Iran - or Persia, as it was known until the ruling shah decreed otherwise in 1935 - is a south-west Asian country three times the size of France. It is bordered by Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its capital is Tehran. It became the Islamic Republic of Iran after the revolution in 1979.
The most populous country in the region, with 69.8 million people (UN, 2004), just over half of whom are ethnic Persians. The other main ethnic groups are Azeri (24 per cent), Gilaki and Mazandarani (8 per cent) and Kurd (7 per cent). In addition, Iran has been host over the past two decades to a huge refugee population, mainly from Afghanistan.
The principal language is Persian (Farsi). Nearly one-third of the population is aged 14 or under, and nearly two-thirds aged between 15 and 64. Life expectancy is 69 for men and 72 for women. The literacy rate is 78 per cent (men) and 66 per cent (women). Nearly all Iranians are Muslim: Shia Muslim (89 per cent); Sunni Muslim (10 per cent); Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Bahais are 1 per cent.
Iran depends on its oil and gas: it is the second-largest Opec oil producer and has the world's largest reserves of gas. Oil and gas account for 85 per cent of its exports. It also exports carpets, nuts and some other goods, but its attempts to diversify have not been successful.
Approximately 10 per cent of the land is arable and agriculture contributes just over 20 per cent to GNP, employing a third of the labour force. GDP growth rate is 5 per cent, and inflation runs at 13 per cent.
The unemployment rate is estimated to be 16-20 per cent, but is probably even higher, and constitutes a very serious domestic problem.
Reporters sans Frontieres has described Iran as "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East". Censorship is strict and reporters who challenge the regime may be imprisoned. Television is very popular, with at least 80 per cent of the population watching. At various times, the ban on satellite TV has been enforced. Roughly seven million Iranians have access to the internet, which is another way in which many people circumvent the censorship. Until recently, the country banned modern popular western music (though there were underground bands) but now Iran is producing heavy metal and rock with female vocals.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, is the final arbiter, with control over the judiciary and the armed forces. The president, Mohammad Khatami, first elected in May 1997, leads a reformist government, which nearly always comes off second-best in tussles with the powerful conservative Islamists grouped round the Supreme Leader. After the widespread banning of reformist candidates, conservatives now also control the parliament. The reformists, however, have succeeded in lessening some of the restrictions imposed in the early years of the Islamic republic. These apply particularly to women, who may now, for instance, sit on the judiciary.
More than half of university graduates in 2004 were women and many jobs are open to them. Nevertheless, the laws on gender remain severe. Women must cover their hair and most of their body, and not appear in public with any man who is not a relative; they are not permitted to travel without their husband's permission; stoning to death is a legal form of punishment for sexual misconduct. But it is worth pointing out that many of these rules are broken cheerfully and the most savage punishments rarely imposed.