Iran, also the Islamic Republic of Iran, colloquially and before 1935 on an international level (exonymous) also Persia, is a country in the Near East. It is bordered to the north by the Caspian Sea and to the south by the Persian Gulf. With around 85 million inhabitants (as of 2021) and an area of 1,648,195 square kilometers, Iran is one of the 20 most populous and largest countries in the world. The capital, largest city and economic-cultural center is Tehran, other megacities are Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, Karaj, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Qom. Iran has called itself the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
|Motto: استقلال آزادی جمهوری اسلامی Esteqlāl, Āzādi, Dschomhuri-ye Eslāmi (Persian for “independence, freedom, Islamic Republic”)|
|Form of government||presidential republic (Islamic Republic of)|
|Head of state||de jure Imam Muhammad al-Mahdī de facto (deputy) leader Ali Khamenei|
|Head of government||President Ebrahim Raisi|
|State religion||Islam (Twelver Shia)|
|Population||84.0 million (18th) (2020; estimate)|
|Population density||52 inhabitants per km²|
|Demographic development||+ 1.2% (estimate for 2021)|
|Gross domestic product:
|Human Development Index||0.774 (76th) (2021)|
|Currency||Rial (IRR, Toman)|
|National anthem||Ey Iran (de facto) Sorud-e Melli-ye Dschomhuri-ye Eslami-e Iran (de jure)|
|ISO 3166||IR, IRN, 364|
Iran is ruled in a strictly authoritarian manner. Regular elections are held, but criticized as undemocratic due to the extensive containment by those in power and their possibility of manipulation, as well as the insignificant position of parliament and the president. The regime controls almost every aspect of daily life in terms of religious and ideological conformity, permeating the lives of all citizens and curtailing individual freedom. Overall, there are many serious violations of human rights. Since the Islamic Revolution, good relations with Western states have turned into open hostility, which is firmly anchored in the state ideology, especially with regard to the formerly friendly USA and Israel. Iran is largely isolated in foreign policy and at the same time a regional power in the Middle East.
Due to its mineral resources, especially the largest natural gas and the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, Iran has a high influence on the supply of fossil fuels to the world. Apart from that, the Iranian economy has long been in deep crisis, partly due to the high proportion of inefficient state-owned enterprises, corruption and sanctions in the wake of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.
Geography of Iran
Iran consists largely of high mountains and dry desert-like basins. Its location between the Caspian Sea and the Strait of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf makes it an area of high geostrategic importance with a long history dating back to ancient times.
Iran borders seven countries: Iraq (border length 1609 kilometers) to the west and northwest, Turkey (511 kilometers), Azerbaijan (800 kilometers) and Armenia (48 kilometers), Turkmenistan (1205 kilometers) to the northeast and east, and Afghanistan (945 kilometers) and Pakistan (978 kilometers) to the east and southeast.
The northernmost point of Iran is located at 39° 47′ north latitude and is located at about the same latitude as the Spanish Palma de Mallorca. The southernmost point is located at 25° north latitude and is located approximately at the same latitude as Doha in Qatar. The westernmost point is located at 44° 02′ east longitude and thus about the same longitude as the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The easternmost point is located at 63° 20′ east longitude and thus approximately the same longitude as Herat in Afghanistan.
About two-thirds of Iran’s territory is occupied by the highlands of Iran, which in turn disintegrates into a number of different basins. The extent of these basins ranges from a few square kilometers large Bolsonen to the huge basins of the Lut (130,000 km²) and the Great Kawir (200,000 km²). The basins are, depending on their tectonic history, between 200 m and 1500 m above sea level. The pools are separated from each other by thresholds of different heights; some continue in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The highlands are bordered in the west, southwest and south by the mountains Zagros and Kuhrud. These huge folded mountains consist of several mountain ranges running side by side in a northwest-southeast direction, between which are steep valleys. Its highest peaks are Zard Kuh (4571 m) and Kuh-e-Dinar (4432 m). The Zagros has a maximum width of 250 km and a length of 1800 km (including Makran chains) and is one of the largest closed-folded mountain massifs in the world. The north of Iran (northern Iran) is characterized by several mountain ranges.
In the northwest dominates the Armenian-Azerbaijani mountain node with the large basin of Lake Urmia. This is followed by the 1200 km long Elburz-Kopet-Dag system, which stretches from the Talysh Mountains to the Turkmen border. Here is the highest mountain of the Middle East with 5670 m, the resting, glacier-covered volcano Damavand, as well as the 4840 m high Alam cow. The Kopet-Dag is a mighty folded mountain range on the border with today’s Turkmenistan. The almost 6000 m difference in altitude from the Caspian Sea to Damavand, only 60 km away, is one of the steepest climbs in the world.
There are only a few lowlanders in Iran. On the southern shore of the Caspian Sea is 600 km long, only a few kilometers wide of coastal lowlands. To the east is the Turkmen Steppe, to the west the Mugan Steppe. In the southwest (or southwestern Iran, especially the province of Khuzestan or the region of Khuzestan bordering Iraq in the west and the Persian Gulf in the south), a small part of the Mesopotamian lowlands belongs to Iran, from where a narrow, flat, barren coastal fringe runs along the Persian Gulf.
Iran is located on the Alpine mountain belt, which includes above all the Zagros Mountains. The Iranian highlands, on the other hand, consist of a Precambrian shield, which is considered an extension of the Arabian Shield. From the point of view of plate tectonics, the area of present-day Iran was once part of Gondwanaland, which moved to its present position in the late Cretaceous.
The collision with the Arabian plate has led to strong volcanic and seismic activity, during which mountain building took place. This explains why the mountains of Iran sometimes have strong features of the Precambrian mountains, and why there are no mountains that were formed between Precambrian and Triassic. The sediments in central Iran (central plateau extending from Zanjan to Isfahan, a desert and steppe area on whose edges important settlements are located) are on average 3000 to 4000 meters thick, of terrestrial origin and homogeneous. These sediments are partly deposited directly on the Precambrian rock, partly on land areas eroded in the Triassic.
The continuous mountain building leads to frequent earthquakes in Iran. Especially the 1600 km long and 250 km wide Zagros fault line is seismically extremely active. On average, stronger earthquakes occur here once a year, but they usually do not assume catastrophic proportions. The areas frequently affected by strong earthquakes are located along the so-called “Iranian Crescent”, a region along the northern and eastern borders of the country, from West Azerbaijan to Makran. There are numerous smaller faults and faults here, some of which are geologically young and characterized by irregular earthquakes. Periods with a high number of earthquakes alternate with long periods of rest. The already difficult prediction of earthquakes is therefore not possible.
The most vulnerable area of the country is the region around Tabriz, where there have already been several particularly severe earthquakes, most recently in 2012. There are signs that the quake activity alternates between northwest and east and that currently the northwest is experiencing a phase of relative calm, but the earthquake activity in the east is at its peak. The last devastating earthquakes with thousands of fatalities occurred in Tabas (1978), Rasht (1990) and Bam (2003).
The highlands of Iran are dominated by gravel and stone deserts with sterile desert soils, sand dunes and saline soils. In the end basins there are usually salt or gypsum crusts, serir or hamada surfaces can be found over a large area, in which the fine material is blown out due to the freedom from vegetation. The humus content of these soils is usually less than 0.5%.
Between the mountain ranges, several soil types unite to form catenes, the valley floors usually have filling material from alluvial soils and brown steppe soils, thus allowing agricultural use. The Caspian lowlands are dominated by alluvial soils, brown forest and steppe soils, regosols and lithosols; loess soils occur in the Turkmen steppe.
In the north, Iran borders on a length of 756 kilometers on the Caspian Sea, the largest lake on earth, at the same time a terminal lake. To the south and southwest, the country has 2045 kilometers of coastline to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, separated from each other by the Strait of Hormuz. In this strait near Bandar Abbas, which is important for the transport of oil, the island of Qeshm and the eponymous small island of Hormuz lie near the Iranian coast. The distance from the Iranian mainland to the Arabian Peninsula (Oman and United Arab Emirates) is barely 50 kilometers.
There are about 1300 short, mostly straight rivers that drain the northern flanks of the Talysh and Alborz mountains and flow into the Caspian Sea. The largest are Sefid Rud, Tschalus, Gorgan and Atrak. The main rivers flowing from Zagros towards the Persian Gulf are Karun, Karche, Dec and Shatt al-Arab. They carry the most water in spring and can cause devastating flooding in their lower reaches. In summer, the water flow is lowest with only a tenth of that of spring.
Two-thirds of the territory is not drained towards a sea. In the arid basins of the Iranian highlands, hardly any river carries water all year round, like the Zayandeh Rud. After rainfall, the water flows through rivers or streams from the mountains and seeps there mostly in gravel fields, rarely it flows into lakes, which are then often salty. Such lakes include Lake Urmia, Lake Hamun, Lake Bakhtegan and Lake Maharlu.
The gravel, limestone and sandstone layers in the subsoil often contain groundwater. Therefore, there are numerous springs in the mountainous parts of the country, partly artesian sources. Since 800 BC, people have been using qanats to make use of groundwater. In the past, all human settlements in the arid area were supplied with water with the help of qanats. Since the 1950s, wells and dams have been increasingly built, with the sinking of lake and groundwater levels, the depletion of water supplies and the sedimentation of reservoirs being the main problems for the water supply of the future. The focus of environmentalists is above all the highly saline Lake Urmia, which temporarily serves as a habitat for pelicans and flamingos, but is threatened by progressive dehydration. The Iranian government has therefore released $900 million to save the lake.
The climate in Iran in winter is influenced by the interaction of cold air currents from Central Asia and Siberia on the one hand and warm and humid Mediterranean air masses on the other. In summer, there is a constant northeasterly trade wind blowing from dry, hot Central Asia. Due to these weather conditions and the geographical conditions of the country, the climate varies greatly from region to region.
The mountainous regions of northern Iran (with the provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea) and western Iran (consisting of the provinces of Kurdistan and Luristan) receive relatively much rainfall due to humid westerly currents in late autumn and winter, especially on the western slopes of the Zagros. With increasing altitude, humidity increases here. The altitude and the relative distance from the sea cause very cold winters and great summer heat. The Iranian highlands lie in the rain shadow of the mountains, so it is dry to arid everywhere with low humidity and large fluctuations in annual rainfall.
The annual average temperatures are significantly higher than in the mountain regions, but also have a large amplitude: extreme heat in summer, where values above 45 °C are not uncommon, are sometimes offset by severe frosts in winter. Along the Gulf Coast and in Khuzestan there is never frost. Winters are mild, summers very hot and often humid, humidity is very high all year round, but precipitation is extremely rare. The climate of the Caspian coastal lowlands is fundamentally different from the rest of the country. The winds blowing from the northeast charge up with moisture over the Caspian Sea, accumulate on the mountain massifs and rain there. Thus, this region is humid all year round with sometimes very high humidity. The climate is mild in winter and warm in summer, the extreme temperatures are significantly reduced compared to the highlands.
The meteorological peculiarities include the northwesterly wind of the 120 days, which blows with great constancy between May and September, which is extremely unfavorable for humans and vegetation in the east and southeast of Iran due to its high dust content. In the highlands, where local differences in air pressure can be significant due to a lack of vegetation, dust trombs are regularly observed.
Flora and vegetation
Iran’s natural vegetation has been largely destroyed by centuries of human use. It can be divided into four zones depending on geographical factors. The deserts and semi-deserts, where the soil is not completely sterile, have a plant dress that usually covers less than a third of the soil. It consists of wormwood shrubs, Rheum ribes, various tragacanth species, Dorema ammoniacum, the coveted fodder plant Prosopis farcta and the woody plant Zygophyllum atriplicoides. Grasses are rarely found due to overgrazing, the natural flora includes feather grasses and Stipagrostis species.
In the dry forests of the country, which cover the Zagros and other mountains, there are various oaks, maples, hornbeams, cold-resistant junipers, ash, paliurus, oleanders and myrtles; among the shrubs dominate pomegranate bushes, hawthorns, dwarf medlars, Prunus species and rose plants. With increasing drought, especially on the mountain slopes in the highlands of Iran, the dry forests merge into very light mountain almond-pistachio tree meadows, in which also Ziziphus, acacia and succulent species specially adapted to drought occur. For Balochistan the dwarf fan palm is typical; the soil in the dry forests is again covered by tragacanth and wormwood plants.
Between the Alborz Mountains and the Caspian Sea are the only humid forests of Iran, they are biogeographically referred to as the Hyrcan Forest or Caspian Forest. They are extremely species-rich and tend to be impenetrable because of their creepers. The flora of these forests includes trees such as chestnut-leaved oak, iron tree, elm, beech, maples, boxwood or blackberries; many of the species are endemic to the region; the primeval forests of the oriental beech have survived in this extent only in the extreme east of the beech area.
Cypress forests can also be found in special locations. The Hyrcan forests are a hotspot in the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) process. The Parrotia project of Iran, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and the Michael Succow Foundation is intended to lead to the recognition of the Hyrcan forests as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and to a sustainable protection and use concept.
Special forms of vegetation can be found, for example, in the end basins, where halophytic marsh and marsh plants thrive. Along the rivers, you will find some gallery forest of willows and poplars. In the sand dunes there are stands of saxaul, Calligonum species and tamarisk plants.
The wildlife in Iran is very diverse and reflects the different vegetation zones and the geographical location of the country. The large animal fauna includes steppe and semi-desert inhabitants such as gazelles and half-asses as well as wild sheep and wild goats as typical mountain animals, but also porcupines. Red deer can be found in the country’s forests. Some brown bears, cheetahs, lynxes and leopards still live in remote areas, while the Caspian tiger and the Persian lion have been exterminated in Iran. Hyenas, jackals and foxes perform an important natural hygiene function.
On the south coast of the Caspian Sea, there are lagoons with a very high variety of bird species, in the interior pheasants, chukar chickens and steppe chickens occur, which are also hunted. Iranian raptor species include golden eagles, hawks, bearded vultures and griffon vultures. The only bird species endemic to Iran is the Pleske jay. Fishing along the coast of the Caspian Sea is of great economic importance, mainly fishing for sturgeon for caviar production, mullet and white fish. Trout are also fished in the cold mountain streams of Albors and Zagros. An amazing phenomenon is the natural occurrence of small fish in the qanats of desert areas.
Iran has several protected areas, such as the Arasbaran Protected Area, Touran Conservation Area, Golestan National Park and Kawir National Park. On an island in Lake Urmia, a population of the Mesopotamian fallow deer, which had become extinct in the wild, was settled.
Already in ancient times, there were urban settlements in today’s Iran. However, of many of the early cities, such as Susa, Bishapur or the residential cities of Pasargadae and Persepolis, only ruins have been preserved, others have disappeared without a trace. It is typical for Iran that the cities outside the regions with sufficient rainfall along the trade routes have emerged, for example along the line Zanjan – Qazvin – Tehran – Semnan – Dāmghān – Mashhad – Herat, or Yazd – Kerman.
In the south of the country and in south-eastern Iran (especially the provinces of Kerman, Baluchistan and Sistan, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, the trend towards urban development was least pronounced. For the choice of location, the proximity to water sources, which could be made usable with the help of qanats, was always decisive. In places that would have been easy to defend, the Iranians almost never built. The typical Persian city in Islamic times had the bazaar and the Friday mosque as its center, so there were caravanserais and residential quarters; all this was enclosed by city walls and fortified gates.
Urbanization began to accelerate in Tehran as early as the 19th century and in the rest of the country in the 1920s, with Tehran and the cities around Tehran seeing the greatest growth. The city walls were moved or demolished, wide streets and new residential quarters were built. The central specification of these transformations gave Iranian cities a relatively uniform cityscape. The new neighborhoods and newly built infrastructure generally followed Western concepts of urban planning and architecture. The contrast between rich and poor was now also reflected in the cityscape, which had not previously been a feature of Persian cities. Until the 1970s, the historic city centers deteriorated, only the high income from oil production and the increased awareness of the importance of the architectural cultural heritage led from 1973 to renovation programs. After the Islamic Revolution, cities continued to grow, but recently this trend has weakened.
The 2011 census showed that there are eight megacities in Iran: Tehran (8,154,051 inhabitants), Mashhad (2,766,258), Isfahan (1,756,126), Karaj (1,614,626), Tabriz (1,494,998), Shiraz (1,460,665), Ahwaz (1,112,021) and Qom (1,074,036). Other important cities can be found in the list of major cities in Iran.
Iran’s accelerated industrialization has led to widespread air pollution in Tehran and other major cities. Another consequence is the enormous increase in energy consumption. Iran is one of the most energy-intensive countries in the world. This is due, on the one hand, to the lack of advanced infrastructures and state subsidies for energy sources and, on the other hand, to the inefficient consumption behavior of the population.
As the Iranian Ministry of Health announced in 2010, air pollution is now so severe that the proportion of people who go to hospital emergency rooms with severe breathing difficulties has increased by 19%. In the first nine months of 2010, at least 3600 people died in Tehran alone as a result of air pollution.
The then Minister of Health, Marsieh Wahid Dastjerdi, also reported that the Iranian government had no other solutions other than the closure of organizations and schools to address the environmental problems of the major cities in today’s Iran. In contrast to the Ministry of Health, the Iranian government seems to have fewer concerns. It is constantly promoting car sales, also due to its own shares in the automotive industry, with more than 3.5 million vehicles now dominating the streets in Tehran alone.
Iran’s nuclear program is also causing serious problems in the areas surrounding its nuclear facilities, including water sources, flora and fauna. In addition, the regional situation of several nuclear installations is very worrying. For example, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which was launched in November 2010, is located in an area that is particularly seismically threatened. This was built exactly on the intersection of three plates (Arab, African and Eurasian). Experts argue that an earthquake on and in the building could leave such damage as the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Kuwaiti geologist Jasem al-Awadi has warned that the radiating leaks would pose a serious threat to the Gulf region, particularly Kuwait, which is 276 km from the Bushehr plant.
