What Should I Know About Iran?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
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  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Iran is a huge country in the Middle East. It covers 636,400 square miles (1,648,200 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of Alaska. It shares borders with Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan, and has coastline along both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

People began settling the region as far back as 8000 BCE, with fairly sophisticated civilizations springing up around 6000 BCE. In 3000 BCE the extensive Elamite Empire, about which comparably little is known, formed in the region. Between 3000 and 2000 BCE the Aryans made their way from the north and settled present-day Iran.

In the 8th century BCE the Medes formed the Iranian Empire, setting the stage for the country as a unified, powerful nation. In the 6th century BCE Cyrus the Great formed the Persian Empire, unifying the region, strengthening it substantially, and expanding its borders. King Darius led the Persian Empire through what was arguably its greatest period of growth in the 5th century, introducing standardized coinage to the world, creating an impressive road system, building a canal to connect the Nile with the Red Sea, and expanding the Empire to become the great superpower of the age.


The Persian Empire was briefly conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. It quickly reasserted itself, however, with the subsequent Parthian Empire dominating much of the world. Over the next five centuries Parthia would keep the Romans at bay, expanding their territory in the process. In the 3rd century a new empire, the Sassanian Empire, arose in Iran. At the peak of the Sassanian Empire’s power, it had conquered Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Armenia, and parts of the Caucuses, Pakistan, Turkey, and Syria.

The Sassanian Empire seemed virtually unstoppable, but in the mid-7th century, after a crushing defeat at the hands of the Arabs, the Empire collapsed. The Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates ruled over the country for the next 150 years, suppressing uprisings by the Persians, and eventually converting most of the nation to Islam. Eventually the Persians retook Iran, driving the Caliphate out.

For the next few centuries the country was mostly in the hands of smaller dynasties, never truly achieving the same unity it had held during the Sassanian Empire. In the early 13th century Genghis Khan arrived, sacking most of Iran and massacring a huge portion of the population. The Mongols retained control through the 13th and 14th centuries, continuing to pillage and oppress the people.

In the 16th century, nearly a millennia after the last truly Persian emperor had controlled Iran, the Safavid dynasty arose. The Safavid dynasty set in place many of the institutions that define contemporary Iran. This dynasty was responsible for fighting off the Ottoman Empire, chasing some European powers from regional control of parts of the Persian Gulf, and opening up trade substantially with the West.

The country transitioned into a constitutional monarchy at the beginning of the 20th century, under the Shah of the Qajar dynasty. The British moved in following the discovery of oil soon afterwards, and Russia exerted power in other parts of the country. During World War II the Shah was forced to abdicate to his son by the Allied forces, and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled the country until 1979.

Protest to the Shah’s rule began to grow in the country. The government was seen as curtailing personal freedoms, and the internal security service was known to be responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands or Iranians. The religious clergy in the country were also unhappy with the Shah’s reforms. By 1979 the Shah was forced to abdicate, and soon afterwards the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, reshaping Iran as an Islamic Republic.

Its previously positive image in the West abruptly shifted with the taking of 52 American hostages at a US embassy in Tehran. The government’s stance towards the West also changed drastically over the next two decades. Soon after the proclamation of the Islamic Republic, Iraq invaded Iran, and for the next eight years it was be embroiled in a costly and deadly war. Tensions with the West have continued to grow.

Western preconceptions aside, the majority of Iran is quite safe for travelers. The borders of Iraq and Afghanistan are highly hostile, but Tehran and most of the countryside is safe, so long as one respects local laws and acts courteously. Ancient archaeological ruins, such as Choqa Zanbil with its immense ziggurat, or Persepolis, the enormous palace of Jamshid, are some of the highlights of the country. The beautiful city of Shiraz is another excellent attraction, as is the mountain village of Masulé. Museums can be found throughout the country, illustrating the long and glorious history of the Persian Empire, and there is skiing and mountain climbing as well.

Flights arrive daily at Tehran from most European and Asia cities, and Americans can get there via one of these hubs. Travelers can also arrive overland from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan.


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