Iran is the 18th largest country of the world, currently holding about 72,000,000 people inside its 7,000,000 km perimeter. Iran has a vast variety of flora and fauna, much like a more compact version of the United States. Iran has many ethnicities living within its borders, which causes confusion. There's a small Arab minority, mainly in the south from Shatt al-Arab all along the coastlines overlooking the Arabian Gulf, however, Persians are not Arabs and they will be very insulted if you call them that. Lord help you if you ever point out that Islam (the religion of Iran) is itself an Arabic construction, too.
Iran is an old country, dating back to 900 B.C. (or 3200 B.C. if you count Elam). Iran's history is divided into two parts by historians, Ancient Iran and post-Islamic Iran.
Iranians have called their country "Iran" since ancient times, the name being ultimately derived from Airyanem kshathra, or "land of the Aryans". The first Iranian empire had its origins in Fars province (Parsa in Old Persian), so the Greeks called the country "Persis," whence "Persia" is derived .That name was used in the West until 1935, when the Shah politely asked everyone to start using the name Iran.
At one point or another throughout its history, Iran has had Egypt, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Transoxiana, the Armenian plateau, the Caucasus, Punjab, and northern Greece under its rule, all of which has been lost to various other empires, such as the Arabs, Mongols, Russia and Britain.
Iran uses a solar calendar, invented by the famous Omar Khayyam. Each year starts at the first day of spring, celebrated by a traditional holiday named Nowrouz (meaning The Renewed Day).
Iran's official language is Persian or Farsi, and the official script is the Arabic alphabet with the addition of four letters to make up for sounds which Arabic lacks.
Persian is not related to Arabic, despite the large number of loanwords. Persian is an Indo-European language, which makes it related to Hindi and most languages spoken in Europe, including English. Old Persian was rather similar to Sanskrit, though it evolved and picked up a fair amount of vocabulary from Arabic.
A good analogy for Farsi's linguistic situation is actually English: just as English is a Germanic language with substantial Romance (specifically French) vocabulary, Farsi is an Indo-European language (which Germanic and Romance languages are as well, by the way, albeit in separate sub-families both to Farsi and each other) with substantial Semitic (specifically Arabic) vocabulary. Just as French-derived words in English are more "high-class" or "technical" than the Germanic ones, the Arabic imports in Farsi generally deal with more sophisticated topics (for the reason why, see this). For instance, in the same way that English government comes from Old French and is clearly related to the Modern French gouvernement (same thing), the Farsi word for "government" is the Arabic-derived hokumet (the Arabic is hukumah, but can be pronounced as hukumat in certain situations which we won't go into here). On the other hand, day-to-day words (or at least words whose meanings are very ancient) are almost inevitably Indo-European, just as 88% of the day-to-day vocabulary of English is Germanic. Star in English is clearly more closely related to the Dutch ster and German Stern than the French étoile or Italian stella, and the Farsi setāre is very obviously Indo-European (the Arabic word is najm).
Some Persian words that are cognates of English words include
baradar - brother
dokhtar - daughter, girl
dar - door
khoda - god
carkh - circle (actually means wheel)
abad - abode
djavan - young
now - new
The two languages' common origin means that there are many other examples.
Iran is a very diverse country. In addition to ethnic Persians, there are Azeris, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Jews, and other groups living in the country.
Also, there is great diversity in how people look. Many Iranians have a tan or olive complexion, but there are also pale blondes and redheads, as well as people with a vaguely South Asian appearance. Some Iranians even have skin as dark as someone from Africa or southern India.
Iran's official religion is Shi'a Islam. 98% of all Iranians are Muslim. Before Islam, most Iranians were Zoroastrian. A tiny community of Zoroastrians still live in Iran, but most Zoroastrians live elsewhere in modern times (particularly in India).
Despite this, Iran is not controlled by Sharia Law. Iran's judicial law is made-up on the spot. Iran's political system is supposed to be a mixture of "what's good and evil according to the subtext."
This is mostly because Shari'a is chiefly a Sunni concept, and relies on an interpretation of the way the judiciary ought to work that fell out of fashion in Shi'a circles several centuries ago. Mainstream Shi'a jurisprudence is of the Usuli branch of the Ja'fari school, which grants (among other things) extensive power to judges to interpret and re-interpret Qur'anic law as they see fit in a process known as ijtihad; ijtihad is seen in most Sunni circles as more or less impossible in modern times, and its revival and application to modern times is a very controversial issue among Sunni legal scholars.