Iran sent a delegation led by then-President Ahmadinejad to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. However, Iran’s participation in the summit faced criticism that Iran did not want to address its environmental problems.
Due to the sanctions against the country, the ideological goal of self-sufficiency is maintained. Most of the available water in dry land is used in inefficient agriculture. Awareness of the catastrophic effects of river diversions began to increase and activists were allowed to criticize the government on television in 2017. On the other hand, there is a lobby of construction companies that built such works. Kaveh Madani, deputy head of Iran’s environment department for a few months from September 2017 to January 2018, coined the term “Iranian water bankruptcy”.
In addition to ethnic Persians, Iran is home to numerous other peoples who have their own linguistic and cultural identities. The official language is Persian. The largest ethnic groups after the Persians are Azerbaijanis, Kurds and Lurs. The peoples of Iran have long traditions in handicrafts, architecture, music, calligraphy and poetry; the country is home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Iran today has a population roughly equivalent to that of Germany, but spread over a territory four and a half times as large. The average population density is 46 inhabitants/km². However, the distribution of inhabitants is very uneven. The areas that are preferred in terms of their environmental conditions have a very high population density, such as the provinces on the Caspian Sea (provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran with 177 and 129 inhabitants/km² respectively) or along the Alborz (provinces of Tehran and Alborz with 890 and 471 inhabitants/km² respectively). In contrast, the desert-dominated areas are extremely sparsely populated or not populated at all: in Semnan, South Khorasan and Yazd live only 6, 7 and 8 people respectively per square kilometer.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Iran had fewer than 12 million inhabitants, of which 25 to 30% lived nomadically and only 15% in cities. In 1976, Iran had 33.7 million inhabitants and in 2016, according to the census, just under 80 million. In 1956, about a third of the entire population lived in cities, in 1976 almost half and in 2020 three-quarters.
The main reason for the strong population growth was the significant increase in life expectancy: at the beginning of the 20th century, people lived to an average of almost 30 years and child mortality was 50%. The life expectancy of Iranians from birth in 2020 was 76.9 years (women: 78.1, men: 75.8). At the same time, the birth rate remained at a very high level for a long time: in 1956 at an average of 7.9 children per woman, and in 1986 at 6.39 children per woman.
It has fallen sharply since then. The number of births per woman in 2020 was statistically 2.1. Only post-World War II Japan experienced a faster decline in fertility rates. Population growth has slowed; in 2020 it was 1.3%. This population development results in an average still very young, but steadily aging Iranian population. While the median age of the population was 18.6 years in 1975, it was 32 years in 2020. Since 1976, the number of households has increased disproportionately: the average size of an Iranian household fell from five people in 1976 to 3.5 people in 2011.
It is estimated that today about four million people of Iranian origin live outside Iran; in 2010, about 1.3 million Iranian nationals, about 1.7% of the population, lived outside the country. The most important destinations for Iranian emigrants include the USA, Canada, the northern EU states, Israel and the rich countries bordering the Persian Gulf such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Since there are many well-educated young people among the emigrants, the losses due to emigration for the Iranian economy seem massive: Around 50 billion US dollars are said to be lost annually due to the brain drain. The funds returned to Iran from exile annually amount to about $1.1 billion. The home-bound Iranian diaspora is also an important part of the opinion of the Iranian population via Persian-language radio and television stations as well as blogs.
Iran is also a target of immigration. The 2011 census showed that there were almost 1.7 million foreigners living in Iran, almost half of whom had come as refugees. The majority of foreigners (1.45 million) came from Afghanistan. Afghans have been migrating to Iran for many decades, on the one hand as migrant workers, but increasingly as refugees since the Soviet invasion and subsequent wars. Since many Afghans speak a variant of Persian and also have a very similar cultural and religious background, it is relatively easy for them to integrate in Iran and pretend to be Persian in censuses. Thus, the number of Afghans could be significantly higher. Nevertheless, Afghans face discrimination in Iran. In addition to the Afghans, about 50,000 Iraqis and 17,000 Pakistanis live in Iran. Other countries of origin of immigrants are Azerbaijan, Turkey, Armenia and Turkmenistan.
Ethnicities in Iran
Iran’s mediating position between Central Asia, Asia Minor, Arabia and the Indian subcontinent has led to a high level of ethnic diversity. Indo-European groups probably migrated from the north into the Iranian highlands and reached Zagros at the beginning of the first millennium BC. The Medes were the first Iranian people to establish a stable empire on Iranian territory. After the conquest of Iran by the Arabs, Arabs settled all over the country and mixed with the local population; many Iranian families can prove their Arab origins by their names. In the 11th century, Turkish tribes began to immigrate to today’s Iran in ever-new spurts. They shaped large swathes of Iran until the beginning of the 20th century, especially with their nomadic way of life; they eventually settled mainly in the northwest of the country, where the climate is most suitable for nomadic cattle breeding.
People of Indo-European origin dominate the country today numerically. Between 60 and 65% of the population are Persians; the Iranian highlands are inhabited almost exclusively by Persians. West of the Persian settlement area live Kurds, who make up 7 to 10% of the total population, speak a language related to Persian and mostly adhere to Sunni Islam, and the predominantly Shiite Lurs (6% of the population of Iran). East Iran is home to the Sunni Baluchis, who make up 2% of the population. Smaller Indo-European peoples are, for example, the Bakhtiars.
The Turkic-speaking peoples include above all the mostly Shiite Azerbaijanis (Azeri), who make up 17 to 21% of the population of Iran and live in the northwest of the country. The mostly Sunni Turkmen inhabit the northern steppe areas, and there are also numerous islands of Turkish population groups scattered throughout the country, including the Kashgai.
The Arabs of Iran live in the southwest on the border with Iraq; they account for about 2 to 3% of the total population. Iran is also home to a large number of very small ethnic groups that settled in Iran before the arrival of the Persians (like the Assyrians) or came into the country in several waves, sometimes centuries ago (like the Armenians).
The available figures on the ethnic composition of the Iranian population vary greatly because no data are collected and published by the Iranian state. Last but not least, mixed marriages, which are now part of normality, lead to a certain blurring of ethnic boundaries. It can be assumed that the assignment to original ethnicities is not always possible linguistically, since large parts of the minorities are now assimilated to the Persian majority culture, especially linguistically.
In the multi-ethnic state of Iran, different languages are spoken. The official language is Persian. It belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and thus has no common roots with Arabic, although Persian has taken numerous loanwords from Arabic and is written with an alphabet derived from Arabic. Persian is spoken as a first language by just over half of Iranians (about 53%); on the Iranian plateau almost all inhabitants speak Persian. As a mother tongue or second language, 85% of Iranians spoke Persian in 2000, another 5% could understand it, and 10% did not speak it at all. As late as the 1930s, each ethnic group could only speak its own language; Recruits drafted into the military therefore first had to learn Persian for half a year.
The part of the population whose mother tongue is not Persian is divided into several language groups, which lives mainly in the periphery, along the borders. Minority languages include those related to Persian such as Kurdish, Mazandaran, Gilaki, Pashto, Luric, Bakhtiary, Baloch and Talian; in total, about 70% of Iranians speak an Indo-Iranian language. Depending on the source, Turkic languages are spoken by about 18 to 27% of Iranians, especially in the northwest of the country and in northeastern Iran (with the largest province of Khorasan); these include Azerbaijani, but also Turkmen, Kashgai, Khorasan Turkish and Afjar.
The Arabic language is spoken by about 2% of the population in Iran. As the language of the Koran, however, it is learned by all children at school. Since multilingualism is a matter of course among Iranians today, there are very divergent figures for the exact distribution of speakers among the many different languages. Persian dialects spoken in Iran include Bandari and Sistani as well as Chuzi (in the southern Iranian province of Fars). Dardic dialects such as Kohestani are also spoken.
The Persian language is defined in the Iranian constitution as the sole official and educational language. However, it is allowed to teach minority languages in schools alongside Persian. English is the second foreign language in schools after Arabic.
Despite modernization and 50 years of secularization under the Pahlavi, Iran is now a state where religion permeates almost every aspect of social life. The 2011 census found that 99.4% of Iran’s citizens are Muslims. In 2006, it was estimated that 89% to 95% of Iranians identify with the state religion of Twelver Shia and the remaining 4% to 10% with Sunni Islam. Although Iran’s Shiites are prohibited by Iran’s constitution from converting to Christianity, conversions do occasionally occur. Conversion to Sunni Islam can also be punished by death under Iranian law.
Shiitism distinguishes Iran most strongly from its neighbors. The basic contents such as the belief in a single, almighty and eternal God and in Muhammad as the last of the prophets whom God sent to mankind to deliver his message are identical among Shiites and Sunnis. The fundamental difference between these two streams of Islam lies in the question of who is legitimized to lead the Islamic community. The Shiites recognize only direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad as legitimate leaders and refer to them as imams. There were a total of twelve imams.
The central belief of Twelver Shia is the hidden twelfth Imam, who would one day return to earth, spread Islam throughout the world, and usher in an era that precedes the end of the world. The imams and their descendants are highly revered by the Shiites. Around the graves of these individuals and their relatives, shrines were built, of which there are more than a thousand in Iran. The more important of these sanctuaries, such as the Imam Reza shrine or the shrine of Fatima Masuma, are the destination of pilgrimages; a practice rejected by the Sunnis.
Another peculiarity of the Shiite confession is the permission called Taghiyeh to conceal one’s faith and neglect religious duties if the believer would otherwise be in danger. The Sunni confession is particularly widespread among ethnic groups living in the border areas with neighboring countries, such as the Kurds, Turkmen or Baluchis. The Shiite leadership does not regard Iran’s Sunnis as a minority, but as Muslims who have recognized the Shiites’ claim to leadership, which means that only Shiite-run mosques are available in Shia-majority areas. Old religions such as the Elamite religion are no longer of importance today.
Religious minorities in Iran today comprise only very small groups, but they are of great importance from a historical and cultural point of view. The oldest known Iranian religion is Zoroastrianism. It was founded between 1200 and 700 BC by Zarathustra; Varieties of Zoroastrianism were considered the state religion among the Sassanids and Parthians.
Above all, monotheism and religious dualism (heaven and hell, God and devil), which were innovative for the time, influenced religions that emerged later. Some Iranian festivals that are still celebrated today contain Zoroastrian elements, some in syncretic form. The constitution recognizes Zoroastrians as a religious minority; in the 2011 census, more than 25,000 people identified themselves as Zoroastrians. Their centers are in Yazd and Kerman, where sacred flames still burn in the fire temples.
Jews have lived in today’s Iran since antiquity, conversely, Iran has an important place in Jewish history, because King Cyrus II made the return of Jewish populations from Babylonian exile possible. The Jews have been assimilated over time in such a way that they differ from other Iranians only in their religion. The Jewish community, recognized as a religious minority in Iran, which had about 80,000 members before 1979, has shrunk sharply since the Islamic Revolution to about 10,000 members. This is largely due to the Iranian government’s anti-Zionist policies, which easily suspect Iranian Jews of being Israeli spies.
Christianity in Iran also has a long history; before the Islamization of Iran, many Nestorians immigrated to what is now Iran. Today there are about 60,000 Assyrian Christians living in Iran and the descendants of the approximately 300,000 Armenian Christians who were brought into the country under the Safavids; its center is still in Isfahan. There are also Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and other Christian communities and churches.
Articles 13 and 14 of the Iranian constitution recognize Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as religious minorities. They stipulate that the Iranian state must treat them fairly and protect their beliefs, rites and ceremonies. Religious minorities elect their own deputies in parliamentary elections, for whom a minimum number of parliamentary seats is reserved. However, these religious communities are not allowed to undertake any activities against Islam or the Islamic Republic. For example, they must observe the dress code in public and are not allowed to recruit members among Muslims.
Muslims in Iran face the death penalty for apostasy. In practice, all members of religious minorities are exposed to subtle forms of discrimination, such as in the choice of job in the state-dominated economy, in inheritance law or witness testimony. Even higher offices such as ministers, state secretaries, judges or teachers at regular schools are closed to them.
The largest non-Muslim religion in Iran is Baha’is. It emerged in the middle of the 19th century out of Shiite Islam, when a donor figure (the Bab) first described himself as the gateway to the twelfth Imam and later as the Twelfth Imam himself, developed a lively missionary activity with several followers such as Qurrat al-Ain and declared Islamic laws abolished. Bahāʾullāh later formed Bahá’íism from Babism, which is now internationally represented. Since its inception, this religion has been regarded as heresy and fought accordingly in many Islamic countries. The persecution intensified in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Baha’is is officially banned in Iran, so its approximately 300,000 followers practice their religion underground because professing Baha’is are excluded from higher education or work with the state; they also risk arrest and execution.
In his essay The Islamic State, Ruhollah Khomeini formulated the improvement of the living conditions of the poor population and the elimination of social inequality as goals of an Islamic social order:
“No one cares about the poor and barefoot […] Islam solves the problem of poverty. This problem is at the top of his program […]. According to the principles of Islam, the lives of the poor, the helpless, must first be improved”.
93% of Iran’s population receives direct payments of US$40 per month since the subsidy reforms reduced direct subsidies for staple foods and fuel. In addition to the support programs of religious foundations, the State maintains 28 organizations for social welfare, social security and assistance programs. The basis is the Social Security Act. The Social Security Organisation under the Ministry provides social insurance in the form of unemployment benefits, pensions, maternity benefits, sickness benefits and health services (2. Health care providers in the country, for pensioners, unemployed, social insured). In 2011, the World Bank attested to the IRI’s relatively high social indicators compared to regional standards, due to government efforts to increase access to education and health care.
Despite these efforts, major problems with poverty remain. According to an official statistical survey, between 44.5 and 55% of the urban population lived below the poverty line in 2011. The scientists also criticized manipulation in the publication of poverty statistics. According to official statistics, there are 2.5 million street children in Iran who have only recently come to the attention of state charities.
Iran is home to the second largest refugee population in the world (mostly from Afghanistan). In helping refugees who do not benefit from other state social benefits, the UNHCR cooperates with state charities and the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
Over the past 30 years, the educational level of the Iranian population has improved significantly, despite the turmoil the education system faced in the years following the Islamic Revolution. In the country, the average length of school attendance for people aged 25 and over increased from 4.2 years in 1990 to 8.5 years in 2015. The current educational expectation is already 14.8 years. Women have been able to participate more than men in the improvements. Specifically, in the 2006 census, the illiteracy rate of all citizens over 6 years of age was 14%, whereas in 1976 just under half of men and only a third of women could read and write. Illiteracy in the rural population has fallen from 75% in 1976 to 22% in 2006. By 2020, the illiteracy rate in Iran was just under 11%.
The proportion of boys in primary and secondary schools is only marginally higher than that of girls; in higher education, young women accounted for about 60% of students in 2006. As a result, there is no longer a gender gap in education among young income groups. Especially in science or mathematics, the proportion of women among students in Iran is very high by international standards.
Although the grades of female students are usually better than those of male students, only about one-fifth of academically educated women work after graduation. In 2012, the Ahmadinejad government introduced quotas of a maximum of 50% women or less for some fields of study. The United Nations criticized this practice, which led to a decline in the proportion of women from 62% in 2007-2008 to 48.2% in 2012-2013. These provisions were repealed by the Rouhani government. In 2015, the proportion of women among science and mathematics students in Iran was 65%, while it is much lower in Europe.
Iran’s education system today consists of several levels:
- a non-compulsory one-year nursery school for all children aged five
- the five-year primary school for all children from the age of six
- this is followed by a three-year secondary school, in which the pupil’s further education path is determined; after it, compulsory schooling also ends.
- the secondary school, which lasts three years, is usually not free and is divided into several specializations
- higher education at universities, teacher training institutes and polytechnics, of which there are state and private institutions. The prerequisite for access to higher education is the completion of secondary school, participation in a one-year preparatory course and passing the nationwide university entrance examination.
In addition to the state schools, religious schools are attached to numerous mosques. The lavish budgets allocated by the government to religious schools are blamed for the lack of money in state schools and the associated low quality of teaching, as well as for the low teachers’ salaries. According to Salehi-Isfahani, Iran’s education system is also focused on obtaining diplomas and not on teaching productive skills. This and the rigid labor market cause high macroeconomic inefficiencies, not least due to the high unemployment among young people.
Iran is a country where extramarital sex (zinā) is punishable by death and conservative moral standards are very important. Knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV or contraception is often only imparted after marriage. As a result, knowledge of the ways in which sexually transmitted diseases spread is extremely poor. As recently as 1997, the Iranian government denied the existence of an HIV problem in the country. For 2004, the number of HIV-positive Iranians was estimated at 10,000 to 61,000, for 2014 at 51,000 to 110,000 people. The lack of knowledge about contraceptives, their high price and their lack of acceptance by the population lead to a high number of unauthorized or unwanted pregnancies that are terminated in illegal clinics. Even more frequently, the affected women use dangerous substances from animal husbandry to terminate their pregnancy and suffer serious damage to their health.
The use of mind-altering substances has a long history in Iran. 400 years ago, attempts were made to limit drug use; at the beginning of the 20th century, opium was deeply interwoven with Iran’s economy and society. It was the most lucrative agricultural product and was widely consumed in the face of wars, famines and lack of medical care. According to one estimate, in 1914 about 10 percent of Tehran’s population was addicted to opium.
