The Islamic Republic of Iran.
About 70 million. Mostly Persian (51 percent), Persian-speaking (58 percent), and Shia Muslim (89 percent). Other ethnic groups include Turkish-speaking, Shia Azerbaijanis (24 percent) and Kurdish-speaking, Sunni Kurds (9 percent). About two-thirds of Iranians are under age 30 which means they were born after the Islamic Revolution (for more on the Revolution, see page 22). About 60 percent of Iranians live in big cities. Class distinctions between rich and poor were significantly leveled off in the Revolution. The education level is high (80 percent literacy), but the educated often emigrate.
At 636,000 square miles, Iran is about the size of Alaska or Mexico.
The west is mountainous and wet (67 inches of rain annually, compared to Seattle's 36 inches), with some snow in winter. The east is desert, dry and hot. Sitting in the middle of the Islamic world, Iran guards vital shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz (the bottleneck opening into the Persian Gulf).
Tehran is a city of 14 million people (including the metropolitan area)—home to one in five Iranians. Esfahan, with 3.5 million (metro area), is Iran's "second city."
There are about 10,000 rial in a dollar. A toman is ten rial. A portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini graces every bill.
Iran—a traditional agrarian economy that got yanked into 20th-century industrialization by oil and the Shah—is still only semi-developed. It's a mix of state control and free market. The GDP is $852 billion (like Australia's), and per capita income is around $12,000. Iran controls the world's third-largest oil reserves (9 percent of the global supply), which is used to subsidize food and energy costs and provide a strong measure of social security to all Iranians. While the constitution guarantees Iranians health-care, retirement, unemployment, and so on, Iranians don't rank very high in healthcare standards, life expectancy, and other quality-of-life measures. Aside from oil, Iran produces food (grains, dates, pistachios), cars, construction materials, and carpets—most of which is kept in the country (the economy—three decades into an American embargo—is geared toward self-sufficiency, not trade).
The Shah of Iran was brought to power by the U.S. in 1953, and was forced to flee Iran in 1979. President Jimmy Carter's decision that fall to allow the Shah to visit the U.S. for medical treatment triggered the Iran hostage crisis a few weeks later.
The constitution is a "Shia democracy." It's ruled by elected officials, who must follow Shia Muslim law. While the constitution is based on Islamic law, both clerics and laymen can hold office. There are several overlapping branches of government, providing a confusing set of checks and balances: The executive branch is led by the "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the highest power and commander-in-chief. He appoints judges, generals, state media executives, and half of the Council of Guardians (who monitor him). He is not elected, but appointed (and dismissed) by the Assembly of Experts (86 elected clerics). The President (currently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) executes the laws and proposes new laws, but has less power to formulate foreign policy. He's elected by popular vote for a four-year term (next elections are in mid-2009), but can be dismissed by the Supreme Leader.
Iran has a standing army of 500,000 troops, composed of two forces: the national military and the Revolutionary Guard (for "protecting the Revolution"). They could mobilize up to one million. The military budget is 3.3 percent of GDP (a bit less than the US's).
Much of the media is state-run, the rest is state-controlled, and firebrands are shut down or jailed. But people have access to foreign TV stations via satellite dishes, which, while officially prohibited, are largely tolerated. The Internet is extremely popular, especially among the young. It's censored (by service providers) only for pornography and anti-Islamic propaganda. There are millions of Internet users, and blogging is extremely popular; by some measures, Iran is the fourth-largest country of bloggers. Even President Ahmadinejad has a blog (www.ahmadinejad.ir).
The flag has three horizontal stripes—green (representing vigor), white (peace), and red (courage). The stripes are separated by stylized Kufic script reading "God is Great," and in the center of the white stripe is an emblem packed with Muslim symbolism, including the Quran and the five pillars of Islam.