Iranian Shiism is a surprisingly recent: the conversion process only began around 1500, with the rise of the Safavid dynasty, and only took hold after a few centuries of concerted effort by the Safavids to get the Iranians to change their religion. Before that, Iran was noted as a bastion of Hanafi Sunnism.
Since the inception of the Islamic Republic during the 1979 Revolution, Iran has garnered four different nations that qualify as their Arch-Enemy.
Useful Notes/Iraq was always a regional rival due to the oil issue, even under the Shah, but it wasn't until Saddam Hussein came into power that things really boiled over. Sensing the turmoil wrought from the Islamic Revolution, Saddam launched a military offensive in an attempt to gain control of Iranian oil, consequently instigating a war that lasted throughout the 1980s. Most countries supported Iraq, with America even going so far as to provide chemical weapons to Saddam, although Iran did receive foreign aid, most notably from China. It was only after the death toll reached a quarter of a million deaths before anybody was willing to negotiate a ceasefire. Ruhollah Khomeini, the orchestrator of the Revolution and the Supreme Leader of Iran, refused initially. It wasn't until Hashemi Rafsanjani, his deputy, persuaded him otherwise that he accepted the ceasefire. Tensions remained long after the war, and it wasn't until Saddam was dethroned that Iran and Iraq have started patching things up.
Iran has long felt that Israel is an illegitimate state, built upon unjust occupation of Palestinian inhabitants, while Israel feels that its existence is threatened at the prospect of Iran obtaining nukes (and vehemently maintains that Iran is looking to get nukes). Iran insists that their nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes, pointing to their being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (something Israel has not signed due to their "nuclear ambiguity"). Khomeini prosecuted Jews (along with anyone he felt was insufficiently Muslim) by the thousands under his rule, although things have softened up considerably since Ali Khamenei succeeded him, as Jews now have a member in the Iranian parliament. Nevertheless, Israel and Iran maintain their hostility. This has led to something of a proxy conflict between the two, as Iran funds Hezbollah in Lebanon (whose founders were followers of Khomeini) and Hamas in Gaza to annoy the Israelis.
Saudi Arabia has always been Iran's Arch-Enemy, though this fact is lost in the eyes of the Westerners (until very recently). There is the centuries old Shia-Sunni dispute (which won't be explained here), and then there are more contemporary issues. Modern Iran was founded on populism (it's not called Revolution for nothing), Saudi Arabia was founded through imperial interventionism that destroyed the last Caliphate. Iran is a form of democracy, while in Saudi Arabia they have a totalitarian monarchy. There's also the fact that Saudi Arabia sees the American failure in Iraq as handing the country to Iran, so Saudi Arabia sabotages the countries that are allied with Iran, such as Lebanon and Syria. Saudi Arabia also rallies fellow totalitarian monarchies of the Persian Gulf to gang up on Iran.
Currently Iran is under sanctions by the West, with at least a hundred people dying every year because of outdated airplanes, tears dropped because of low-speed Internet connections, and millions wasted from the lack of support of PayPal/Visa.
The president from 2005 to 2013 was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely noted for his antics and tongue-twister name. Widespread protests broke out over the results of his last election (2009), but were quickly put down. This was big news in the West, but then Michael Jackson died and they forgot about it. The President famously declared at Columbia University that Iran didn't have gay people like the United States did, and is an avowed Holocaust denier, as well as being anti-Israel in general. Internally, Ahmedinejad was noted as a populist and a leader of a movement of pietist laity: he was the first president not to be a cleric (he was a civil engineer and professor of engineering before going into politics full-time), and his faction was noted for mostly being made of hard-headed merchants and professionals, deeply religious and conservative but with a suspicion of clerics (he and Khamenei famously did not get along).
Ahmedinejad's successor is Hassan Rouhani, who surprisingly won the 2013 elections in one round. Rouhani is noted as a moderate cleric, from the same faction as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a pragmatist engaged in serious diplomacy on the nuclear issue.
Contrary to a popular interpretation of the Middle East, Iran actually has plenty of mountains covered in snow enough to support ski resorts. (This is actually true of the Middle East more generally; there are also snowy mountains and ski resorts in Turkey, Lebanon, and Morocco, and Iraq and Syria would be able to support a reasonable industry if they weren't, well, Iraq and Syria).
Human Rights and Politics
Iran has the second-highest execution rate in the world, just behind China.