The modernizers of the Pahlavi dynasty identified drug use as one of the obstacles to Iran’s development into a strong state; In 1955, opium production and use were banned. However, this measure did not solve the problem; slowly, an infrastructure for the treatment of drug addicts emerged. After the Islamic Revolution, these institutions were abolished. An attempt was now made to tackle the drug problem by enforcing religious and moral behavior. Drug offenses have been and continue to be severely punished under criminal law; Iran’s narcotics law prescribes the death penalty for many offenses. The majority of those executed in recent years have been convicted of drug offenses.
These measures have not borne fruit, so that measures of a secular nature have been initiated. Since then, facilities for the treatment of drug addicts have been allowed again and promoted. Attempts are also being made to educate the population about the dangers of drug use. Iran had the world’s fourth-highest rate of drug-related deaths in 2011. According to anti-drug and health authorities, over 2.2 million Iranians are addicted to illicit drugs, 1.3 million of whom are in treatment programs. In particular, crystal meth is (as of 2015), particularly in demand. Students use it at exam stages; Workers who can only keep their heads above water with several jobs use it as a wake-up call.
|Development of life expectancy|
|Period||Life expectancy in years||Period||Life expectancy in years|
Traditional Iranian society is strictly patriarchal; At the beginning of the 20th century, almost exclusively men could be seen in the Iranian cityscape, women usually stayed at home. The degree to which women were tied to the house, however, varied from ethnicity to ethnicity: among the Lurs, men had absolute power over women, the Kashgai women had relatively many freedoms. In the 1920s, only a few girls were able to attend school; only the Pahlavi government encouraged parents to send their daughters to school as part of the modernization of the country in the 1930s.
In 1936, the veil was banned. Although the ban could never be fully enforced, it has led to women from conservative sections of the population being pushed even more out of public life and in some cases not leaving the house at all. As modernization progressed, women found more and more employment outside the home, especially as employees of the state. In the 1960s, the situation of women was further improved in the context of the White Revolution: they were granted the right to vote in 1963, abortion was permitted and secular courts were made responsible for divorce issues.
After the Islamic Revolution, these reforms were reversed. Since then, Articles 20 and 21 of Iran’s Constitution stipulate that men and women have equal rights, taking into account Islamic principles. While the husband is responsible for feeding the family, the wife has to do the household and is obliged to obey her husband. Husbands have “the right” to the sexual availability of wives and may enforce this by force. Also, general domestic violence of the husband against the wife is largely allowed.
Women are also only allowed to work, travel, visit their own parents, have a passport or divorce with the consent of the man. Beatings or sexual violence by the man are expressly not grounds for divorce, but conversely, the man can disown his wife at any time. In court, a woman’s testimony counts only half as much as a man’s, and for the injury or death of a woman, only half of the blood money is due in the so-called “right of retaliation”. Iranian law provides for the death penalty for extramarital sex, which puts victims of rape in particular in a precarious position. Men are allowed polygamy and temporary marriage, the legal minimum marriage age for girls is 13 years. These rules partly contradict the socially recognized values in today’s Iran, so clergy also live in marriage.
Nevertheless, after the Islamic Revolution, it was no longer possible to ban women from the public sphere, because they had supported the Islamic Revolution and were needed as workers in the Iran-Iraq war. As a side effect of the Islamic Republic’s strict public customs, conservative parents no longer have any reason to deny their daughters school and university. The level of education of Iranian women is, therefore, higher today than ever before, so that women in Iran can now be found in almost all professions up to car racing (Laleh Sadigh) and the university office at the universities.
Secular women have their future husbands sign marriage contracts that grant them all the rights that the law denies them. With the help of lawyers, they can enforce divorces by demanding a dowry. A religious debate about the equality of women has been underway since graduates of Islamic universities have also been practicing Koranic exegesis. Although Iranian criminal law threatens a violation of the obligation to wear a hijab with imprisonment, women defy Islamic dress codes by repeatedly testing the limits of what is permitted.
Name of country
From the earliest times, the country was referred to by its population as Irān (derived from the Middle Persian word Ērān-šahr [“kingdom of Arya“, translated also “kingdom of the Aryans”] or from Ērān, the genitive plural of Ēr). The Old Persian form of this name, Aryānām (xšaθram), means “rule of the Arya” or “land of the Aryans”.
The country name Persia, which was used internationally until 1935, goes back to Pars (or Parsa/Persians; related to Parses), the heartland of the Achaemenids, who created the first Persian empire in the 6th century BC. Called Persis by the Greeks, it essentially referred to today’s province of Fars around Shiraz. From her also derives the Persian word Fārsī / فارسی /’Persian’ for the Persian language.
In 1935, Shah Reza Khan elevated “Iran” to the official international designation for the country, which was also adopted by Western chancelleries from the same year onwards.
For “Iran”, the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the Philipps-Universität Marburg recommended in 2015, following the remarks of the Iranian Germanist Touradj Rahnema published in 1981, the spelling without an article, which is also common in German academic language. The German Foreign Office does not use the article either.
The geographical term Iran refers to the entire Iranian highlands. In German, a distinction is made between the official form of the name “Islamic Republic of Iran” for the state and the unofficial form “Iran” (without article) for the geographical area.
History of Iran
Permanent settlements and food production can be proven, for example, by painted ceramics and small clay figures for the younger Neolithic (6500–5550 BC). After the empire of Elam had formed between 3200 and 2800 BC, the Iranian Medes united the area for the first time around 625 BC into a state that assumed cultural and political leadership in the region. The Achaemenid dynasty, founded by Cyrus, ruled in the 6th to 4th centuries BC from southern Iran (especially Fars) the largest empire in history to date. It was destroyed in 330 BC by the troops of Alexander the Great. After Alexander, his successors (Diadochi) divided the empire among themselves until they were replaced by the Parthians in the Iranian area around the middle of the 3rd century BC.
This was followed from about 224 AD by the Empire of the Sassanids, which until the 7th century was one of the most powerful states in the world alongside the Byzantine Empire. After the spread of Islamic expansion to Persia or the Greater Persian Empire, in the course of which Zoroastrianism was replaced by Islam, Persian scholars became bearers of the Golden Age until the so-called Mongol storm in the 13th century set the country far behind in its development.
The Safavids united the country and in 1501 made the Twelver Shiite confession the state religion. Under the Qajar dynasty, founded in 1794, Persia’s influence dwindled; Russia and Great Britain forced the Persians to make territorial and economic concessions. In 1906 there was a constitutional revolution, as a result of which Persia received its first parliament and a constitution providing for the separation of powers. As a form of government, it received the constitutional monarchy.
The two monarchs of the Pahlavi dynasty pursued a policy of modernization and secularization, in parallel the country was occupied by Russian, British and Turkish troops in World War I and by British and Soviet troops in World War II. After that, there were repeated foreign influences, such as the establishment of an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan with Soviet help or a coup d’état organized by the CIA in 1953. The repression of liberal, communist and Islamic opposition led to multifaceted tensions, culminating in the 1979 revolution and the overthrow of the Shah.
Since then, Iran has been a theocratic republic led by Shiite clerics, headed by the religious leader. It is controlled only by the expert council. In the hybrid form of government of autocracy and democracy, it can undermine democratic elements at any time through its subordinate ultra-conservative bodies.
Today’s territory of Iran includes the historical heartland of ancient Persia, which historically extended over a much larger area at times. Until the 20th century, Iran was referred to worldwide as Persia in international official parlance. Its geographical location between the Caucasus in the north, the Arabian Peninsula in the south, India and China in the east and Mesopotamia and Syria in the west made the country the scene of an eventful history.
In the Persian metropolitan area, the history of Iran leads from the empire of the Elamites and the Medes to the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids (Cyrus II the Great to Darius III) and via Alexander the Great and the Diadochi Empire of the Seleucids to the Parthian and Sassanid Empires.
Spread of Islam
The wars with Byzantium had weakened the Sassanid Empire militarily and financially to such an extent that internal unrest and vulnerability to external enemies were the results. Thus, the empire fell victim to an invasion of the nomadic inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula (Islamic expansion): probably in 638, the Persians lost the Battle of Kadesia, shortly afterward the capital Ctesiphon was lost. The Arabs, united and motivated by the new religion of Islam, thus conquered the entire Sassanid Empire by 651 and the slow process of Islamization of Iran began.
Although non-Muslims were allowed to practice their religion, they had to pay a tax and observe numerous prohibitions; even in the 13th century, there were large Zoroastrian communities. Unprepared to rule such a large empire, the Arabs adopted the Sassanid government structures. In contrast to other territories conquered by the Arabs, the Persians, therefore, succeeded in largely preserving their culture, making Persian a language of Islam alongside Arabic, and making a decisive contribution to the development of Islam in cultural, political and intellectual areas.
Despite the leading role of Iranians in Islamic culture, they were initially disadvantaged as Mawālī or even Dhimmi. The fourth caliph Ali, who advocated the abolition of this discrimination, therefore had a particularly large number of supporters among the Iranians. This was an important factor in the dispute over the legitimacy of the Islamic community’s claim to leadership and its subsequent breakup into Sunni and Shiaism. Iranian rebels under General Abu Muslim were also decisively involved in the fighting during the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 and the subsequent founding of the Abbasid caliph dynasty in Baghdad, which was strongly oriented towards the Sassanid model.
After the power of the caliphs had eroded in favor of the military of Turkish origin, several regional dynasties effectively ruled the country in the 9th and 10th centuries, including the Tahirids, the Saffarids and the Bujids, who acted as the protecting power of the Abbasid caliph from 945 onwards. Under the Samanids, whose capital was in Bukhara, numerous Sassanid works were translated into Arabic, which accelerated the absorption of Iranian thought into Islam. Under the Samanids, Islam also broke away from its Arab origins and began to become a cosmopolitan religion.
Turkish and Mongol invasions
As early as the 9th and 10th centuries, Mamluks from Turkic peoples of Central Asia were incorporated into the armies. Beginning with the 11th century, nomads of the Turkic peoples immigrated and settled on the territory of today’s Iran. They established short-lived empires on their military base based on the Iranian-Samanid model, where they were confirmed as Sunnis by the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. These ruling houses include the Ghaznavids and the Seljuks. They promoted art, culture, medicine and science: the works of the important poets Omar Chayyām, Rumi and Ferdosi fall into this period. After the Seljuk dynasty passed its zenith, the country disintegrated again into several local empires; there was heavy internal Shiite fighting between the Ismailis and the Twelver Shiites.
In 1219, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, in whose army numerous Turks also fought, invaded Iran. The Mongols destroyed and plundered Iranian cities, the population shrank dramatically, farmland and irrigation systems deteriorated and the central powers dissolved. From 1256 to 1335, Iran was part of the Ilkhanate Empire. After the murder of the last Ilkhan, local empires were able to form again. But only a short time later, the Iranian highlands were again overrun from Central Asia, this time by the troops of Timur, who founded the Timurid dynasty in 1381, which ruled until 1507. Some areas never recovered from the devastation of the Mongol storm. The turmoil of Mongol and Timurid rule contributed to the rise of popular Islam and dervish culture.
After an interlude of the Turkmen tribes Qara Qoyunlu and Aq Qoyunlu, who were temporarily able to dominate the entire Iranian territory, the Safavid managed to re-establish a stable state. They had their origin in a Turkmen dervish order, which had become very wealthy and organized its followers militarily (Kizilbash). In 1501 they introduced Twelver Shia as the state religion; at the latest since the end of the Safavid period, it has represented a unifying bond in the Iranian multi-ethnic state. The Safavid Empire was in constant conflict with the Ottoman Empire, which was at the zenith of its power in the 16th century. Today’s Iraq, with its shrines holy to the Shiites, left Iranian territory forever in the course of this conflict. This period also saw the intensification of diplomatic contacts with European countries and the beginning of maritime trade with Europe in the Persian Gulf.
The Safavid reached the height of power under Shah Abbas I, who replaced the Kizilbash associated with their respective tribes with an army loyal only to the Shah and made the city of Isfahan his splendid residence. The decline of the Safavids was due to the fact that the army devoured large resources, that the successors of Abbas I were largely incapable and that the Sunni minority was persecuted. The Shiite scholars gained significant power under the declining Safavids and began to assume an opposition role to royalty.
During the reign of the Safavids, the number of nomads continued to increase, so the pressure on the sedentary peasants grew and the nomads armed themselves. This military power remained an important factor in the 20th century. The Safavid dynasty was eventually overthrown by an invasion by the Afghans. However, the Afghans were expelled by a nomadic leader who was crowned Nadir Shah in 1736, made extensive conquests, but was murdered in 1747. While southern Iran experienced calm and prosperity under the edge, chaos reigned in the north.
The Qajar tribe was originally settled by Abbas I for border security purposes. They conquered northern Iran, overthrew the Zand and crowned Agha Mohamed Shah in 1796; In contrast to their predecessor dynasty, however, the Qajars did not achieve a religious legitimization of their power. They also missed the goal of extending their empire to the borders of the Safavid Empire.
Already at the beginning of the Qajar period, the conflict with Russia and Great Britain began. By 1828, the Caucasus was lost to Russia and Russia was given a say in the Iranian succession to the throne. Britain succeeded in making large areas of eastern Iran part of Afghanistan. In view of this threat, initial attempts were made to reform the Iranian state and its military (defensive modernization). However, these initiatives, which were based on ministers or princes, were not successful due to a lack of money and the resistance of conservative dignitaries or the Shah himself. After all, Dar al-Fonun was founded as the first institution of higher education and textbooks were translated.
The Constitutional Revolution in Iran
The fact that Shah’s government was barely able to collect taxes opened the door for the economic influence of European states. This was done mainly through the granting of concessions, which left parts of the economy to foreigners in return for payment of small taxes, such as the construction of the telegraph network from the 1860s, fishing rights, the operation of banks or oil exploration. The culmination of this development was reached with the tobacco monopoly for a British consortium, which led to a complete tobacco boycott and the withdrawal of the concession – the first successful movement of traders, clergy and intellectuals against the rulers.
In this environment, the clergy were able to distinguish themselves as guardians of national interests and developed a militant Islam under the influence of intellectuals such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. In 1905, when the Shah wanted to make further concessions to Russia in the face of national bankruptcy, there were months of unrest and a constitutional revolution, as a result of which Iran received its first parliament. It adopted the first constitution on August 5, 1906, which was extensively expanded in 1907.
It provided for popular sovereignty, fundamental rights and a separation of powers according to the Western model, but also the compatibility of all laws with Sharia and a control body consisting of five clerics. This constitution remained in force on paper until 1979. Thus, the constitutional revolution ended the absolute monarchy in Iran.
The new form of government of the constitutional monarchy initially lasted only 15 years, it tended more and more towards chaos and disintegration and brought neither stability nor progress to the country overall. As early as 1908, Mohammed Ali Shah staged a coup and had parliament shelled; many MPs were arrested and some executed.
The year-long civil war led to the resignation of Mohammad Ali. He was succeeded on the throne by Ahmad Shah, initially represented by a regent. Russia and Great Britain had divided the country into zones of influence among themselves and forced the Shah to dismiss the American expert Morgan Shuster, who had been hired to solve the chronic financial crisis. During the First World War (1914–1918), fierce battles between Russia, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire were fought on Iranian territory despite the declaration of neutrality. After the October Revolution, the Russian army withdrew. However, British plans to turn Iran into a British protectorate failed.
Towards the end of the Qajar dynasty, the Shah’s power was confined to the capital. The armed forces consisted only of a Cossack brigade commanded by Russian officers, a paramilitary gendarmerie, and lightly armed fighters of the nomads. The state had no organization to enforce its power and was dependent on large landowners, tribal leaders and clergy. Between 1914 and 1919, 40 percent of Iran’s population (8–10 million people), between 1917 and 1921, two million people, a quarter of the rural population, died in Iran as a result of war and subsequent epidemics and famines.
Against the backdrop of imminent state disintegration, the Cossack Brigade under Reza Khan staged a coup and forced Prime Minister Sepahdar to resign. Reza Khan first became commander-in-chief of the Cossack Brigade, then Minister of War under Seyyed Zia al-Din Tabatabai and later Ahmad Qavām as Prime Minister. In this capacity, he reformed the Iranian military and violently cracked down on several movements with secessionist tendencies, such as Tabriz, Mashhad, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran of Mirza Kuchak Khan, the Bakhtiars and Kashgay.
Strengthened by these successes, Reza Khan became Prime Minister in 1923. Efforts to turn Iran into a republic with Reza Khan as the first president in analogy to the proclamation of the Turkish Republic failed due to the resistance of the clergy. Finally, at the end of 1925, the parliament deposed the last Qajar Shah and declared Reza Khan Reza Shah Pahlavi. He crowned himself in April 1926.
Reza Shah was a vigorous leader and the first in a long time to undertake real reforms. A modern education system was introduced and the judicial system reformed. The jurisdiction of foreign powers over their citizens in Iran was abolished. A state tea and sugar monopoly was created; the proceeds from this were used to build the Trans-Iranian Railway; roads and other railway lines were also built. The foreign banks were nationalized, new banks were founded. The situation of women has been improved; Western dress was prescribed for all men except the clergy, women were forbidden to wear the veil. In 1925, universal conscription was introduced and partly enforced by force, thus, against the resistance of clergy and landowners, all young men of the country were torn from their traditional careers and underwent a nationalistic-secular education.
The Law on Identity and Personal Status required all Iranians to use a surname, register with the newly created registration authorities and carry an identity card; the Qajar titles were deleted without replacement. These two measures created the conditions for the enforcement of a central state at the expense of the local rulers. Reza Shah also began the policy of turning to pre-Islamic Iran, using the crown, coat and banner based on the old Iranian model, introducing the Iranian calendar and from 1935 – not entirely uninfluenced by National Socialist Germany, with which the Shah maintained good relations – demanded from abroad to call the country of Iran (“Land of the Aryans”) and no longer Persia.
