Official name: Islamic Republic of Iran
Area: 1,648,000 square kilometers (636,296 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Damāvand (5,671 meters/18,606 feet)
Lowest point on land: Caspian Sea (28 meters/92 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 3:30 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 2,250 kilometers (1,398 miles) from southeast to northwest; 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from northeast to southwest
Land boundaries: 5,440 kilometers (3,380 miles) total boundary length; Afghanistan 936 kilometers (582 miles); Armenia 35 kilometers (22 miles); Azerbaijan proper 432 kilometers (268 miles); Azerbaijan-Naxcivan exclave 179 kilometers (111 miles); Iraq 1,458 kilometers (906 miles); Pakistan 909 kilometers (565 miles); Turkey 499 kilometers (310 miles); Turkmenistan 992 kilometers (616 miles)
Coastline: 2,440 kilometers (1,516 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
Iran is located in southwestern Asia between the Cash2an Sea and Persian Gulf, in the region known as the Middle East. The country shares borders with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmeni-stan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey. With an area of about 1,648,000 square kilometers (636,296 square miles), the country is slightly larger than the state of Alaska. Iran is divided into twenty-eight provinces.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Iran has no outside territories or dependencies.
Iran has an arid and semiarid climate with subtropical areas along the coasts. There are four seasons: spring, summer, a brief autumn, and winter. The central deserts and Persian Gulf coast are especially hot in summer, with some of the world's highest recorded temperatures occurring in the desert. The average annual temperature in northern Iran is 10°C (50°F). The average annual temperature in southern Iran is between 25°C and 30°C (77°F and 86°F). Iran's climate is dry, except for belts of high humidity along the Caspian Sea and Persian Gulf. Strong seasonal winds often whip up dust and sandstorms.
Iran's average annual precipitation is 27 centimeters (11 inches) during non-drought years. Less than 14 percent of the land receives more than 52 percent of the precipitation. The most rainfall occurs along the Caspian Sea shore, past the Elburz range. For the most part, the rains arrive in the winter, when snow also affects the mountainous regions. In some areas, no precipitation occurs for long periods of time. Sudden storms with heavy rains a few times per year may provide those regions with their entire annual rainfall.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
The topography of Iran consists of two main mountain ranges wrapped around a basin which contains deserts and salt marshes. The Caspian Sea is in the north and the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are in the south. Settlement is mainly in the mountain regions, along the coasts, and in some oases. In the areas where agriculture is viable, crops thrive as long as there is adequate water. Iran has a delicate environmental balance, however, as forests and farmland decrease and desert increases.
Iran lies on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, which has some of the world's most active fault lines. The country's western border sits right above where this plate meets the Arabian Tectonic Plate. As the Arabian and Eurasian Plates push against each other, topographical formations are created, such as the bent and rippled layers of rock in the Zagros Mountains. In the southeast, the Eurasian Plate collides with the Indian Tectonic Plate not too far outside Iran's borders. Subterranean shifts in this area have produced numerous faults in the earth's crust. As a result, devastating earthquakes occur frequently, with the western region being hit the hardest.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
Iran has a northern shoreline along the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea is a saltwater lake and the largest inland body of water in the world. The sea extends approximately 1,210 kilometers (750 miles) from north to south and 210 to 436 kilometers (130 to 271 miles) from east to west. Its area is 371,000 square kilometers (143,000 square miles). Its mean depth is about 170 meters (550 feet), and it is deepest in the south.
Although connected to the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, and the Black Sea by extensive inland waterways, the Caspian Sea has no natural outlet. Pollution from agricultural chemicals (especially pesticides), industry, and oil drilling has had a serious adverse impact on the Caspian Sea shoreline environment.
Because of massive reserves of natural gas, demarcation of rights to the Caspian Sea's waters has become a contentious issue among all of its bordering countries.
The Persian Gulf lies to the southwest of Iran and the Gulf of Oman is to the southeast. Both bodies of water serve as extensions of the Indian Ocean's Arabian Sea. Pollution from oil tankers and military ships, overfishing, destructive fishing methods, agricultural chemical runoff, sewage, and industrial waste are problems in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman.
Sea Inlets and Straits
From the Persian Gulf, the 55-kilometer (34-mile) Strait of Hormuz, one of petroleum shipping's most strategic routes, leads into the Gulf of Oman.
The Persian Gulf coast contains Būshehr Bay and Naayband Bay in Būshehr province. Rocky shores and cliffs mark this coastal section, where the mountains come right down to the sea. This rugged coast, especially around Naayband Bay and the harbor of Bandar-e Lengeh, is considered particularly vulnerable to oil spills. At Hormozgān Province, the coastline curves inward sharply, sheltering Qeshm island, with seasonal creek outlets in Khamir Harbor across from Qeshm.
