Twice the size of Texas, Iran is 1.65 million sq. km/636,313 sq. mi. It borders Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, Iraq and Turkey.
Extremes of climate and seasons coexist in this land of contrasts. The Mashad wind blows from central Asia during the summer in the eastern zone, making living conditions in the interior inhospitable. By contrast, in the northwest mountainous region, temperatures can plummet to subfreezing with heavy snowfall in winter. However, Iranians living in the more temperate climate of Tehran and along the Caspian coast are insulated from these extreme weather conditions.
Tehran, a sprawling, congested city of about 12 million, is the country's economic hub, to which the presence of foreign businesses, fast food restaurants, and modern architecture attest. Daily life can be challenging under Shi'a (Islamic) law, particularly for women. Political observers note that reform has come slowly to Iran. But Iranians, who are known as cultured, hospitable, and proud of their rich history, are generally warm and welcoming to expatriates.
For centuries, Iran has been a major geopolitical force in the Middle East. It is one of the major producers of oil and natural gas in the region. Known as Persia until 1935, the Islamic Republic of Iran was established under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in 1979, when exiled religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the revolution overthrowing the ruling monarchy.
According to the constitution, the faqih, the Supreme Leader, is the central religious and political authority in Iran. The Supreme Leader's powers are far-reaching, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the supreme judicial authority, among many other duties. The Supreme Leader must be a member of the Shi'a clergy.
There are three branches of government: the executive, judicial, and legislative. The president, who is elected every four years, heads the executive branch. The legislative branch, a unicameral parliament consisting of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis-e Shura-ye Eslami), has 290 representatives who are elected for four-year terms. This legislative body can propose and pass legislation, which must then be approved by the 12-member Council of Guardians (Shura-ye Negahban-e Qanun-e Assasi).
The Council of Guardians comprises six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and the remaining six by the Majlis.
The Assembly of Experts (Majlis-e Khebregan), another influential administrative body, comprises 86 clerics elected to eight-year terms. This conservative body is responsible for the choosing of the Supreme Leader in the event of the present leader's death, or replacing him with another religious leader if required. The Expediency Discernment Council of the System, considered one of the most powerful governing bodies in Iran, advises the Supreme Leader and mediates disputes between legislative branches.
Political parties are now legal. Iran is divided into 30 provinces governed by a provincial authority, headed by a governor.
In 1979, the seizure of 52 hostages for 444 days by militant Iranian students who occupied the American Embassy in Tehran precipitated an international crisis. Subsequently, the United States broke off broke diplomatic relations with Iran, and then president Clinton imposed sanctions on Iran in 1996.
Relations with European nations are strained due to continued intransigence in Iran's nuclear policy and a repressive political climate. Attempts at political reform have been frustrated by powerful, conservative hard-liners committed to established Islamic traditions.
Iran's 2013 election result has the world watching what direction president-elect Hassan Rouhani may take, as he has shown signs of being more conciliatory than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The oil industry, which is part of the state sector, dominates Iran's economy. Oil reserves are estimated to be the third largest in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Canada, and natural gas reserves are second in the world to Russia.
Iran is also rich in mineral resources, including bauxite, coal, copper, salt, sulfur, and uranium.
Iran has nationalized banking and other major industries, including the petroleum, transportation, utilities, and mining sectors. Iran's economy has been characterized as bloated and inefficient.
Despite high oil prices, high unemployment and inflation remain persistent problems. It is estimated that more than half the population is under age 30. The workforce is literate and well-educated; however, many young, educated Iranians have emigrated due to the lack of jobs.
Foreign investors - primarily British, French, Japanese, South Korean, Swedish, and Swiss companies - have concentrated their investments in the oil and gas industries, vehicle production, copper mining, petrochemical, and pharmaceutical industries. Under sanctions, U.S. oil and other companies pulled out of Iran, along with many trained engineers and other professionals. Foreign investment is hindered by unfavorable, bureaucratic restrictions on businesses.