However, Reza Shah ruled dictatorially and retained parliament only to give his rule the appearance of legitimacy and constitutionality. He personally appropriated huge estates, initiated the bloody settlement of the nomads, eliminated critics and later in the course of his reign also comrades-in-arms.
Although Reza Shah owed his rise largely to British influence, he did everything he could to curtail Britain’s influence on events in Iran. His attempt to position the US as a counterweight to Britain and the Soviet Union failed. Germany, which was ruled by National Socialists at the time, gladly took on this role and subsequently became Iran’s most important partner.
After the outbreak of World War II, Great Britain demanded entry into the war on the side of the Allies and the expulsion of the numerous German advisers, which Reza Shah promised only after some hesitation. The Iranian government declared Iran’s neutrality and demanded that Britain and the Soviet Union respect this decision. In order to secure access to the oil reserves and the supply of military material to the Soviet Union via the Trans-Iranian Railway, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran on 25 August 1941 without a declaration of war (see: Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran). The resistance of the Iranian army collapsed after 48 hours. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. There was no public outcry, his then 22-year-old son succeeded him on the throne.
The decade immediately following these events is known in Iran as the rebirth of constitutionality. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and pluralism prevailed as never before in this country. Two significant developments occurred during this period. The Soviet Union, contrary to its promises, had left its troops in northwestern Iran and supported the pro-communist governments in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in the Iran crisis. Only under American pressure did the Soviet Union agree to withdraw and the Iranian army was able to smash the two secessionist states. The second development was the nationalization of the oil industry, which had been demanded since 1941 and passed by parliament in 1951.
The British government, which needed the revenues of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, subsequently organized a boycott of Iranian oil, which led to the Abadan crisis and brought the Iranian state to the brink of bankruptcy. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who is most identified with nationalization, tried at the same time to curtail the powers of the Shah and Parliament and seize power himself with the help of an enabling law. In 1953, tensions were at their peak and the Shah fled the country. Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown shortly afterward as a result of the CIA’s Operation Ajax, Shah Mohammed Reza subsequently established an autocracy with the support of the USA.
Monarchist forces led by General Fazlollah Zahedi arrested Mossadegh. The Shah returned to Iran. The then government, with Zahedi as prime minister, began new negotiations with an international consortium of oil companies. The negotiations lasted several years. In the end, there was an agreement that was to last until the first oil crisis.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979) initiated extensive economic, political and social reforms from 1963 onwards with the “White Revolution”. With the rising oil revenues, an industrialization program could be launched, which turned Iran from a developing country into an emerging industrial state in just a few years. Women’s active and passive suffrage was introduced in September 1963. From the beginning, industrialization and social modernization led to tensions with the conservative sections of the Shiite clergy.
In particular, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spoke out against the reform program as early as 1963. In addition to the Islamic opposition, the Fedayeen-e Islam, a left-wing guerrilla movement formed in Iran that wanted to change the country with “armed struggle”. Political liberalization from 1977 onwards allowed the opposition to organize. There were violent demonstrations, murder and arson attacks that shook the country to its foundations. After the Guadeloupe Conference in January 1979, at which French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President Jimmy Carter of the United States, Prime Minister James Callaghan of the United Kingdom and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt decided to stop supporting the Shah and to seek talks with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran. The Islamic Revolution had begun.
Islamic Revolution and Republic
On February 1, 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France; this day has since been celebrated as a state day of remembrance, called Fajr (Dawn). He quickly established himself as the supreme political authority and began to form an “Islamic Republic” from the former constitutional monarchy, among other things by successively and violently eliminating all other revolutionary groups. His policy was characterized by an anti-Western line and did not shy away from terror and mass executions. With numerous former supporters – such as his designated successor Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri – it came to a break.
From 1980 to 1988, Iran was in the First Gulf War after Iraq attacked. In 1988, the theocratic regime, on the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, executed political prisoners en masse. Iran’s ongoing international isolation eased temporarily in the late 1990s. With Mohammad Khatami’s surprising victory in the 1997 presidential elections, the political movement of Islamic reformers was established in the Iranian parliament. Thus, at the beginning of his term, Khatami succeeded in enforcing a liberalization of the national press. The voices critical of the system (e.g. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin in the newspapers Neshat and Asr-e Azadegan) were given a public organ to emphasize their will to reform.
The resurgence of press freedom did not last very long. The Guardian Council reversed the laws on the grounds of incompatibility with Islam and henceforth blocked almost all attempts at reform by parliament. Since then, the so-called reformers have been confronted with great losses of trust in the reform-minded population groups. Disappointment with the impotence of parliament led to a very low turnout in the 2003 local elections (national average 36%, in Tehran 25%) and a clear victory for conservative forces.
Presidency of Ahmadinejad
The presidential election on 17 June 2005 marked a turning point, especially since Khatami was not allowed to run again after two terms. With the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and his confrontational foreign and repressive domestic policies, international isolation increased again. In particular, his re-election in 2009, which was accompanied by numerous allegations of manipulation, led to massive protests in the country, which continued to increase despite the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations, especially towards the end of 2009.
In addition, Ahmadineschād, who appeared close to the people and distributed subsidies, was in conflict with even more radical, radical orthodox religious groups around the influential eschatological clerics Jannati, Yazdi and Ahmad Khatami, who succeeded several times – also with the help of parliament – in forcing ministers and confidants of Ahmadineschād to resign. Other ministers remained in office against the will of the president with the support of radical orthodox circles, but could not dismiss their Ahmadinejad-backed state secretaries. The clerics accused Ahmadinejad of pursuing a national-Islamic course instead of an Islamic course. Students of these Orthodox clerics (Haghani School in Qom) occupy numerous key positions in the Iranian military and intelligence service.
The conflicts resulted in threats against Ahmadinejad and the radicalization of the judiciary, executive and legislature. In 2011, for example, members of parliament demanded the death of the opposition candidates Mousavi and Karroubi, who were also loyal to the system and defeated in the 2009 presidential elections, both were placed under illegal house arrest together with their wives, which was sharply criticized worldwide. The system-loyal former President Rafsanjani lost the influential post of chairman of the Council of Experts to an aged Haghani representative. The confidants and children of the billionaire formerly known as the “Richelieu of the Iranian Revolution” were the object of bullying, violent Basij-e Mostaz’afin riots on the street.
Another result of this radicalization has been increasing international economic and political isolation, as a result of which private assets have been frozen and travel bans and other sanctions have been imposed on numerous high-ranking Iranian military officers, police officers, judges and prosecutors, including by the European Community on April 2011.
On 11 April 2013, Hassan Rouhani, who by Iranian standards is regarded as moderate and politically close to former President Rafsanjani, announced his candidacy for the presidential election in June 2013. Among other things, he expressed his intention to introduce a civil rights charter, to rebuild the economy and to improve cooperation with the international community, in particular, to overcome the isolation of Iran and the sanctions that led to a devastating economic crisis due to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
During the election campaign, Rouhani vehemently defended his actions as chief negotiator and insisted in a TV interview that even under his leadership of the negotiations there had never been a stop to the nuclear program, but that the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program had been successfully advanced. “Prudence and hope” was the motto of the government he wanted to form. According to preliminary data from the Interior Ministry, Rouhani won the election in the first round with 18,613,329 votes (50.71%).
Shortly before Rouhani’s visit to the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2013, he announced, together with Supreme Religious and Political Leader Ali Khamenei, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is closely linked to Ahmadinejad, should stay out of politics in the future. In addition, around 18 September 2013, around a dozen political prisoners were released early, including human rights activist Nasrin Sotudeh. Some observers saw this as Rouhani’s first attempt to implement his election promise to allow more political freedoms in Iran in the future, but at the same time as a signal for Iran’s hoped-for easing of relations with Western countries. In fact, Rouhani obtained the opening of direct talks between the United States and Iran regarding the nuclear dispute.
Others, such as Human Rights Watch, welcomed the releases, but saw it as little more than a symbolic gesture, as hundreds of political prisoners remained in Iranian prisons. The regime must also ensure that those released do not again become targets of the security forces and the judiciary. The Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and Amnesty International also sharply criticized Rouhani’s human rights record and the sharp increase in the number of executions.
Although Rouhani did not show the excessive anti-Israel rhetoric of his predecessor, he did not change the content. On the occasion of al-Quds Day in 2014, he declared that there could be no diplomatic way out for the Palestinians, but only that of resistance: “What the Zionists are doing in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge) is an inhuman genocide, so the Islamic world today must uniformly declare its hatred and resistance against Israel”.
In addition, at a panel discussion on the 44th floor, he denied that the Court of First Instance was able to vote in the negative. Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum WEF founder Klaus Schwab asks whether he is also seeking friendly relations with Israel, which has not yet been recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran. His emphasis on the peaceful use of nuclear power and his offer to mediate in the Syrian civil war, in which Iran is involved on the side of Bashar al-Assad, also attracted international attention in mid-September 2013. Critics noted that Rouhani was acting “as if he were a neutral observer,” even though Iran has long been a party to the war.
With the conclusion of the treaty on the Iranian nuclear program on 14 July 2015 with the UN veto powers and Germany, the Iranian leadership achieved Iran’s withdrawal from its international isolation and with the Vienna Agreement on 16 January 2016 the lifting of international sanctions. Iran as well as Western business representatives expected a significant growth spurt for their countries.
Rouhani was re-elected in the presidential election on 19 May 2017. In May 2018, US President Donald Trump terminated the nuclear agreement with Iran and announced new sanctions. The move has been criticized by the EU, Russia and China. In response, Iran gradually withdrew from the agreement and resumed uranium enrichment in 2019.
As a result of the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani by US forces in Iraq at the beginning of 2020, there was a multi-day national mourning and several funeral marches with up to more than one million participants. There was a mass panic at a funeral procession in Kerman with about 40 dead and several hundred injured.
Protests in Iran 2019/2020
In a two-week riot in November 2019 (the most violent riot since 1979) over a drastic increase in fuel prices, about 1500 protesters were killed, according to two anonymous insiders from the Iranian Ministry of the Interior and the Reuters news agency, as the state violently suppressed the protests. Security force snipers shot hundreds of demonstrators in the neck. According to research, Amnesty International estimates that 324 people were known to have died as a result of the protests. The Iranian government rejected Amnesty’s claims as baseless allegations. The Internet in the country was at least partially blocked for a few days during the riots by state order to prevent the dissemination of information about the protests. The Internet blackout lasted about five days.
The first dissident protests since 2009, in which the middle class participated, took place in January 2020 on the grounds of Amirkabir University in Tehran. The students shouted “Reformers, conservatives, the game is over!” On January 11, thousands took to the streets in Tehran chanting “Workers, students, we are united!” and the next day even more demonstrators, including in other Iranian cities, had gathered in all Azadi Squares (from azadi “freedom”), where “Death to the dictator” and “We do not want the rule of the Revolutionary Guard” could also be heard.
Since August 3, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi, who is considered ultra-conservative, has been President of Iran.
Protests in Iran 2022
Since September 2022, after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, presumably caused by police violence, there have been nationwide protests, in which more than 400 demonstrators were killed by state violence as of November 2022.
The Iranian state in its present form is unique in the world and cannot be classified into any of the common categories by comparative politics. It contains elements of theocratic, totalitarian, post-totalitarian and authoritarian, but also democratic systems.
Today’s form of government of Iran goes back largely to the ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Morteza Motahhari and is based on the Islamic principle that the human will is dependent on the will of God and true freedom lies in obedience to God and His divine law. The universal validity attributed to this principle is accordingly transferred to the developed philosophy of the state: the happiness of peoples and societies can only be achieved by observing these divine laws, which are equally valid for all countries.
Since, in Khomeini’s eyes, only God has the authority to legislate, he strictly rejected a Western-style legislative parliament. Man must not falsify the laws of God, resistance to or criticism of these laws is blasphemy. As a consequence, he propagated a programming parliament. The executive branch of divinely given laws in Khomeini’s state is the responsibility of the legitimate leader of the Muslim community, according to the Shiite confession, i.e. the prophet and the rightly guided imams. In the absence of the twelfth Imam, who has been raptured from the world and whose return the Shiites believe, a profound connoisseur of divine law, i.e. a Shiite legal scholar, is to represent the Imam. This system, which Khomeini called the governorship of the jurists, confers divine legitimacy on the supreme jurist at the head of the state, thereby obliging the subjects of the state to obey.
Political system of Iran
The highest and most powerful office in today’s Iranian state is the religious leader, who in German is synonymously referred to as Supreme or Ruling Jurist, Spiritual Leader or Religious Leader; in Persian, the term Rahbar is common. According to Article 5 of the Constitution, he rules as the deputy of the expected Imam Muhammad al-Mahdī; with this religious legitimation, he has almost unlimited power: he defines the policy of the state (as a theocracy) and supervises its execution, he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and as such declares war and peace, he appoints the president elected by the people and can remove him under certain circumstances.
Last, but not least, it appoints the chief judge, the chief prosecutor and the commanders-in-chief of the security and law enforcement forces. The religious leader is not appointed by the people, but by the Council of Experts for an indefinite period of time and can theoretically be removed by them. So far, there have been only two incumbents: Ali Khamenei succeeded Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini in 1989.
The second highest office is the President. He is the head of the executive and appoints the members of the government, who must, however, be confirmed by parliament. The President directs the work of the government, coordinates the decisions of the ministers and is responsible for these to Parliament and the religious leader. However, all issues that directly affect the Islamic leadership are matters of the religious leader; this rule may be used to curtail the powers of the President of the Republic at will in favor of the religious leader. The President is elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term and may be re-elected only once. The current incumbent since 2021 is Ebrahim Raisi. The office of Prime Minister was abolished as part of the constitutional amendment of 1989.
The Guardian Council is a very powerful institution of twelve members, six of whom are appointed by the religious leader and another six are proposed by the head of the judiciary and elected by parliament. Its task is to examine every law for conformity with Islam and, if necessary, to reject it. In addition, the Guardian Council has sovereignty over the interpretation of the constitution and examines the suitability of each candidate for parliamentary, presidential or expert council elections.
Candidates who are not admitted by the Guardian Council are automatically excluded from the elections. Thus, the Guardian Council has a direct influence on legislation and the outcome of elections; its role is a constant point of contention between the country’s conservative and reformist forces. The Council of Experts is a body of 86 clergy, some of whom are permanent members and some of whom are directly elected by the people for 8 years. It has the task of electing the religious leader; otherwise, it meets to consider parliamentary bills that violate the Constitution.
The Conciliation Council, also known as the Declaratory Council, is a body in which representatives of the Guardian Council, the executive, judiciary, legislature, and other members directly appointed by the religious leader sit. Its task is, on the one hand, to advise the religious leader, on the other hand, it mediates between Parliament and the Guardian Council if the Guardian Council considers a legislative proposal to be contrary to Islam or the Constitution, and Parliament cannot change the proposal.
In the Islamic Consultative Assembly, i.e. Iran’s parliament known as Majles, factual issues are discussed, budgets are drawn up and adopted, government reports are examined, legislative proposals are drafted, referendums are passed and investigations are carried out. Parliament has 290 deputies, elected every four years by universal suffrage. Candidates for parliamentary elections must be approved by the Guardian Council.
Thus, there can be no question of separation of powers; Article 57 of the Iranian Constitution stipulates that the legislative, executive and judicial branches are subordinate to the religious leader, whose opinion is decisive in all matters. The fact that the religious leader determines the Guardian Council directly and indirectly through the chairman of the judiciary appointed by him, the Guardian Council admits the candidates for the Council of Experts, and the Council of Experts in turn elects the religious leader, creates a cycle of power that takes place within the clergy and is decoupled from the rest of society.
Unlike in most countries, there are no parties in Iran that have existed for a longer period of time and represent political positions. However, there are various camps or currents that are constantly engaged in intense power struggles. The boundaries between these informal camps are blurred. Not every political actor can be precisely assigned to one of these camps. Politicians also frequently change camps. Observers usually distinguish between four large camps:
- The conservative camp stands for rule by the clergy, the preservation of the achievements of the revolution, economic self-sufficiency and emphasis on Islamic values and lifestyle. This camp includes numerous high-ranking clerics such as Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani, Makarem Shirazi or the late Abbas Vaez-Tabasi and Ali Meshkini, as well as representatives of Iran’s traditional economy (bazazi). It controls the Guardian Council, the Council of Experts and Friday prayers. The religious leader is also close to him and usually fills posts with candidates from this camp. Its candidates are elected by the lower middle class, the lower clergy and the bazaar merchants.
- The reform-oriented camp advocates more personal freedoms, the compatibility of democracy and Islam, a more liberal cultural policy and openness to foreign countries within the framework of the dialogue of civilizations. It is supported by the urban middle class and achieved a majority in parliament and the presidency in the 1990s; however, his efforts are regularly blocked by the conservative camp, especially the religious leader. Since the protests after the parliamentary elections of 2009, it has lost influence. At its center is former President Mohammad Khatami. Despite its efforts to reform, it is considered stabilizing for the regime because it functions as a legal rallying point for opponents of the regime, especially the youth.
- The pragmatic camp stands for a liberal economic policy and openness to the West. This camp includes representatives of the private sector, capital and the oil industry. While it is close to the reformers on economic issues, it takes conservative positions on cultural and social issues. The most important representative of this camp was the late Akbar Hāschemi Rafsanjani.
- The principalist camp stands for absolute adherence to the principle of Welāyat-e Faqih. It represents populist positions such as justice, the rights of the poor and the rural population, and a new nationalism. This camp includes numerous politicians from the generation that fought in the Iraq-Iran war, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadineschād, or actors such as Ali Larijani and Said Jalili, but also fundamentalists such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. It helped the Revolutionary Guards to gain great economic and political influence. It is skeptical about Western countries. Their candidates are elected by the urban poor and in the countryside.
