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Overview Recent History Economy People The Calendar

Norouz- (Iranian New Year) Music  Cinema Cuisine Famous Iranians

Iran, with its 65 million inhabitants, is the most populous nation in the Middle East. It is bordered by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Iraq, directly between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

The capital of Iran is Tehran, in the north-central part of the country. The north of Tehran is surrounded by the Alborz mountains. Though a mere village a little more than 200 years ago, Tehran is now a bustling city of 10 million people. It is the governmental, financial, and cultural hub of the country.

Other major cities include Shiraz, Mashad, Tabriz, Isfahan, Abadan, Hamedan and Karaj. Shiraz is known for being the home of Hafez and other famous Persian poets. Isfahan, a UNESCO heritage city, is known for its architectural splendors. Abadan, a relatively new city, is the center of Iran's petroleum industry. Hamedan is known for the ruins of the ancient city of Ecbatana.

The history of Persia (known in the west as Iran since 1935) is over 2500 years old, dating back to the times of Cyrus the Great. In this long period of time, Persian culture has come to be one of the richest in the world. Given Iran's central location, its culture is a mixture of east and west.

The past 100 years have been very eventful ones in Iranian history. In the beginning of the century, under the Qajar dynasty, Iran witnessed a Constitutional Revolution in 1906. This series of revolts called for the creation of a majles or parliament. In 1921, Reza Khan, a Cossack officer, invaded Tehran with his troops. He consequently became Minister of War. In 1924, he ousted the ruling monarch, Ahmad Shah, ending over a hundred years of Qajar rule and creating the new Pahlavi dynasty, becomming Reza Shah.

Reza Shah started Iran on a track of modernization. Schools and universities were built and roads and rail networks were dramatically expanded. He also made numerous social reforms, such as forcing civilian men to adopt western attire and liberating women from the traditional veil. Reza Shah was forced by the British and Russians to abdicate in 1941 and consequently went into exile. He died in 1944 in South Africa.

Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza, assumed power upon his father's abdication. Returning to power after a brief exile in 1953, the Shah began to implement his own reforms in the early 60's known as the White Revolution. The goals of these programs included land reform, increasing literacy and improving infrastructure, in addition to numerous other projects. Mohammad Reza Shah was coronated in 1968, adopting the title Shahanshah Aryamehr (King of Kings, Light of the Aryans). In 1971, Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire.

Rising opposition towards the Shah in the late 1970s led to the revolution of 1979. The monarchy collapsed soon after the Shah's departure from Iran in January 1979 and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile the following month. The Islamic Republic was established shortly thereafter, with Abolhassan Bani-Sadr becomming the first president. The Shah died in Egypt in July 1980.

War broke out with Iraq in September 1980, lasting eight years and costing both sides tremendously. The war ended in a 1988 UN-sanctioned cease-fire. Ayatollah Khomeini died the following year, being succeeded by Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei as Leader of the Revolution. After the war, a massive reconstruction effort was initiated, and Iran began improving relations with other nations, particularly western ones. In 1989, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected President of Iran. Mr. Rafsanjani, who began the implementation of market reforms, served as president for eight years.

In May 1997, former Culture Minister Seyed Mohammad Khatami, a relatively unknown moderate, won a surprising landslide victory against Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri in the presidential race, seizing 70% of the popular vote. Mr. Khatami, who is arguably one of the most popular politicians in Iran's history, has promised numerous reforms and the expansion of freedoms.

Since his inauguration in August 1997, Mr. Khatami has worked to improve Iran's foreign relations, enforce the rule of law in Iran, increase opportunities for women, and establish a "civil society", in addition to massive economic reform. The date of Khatami's election, the 2nd of Khordad (May 23rd), has come to symbollize Iran's reform movement. The 2nd of Khordad Movement is an umbrella term for Iran's reformists.

In the two years since Mr. Khatami has been elected, many individual and press liberties have increased. Relations with the west have improved as well. In January 1998, President Khatami addressed the American public on CNN, calling for increased dialogue between the citizens of the two nations.

Today, with events taking place in the Persian Gulf and the importance of the Caspian Sea region, Iran is playing an increasingly important and influential role in the area.

President of Iran: Mr. Mohammad Khatami

Foreign Minister: Dr. Kamal Kharrazi

Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.: Mr. Hadi Nejad-Husseinian

Minister of Culture: Dr. Ataollah Mohajerani

For a more complete list of Mr. Khatami's cabinet, please refer to the website of the Iranian presidency.

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Iran's economy is still largely based by petroleum, natural gas and agriculture. The country is rich in mineral resources, including oil, gold, copper and silver. Handcrafts, most importantly the world-renown Persian carpets comprise a large part of the economy as well. However, an industrial base is developing in Iran, providing for the local manufacturing of goods such as automobiles, buses, televisions, furniture and foodstuffs.

President Khatami has recently announced Iran's next Five-Year Plan. Under this plan, the government hopes to decrease inflation, and to privatize many state-dominated industries such as telecommunications, post and sugar. This plan recently won preliminary approval in the parliament.

The Iranian unit of currency is the Rial. 10 Rials equal one Toman. The dollar is currently traded at approximately 830 Tomans.


By definition, "Iranians" are of Indo-European origin. However, many people are of Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish and other backgrounds. The most commonly spoken language is Farsi (an Indo-European language). Each region has its own dialect of Farsi. The differences are subtle enough that people from different regions can generally understand each other. Turkish is also common, especially in the north, and there is an indigenously Arab population in the south that speaks Arabic.

The majority of Iranians are Shi'ite Muslim, though there are also many members of the Sunni Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and other faiths.

