Part 1 of "Understanding Iran" appears here.
For the source of this map and the larger original version see here.
INTERNAL CHARACTERISTICS OF IRAN
(1) First Things First
There are a number of heated questions about Iran. (a) What role does and should Islam play in its politics? (b) Are its democratic arrangements anything more than a sham? (c) How bad is its human rights record? (d) Is it seeking to develop Nuclear Weapons and the missile capacity to deliver them? (e) Is it implicated in terrorist activity? (f) Is it a de-stablising influence in Iraq and other Middle East nations? (g) What are the rights and wrongs in connection with its disputes with America? (h) If Iran is at fault in such areas, then how should other nations respond?
Before turning our attention to such matters, it is first worth clearing the ground by examining some relevant but less contentious matters about its make-up. That is the purpose of this section. The above issues will arise in later sections.
(2) Sense Of Indentity
Iran (known formerly as Persia) is one of the oldest continuous major civilisations in the world. Although the shape of what was at one time known as the Persian Empire has altered over time, the modern boundaries of Iran have a strong similarity to those established at the onset of the Safavid Dynasty in 1501. This long heritage gives the people of Iran a particularly strong sense of national identity.
In certain respects this contasts with the experiences of some of their Arab (and Jewish) neighbours in the region, whose national boundaries were shaped by the actions of Western powers after the first and second world wars. Yet these Semitic peoples also have traditions which go well back in the Middle East. These experiences (and even more powerfully those of the Iranians), contrast strongly with those of another of today's key player in the Middle East - the USA. America as an immigrant-based nation, having only come into existence with the issue of its Declaration of Independence under 250 years ago.
It is over 6 times the size of the UK; or the size of France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the UK combined. It is a sixth the size of the USA and the 18th largest nation in the world.
It has a population of 70 million, which is 10 million more than the UK. Its population is currently approaching a quarter of that of the USA, but it is expected to double in the next 20 years.
Some 50% of its population are under 16, whilst the equivalent in the UK (which is seen as having an ageing population) is 20%. In terms of ethnic background, just over half of the Iranian population are Persian. Azerbaijan is to the north of Iran and almost a quarter of the population in the highly urbanised north-west of Iran are Azeriz. Minority groups include Kurds (7%) and Arabs (3%). Paramilitary and political pressures to establish an independent Kurdistan which would take in neighbouring areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran impact upon Iranian politics and their military.
89% of Iranians are Shia Muslims, 9% are Sunni Muslims - the remaining 2% cover "other religions", primarily Zoroastrians, Christians and a shrinking number of Jews. Anyone who is an atheist or an agnostic keeps the information to themselves. Iran is an Islamic Republic and religious matters will re-emerge in more details in later sections which deal with Constitutional and Political matters in Iran.
Only 11% of its working population are employed in agriculture, with the remainder divided between industrial and service trades; covering from construction, automobile manufacturing and petrochemicals to the production and sale of textiles and artisan goods. Tehran has a population of almost 7 million; with Tabriz, Mashhad, Shiraz and Esfahan all having populations of over a million. The western area of the country is more heavily populated than the central to eastern areas.
(7) Living Standards
According to figures from the International Monetary Fund, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head of population in Iran is just below 25% of that for the UK and below 20% of the USA's. Figures from the University of Pennsylvania indicate that Iran's GDP per head is, however, much greater than those of its neighbours in Pakistan, Iraq and Afganistan - by factors of more than 2.5, 5 and 10. Iranian living standards are, however, under threat from its rapidly expanding population and the factors mentioned next. (See here for details)
(8) Unemployment and Inflation
Official Iranian statistics claim that unemployment stands at 11% and inflation (a more recent figure) is at 19%. But as those women and the elderly who are likely to be looking for work are generally excluded from the statistics, it is claimed that the percentage unemployed could well be as high as 22%. Doubt is also thrown on the inflation figure. It could be as high as 30%.
(9) Imports and Exports
China is a major trading partner and accounts for 12.8% of Iran's exports and 10.5% of its imports. Exports to China are only exceeded by those to Japan - at 14%. Most of the exports to the Far East are of oil.
The main local trade for exports is to Turkey (7.2%) with 9.4% of imports coming from the United Arab Emirates. The latter having a wealthy and diversified economy. A mutual programme of sanctions contains trade between Iran and the USA. Iran holds 10% of the world's oil reserves, yet its export activity means that it operates petrol rationing within Iran itself.
(10) Mixed Economy
Iran runs a mixed economy, with State control of banking, power and other large scale industries. It has a Minister of Co-operatives covering consumer and producer bodies in areas such as agriculture and credit activity. Details about its politically important nuclear developments will be covered in a later section.