These political camps hold very different views and goals within the spectrum loyal to the system, which leads to high voter turnout in elections. Players outside this system-loyal bandwidth, however, get into the political sidelines, this was especially true for many reform-oriented politicians after the protests of 2009. The tendency for a growing part of society, especially the youth, not to feel represented by anyone within the forces loyal to the system is a potential source of instability.
Legislation in Iran
Iran’s unicameral parliament (Islamic Consultative Council; Persian: Majles-e Schora-ye Eslami) consists of 290 deputies elected by general, direct and secret ballot for a 4-year term. Because of the selection of the Guardian Council, the parliament is dominated (except from 2000 to 2003) by the Islamic-conservative forces. In parliamentary elections, not parties, but persons are elected. Prerequisites for election as a member of parliament are: an age of 30 to 75 years, faith and active commitment to Islam (members of religious minorities are required to profess their religion), the constitution and the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (governorship of legal scholars), suitable physical condition and an academic degree of a master’s degree, alternatively a bachelor’s degree plus professional and academic practice.
Exclusion criteria for candidacy are: active role in the pre-Islamic system, landlordship, membership in illegal groups, convictions for subversive activities, drug addiction or drug trafficking, persons convicted under religious law (unless they had repented) and persons known for debauchery. The religious minorities can send the following number of deputies: Zoroastrians and Jews one deputy each, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together one deputy, and Armenian Christians one deputy each from the north and south of the country. Mentally healthy citizens over the age of 18 are eligible to vote. Parliament, like the government, has the right of legislative initiative. The President must obtain a vote of confidence from Parliament on behalf of his cabinet before taking any action. The sessions of the Iranian parliament are open to the public, except in a state of emergency.
At the end of March 1979, the Islamic Revolution introduced Islamic law, Sharia, as the legal basis. Since Sharia has never been codified in Islamic countries, the administration of justice and further development of jurisprudence is incumbent on a kind of case law system, based on the Iranian Penal Code and Iranian family law. With regard to the separation of powers, the activities of the first Chief Justice after the revolution, Chalkali, had an extremely negative effect. To this day, there is no separation of powers in Iran, the religious leader has far-reaching powers. Iran’s Minister of Justice since 2013 is the conservative cleric Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, who succeeded Sadegh Larijani.
Processes and procedures
Amnesty International continues to criticize Iran and special courts for failing to comply with international fair trial standards. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners are common. In 2006, the Canadian government’s demand that Germany arrest Iranian Attorney General Said Mortasawi at the airport in Frankfurt on his return flight from Geneva caused a sensation because he is accused of direct involvement in the murder of the Iranian-born Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi.
Kazemi had died in Tehran’s Evin prison during interrogations with, among others, Mortasawi. Said Mortasawi was Iran’s representative at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. Together with the head of the Iranian judicial apparatus – Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi – and the security chief of Evin prison, Mohammed Bakhshi, Mortasavi is considered responsible for obstructing free reporting in Iran and for massive human rights violations and torture in Tehran’s Evin prison, which was already considered a torture prison during the overthrown Shah’s government.
At the beginning of November 2022, the Federal Foreign Office called on all German citizens to leave the country: “For German citizens, there is a concrete risk of being arbitrarily arrested, interrogated and sentenced to long prison terms”.
Along with Ghazar Prison and Towhid Prison, Evin Prison has been considered a torture prison since the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but also after his overthrow under the leadership of Khomeini and Khamenei. According to former inmate Marina Nemat, who was detained in Evin prison for over two years, none of her cellmates in Ward 246 survived detention. According to Nemat, the wing, which held 50 people during Shah’s time, was occupied by 650 women during their imprisonment.
Three people died in Kahrisak prison, south of Tehran, during the 2009 election riots. According to an article in the left-wing newspaper Jungle World, these riots led to the mass rape of young women and men in the regime’s prisons. After Mohsen Rouhalamini, who is also said to have been arrested there, the son of a prominent conservative, was killed, conservative politicians protested. As a result, the head of state Khamenei closed the prison. Two Kahrisak prison guards were later sentenced to death, and a total of 12 officers were tried after the brutal ill-treatment during the protests against the presidential elections, nine of whom were sentenced to prison and caning. In its report in early 2010, a parliamentary committee blamed the then Prosecutor General of Tehran, Said Mortasawi, for the incidents.
In general, opposition groups repeatedly refer to the inhumane conditions in Iranian prisons. This is also the case with regard to the Vakilabad prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Mass executions had taken place in the penitentiary; the conditions of detention, including severe torture, were described in a report by the UN Secretary-General on 14 March 2011. Group executions have also taken place in Birjand and Taibad prisons. Human rights activists in Mashhad accuse investigators of physical abuse and severe torture in detention centers in order to obtain confessions from detainees, which are often the only evidence of guilt when convicted.
Rapes continue to occur systematically in prisons (as of November 2022).
After a short period of declining execution numbers, Iran has been the country with the most executions worldwide in terms of population for several years (as of 2017). In absolute terms, it ranks second only to China. Especially in the years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, today’s execution figures were far exceeded. Thus, several thousand political prisoners were executed in mass executions, mostly without a fair trial and some of them despite being sentenced to prison. In its 1985 annual report, Amnesty International mentions a total of 6108 executions between February 1979 and the end of 1984.
In a 1990 report, Amnesty International noted thousands of executions after often arbitrary detention between 1987 and 1990. Between July 1988 and January 1989 alone, more than 2,000 political prisoners were executed, many of them imprisoned for non-violent activities. Amnesty International regularly points out that the figures given in the annual reports are to be understood as a lower limit. In particular, the executions of political prisoners are often kept secret and are therefore difficult to fully record. Again and again, there were group and mass executions, a constitutional process was therefore not guaranteed; “Confessions” leading to conviction are partly extracted through torture.
The death penalty can be imposed in Iran for murder, various drug offenses, “political offenses”, prostitution, adultery and “moral offenses” and blasphemy. The death penalty was and is also carried out for apostasy (apostasy from Islam). In 2011, the death penalty was most frequently used (81%) for drug trafficking, blasphemy (4.3%) and rape (4.1%). Hanging is common as a method of execution, 53 of the 753 convicts were publicly executed in 2014. Shooting, beheading, stoning, and (theoretically) crucifixion are possible under Iran’s penal code; apart from the death penalty, penalties such as limb amputation, corporal punishment and eye-gouging are still imposed.
Iran Human Rights (IHR) points out that most death sentences have been handed down and carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Court since 1979, 64% of executions in 2016 and more than 3200 executions since 2010. The procedures there are less transparent than in public courts and abuse of office by the judges of the Revolutionary Court is widespread. Trials in these courts often take less than 15 minutes, there is no right to self-chosen lawyers, and convictions are regularly based on confessions extracted through torture.
Young people under the age of 18 are also sentenced to death and executed in Iran, even though Iran has signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits it. In some cases, enforcement of the judgment is postponed until the age of majority. Since the Islamic Revolution, more than 4,000 homosexual men have been publicly executed.
Only rarely are executions stopped or postponed due to international pressure. Foreigners are also executed, especially because Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and thus prevents consular assistance. For example, Sahra Bahrami, a Dutch woman from Iran, was executed by hanging in January 2011. As early as 2010, the then Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Ghashghavi had declared that the Islamic system would stick to the execution practice:
“We live in an Islamic country and we act according to the rules of the Koran. Even if we have to execute a hundred thousand people, we will continue to enforce these rules”.
The annual development of the number of death sentences carried out in the Islamic Republic of Iran is documented as follows by the United Nations (for the period 2004 to the end of 2015) and in only slight deviation from Amnesty International (between 1979 and 2016) and the Iranian Human Rights.
After 94 people were executed in Iran in 2005, including eight minors, according to Amnesty International, the numbers rose significantly in the following years to well over 600 people. In 2009, about 400 people were executed. 112 death sentences alone were carried out between the disputed presidential election on June 12 and the second inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on August 5. In 2011, Amnesty International accused the Iranian leadership of executing more than two people a day at the beginning of the year and spoke of a killing spree. In particular, the European Council lists numerous judges and appellate judges, including those of the Revolutionary Courts in Tehran (Divisions 15, 26 and 28) and Mashhad, accusing them of summary death sentences en masse without fair hearings. Several prosecutors and prosecutors general are also named responsible and sanctioned, including Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Esche’i and Said Mortasawi.
After Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration on 14 June 2013, the number of executions rose again significantly. Between July 2013 and June 2014, a total of 852 people were verifiably executed. In January 2014 alone, more than 70 people were executed in Iran, including the poet Hashem Shaabani. With 33 killings in the second week of January alone, more death sentences were carried out than in the whole of January of the previous year. The wave of executions continued in February.
The IHRDC figures, which have been slightly lower than those of the UN in recent years, recorded a total of 721 executions for 2014, of which only 268 were officially announced; the UN report of March 2015 speaks of at least 753 executed people in 2014, of whom 53 were publicly killed and almost half (362 executions) concerned drug-related crime internationally assessed as minor and incapable of death.
In particular, the execution of the death sentence against 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari caused international outrage. In 2015, the year of the end of international isolation, the number of executions rose to about three deaths per day, the highest level since 1989; a total of 969 people were executed. In 2016, despite a significant decrease to 567 executions, Iran continued to execute more people than any other Middle Eastern country (66%). Iran was the only state besides North Korea to publicly carry out at least 33 executions. There were 507 executions in 2017 and 253 in 2018.
Execution of minors
According to Sharia, boys from the age of 15 and girls from the age of nine are of legal age and have full criminal responsibility. In May 2002, the Council for the Determination of the Interests of the State (an arbitration council) set the minimum age of marriage and thus also the criminal liability in Iran at 13 years for girls and 15 years for boys. Time and again, human rights groups such as Amnesty International accuse Iran of being one of the last states to sentence minors to death and execute them at the time of the crime. In a 2006 report, Amnesty International found that at least three execution victims were minors at the time of the alleged act and another on the day of the execution.
In 2007, during a massive increase in the number of executions, at least seven minors were executed at the time of the crime. In addition, at least 75 juvenile offenders were still on death row. Juvenile offenders continued to be executed regularly in subsequent years: eight in 2008, five in 2009, one in 2010, and three to seven in 2011. The 2013 and 2015 reports also mention about 100 juvenile offenders on death row awaiting execution. According to the UN report on the human rights situation in Iran in March 2015, at least 13 juveniles were executed in 2014. In 2016, according to Amnesty International, at least two minors were executed at the time of the arrest.
The death sentences are often the result of hasty trials and even contradict the criminal procedural rules of Sharia. For example, in the city of Neka, a sixteen-year-old girl was convicted of allegedly unchaste behavior by Judge Haji Rajai and executed after confirmation from Tehran, although the execution as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by Iran constitutes an act contrary to international law. In 2007, Westdeutscher Rundfunk named six other minors who are threatened with a death sentence for the same offense. The Wiener Zeitung accused Iran’s campaigning president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of using the execution of Delara Darabi, who was 17 years old at the time of the crime, as an election campaign tool in 2009. Their execution was also illegal under Iranian and Islamic law.
Execution of unmarried women
Before the execution of young unmarried women, according to the left-wing weekly Jungle World, they were repeatedly married and raped to men loyal to the regime for the sake of form, in order to avoid that they would end up in paradise as virgins immediately after their death, according to Shiite beliefs.
|Political indices issued by non-governmental organizations|
|Name of the index||Index||Worldwide rank||Interpretation aid||Year|
|Fragile States Index||84.5 out of 120||43 of 179||Stability of the country: big warning 0 = very sustainable / 120 = very alarming||2021|
|Democracy Index||1.95 out of 10||154 of 167||Authoritarian regime 0 = authoritarian regime / 10 = full democracy||2021|
|Freedom in the World Index||14 of 100||—||Freedom status: non-free 0 = unfree / 100 = free||2022|
|Press Freedom Ranking||23.2 out of 100||178 of 180||Very serious situation for freedom of the press 100 = good situation / 0 = very serious situation||2022|
|Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI)||25 of 100||150 of 180||0 = very corrupt / 100 = very clean||2021|
Human Rights in Iran
Freedom House assesses Iran’s political system in 2012 as “not free”, with major shortcomings in the areas of political rights, civil rights and in a general downward trend. Former Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi is wanted for murder by the Argentine judiciary and Interpol, as is former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian.
After the Islamic Revolution, a series of murders began abroad of dissidents and opposition politicians who had been declared enemies of God. This series peaked between 1989 and 1996 and claimed more than 160 victims. The victims include Shah’s nephew, Shariar Shafiq (murdered in Paris in 1979), Ali Akbar Tabatabai (murdered in Bethesda in 1980), General Gholam Ali Oveisi (murdered in Paris in 1984), the deserted pilot of the Iranian Air Force Ahmed Moradi-Talebi (murdered in Geneva in 1987), the chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou (murdered in Vienna in 1989), the human rights activist Kazem Rajavi (murdered in Geneva in 1990), the former Prime Minister of Iran Shapur Bakhtiar (murdered in 1991 near Paris) or four Kurdish politicians in the 1992 Mykonos attack in Berlin.
The murder of Salman Rushdie, for which up to 2.6 million US dollars were promised in 1989 due to the book The Satanic Verses, did not succeed. However, Khomeini’s death sentence has been confirmed several times and has not been revoked to this day (as of 2016). Most recently, in February 2016, on the occasion of the anniversary of the fatwa, the bounty issued by forty Iranian state media was increased by a total of $600,000. Only in the cases of Mykonos and Salman Rushdie were there convictions in the Western states concerned, which then also established the responsibility of Iran’s highest leadership. In most cases, out of consideration for trade relations and fear of retaliation, those responsible were not prosecuted.
During a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12, 2022, in Chautauqua, New York, Rushdie was injured by multiple stitches to the neck, face, liver, and arm. The attacker, 24-year-old Hadi M. from New Jersey, was arrested. In social networks, he sympathized with Shia extremism and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Rushdie was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. Pro-government Iranian media welcomed the attack, calling Rushdie “Satan on the road to hell.” Politicians worldwide expressed shock at the act.
After years of massive repression by the new rulers, the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 gave many hope for an improvement in the human rights situation. As a result, various non-governmental organizations were founded. The efforts finally received international attention when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi in 2003. Opposition groups, however, criticized the widespread perception of Khatami as a reformer, pointing out that “the real reformers in Iran remain in prison,” the opposition is being persecuted in Iran and abroad, and human rights violations persist. Amnesty International also reported continuing massive human rights violations in large numbers, including 73 dead and several hundred injured in attacks by police and security forces at three public rallies in 2005.
In the following years, however, the human rights situation in Iran deteriorated significantly again. Political and everyday repression as well as the number of executions increased again under Mahmoud Ahmadineschād and culminated in the violent suppression of the protests after the Iranian presidential elections in 2009. At the end of March 2011, a report by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, which had been called upon by the UN Security Council to investigate Iran’s human rights situation, spoke of unchanged and numerous violations of fundamental human rights in Iran.
In particular, an increasing number of executions, amputations, arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and members of the opposition were mentioned. The government of Iran was then asked by the UN Security Council to review national legislation, in particular the catalog of criminal law and the law on minors, in order to establish a congruence with international law. Furthermore, Iran should refrain from death penalties and other forms of punishment insofar as they contradict international law.
The hopes attached to Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 for an easing of the domestic political situation, the release of the many political prisoners imprisoned since 2009 and for greater political and everyday freedoms were quickly dashed after some measures criticized as symbolic gestures directed at the West. Among other things, Rouhani nominated the conservative cleric Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as Minister of Justice in August 2013.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi sharply criticized Rouhani’s human rights record and accused the government of lying about the release of political prisoners. None of their expectations had been met. According to Ebadi, Rouhani may have “the reputation of a moderate reformer,” but so far he has been sending “the wrong signals” about human rights. Ebadi and Amnesty International also point to the sharp increase in the number of executions to a record level since Rouhani took office.
Since the end of 2020, the German Foreign Office has been warning dual nationals against entering Iran.
Status of minorities
The religious communities of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are recognized as “official religious minorities” protected by human rights under Articles 13 and 14 of the Iranian Constitution. To protect the Jewish minority, Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1979. Representatives of the Jewish minority have been members of the Iranian parliament since 1905.
However, the number of Jewish Iranians has decreased from 80,000-60,000 to an estimated 10,000 since the revolution. But religious minorities in Iran have also been disadvantaged since the revolution. In particular, this shows the persecution of the Baha’is, who are the largest religious minority and are considered apostates. The government stylizes the Baha’is as archenemies of Shiitism and national pride, and repeatedly serves as scapegoats who are instrumentalized to win the emotional support of the masses. Likewise, the persecution of Sufis (Islamic mystics) is tolerated or supported by the government.
Furthermore, Kurdish uprisings are met with massive military sanctions, in which numerous civilians died.
Ahwazi, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmen are discriminated against in Iran. For example, the use of the respective mother tongue in government institutions is prohibited. Access to education and the labor market is severely restricted compared to Persians.
Members of various opposition political groups, including the leftist People’s Mujahedin, are threatened with death sentences and torture. Human rights organizations point to hundreds of political prisoners in Iranian prisons, including human rights activists, Internet activists, journalists, feminists and members of religious and ethnic minorities. According to the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), at least 827 people were in prison for exercising basic human rights at the beginning of 2016. Non-violent political demands, including the demand put forward by the late Khomeini antipode Hossein Borujerdi for a traditional Shiite separation of state and religion as well as for the separation of powers, are met with imprisonment and torture, as in the case of the internationally renowned Hossein Kazemeyni Borujerdi.
