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Country Profile: Iran


Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Life expectancy ★★★★

A traditional teahouse in Isfahan.

Patricia White/Alamy

The Western world’s image of Iran primarily as a threat and a progenitor of terrorist outrages has recently been reinforced by the third series of Homeland – a TV drama that is undeniably compelling but which sees the world from the vantage-point of the CIA. Small sense there of the diversity of this country – from the ski slopes in the north to the sandy beaches of the Persian Gulf – or of the appetite for peaceful coexistence among its people.

Women picnicking by the roadside in Shiraz.


On any public holiday the Chaloos Road in Tehran leading to the resorts on the Caspian Sea is always at a standstill, packed with cars full of people in search of fun. Families, rich or poor, are always seemingly equipped for an outing. Iranians could win Olympic medals in picnicking. Public parks are filled with people eating al fresco and it’s even not unusual to see carefree travellers picnicking in a bit of green at the centre of a busy roundabout.

At the other end of the country, Kish Island in the Persian Gulf has it all: sandy beaches, coral-edged clear lagoons, ancient structures that include an underground city, duty-free shopping malls and plush hotels. Prior to 1979, this was the exclusive playground of the rich, with a casino to boot. Gambling is now banned in the Islamic Republic, but the Dariush hotel, complete with columns inspired by the ancient Persian ruins of Persepolis, remains pure Vegas.

In any event, sanctions mean that international tourism to Iran remains untapped. Those sanctions derive from Iran’s status as one of the West’s main bugbears. Before 1979, Iran was seen as something of a strategic plaything of the Great Powers. In 1906, the strategic rivalry of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and Britain saw them dismantle the constitutional government and thwart early Iranian aspirations for democracy. By 1953 Cold War agendas saw the US and Britain unite to overthrow the democratically elected government of Muhammad Mossadegh.

Selling fish in Kermanshah.

Ensie & Matthias

Esteghlal, Azadi, Jomhori-Eslami’, or ‘Independence, freedom, Islamic Republic’, the nation chanted during the revolution of 1979 that instituted the rule of the mullahs, initially under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Before long, Iraq attacked Iran and a war ensued between 1980 and 1988 that led to over a million fatalities. Khomeini’s death in 1989 produced no change in the repressive nature of the clerical regime – he was replaced as Supreme Leader by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has retained firm control ever since, whoever has been elected President.

The re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 saw nationwide protests by those who believed that their votes for the moderate reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi had been stolen. The revolutionary élite, including Ayatollah Khamenei, openly sided with Ahmadinejad. In 2013, a new moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, secured a landslide election victory by almost repeating Mousavi’s promises of economic prosperity, democracy and an end to Iran’s international isolation.

It seems that Ayatollah Khamenei has now been compelled to back what he refused to entertain in 2009: namely, a reformist government that has promised greater freedom and rapprochement with the West. Only time will tell how this will play out, but the early signs offer some degree of hope: Rouhani and US President Obama recently became the first leaders of their countries to speak since 1979 and Rouhani’s government has signed an interim deal that might ultimately satisfy the West’s anxieties about the country’s civil nuclear programme spawning a nuclear-weapons facility.

In terms of wider social and political ambitions for reform, much depends upon progress in these negotiations leading to a loosening of sanctions – and to the economic resurgence that may result.

Fact file

Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of state since 1989; Hassan Rouhani, head of government since 2013.
Economy GNI per capita $4,520 (Turkmenistan $4,110, Canada $45,560).
Monetary unit Rial. The rial lost two-thirds of its value last year.
Main exports Oil exports make up 80% of Iran’s total export earnings but the export of crude oil has shrunk by more than half since the beginning of 2012, and production is currently at its lowest rate for 23 years. Sanctions have cut off Iranian banks from international financial flows.
People 75.6 million. Annual growth rate 1.0%. People per sq km 46 (UK 257).
Health Infant mortality 21 per 1,000 live births (Turkmenistan 75, Canada 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 2,400 (Canada 1 in 5,200). HIV prevalence rate 0.2%. Drug addiction is a major national health issue, with 1.8 million addicts.
Environment Three major environmental challenges facing the country are water stress, desertification and pollution. According to WHO, three of the world’s five most polluted cities are in Iran: Ahwaz, Kermanshah and Sanandaj.
Culture Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Arab 2%, Other 3%.
Religion Shi’a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 9%, other 2%. Other religious minorities have representatives in parliament but the Baha’i face persecution as heretics. Tehran has synagogues and churches but no Sunni mosques are allowed.
Language Farsi/Persian (official) 53%, Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects 18%, Kurdish 10%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 7%, Luri 6%, Other 6%.
Human Development Index 0.742 (Turkmenistan 0.698, Canada 0.911).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Official figures are meaningless when much of the national wealth is held by tax-exempt institutions operating outside the formal economy, but the Ahmadinejad presidency saw the advent of billionaire oligarchs.
Literacy 85% (male 89%, female 81%).
Life expectancy 73 years (Turkmenistan 65, Canada 81).
Freedom Reformists are on the rise, in contrast to the 2009 disputed elections that saw unarmed protesters killed and Stalinist-style show-trials. But many political activists – including the leadership of the Green Movement – remain in detention.
Position of women Women make up more than 60% of university students but there are roughly twice as many unemployed women as men. Rouhani has ordered that the country's morality police cease arresting women seen to be flouting the modesty laws.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. Yet health insurance companies must cover the full cost of sex-change operations, following a special ruling by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Previously reviewed 2004
New Internationalist assessment Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei still has the final say and during Ahmadinejad’s two terms the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fortified its control over economic and political affairs. But for the moment Rouhani is enjoying a honeymoon period. His first-round election victory would not have happened had he not gained over 70% of the vote in two of the country’s poorest provinces: Sistan & Baluchestan, and Kurdistan. Leading dissidents such as Emadeddin Baghi have openly supported the new government.

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