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Iran's educational system is in many ways both similar and different from the American system. There are 11 years of preparatory education, 5 years of elementary school (Dabestan), 3 years of Middle-School (Rahnama'i), and 3 years of high school (Dabirestan). After completion of these years, students graduate with a high school diploma. As of last year, students have to complete one year of a separate pre-college program known as "pish-daneshgahi". During that year, students can prepare for the national College Entrance Exams (Concours). Based on the ranking students receive on this test, they can select which university to attend based on the ones that are available to them.

The first modern institute of higher learning in Iran was the Dar al-Fonoun school set up by Amir Kabir in the 1850's. The first formal university in Iran to resemble western counterparts was the University of Tehran, a comprehensive university that was founded in the 1930s. Iran's top engineering school is Sharif University of Technology. Other major universities include Shiraz University, Shahid Beheshti University and Iran University of Science and Technology. After the revolution, a series of semi-private universities known as Azad (Open) University opened around the country. Iranian universities, like their American counterparts, are based on the credit and semester systems.

Many Iranian students have in recent years been winners of various international academic Olympiads, particularly in mathematics.

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The Persian calendar is solar like the Christian calendar, but dates from the Arab/Muslim invasion of Iran and the introduction of Islam into the country. Hence, it is currently the year 1378 in the Persian Calendar. This calendar (called Hejrieh Shamsi), which is incredibly precise, was devised by the renowned Persian mathematician Omar Khayyam. The Iranian months are: Farvardin, Ordibehesht, Khordad, Tir, Mordad, Shahrivar, Mehr, Aban, Azar, Day, Bahman, Esfand.

The Iranian calendar year was briefly changed in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire in 1971. The year was changed from 1350 Hejrieh Shamsi to 2530 Melli (national). This calendar was unpopular and the nation reverted to the old calendar soon afterwards.

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New Year's Day (Norouz) is the spring equinox, usually March 20th or 21st. This year, Noruz will be on Saturday, March 20th, at 8:46:29 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Norouz Haft SeenThe new year's celebrations last 13 days, culminating in Sizdeh-be-dar, the last day of the celebrations. In order to avoid bad luck in the home, families traditionaly go outdoors for picnics, etc.

Prior to Norouz, on the last Wednesday of the previous year, Iranians celebrate what is known as Chahar Shanbe Souri, where people jump over bonfires in an attempt to rid themselves of the sins they may have committed throughout the year or bad luck they may have. This holiday, like Norouz, dates from Pre-Islamic times.

Today, Norouz is also celebrated in Turkey, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Some Norouz-related links:

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Music has traditionally played a large role in Iranian culture. Iran's music, though similar to that of its neighbors, is at the same time very unique. There are several "Iranian" instruments, such as the Santur, which is similar to the Sitar. These instruments are commonly used. Piano and violin are also common. Iranian pop music of recent years is consequently a mix of Iranian and western instruments, with Farsi lyrics.

Some noted figures in Iranian music are Javad Maroufi and Anoushirvan Rohani, who are notable in classical music circles. Famous pop musicians include Viguen, Bijan Mortazavi, Leila Forouhar and Andy Madadian. Some noted bands include Shahin and Sepehr, and Black Cats.

A new wave of pop music is currently emerging inside Iran, with singers such as Shadmehr Aghili, Khashayar Ehtemadi, Mohammad Esfahani and Alireza Assar.

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Iranian cinema quickly risen to prominence in recent years. Despite numerous constraints, Iranian producers have succeeded in making many high-quality films that have increasingly received international recognition. One of the most recognized directors is Abbas Kiarostami, whose films have won numerous awards, including the Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'Or award in 1997. Other directors Dariush Mehrjui and Tahmineh Milani. Famous Iranian films include Badkonak-e-Sefid (The White Balloon), Banou-e-Ordibehesht (The May Lady), Leila, Do Zan (Two Women) and Majid Majidi's Bacheha-e-Aseman (Children of Heaven), the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Oscar.

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Persian food is greatly varied. The most popular fare by far is Chelo Kabab which is kabab on a skewer served on a bed of rice, usually served with dugh a yogurt-mint drink. Rice (namely long-grain Basmati) plays an essential role in Iranian food. Additionally important is Saffron, a very rare spice that is only grown in Iran and Spain. Aash, a kind of soup, is also very popular. There are numerous varieties of Aash. Other popular dishes are Zereshk Polo, Gourme Sabzi and Addas Polo. Deserts include traditional Iranian ice cream (Bastani), which is french vanilla with a strong scent of Saffron. Also popular is Zulbia Ba'amieh.

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Many Iranians have obtained fame outside of their native country. The Iranian community is one of the most successful immigrant groups in the United States. As former US House speaker Newt Gingrich recently stated, "...Iranian-Americans have contributed much to America since they arrived in the last several decades. We are proud of your heritage and of the added strength you have brought to our comunities nationwide".

Some famous Iranians and people of Iranian origin include:

  • Christiane Amanpour, CNN Foreign Correspondent
  • Dineh Mohajer, Founder of Hard Candy
  • Vartan Gregorian, Former President of Brown University
  • Mohammad Khakpour - Player, New York / New Jersey Metrostars
  • Maziar Mafi - Democrat Congressional Candidate (California)
  • Afshin Mohebbi, President and COO, Qwest Corporation
  • Pierre Omidyar, Founder of E Bay (and Tufts graduate)
  • Bijan Pakzad, Owner, Bijan Apparel and Fragrances
  • Shahriar Pourdanesh, Player, Washington Redskins
  • Sohrab Sobhani - Republican Senate Candidate (Maryland)

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