main towns, sudden changes in the opening days and times of museums and historical sites, the obligation to wear hejab (correct and modest dress, either chador or headscarf for women, legs and arms kept covered for men), and frequent checkpoints on the roads are just some of the problems that can occur.

However, every foreign visitor, without exception, is struck by the friendliness and warmth of Iranians throughout this enormous country. In other countries it is sometimes difficult for individuals within a tour group to talk with anyone other than the guide, the driver, or the hotel and shop staff, and some argue that to experience fully a country and a people, one must be an independent traveller. In Iran this is not the case. Indeed, it could be argued that in Iran (as with China until recently), forces conspire against the independent traveller, especially those who don't know the language; the country is just not geared up to this kind of tourism. Everything takes so much longer to sort out, and indeed the visitor is so dependent on Iranians helping that the term 'independent traveller' is almost a misnomer. Group travel in Iran can and does open doors in more senses than one - it cuts down endless queuing and waiting for buses and the like. No Iranian is deterred by numbers; guides and lecturers are often interrupted in their 'spiel' by a crowd asking if the group is American or German, how long are they staying, will they come for tea, do they know David Beckham, how many children do they have, do they like Iran, etc.