After the violent suppression of the protests after the Iranian presidential election in 2009 – the largest mass protests since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 – there was an intensified persecution of opponents, especially by the ubiquitous Islamic Basij militia, which forms part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
To this day (as of February 2016), the then moderate presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi and their wives are under house arrest. Protests by students in June 1999, which took place in Tehran after a tightening of press laws and the ban on the newspaper Salam, were also answered by plainclothes and Basij militias by storming student dormitories, beating and throwing students out of windows. This was followed on June 10 by demonstrations in the capital and other major cities of the country with thousands of protesters. Subsequently, there were 1500 arrests, Amnesty International reported five deaths.
Foreign citizens have been arrested several times in Iran and sentenced in show trials in order to subsequently use these hostages as a means of exerting political pressure on foreign states. The confessions and interrogations of the detainees took place, according to those released later (e.g. in the context of prisoner exchanges), among other things with the use of torture. The conditions of detention themselves amount to abuse.
Freedom of information and freedom of speech do not exist in Iran. Journalists, webloggers, human rights activists and members of the opposition face repression, arrest, torture and even the death penalty. In the summer of 2007, conditions for press freedom deteriorated considerably. Newspapers were banned and journalists arrested. For example, the reformist magazine Sharq was banned because of an interview with the lesbian writer Saghi Qahraman, who lives in exile in Canada. Observers saw a direct connection with the poor poll results for the then incumbent President Ahmadinejad. Under President Hassan Rouhani, who has been in office since August 2013, however, the situation deteriorated dramatically with a “veritable hunt for bloggers and Internet activists”.
According to Iranian jurisprudence, homosexuality contradicts Islam. Homosexuality in women is punishable by flogging, and “sexual act between men, either by penetration or in the form of tafkhiz [تفخيذ] (rubbing the thigh and penis together)” is punishable by death, often in conjunction with a public flogging. In July 2005, the public flogging (228 lashes) and execution of two juveniles for homosexual acts caused a worldwide sensation, also because it was suspected that the official reason for the execution, the rape of a thirteen-year-old, had been added by the authorities only after the fact.
Other homosexual acts are also punished. For example, Iranian law provides for up to 60 lashes for “kissing out of lust”. Due to a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, gender reassignment measures and the subsequent change of legal gender are permitted in Iran, unlike other Islamic countries.
In 2022, it was reported that Afghan refugees who went to hospitals in southern Iran were declared dead and the bodies no longer had kidneys when they were handed over to relatives.
Until 1979, Iran was the most important ally of the Western world in the Persian Gulf. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has pursued a complex and sometimes contradictory foreign policy that seeks to unite Islam, anti-imperialism and Third World leadership. Since Khomeini’s death, ideology has increasingly given way to national interests. Although Iran is perceived as an aggressive state with aspirations to become a regional power, it is largely isolated. Today, it sees itself surrounded by rival Sunni states and allies of the West and has few reliable partners. The relationship with the West is dominated by the dispute over the nuclear program.
In addition to the human rights situation in Iran, which is regularly condemned by UN resolutions, the Iranian nuclear program has been the most important source of international criticism for several years. In several resolutions, the UN Security Council endorsed the demands of the IAEA regarding the Iranian nuclear program and also adopted several internationally binding sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Tehran is the seat of the secretariat of the Economic Cooperation Organization, of which Turkey, Pakistan and Central Asian countries are also members.
Isolation and sanctions
As a Shiite middle power and in the tradition of a millennia-old cultural nation, Iran intervenes in the domestic politics of its neighboring countries, resulting in numerous diplomatic tensions. In particular, Iran’s policy of ballistic and suspected nuclear armament as well as the massive violations of fundamental human and minority rights have led to increasing international isolation, which is also associated with massive economic consequences for the population. Since 2006, the United Nations Security Council has imposed various economic sanctions and travel bans on Iran in several resolutions, money transfers to and from Iran are becoming increasingly complicated or even impossible. In mid-March 2012, for the first time in the history of SWIFT, international data flows between SWIFT and Iranian banks were blocked in order to comply with the sanctions rules of the European Union, almost completely preventing money transfers between Europe and Iran.
Institutions, banks, companies, universities, government agencies and individuals are listed on sanctions lists of the United Nations, the European Union as well as the United States and Canada, for which there is a partial total ban on trade or travel. This includes Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in his capacity as former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and Minister of Atomic Energy in the cabinet of Ahmadinejad II.
On January 20, 2014, the sanctions were significantly eased for an initial period of 6 months. The signing of an agreement on the permanent settlement was subsequently repeatedly postponed and finally announced as successful on 14 July 2015 in Vienna.
In view of the isolation of the country, the Non-Aligned Movement is an important institution in which the country finds contacts and recognition and in which it seeks to realize a claim to leadership for the Third World. Other allies such as Venezuela or North Korea, with whom Iran has concluded various agreements, do not have the influence to help Iran out of its isolation.
Until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran and the United States were allies in the Cold War. However, as a consequence of the occupation of the U.S. embassy and the hostage-taking of Tehran on November 4, 1979, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran; ideological hostility to the Great Satan USA has been a constant in Iranian foreign policy ever since. Since then, there have been almost no direct contacts between the governments of the two states for many years. Although observers ascribe a large number of common interests to both, attempts to normalize relations have repeatedly been rejected by the other side. Last but not least, demonizing the enemy in both Iran and the US is useful domestically. Every year on November 4, anti-US demonstrations have taken place throughout Iran.
As part of the anti-Israel paradigm, Iran broke off political and economic contacts with Israel after 1979, apart from Israeli arms supplies to Iran from 1980 to 1986 in the first Gulf War. Iran denies Israel any right to exist. Khamenei described Israel as a “cancer” to be eliminated. The representatives of the Jewish minority in Iran, Haroun Yashyaei and Ciamak Moresadegh, see anti-Zionism, but no anti-Semitism in Iran, which is partly confirmed by observers and partly denied. Moresadegh, a member of the Jewish minority in the Iranian parliament, compared the Israeli military offensive in Gaza in 2014 to Nazi actions during World War II.
The propagandistic highlight is the annual al-Quds Day since 1979 with its state-organized mass demonstrations against Israel. In addition, so-called “international Holocaust conferences” were held in 2006 and 2014, at which anti-Zionists, right-wing extremists and Islamists denied the Holocaust and denied Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, as part of its anti-Israel state doctrine, Iran openly supports radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in the armed struggle against Israel. In a much-discussed speech on October 26, 2005, Iranian President Ahmadinejad took up the threat of annihilation against Israel that had been prescribed by both leaders since 1979 and regularly presented by various representatives of Iran and demanded: “The regime that occupies Jerusalem must be erased from the annals of history (safhe-ye ruzgār)”. In some media, including the website of Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB, the phrase was translated as “Israel must be wiped off the map”.
Even during Rouhani’s reign, Iran maintained its hostile stance and underscored it with several missile tests in early March 2016. According to the state news agency Fars, tested projectiles were labeled with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out.” In addition, a high-ranking commander of the Revolutionary Guards stated in this context that the Iranian missile program was directed against Israel: “We built our missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers in order to be able to hit our enemy, the Zionist regime, from a safe distance”. The US, UK, France and Germany considered the tests to be a violation of the recently concluded nuclear deal.
The majority of Arab countries view their neighbor Iran with suspicion. This is due, among other things, to the revolutionary export once proclaimed by Khomeini and the general striving for influence in the region, which is also expressed in the financing and military support of certain groups.
Since the 1980s, Syria has been Iran’s only reliable long-term partner. A possible overthrow of the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad in the civil war could mean that Iran loses its influence on politics in the Levant.
Iran also plays a crucial role in Yemen’s civil war, supporting the militia with weapons, money laundering or illegal substances.
Russia and China
In Western countries, an alliance between Russia and Iran is feared. Both countries have a number of common interests: Russia needs Iran as a buyer of weapons and nuclear goods, Iran has so far relied on Russia to circumvent the sanctions. However, mutual mistrust was great for historical reasons, with both states accusing each other of a lack of willingness to cooperate. This has now changed, and in the politically unstable Caucasus, Iran pursues a factual policy. Iran maintains excellent relations with Christian Armenia and supports it against Shiite Azerbaijan, with which it is in a conflict over the demarcation of borders in the Caspian Sea and which is suspected of promoting separatism among Iran’s Azerbaijani minority.
China has recently become an important partner of Iran. Iran is a strategic partner, especially in achieving China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. In August 2019, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Beijing to discuss the roadmap for a strategic partnership. The aim of the partnership is Chinese investment in key Iranian industries in return for oil supplies from Iran on very favorable terms. While China sees a possible nuclear-armed Iran as contrary to its interests, it has helped Iran ease Western sanctions and in return has expanded its economic ties with the country.
Iran and the nuclear
The beginning of Iran’s nuclear program falls in the 1950s: In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Shah intended to build a strong nation with the help of nuclear power. As part of the Atoms for Peace program, the first reactor came to Iran in 1957. Thanks to Shah’s great personal interest in nuclear power and high oil revenues, the AEOI, founded in 1974, was given a large budget.
Last but not least, the aim at that time was to invest the large oil profits in the country in such a way that the economy was not thrown out of balance. The nuclear program at the beginning of the 1970s provided for the construction of up to 20 reactors. In 1975 the contract for the construction of the first nuclear power plant was signed with Kraftwerk Union AG, a little later that for the construction of another power plant with Framatome, both turnkey projects.
In addition, a turnkey research center was built by the CEA near Isfahan. The acquisition of nuclear weapons was explicitly not at the heart of these efforts. The Shah considered his conventional armament so strong that he felt he did not have to strain his relations with the US with a nuclear weapons program. Thus, Iran was one of the first signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Until the Islamic Revolution, Iran abided by all obligations under this agreement and allowed all inspections unhindered. However, the US had reservations about providing Iran with nuclear support: it envisaged the scenario of the overthrow of the Pahlavi dictatorship and an irrational successor regime, and tried to prevent Iran from gaining full control of the fuel cycle.
After the Islamic Revolution, the nuclear program was initially seen as part of a plot to westernize Iran and stopped, with foreign workers forced to leave the country. Payments to contractors have been stopped. It was not until 1984 that money was budgeted again for the construction of the nuclear power plant, but the contractors refused to continue working on the Bushehr power plant during the Iraq-Iran war. From the mid-1980s, Iran was looking for a partner to continue its nuclear program, because the support it was entitled to under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was denied by the official nuclear states. Help from other states was successfully prevented by the USA.
Officially, Iran continued to reject the atomic bomb. However, this attitude was already questioned in the early 1980s, because the country would have had every reason to strive for nuclear weapons in view of its complicated foreign policy situation. Even then, Western media speculated how far the road to the Iranian nuclear bomb still was. In the second half of the 1980s, Iran began working on a uranium enrichment program without notifying the IAEA and circumventing export restrictions. The first call for nuclear weapons development came in 1988 from the mouth of Rafsanjani, who called for an Islamic atomic bomb because of Israel’s nuclear weapons. From the mid-1990s, construction began on the heavy water reactor at Arak and the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz; at the same time, relations with the US in particular continued to deteriorate.
In 2002, members of the People’s Mujahedin living abroad made the secret activities public; In 2003, Abdul Kadir Khan’s network, through which Iran had obtained plans and equipment, was blown up. Thus, it was revealed that Iran was working on two paths to nuclear weapons and that it had concealed the program. While Iran feared air strikes on the facilities, negotiations with the EU-3 were launched, culminating in an agreement in which Iran committed itself to suspending uranium enrichment, transparency and cooperation with the IAEA.
Considering that Iran had not received anything in return for the suspension of enrichment, efforts resumed two years later; in the meantime, it had also become clear that Iran had plans to build nuclear bombs. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, the country went on a confrontation course with the West and refused dialogue. In 2006, uranium was enriched to up to 3.5%, which is sufficient for fuel in nuclear power plants, in August 2006 the Arak plant was opened, and in 2007 the construction of the enrichment plant in Fordo was notified to the IAEA.
At the same time, the production of higher-enriched uranium was also successful. Western countries responded with sanctions: at the end of 2006, UN Security Council Resolution 1737 banned supplies of goods for the nuclear industry, which were tightened in March 2007 and extended to missile technology. Resolution 1803 (2008) issued travel bans, sanctions against Iranian companies operating in the nuclear sector, and trade bans on dual-use technology.
The US and the EU imposed further unilateral sanctions against Iranian state-owned companies and the Revolutionary Guards, and the assets of Bank Melli were frozen. Despite Iran’s increased turn toward China and Russia, these measures created economic problems; In 2010, sanctions were extended to include an arms and financial embargo (Resolution 1929), and finally, the EU strengthened its embargo by boycotting Iranian oil and freezing the assets of Iran’s central bank. Parallel to the diplomatic track, the Iranian nuclear program was combated by the secret service, for example, the computer virus Stuxnet affected centrifuges for uranium enrichment in 2009; Iranian nuclear scientists (Dariush Rezaie, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan) were murdered. Explosions at Iranian research centers have been frequent since 2010. Explosions in the summer of 2020 damaged an underground nuclear facility in Natanz, among other things.
Only after a recent change of government were negotiations with Iran fruitful: On 20 January 2014, the sanctions were initially eased considerably for 6 months. The signing of an agreement on the permanent settlement was subsequently repeatedly postponed and finally announced as successful on 14 July 2015 in Vienna.
After several missile tests in March 2016, the US, Britain, France and Germany wrote a letter to the Security Council calling on it to launch “appropriate responses” for violating the terms of the nuclear deal. The missiles tested “could, in principle, carry nuclear warheads”.
The establishment of a Western-style military did not begin in Iran until the 1920s. Reza Shah at times spent up to 40% of Iran’s state spending on military purposes, the military became one of the main pillars of Shah’s rule. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran had the fifth largest military force in the world, had 400,000 men under arms, and imported modern weapons systems in large quantities, leaving up to 20,000 U.S. military advisers in the country. After the revolution, there was a political purge in the military, which killed about 17,000 officers, which led to chaotic conditions and reduced clout in the Iran-Iraq war.
Today, about 400,000 soldiers serve in the regular armed forces of Iran (Artesh). The Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) have 120,000 soldiers. These figures have remained roughly the same since 2001. Both have land, sea and air forces. While the regular armed forces are better equipped in the conventional sector, the Revolutionary Guards have strong ties with the country’s political elite. The Revolutionary Guards also include the al-Quds Force for missions at home and abroad.
The third arm of the Iranian military is the Basij-e Mostaz’afin militia, which is under the command of the Revolutionary Guards and is tasked with suppressing uprisings and repelling invasions. Originally, one of the tasks of the Revolutionary Guards was to export the revolution, but this increased and legitimized the presence of the US military in Iran’s neighboring countries. That is why Iran has pursued a strategy of deterrence and détente since the 1990s; since 2001, however, there were fears of a US campaign against Iran and, despite international isolation, began to prepare militarily for this scenario.
The Revolutionary Guards are not only a military but also an economic force in Iran. Thanks to their interdependence with politics, they have built up a dominant position in the construction, oil, gas, electronics and defense industries with numerous companies, which they continue to consolidate.
Iran’s defense budget doubled between 2001 and 2010, reaching $10.5 billion in 2010. In 2017, they amounted to just under 14.5 billion US dollars or 3.1% of economic output. By regional standards, however, this is not particularly high: the seven members of the Gulf Cooperation Council alone spend a total of seven times as much on their military as Iran. Especially in terms of conventional capabilities, the Iranian armed forces are limited. It can be assumed that the Iranian army would be overwhelmed if it had to invade one of its neighboring countries. For this reason, Iran’s defense strategy, known as passive defense, is based on making an attack by unconventional means as expensive as possible for the attacker.
In 2019, a total of 9285 professional firefighters were organized in the fire brigade in Iran, working in 452 fire stations and fire stations, where 1300 fire engines and 20 turntable ladders or telescopic masts are available. The national firefighting organization Tehran Fire Department (TFD) represents the Iranian fire brigade with its firefighters in the World Fire Brigade Federation CTIF.
Throughout its history, Iran has gone through periods of strict censorship (such as after the 1953 coup and the Green Movement protests in 2009) and relative respect for freedom of expression (shortly before and after the Islamic Revolution). In 2011, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance maintained a system that forces publishers to obtain a license and a release for each book to be published; License revocation means having to go out of business. Even with a release, however, it is possible that the public prosecutor’s office identifies harmful content in a publication and therefore the author, publisher and censor are held accountable.
This system, the existence of which the Iranian government denies, violates Iran’s constitution and Iran’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It creates fear among all those involved due to its arbitrariness and lack of transparency. In addition, there is a high financial risk for publishers and high costs. It damages the development of Iranian literature considerably. Foreign works are often not allowed for publication at all or only in a modified form, which fuels further mistrust among potential readers. Authors therefore sometimes publish their works only on the Internet, although censorship prevails there as well.
The government monitors, filters or slows down Internet traffic, such as during the 2013 presidential election. In 2007, ten million websites were blocked to users in Iran. In 2009, the law against virtual crimes was enacted and an institution against criminal content was created. That’s why, in 2014, more than two-thirds of Iranians used technologies that circumvented internet controls. Nevertheless, leading Iranian politicians are also represented on platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, the use of which is actually prohibited in Iran. In the presidential election campaign, a relaxation of Internet censorship was one of the most important election promises of the eventual winner Rouhani. Since then, Iran’s Chinese-style Internet censorship has become more centralized and intelligent, accompanied by efforts to create a domestic, government-controlled offering in order to reduce the attractiveness of foreign services.