The Guardian Council puts the "Islamic" in Islamic Republic of Iran. They are meant to interpret the law based on Muslim doctrine, they can veto bills from popularly-elected officials and they have authority to approve or disqualify parliamentary candidates. It repeatedly vetoes bills in favor of women's rights, electoral reform, the prohibition of torture and ratification of international human rights treaties.
Iran is controlled by an interesting conglomeration of a government. There is a Supreme Leader, a President, and the Majles, the Iranian parliament. The Supreme Leader is exactly as powerful as the name implies; elected officials only have however much authority the Supreme Leader sees fit to delegate to them.
Interestingly, the Jewish populace of Iran has a seat in parliament. (Iran hosts the second-largest population of Jews in the Middle East.)
The Armenian populace has one as well.
Iran's major export, and best known, is oil. It also exports goods to the landlocked countries of Central Asia, such as foodstuffs. Iran also has its hand in electronic consumerism, but just enough for the domestic use.
The Iranian economy is very interesting to economists, as it has robust GDP growth, but both inflation and unemployment are high—and having all three together is supposed to be impossible.note As it turns out, when you factor out oil, Iran's economic growth rate is rather small—in other words, Iran is facing stagflation.
The Cyrus Cylinder, issued by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century B.C., proclaims the benefits of Cyrus' rule, and has been called the first human rights charter in history. Despite being an ancient propaganda piece, Cyrus was indeed known for his enlightened rule. Iranian reformers count Cyrus and the Cylinder among their sources of inspiration.
Along with the Celts, ancient Iran was one of the most egalitarian societies with regards to gender. Women served as warriors, generals, and civil administrators. Today, women face numerous restrictions on dress and behavior, enforced with varying degrees of zeal. Despite this, there is a strong women's movement in Iran.
Iran has had a friendship with Armenia going back to ancient times, despite religious differences, though this strains Iran's relations with Azerbaijan as a result...which may seem strange at first, since more Azeris live in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and Tabriz, the capital of Azeri culture, is in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei (the current Supreme Leader) himself is Azeri on his father's side.
Iran's neutrality in the Nagorno-Karabakh War with Armenia was what really irked Azerbaijan. And Azeri nationalism being what it is, some of the more extreme nationalists believe northern Iran rightfully belongs to Azerbaijan. In response Israel has been grooming Azerbaijan as a possible ally if the countries go to war, selling them weapons.
Also, with the economic sanctions in place, Armenia is one of the only bordering countries that will still trade with Iran (not that it has much of a choice, since two out of the four countries that border with it have closed their borders). As a result, the two countries have a vested interest in keeping one another happy.
Most of Iran's allies are similarly geopolitical pariahs. It is one of the few countries that supports the Syrian government in its ongoing civil war. It also gets along okay with Russia and North Korea.
Though Iranians do not like to say they imitate Western culture per se, in reality the country is extremely multicultural and open to foreign influences.
Iranians have a rich background when it comes to science. You can check The Other Wiki for more information.
Iranian cuisine is very interesting and tasty. Those unfamiliar with it should think of a blend of Pakistani/North Indian and Middle Eastern, with Middle Eastern more dominant. Of course, it isn't so much a blend as a part of a larger spectrum of cuisines; many dishes considered characteristically North Indian or Middle Eastern have their origins (if not in their current forms) in Iran (e.g. kofta for the Middle East and naan for Pakistan/India), while Iran has itself imported, modified, and naturalized a large number of dishes from its neighbors. Naturally, the Iranian kitchen produces many delicious dishes:
Chelo-Kabab: Turkish kebab with rice cooked in the Iranian way. First rice is cooked with steam until it becomes soft and floppy like a marshmallow. Then it is dried and cooked again until it loses all the nutrients, but gains more flavour.
Khoresh-Ghorme-Sabzi: Biff, a special mix of vegetables and beans with spices. Eaten with rice.
Khoresh-Gheime: Biff, split pea with whatever you want, eaten with rice.
Koofte: Meatball. In Turkish parts of Iran, they're made with rice and vegetables. They're also called "Koofte-Tabrizi".
And many, many more.
Despite the image most people associate with Iran, in fact, the country is in fact very mountainous, and there is in fact enough snow on some of these mountains to host ski resorts.
Dash-Mashti: Favorite stereotype of older Iranian movies. See below.
Laat: Douchebags who waste their time, rarely doing anything.