Iran is divided into 31 provinces called ostans (Persian: ostān, plural ostānhā). Each provincial administration is headed by a governor called Ostandar (Persian: ostāndār). He is appointed by the Minister of the Interior with the consent of the Cabinet.
The provinces are further subdivided into administrative districts, the Shahrestan (Persian شهرستان, singular: shahrestān, plural: shahrestānhā).
Administrative districts, in turn, are divided into districts, the Bakhshs (Persian بخش, DMG baḫš).
In 2006, Iran had 30 ostans, 336 shahrestans, 889 bakhshs, 1016 cities (شهر Shahr) and 2400 municipalities (دهستان Dehestan). On June 23, 2010, the new Alborz province was created from the northwestern part of Tehran province, bringing Iran to 31 provinces.
In 2016, 73.9% of the population lived in cities or urban areas. In 1960, the urbanization rate was 33.9%. In recent decades, the urbanization of the country has progressed rapidly due to the widespread rural exodus.
The Iranian economy is characterized by strong state influence, the great importance of oil and gas exports and the international sanctions due to the Iranian nuclear program. The main challenge for the government is to provide sufficient jobs for a large number of young people.
Gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing power parity was about $8,000 before the Islamic Revolution, falling to $4,000 by 1988 and rising to $7,000 by 2005. Economic growth has fluctuated sharply since the revolution; it was 12% in 1991 and the economy stagnated in 1994. The reasons for this include war, fluctuating revenues from oil exports, government intervention and poor management. Nominal GDP, which amounted to USD 377 billion in 2016/17, is expected to grow by around 4.3% in each of the coming years, with weaker growth in the non-oil share. Inflation was 8.9% in 2016/17 and is expected to remain between 10% and 11% in the coming years. Unemployment, which stood at 12.5% in 2016/17, is likely to remain at this level.
Iran’s most important economic sectors include the oil and gas industry, petrochemical industry, automotive industry, agriculture, metal industry and cement and building materials production.
Despite many problems and international sanctions, Iran’s economy is being built. Iran’s steel production grew from 0.55 million tonnes in 1980 to 1.6 million tonnes in 1990 and 6.6 million tonnes in 2000 to 14.5 million tonnes in 2012. Cement production increased from 7,5 million tonnes in 1980 to 23,9 million tonnes in 2000 and 35,0 million tonnes in 2007 to 70 million tonnes in 2012. This makes Iran the fourth largest cement producer in the world.
In the Global Competitiveness Index, which measures a country’s competitiveness, Iran ranks 69th out of 137 countries (as of 2017–2018). In the Index of Economic Freedom, the country ranks 155th out of 180 countries in 2017. Iran’s economy is heavily influenced by the state and is not liberalized. Iran ranks 124th out of 190 nations in the World Bank’s 2018 Doing Business Index. In theocratic Iran, large parts of the economy are nationalized. These include, for example, with a few exceptions, the banks. Other economic areas are organized privately or cooperatively. In general, the capitalist-oriented economy is referred to as a command economy, in which the political centers of power try to control the economy. State planning is based on five-year plans.
In the 2010s, the Corruption Perceptions Index fluctuated between 25 and 30 points, with 100 points being the best value.
|Growth of GDP (gross domestic product) in % compared to the previous year|
|Source:bfai, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, GTAI|
|Public debt as % of GDP|
|Source: indexmundi/CIA factbook|
|Development of the inflation rate (in % compared to the previous year)|
|Source: World Bank|
|Development of foreign trade (in billion US$ and in % compared to the previous year)|
|Mrd.US$||% yoy Vj.||Mrd.US$||% yoy Vj.||Mrd.US$||% yoy Vj.|
|Import||52,2||− 14.1||46,6||− 10.7||55,0||+ 18,0|
|Export||59,4||− 36.4||49,8||− 16.1||76,4||+ 53,3|
|Balance||+ 7,2||+ 3,2||+ 21,4|
In 2021, Iran exported goods worth $76.4 billion. The largest export partners in 2019 were China (45.6%), India (13.9%), Turkey (10.5%), South Korea (7.3%) and the United Arab Emirates (4.2%). The most important export commodity is oil. The high price of oil allows Iran to cross-subsidize its industry and treasury.
The import amounted to 55 billion US dollars in 2021. The largest import partners in 2019 were China (24.9%), the United Arab Emirates (13.8%), India (6.4%), Turkey (6.3%) and Germany (5.9%).
Various embargoes have been imposed on Iran. For the countries of the European Union, the restrictions of Regulation (EU) No 267/2012 are relevant.
In 2016, the state budget included expenditures of the equivalent of 72.29 billion US dollars, which were offset by revenues of the equivalent of 65.87 billion US dollars. This results in a budget deficit of 1.6% of GDP.
Public debt amounted to 35.0% of GDP in 2016.
In 2006, the share of government expenditure (as % of GDP) was as follows:
- Health: 6.8%
- Education: 5.1%
- Military: 2.5%
Religious foundations (bonyād) represent an important economic factor. They control about 80% of the value added. The government plans to significantly increase the private sector. The system of bonyāds already existed under the Shah and already fulfilled charitable tasks at that time, as they also represented black funds for the ruling elite. Even today, the Bonyāds are accused of a lack of transparency, corruption and nepotism.
Tax advantages would hinder the development of the private sector. The Bonyāds operate in the form of holdings and dominate large parts of the economy, such as exports, building materials (concrete), shipping companies and petrochemicals, as well as hotels, universities and banks. The Bonyāds are solely responsible to the religious leader and head of state Āyatollāh Ali Khamenei. The two largest foundations, each valued at up to US$ 15 billion, are the Bonyād-e-Mostafezān (Foundation for the Disenfranchised) and the Āstān-e Qods-e Razavi of Mashhad, originally the administration of a holy tomb, but now a large corporation. In Iran’s social system, the bonyāds are the biggest factor next to the state and support about half of the needy population.
Iranian governments have been running programs to promote the private sector since 2001. Article 44 of the Constitution had to be amended for this. In 2006, the government issued a privatization program that included strategically important industries in the oil and financial sectors. Implementation of the program was weak because the private sector showed little interest in investment. In 2008, the government launched another program to encourage private investment. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose pension funds buy up large companies, e.g. in the telecommunications industry, are also benefiting from the privatization efforts. The extent to which the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards have a direct influence on the management of the acquired companies is controversial. Since capital monopolies do not exist in Iran as in other countries, many companies are financed with accumulated small capital and pension funds.
A direct influence of the Revolutionary Guards on the management is not always apparent, so no member of the Pāsdārān sits on the supervisory board of Telekom, which was acquired by the Revolutionary Guards. Half of this purchase was also privately financed. Tax advantages over private companies as well as the duty-free nature of the Revolutionary Guards are criticized. The National Construction Company, which is said to belong to the Revolutionary Guards, and the religious foundation Bonyād-e Mostazafin va Jānbāzān (“Foundation of the Oppressed and War Disabled”) each have half of the shares in the expansion of the Tehran Metro. The Pāsdārān themselves deny any direct economic activity and in particular, reject the accusation of smuggling raised by President Ahmadinejad.
Agriculture in Iran
Despite numerous mountains and deserts, the agricultural area amounts to 10% of the country’s surface area, with one-third being artificially irrigated. Agriculture is one of the largest employers in the country. Important products are pistachios, wheat, rice, sugar, cotton, fruits, nuts, dates, wool and caviar. Since the revolution of 1979, the cultivation of grapes has been almost completely converted to table grapes and raisins on the 200,000 hectares of vineyards because of the legal prohibition of alcohol consumption for Muslims in Iran (with Sharia). Iran is now the world’s second-largest exporter of raisins after Turkey, and by far the largest exporter of saffron with a market share of around 90% of global demand.
Mining, oil and gas
The extraction and processing of oil and natural gas play a particularly important role in the Iranian economy. The first Iranian oil was found in Masjed Soleyman in 1908 by the British Burma Oil Company, which had taken over the D’Arcy concession. Subsequently, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded, which was British-owned, but had to hand over a share of the profits to the Iranian state. Foreign control over Iranian oil and the low payments that the Iranian state received from the oil business led to demands to nationalize the oil industry from 1946, later to the Abadan crisis and the overthrow of the Mossadegh government. In 1960, Iran was a founding member of OPEC.
In 1968, Iran produced 2,847,580 barrels per day, becoming the largest oil producer in the Middle East and the fourth largest oil producer in the world after the US, the USSR and Venezuela, as well as one of the largest natural gas producers. Since the Islamic Revolution, all natural resources have been state-owned, all oil and gas projects run through the state-owned companies National Iranian Oil Company, National Iranian Gas Company and National Petrochemical Company. The production levels before the revolution (6 million barrels per day) have not been reached since then due to wars, non-investment and the decline in the yield of existing sources.
The extraction and processing of oil and gas contributed about 20% to Iran’s GDP in 2012. In the same year, Iran was the third-largest producer of natural gas and the sixth-largest producer of oil. It was estimated that at the end of 2012, 157 billion barrels of oil, i.e. 9.4% of the world’s oil reserves, and 33.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, i.e. 18% of the world’s natural gas reserves, were stored in Iran. However, in 2019, Iran reported the discovery of a new oil field containing 53 billion barrels of oil.
In 2014, Iran produced 3.4 million barrels of oil per day. Of this, 1.8 million barrels remained in the country for self-consumption; the refining capacity was 2 million barrels per day in 2014. Nevertheless, about 61,000 barrels per day of petroleum products had to be imported. In 2013, 163 billion cubic meters of natural gas were produced (4.8% of the global volume) and almost entirely consumed domestically. South Pars is the country’s largest gas field, located in the Persian Gulf and containing 40% of Iran’s gas reserves. This makes Iran one of the largest consumers of natural gas in the world. In order to slow down the growth of energy demand and to curb waste and smuggling, subsidies were cut in 2010, and further measures will follow.
Iran’s oil deposits are mostly located in the southwest of the country and partly continue on the territory of neighboring states. One of the largest natural gas fields is located at Gach Saran on the edge of the Zagros Mountains. About 70% of the oil reserves are onshore, about 80% of the deposits were discovered before 1965 (as of 2015). From ports on the Persian Gulf, the oil must be transported through the busy Strait of Hormuz to the recipient countries; In 2013, 17 million barrels of oil and 3.7 Tcf of liquefied natural gas flowed through this road every day.
Due to international sanctions against Iran, oil production fell sharply between 2011 and 2014 and natural gas production increased only very slightly. Revenues for the Iranian state fell from 118 billion US dollars in 2011/12 to around 56 billion US dollars in 2013/2014. The decline in production is mainly attributed to the lack of foreign technology and investment, the withdrawal of foreign partners in the development of new sources and the impossibility of insurance cover for tanker transports.
Mining and processing of mined raw materials contribute another 14.2% to Iran’s GDP. The most important of these raw materials include coal (1.3 million tonnes in 2012), iron (24 million tonnes), copper (260,000 tonnes), aluminum (230,000 tonnes), lead (40,000 tonnes) and manganese (70,000 tonnes). The mines are partly privately owned, partly they are controlled by the government via the state-owned company IMIDRO.
Around 500,000 people were employed in the automotive industry in 2010, making the industry the second largest employer after the oil industry and Iran the largest automobile producer in the Middle East. In 2012, however, Iran’s automobile production plummeted; only 989,110 vehicles were produced – 40 percent fewer than in 2011. This includes 848,000 cars and 141,110 commercial vehicles. The two largest car manufacturers are the state-owned SAIPA – currently in the process of privatization – and Iran Khodro (IKCO). In addition to domestic models such as Dena and Runna, IKCO produces models under license from Peugeot, among others.
SAIPA overtook IKCO in the ranking for the first time in 2010. According to Business Monitor International’s Iran Autos Report, the resilience of Iran’s automotive industry will only become apparent in the next few years, when the domestic market is saturated and Iran increasingly operates in the international market, because so far the increase in production is still largely due to the support of the government. 12,64 % of registered motor vehicles run on gas. This puts Iran in fifth place in the world in the use of gas-powered motor vehicles. Swedish truck manufacturer Scania opened a new production line in Qazvin in 2011, replacing Daimler-Chrysler, which has broken off business contacts with Iran.
The declared goal of the Iranian government is to attract more tourists in order to generate foreign exchange earnings and jobs. By 2025, ten million people are expected to visit Iran every year. Special tourist attractions are:
- Beaches on the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, covering a total of 3000 kilometers of coastline
- Sandy deserts Kavir and Lut
- Cities like Tehran and Isfahan with their old buildings, museums and bazaars.
Unequal distribution and subsidies
One of the leitmotifs of the Islamic Revolution was the redistribution from the capitalists to the disinherited. For this reason, numerous efforts were made after the revolution, such as the electrification of rural regions and improvements in the health and education systems, but also subsidies for food, medicines and energy as well as labor market regulations. In the 1990s, the proportion of the population living in poverty fell sharply; today, only 2-3% of Iranians live in severe poverty, a low figure by international standards. The Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, is 0.43, only slightly below the level before the revolution; by international standards, it is average.
The Iranian government spent about $2 billion on food and medicine subsidies in 2005.
In the second half of 2010, the Iranian government began implementing a long-planned reform of subsidies on energy prices, grain, bread, and public transportation. The IMF attested to Iran’s good starting conditions for falling inflation from over 30% to 10% from September 2009.
In the first year of reforms, $60 billion in subsidies was cut, 15% of GDP. The reason for the reform is the rising energy prices on the world market, with artificially low domestic prices, which led to Iran becoming one of the biggest energy wasters, while at the same time low-income households hardly benefited from the subsidies. The IMF cites an average of $4,000 in annual subsidies for a household of four, but there are a large proportion of Iranians whose annual income is less than $4,000. It is therefore hoped that energy will be used more sparingly as well as the development of energy-saving technologies, e.g. in Iranian car production, and more social justice through direct payments to low-income households, as well as increased government revenues through more export capacities for oil and gas.
Overall, 30% of the money saved by the abolition of subsidies goes directly back to citizens, 20% is paid to industry to develop energy-saving measures, and the rest remains in the state budget to compensate for increased energy prices. 93% of Iranian citizens are registered for direct payments. Approximately $80 per person in a household is paid out every two months. In June, the IMF drew a positive interim balance of the reforms: despite the 20-fold increase in energy prices, the inflation rate rose moderately to 14.2% in May 2011. A temporary slowdown in economic growth and an equally temporary increase in the inflation rate are expected, but the IMF already notes more social justice and lower energy consumption.
Iran has a large and well-educated working-age population. The country can benefit from having completed the demographic transition, so that more investment in human capital has been and is being increased. By about 2045, Iran is predicted to have a good dependency ratio. However, the inefficient labor market prevents the country from taking maximum advantage of this situation. Over the past 30 years, Iran’s unemployment rate has always been around 11%, with youth unemployment around 30%. In addition, only 17% of women participate in the labor market, resulting in a very low participation rate by international standards. In addition, there is a large gap between urban and rural unemployment.
The 1990 Labour Code provides for heavy penalties for companies that dismiss employees without cause. As a result, private companies are very cautious about recruiting new workers and can only be guided by diplomas presented on the skills of an applicant. As a result, young people strive to obtain the best possible diplomas rather than productive skills, and around 84% of all university graduates are enrolled in the public and semi-public sectors. Thus, the labor market assumes the function of social and unemployment insurance, which leads to large macroeconomic costs.
After the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that only believers who believe in the Islamic Republic may take on top tasks in the state and economy: pious and righteous persons must take over state tasks, otherwise the state will spoil. This principle applies today to the entire state sector of the country, which accounts for 70% of economic output. The Gozinesh procedure, enshrined in the 1996 Selection Act, provides for the selection of personnel on the basis of religious thinking, ideological, moral and political factors.
These criteria are tested on the basis of specialist questions on religious practice, the Koran as well as politics, ideology and history of the Islamic Republic, as well as neighbors and families. The conformity of workers who have passed the gozinesh procedure will continue to be monitored in the workplace. This practice leads to the squandering of the potential of well-trained personnel, to well-trained people having to work in occupations for which they are overqualified, and to crucial positions being held by people who are not suitable. Many secular people, therefore, have to lead a double life for their jobs. These circumstances contribute significantly to the flight of talent, the exodus of qualified persons from Iran.
In addition to high unemployment, child labor and the employment of low-wage workers are widespread, especially from Afghanistan. There is no trade union representation for employees. Low-wage workers in particular are exposed to severe repression.
Iran has about 2500 km of highways and a large network of other roads including upgraded highways. The total road network has a length of 198,866 km (160,366 km of which were paved).
With 32.1 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year, the country had one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world. For comparison: In Germany, there were 4.3 deaths in the same year. In total, about 25,000 people were killed in road traffic. The reasons for this are an overloaded transport network with an insufficient infrastructure and relatively advanced motorization. In 2017, there were 256 motor vehicles per 1000 inhabitants in Iran (in Germany there were over 500 vehicles).
Iran has had a railway network since 1888.
- Railway Company of the Islamic Republic of Iran
- Trans-Iranian Railway.
The state-owned airline Iran Air flies domestic and international routes. Due to international sanctions, the airline is struggling with the condition of an outdated fleet. In addition to the state-owned Iran Air, there are a number of private airlines, allowing all major cities in Iran to be reached by plane.
In Iran, about 224 billion kWh of electrical energy were generated in 2013, 92% of which in thermal power plants fired with natural gas (70%) or oil. The remaining 8% came from nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewable energy sources. Demand for electricity is expected to continue to rise, although the government raised electricity prices by 25% at the beginning of 2014 and plans to increase it further in 2015 to reduce growth and dampen pressure on existing capacity. In order to meet demand, but also to be able to export even more electrical energy, the Ministry of Energy has proposed the construction of 35 new power plants.
Iran’s only nuclear power plant at present is the plant in Bushehr, which is expected to have a capacity of 700 MW. Its construction began in the 1970s, but due to Islamic Revolution, damage in the Iraq-Iran war and problems with the contractor Rosatom, which had been entrusted with the completion, the power plant was not connected to the grid until 2013. There are plans for two more units in Bushehr, each with a capacity of 1000 MW. Another nuclear power plant in Darkhovin has been planned for a long time. Plans to build nuclear power plants at 15 other sites have not yet been implemented due to international sanctions against Iran.
Iran developed into a major dam builder. 157 dams have been built, 84 are under construction or planned, before the Islamic Revolution there were only 13 dams in the country. Apart from producing electricity, which in turn releases more oil for export, the country wants to manage the increasing water shortage. The largest project is the Bakhtiyari Dam in Lorestan province in southwestern Iran, in the Zagros Mountains. It is to become the largest double-arched dam in the world, with a height of 315 meters. Due to its difficult geographical location, it is not necessary to relocate people for this purpose.
Iran gained access to the Internet in 1993. In 2020, 84 percent of Iran’s residents used the internet. Internet content is monitored by the Internet police “Fata”, which monitors Instagram channels, for example.
Culture in Iran
Persia, especially southern Fars, has numerous celebrities in poetry, of which Firdausi, Hafez and Saadi are some of the most famous. In modern times, prose gained increasing importance in Persian literature, for example with the works of Sadegh Hedayat, who made considerable and sometimes groundbreaking innovations both in style and in the choice of theme. Outside the framework of classical Persian poetry, new directions developed in poetry in the 20th century, including in particular the New Persian Poem (She’r-e Nou) and the White Poem (She’r-e Sepid). An unusual art form has recently been chosen by the comic author Marjane Satrapi, who lives in exile in France, who in her autobiographical work Persepolis tells of her childhood and youth during the Islamic Revolution and recorded conversations among women of her family in taunts.
The pre-Islamic literature available today goes back to the hymns attributed to the founder of the religion, Zarathustra, the gathas, and the yashts. There are works in various ancient Iranian languages. These include, in particular, Avestan and Middle Persian works, which deal to a large extent with Zoroastrian themes, but also with historical and Manichean content.
Traditional Iranian architecture reflects the climatic and social conditions of the country. In order to survive the very hot and dry summer weather, Qanate, underground water reservoirs and ice houses have been built for three millennia. Wind towers bring fresh air into the living spaces, some of which are underground, where it is painted over water surfaces to cool the premises. The building material is mainly clay and bricks fired or unfired from it; this building material protects against heat and keeps the heat in the room when it is cold. Walls, be they city walls or walls around one’s own house, reflect the numerous raids suffered by the population of Iran, but also the religious necessity to separate private life from public life.
Thus, the traditional house has no windows to the outside, but only into a courtyard. The Zoroastrianist preference for light as a source of beauty, but also the preference for rich decorations, has been handed down to this day as a defining element of Iranian architecture. The traditional Iranian city separates residential areas from business districts, where the bazaar and main square are also located. Ethnic and religious minorities are usually assigned their own neighborhoods; rich and poor inhabitants, however, were not separated from each other.
The earliest pre-Islamic architecture of Iran is preserved in the form of remains of mud-brick houses (Tappe Zaghe near Qazvin). The Elamites built huge ziggurats covered with mosaics of glazed bricks, as in Chogha Zanbil. The first major city was the planned residence of the Medes kings, Ekbatana. From the Achaemenid period, numerous architectural remains of the typical elegant palaces, mausoleums and fire temples decorated with reliefs have been preserved, especially the capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis. Among the Parthians, vaults, keel arches and the heavy use of stonemasonry and stucco work were introduced. The Sassanids oriented themselves on the buildings of the Achaemenids, their buildings were characterized by elaborate paintings.
After the introduction of Islam in Iran, architectural work also changed. Mosques, initially still simple buildings, soon became domed buildings to Iranian taste, decorated with calligraphy, stucco, muqarnas, tiles, mosaics and mirror work. Among the most architecturally significant religious buildings are the Imam Reza Shrine, the Shrine of Fatima Masuma, the Shah Abdol Azim Shrine or the Shah Cheragh. The decoration of the mosques with tiles not only outside, but also inside, came up in the 13th century, whereby the tiles can have floral, calligraphy or geometric motifs. The Safavid were special patrons of architecture, they had their capital Isfahan equipped with the ensemble around the Meidan-e Emam, gardens and palaces such as the Chehel Sotun; the Zand embellished Shiraz with numerous buildings such as the citadel or gardens such as the Bāgh-e Eram.
In the Qajar era, European concepts found their way into Iranian architecture. Above all, the Beaux-Arts architecture is visible in numerous state-owned new buildings. In the interwar period, many buildings were designed for Iran by European architects, which are only superficially decorated with Persian forms. The cityscape of many cities has been enriched with large squares and monuments, of which the Shahyad Tower from 1971 is the most famous. After the Islamic Revolution, everything Western and pre-Islamic was initially rejected, since then forms of construction have appeared that combine Iranian, Islamic and Western traditions, which is what the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan stands for. In view of the rapidly growing urban population, the rapid procurement of housing without architectural considerations is dominant in many places today.
With regard to architectural monuments and cultural assets, since 2018 there has been an initiative by Karl von Habsburg, President of Blue Shield International and the Austrian Ambassador Stephan Scholz to establish a national Blue Shield Committee.
Festivals and holidays
There is such a high number of holidays and festivals in Iran that critical voices fear that the economy will be damaged by the many celebrations.
The Islamic holidays, for the Shiites predominantly days of mourning, are among the most important in the life of Iranians; there are festivals that generally belong to the Islamic religion and others that are celebrated only in Shiite Islam. General Islamic holidays include Fridays, Ramadan, and the Feast of Breaking the Fast, or the Feast of Sacrifice, with the tradition of decorating a camel for the Feast of Sacrifice, driving it through the city with a procession, and then sacrificing it being abolished during the Pahlavi period. Of the holidays associated with the life of the Prophet Mohammed, the birthday, the night journey and his death are celebrated, although this is not welcomed by conservative Muslims, but is nevertheless celebrated as a sign of commonality with Sunni Muslims.
The most important Shiite holidays are celebrated in the month of Muharram. On Tasua and Ashura, religious brotherhoods organize processions in all cities, in which the participants scourge themselves or carry oversized objects commemorating the death of Imam Husayn ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala. Typical of Iran are the dramatic performances called Ta’zieh, which re-enact the martyrdom of Husayn. It is very welcome if the participants show real, uninhibited grief. Not only the death of Husayn is mourned, but especially by the prophet’s daughter Fatemeh, his son-in-law Ali, Imam Jafar and Imam Ali Reza.
Four times a year, important festivals are celebrated, which originate from the Zoroastrian tradition, but today are largely secularized and which are celebrated by almost all peoples in the Iranian cultural area. These are Nouruz (celebrated with Chahar Shanbeh Suri and Sizdah for two weeks), the only non-Islamic public holiday, and Yalda. Nouruz is the Iranian New Year, which takes place at the spring equinox. It symbolizes a new beginning, for which people thoroughly clean their homes, wear new clothes and congratulate each other.
The central element of the celebrations is the arrangement of a Sofreh, a particularly beautiful cloth, on which seven objects with symbolically positive meaning are arranged, all of which must begin with the Persian S (Haft Sin). On the Wednesday before the Nouruz festival, bonfires are lit on Chahar Shanbeh Suri and whoever can jump over one of the fires to have luck and health in the coming year. Sizdah Bedar will be born on the 13.
Day of the New Year is celebrated; since the number 13 is considered an unlucky number, one should not get angry or argue on this day. On Sizdah Bedar, Iranians populate the parks and gardens and have fun with picnics. On Yalda, the longest night of the year, people light a fire and try to keep it burning all night. On this night, people do not sleep, but talk with food, storytelling or even dancing and music.
As in all other countries, there are also holidays to commemorate significant events in national history. In the case of Iran, events related to the Islamic Revolution and the life of Ayatollah Khomeini are commemorated, with the celebrations usually organized by the government. The holiday with the greatest participation of the citizens is the anniversary of Khomeini’s death, which is celebrated every year on June 4th.
Families who support (or want to be perceived as such) the ruling system visit a place associated with Khomeini’s life to mourn: Khomeini’s birthplace, his mausoleum, the Khomeini shrine or the city of Qom. On this day, black flags hang everywhere and particularly restrained clothing is expected of everyone. Other national holidays are held on the occasion of Khomeini’s arrest after the 1963 riots (June 5), the victory of the Islamic Revolution (February 12), the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (March 20) and the referendum on the establishment of the Islamic Republic (April 1).
The cuisine of Iran is very diverse. It has many similarities with Indian, Central Asian, Turkish and other oriental cuisines. The urban cuisine of the Persian highlands is considered standard and enriched by numerous dishes of local or ethnic origin. The staple foods in Iran are rice and wheat. Wheat is mainly consumed in the form of bread, which Iranians like to buy fresh for every meal.
The two most popular types of bread are tâftun and lava, which are formed into very thin loaves and baked against the inner wall of the oven. In the traditional meal, which is taken sitting on a cloth by divided bowls and plates, this flatbread not only serves as food, but also replaces plates and cutlery. Rice has long been a luxury product for the rich, but today it is regularly served throughout the country.
It is simply cooked and mixed with butter ( kateh), prepared with vegetables or meat for an independent meal (polo, e.g. the sour cherry cry ālbālu polo) or artfully cooked, then steamed (chelo, with the coveted crust at the bottom of the pot, tahdig) and garnished with saffron rice. This type of rice with grilled meat, tomatoes, onion and herbs is the national dish of Iran under the name chelo kabāb and is on the menus of restaurants throughout the country in many variations.
Chelo can also be served together with Khorescht, a kind of ragout that is also found in many variations. Variants of Chelo-Khorescht include Khoresht-e fesenjan (chicken in a walnut and pomegranate sauce) or Ghormeh Sabzi (Green Stew). Abguscht is also a kind of ragout in which meat, beans, vegetables, herbs and fruit are cooked. After cooking, the solid components are sieved from the broth and pureed; Broth and puree are served with bread. Abguscht in one of its many forms is eaten by the poorer Iranians almost daily. Stews (āsh) with vegetables, noodles, beans, barley or yogurt as the main ingredient are also an inseparable part of Iranian cuisine.
Spices are used only cautiously in Iranian cuisine, in contrast to those of some neighboring countries. An important feature of traditional Iranian cuisine is the classification of food into hot and cold. This term does not refer to the temperature of the products, but to their presumed effect on the human condition. Iranian chefs strive to combine hot and cold foods in such a way that they are in balance with each other.
The national drink of Iran is tea, which is often sipped through a piece of sugar held with its teeth. Alcoholic beverages have been strictly forbidden to Muslims of Iran since the Islamic Revolution, although quite a few, despite the risk of flogging, consume them. For food, many Iranians like to drink Dugh, a lightly salted yogurt drink that is often refined with spices or herbs.
|Iranian feature film production|
The first films ever shown in Iran go back to Mozaffar ad-Din Shah, who had a cinématograph brought back from a state visit to France in 1900. The films taken by his photographer Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi became part of the entertainment of the royal court. However, the new medium had great difficulty in being accepted in Iranian society: the first cinemas were accused of witchcraft, it was claimed that Satan was invoked there and that moviegoers were engaged in immoral activities; the religious leader at the time, Fazlollah Nuri, demanded the closure of the cinemas. Especially the first Iranian actresses were exposed to numerous hostilities and social isolation.
In the early 1930s, there were 26 cinemas in the country. The pioneers of film in Iran either came back from abroad like Khan Baba Motazedi or were Armenian immigrants like Hovhannes Ohanian. They also created the first Iranian films, mostly documentaries or mixtures of comedy and melodrama, as they would remain popular in the following decades. The first Persian-language sound film was produced by Abdolhossein Sepanta in 1933 in India; In 1935, the government commissioned Sepanta to create the first film intended for educational purposes: a film about the poet Firdausi.
Under Reza Shah Pahlavi, cinema was promoted. The Shah had films produced to present his ceremonies, government activities and achievements. He created favorable conditions for the import of foreign films, so that productions from the USA, Russia and Europe dominated. The domestic film industry limited itself to dubbing. It was only after the Second World War that the first film productions began in the studio Mitrā Film of Esmail Koushan, who achieved his first success after a few financial failures with Sharm (Desecrated); this film was based on the then popular Indian films.
This was followed by a division of Iranian film into two currents: the Sinemā Farsi with mostly cheap, commercially oriented productions and the films of the New Wave (mowj-e now), which were produced by actors and directors trained in Europe and were artistically sophisticated, but mostly only successful outside Iran. As part of the White Revolution of the Pahlavi government, film academies, the production company Telefilm and art festivals were founded. A large budget was allocated to film production under state control.
The Islamic Revolution initially brought filmmaking in the country to a standstill: numerous cinemas, which were regarded by Islamic activists as a hotbed of corruption, were destroyed – including the attack on the Rex cinema in Abadan with 430 fatalities. The artists were deprived of funding, subjected to arbitrary regulations, accused of illegal activities, arrested, some even executed. However, the new rulers also recognized the propaganda potential of the medium and used it, for example, to spread “Islamic values” and in the context of the Iraq-Iran war. Only since the 1990s has there been filmmaking on other subjects in the country again, although the rules can be extremely restrictive depending on the political situation. This is especially true for female figures, who must always be correctly portrayed according to moral and Islamic standards.
Despite these adverse production conditions (for example in Taxi Tehran), there is today a vibrant, internationally recognized Iranian film scene with internationally renowned Iranian directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and Jafar Panahi. However, many films are not allowed to be shown in Iran itself. Due to censorship, official pressure on actors and producers as well as the imposition of travel restrictions and professional bans, some filmmakers, such as actress Golshifteh Farahani or director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, are now living in exile. In 2012, Nader and Simin – A Separation from Asghar Farhadi became the first Iranian film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
In addition to the multi-layered subtle-suggestive works of the New Wave, which meet high aesthetic standards and repeatedly receive awards at international festivals, the second current of the film Farsi, which is often accompanied by scenes of violence, is particularly successful in Germany. Foreign films are rarely shown officially, but are usually still accessible to the population via the black market.
According to Reporters Without Borders, at least seven journalists and twelve bloggers are currently (as of January 2018) in prison in Iran, including Narges Mohammadi, a journalist, women’s rights activist and spokeswoman for the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.
Tehran is the media center of the country. The most important daily newspapers such as Abrar, Ettelā’āt, Hamshahri, Jumhori-yi Islami, Keyhan, Resalat, Shargh, the English-language newspapers Tehran Times, Kayhan International, Iran Daily, Iran News and the literary and art magazine Nafeh are published here. The most well-known news agencies are Islamic Republic News Agency, Iranian Students News Agency and Mehr News Agency. All newspapers, news agencies and the state radio and television broadcasters (IRIB) are subject to state censorship. According to Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution, these are directly subordinate to the Supreme Leader. During anti-government protests in January 2018, the messengers Telegram and WhatsApp were blocked on the mobile network. The work of the press and the organization of the protests was thus massively restricted, as coordination and exchange of information was no longer possible.
In addition, there are over 30 Persian-language television stations from the San Fernando Valley, California, near Los Angeles, which can be received via satellite or the Internet in Iran.
Iran gained access to the Internet in 1993. In 2018, about 70 percent of Iran’s residents used the internet. According to Alexa Internet statistics, Google is the most widely used search engine in Iran and Instagram is the most popular social network. Direct access to many globally popular websites has been blocked in Iran, including Instagram and Facebook. However, in 2017, Facebook had around 40 million subscribers in Iran (48.8% of the population) who used VPN and proxy servers to access the site. High-ranking politicians, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, also use US social networks banned in Iran.
Iran in sports
Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, sports in Iran were shaped by the puritanical worldview of the new rulers: a number of sports such as boxing, equestrian sports, fencing or chess were banned for various reasons. Playing cards is still officially forbidden today. Women were generally no longer allowed to do sports. In the new Iranian society, almost all form of entertainment was abolished, so football matches were some of the few remaining distractions for young men. Although there were repeated riots related to football matches, the government did not dare to ban football matches. In the 1980s, sport prevailed as an acceptable form of entertainment for the government, since then sporting events from home and abroad have been broadcast on Iranian television, provided that the clothing of the athletes does not violate the ideas of the religious leadership too much.
Football is Iran’s most popular team sport. The Iranian national team has won the Asian Games and the Asian Cup several times. She took part in the FIFA World Cup several times without progressing beyond the preliminary round. However, the victory against the US in 1998 caused great euphoria in Iran, the government could not help but allow people to celebrate in the streets.
The government of Iran still regards football as Western corrupt and therefore tries to counter it with traditional Iranian weight training, although it is strongly associated with the Pahlavi regime. These efforts have had little success because young Iranians see him as old-fashioned. From this tradition, however, the Iranian strength in individual sports such as wrestling, weightlifting, taekwondo and judo has grown. Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh won several Olympic gold medals and Iranian athletes such as Hadi Saei Bonehkohal achieved international success in Korean-dominated taekwondo.
Today, Iranian women are allowed to do sports again. In particular, Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Rafsanjani, had campaigned for women’s own sports facilities. Since the beginning of October 2019, women in Iran have also been allowed to enter football stadiums for men’s team matches for the first time since 1979. The lifting of the ban was preceded by the public self-immolation of Sahar Chodāyāri, which led to protests by the Iranian people, international criticism and pressure from FIFA. Chodāyāri, who eventually succumbed to her injuries, had disguised herself as a man to attend a football match, but was exposed and subsequently arrested. With her suicide, she protested against the threat of being sentenced to prison.