Jakesh: The world literally means pimp, but it's used to describe loud-mouthed assholes in general.
Tork: Meaning Turk, this word is used to describe dumb people.
Bache-Sosol: Hipsters, in general.
Movies and TV Industry
Before the revolution, Iran's movie industry was a Bollywood-esque thing with Pretty Cool Guys jumping on motorcycles, flirting with girls, being rejected by their father after asking for marriage, taking them to a warehouse at night, being too decent gentlemen to commit premarital sex, being diagnosed with terminal cancer after that father accepts the marriage when the girl lies to his father about what took place in that warehouse, and then dying in peace.
Movies about Dash-mashtis (see above) were also popular at that time. These people had a promiscuous love interest, and even wives, but they preferred having sex with their favorite prostitute. They had master degrees in knife fighting, and they were all raised in poor neighborhoods by housemaid mothers. Although most of the above movies were extremely cheesy, there's one masterpiece, which is considered the best movie of early Iranian cinema, called "Gheisar". In this movie, Gheisar, our dash-mashti, seeks revenge after death of his brother and sister. His sister committed suicide after being raped by her friend's brother, and his brother was murdered for going after that dude. Long story short, he spends most of the movie running from cops.
Another good movie from this era is an adaptation from a short story called "Gav" (cow). This story is about a simple, rural man who, after his cow dies, goes crazy and thinks he's a cow.
After the revolution, films changed to fit the law. Also many children's movies with cute puppets were made during the 80s and 90s, because producing animation was too expensive and time-consuming.
Iranian cinema has become popular in Europe. Some notable post-revolution Iranian movies are:
Mother: A mother who has 5 children is dying, so she invites them to her house. The children have been apart for many years, and when they find each other living under the same roof again, instead of attending their soon-to-be dead mother, they spend their time conflicting with each other.
Kamal-ol-molk: Biography of the famous titular painter, Mohammad Ghaffari.
Storks Dream Without D: A surreal work from Hussein Yari.
Dog Massacre: In the early days of the Shah's fall, a man has sent his wife to clean up his fraudulent history so he can start a new life in the new government.
The Red: About a very, very dysfunctional couple.
Taste of Cherry: Probably the most famous movie of Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, about a man seeking help with his suicide. Suprisingly un-depressing for some reason.
As for TV, Iran produced good shows with original plots before they became soap opera-esque drama. Foreign shows have little to do with time slots; reruns are rarely found in Iranian TV. Some notable Iranian TV series are:
After the Rain: A TV series set in olden days, centering around a Jerk Ass land owner who has a dickhead brother in law. There's some Guy-love between the two, enough that after the feudal "Arbab" remarries another woman, the in-law kills him and burns his house.
The Nights of Barrareh: A journalist is deported to a village called Barrareh, home to some completely dimwitted people who believe that Alexander the Great once set foot there and tripped, Victor Hugo was theirs and peas are the only food on the planet.
The Magic Lamp: Probably the only Iranian show that's comparable to American shows.
Hafiz, Sa'adi, Ferdowsi, Khayyam and Molavi Rumi are known world-wide for their poetry. Some other classic Persian poets are:
Nezami Ganjavi: Wrote romantic poems. Most famous in the West for writing Layla and Majnun, the classic love story of Persian literature.
Obeid Zakani: His famous poem Cat and Mice is probably the predecessor of Tom and Jerry, with a cat who drinks and kills mice, then repents, but then he gets so mad about a mouse that he gathers an army to fight with them (and the mouse gathers an army, too). He has a Jook too, which mostly consists of homophobic and racist jokes.
Some modern Persian poets are:
And some notable Iranian writers are:
Sadegh Hedayat: Angst Fuel writer. Known for his Mind Screw book, The Blind Owl.
Mohammad Jamalzade: Although he left Iran when he was 9, he has many Persian books. He also lived for 101 years.
The Ghazal, a form of poem consisting of 12-14 couplets all ending with the same word, originated in Iran sometime in the 1200s.
The Iranian flag
The green, white and red bands symbolize Islam and growth, honesty and peace, and bravery and martyrdom, respectively. At the edges of the green and red bands are the stylized words "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") repeated 22 times, 11 on each side, symbolizing the day the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah: February 11, 1979 — or, according to the Persian calendar, Bahman 22, 1357 (the 22nd day of the 11th month). At the center is the stylized word "Allah", designed to resemble a tulip, a symbol of martyrdom.