Chaabahar Bay and Gavāter Bay are on the Gulf of Oman, near the Pakistan border.
Islands and Archipelagos
Iran occupies sixteen islands in the Persian Gulf. Only eleven of the islands are inhabited. In late spring, the Persian Gulf islands are nesting sites for seabirds and for endangered sea turtles. The coral reefs around these islands are barely surviving temperature fluctuations, algae, and oil spills, as well as damage from pollution, tourists, and construction.
Qeshm is the largest island in the Persian Gulf. With an area of 1,335 square kilometers (515 square miles), this island is a mountainous oblong in the Strait of Hormuz. Other much smaller islands in and near the Strait of Hormuz include Kīsh (Qeys), Hormoz, Hendurabi, Farur, Sīrrī, Abu Musa, and Lāvān. Khārk Island is close to the northern end of the Persian Gulf.
Two islands in the Persian Gulf are occupied by Iran but are also claimed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE): Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb. Iran and the UAE jointly administer the island of Abu Musa.
Iran's Caspian Sea shoreline begins in the west at the border of Azerbaijan, sweeps southeast to the lagoon port of Bandar-e Anzali, and continues east to the Bandare Torkeman lagoon above Behshahr town. The coast then turns straight north to the Turkmenistan border. Much of the shore has been formed as the water recedes from the original seabed.
The Caspian Sea region has the largest forests, which have mostly deciduous tree species including oak, elm, beech, and linden. Golestān National Park in the Caspian region, near the Turkmenistan border, is highly biodi-verse, with deciduous and conifer tree species. Sisangan National Park, near the Azerbaijan border, is another Caspian forest.
Southwest Iran meets the northwest end of the Persian Gulf at the border with Iraq. At this end of the Gulf the coastal plain is wide, containing the delta of the Kārūn River, which adjoins neighboring Iraq's Tigris and Euphrates River deltas. Estuaries with mudflats and salt marshes are found in this region, and there are hundreds of seasonal creek outlets in non-drought years, many emptying into Moosa Bay.
The section of coast along the Strait of Hormuz has sandy beaches on a narrow coastal strip, including the white sand beach at Koohestak.
The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman coasts have thick stands of palms and mangrove forests.
6 INLAND LAKES
The lakes of Iran are few and most of them are small. Many lakes and most shallow wet-lands of Iran dried up during the catastrophic drought of 1998–2001.
DID YOU KNOW?
There are eighteen sites in Iran that have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands. Caspian wetlands sites include the Anzali Mordab marsh complex (a bird migration area), Bandar-e Torkeman Lagoon, and other lagoons.
In western Iran, the Ramsar sites include the Shadegan wetland (delta mudflats on the Iraq border), the Parishan and Dasht-e Arjan marshes in southwestern Iran, and the Neyriz Lakes and Kamjan Marshes, in a wildlife refuge in the southwest. In the northwest, Lake Urmia, with its brackish marshes, birds, and fish species, is a Ramsar site, as is the dying Helmand Lake in the east.
Offshore wetlands sites include the Khuran Straits between the mainland and Qeshm island and its estuaries on the Strait of Hormuz, featuring mangroves and salt marshes that are significant bird wintering sites.
Many of Iran's wetlands dried up during the three-year drought just before the turn of the twenty-first century. Other threats include invasive plant species, pollution, agricultural water diversion, road building, and shrimp farming.
Lake Urmia (Orumiyé) is Iran's largest intact lake, with an average surface area of 4,868 square kilometers (1,879 square miles). It can vary in area from 3,000 to 6,000 square kilometers (1,158 to 2,317 square miles), depending on seasonal conditions. A salt lake, Urmia, is in the northwest near the Turkish border, at 1,297 meters (4,255 feet) above sea level.
Lake Helmand, a lake/wetland system extending into Afghanistan, is a freshwater lake used for irrigation and fishing. The lake system decreased from about 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) to 32,000 square kilometers (12,355 square miles) during the twentieth century, dwindling to about 3,200 square kilometers (1,235 square miles) in the dry seasons. Lake Helmand dried up almost completely during the 1998–2001 drought.
The lakes in Fars Province (southwest Iran) were hit particularly hard by the drought and most evaporated almost completely. Notable lakes in the southwest include (with their pre-drought sizes): Bakhtegān Lake, 750 square kilometers (290 square miles); Tasht Lake, 442 square kilometers (171 square miles); and Moharloo Lake, 208 square kilometers (80 square miles).
Important lakes of central Iran include: Namak Lake, 1,806 square kilometers (697 square miles); and Howz Soltan Lake, 106 square kilometers (41 square miles). Snowmelt feeds the 2,550-meter- (8,366-feet-) high twin Gahar Lakes in the Zagros Mountains.
The low basins of central Iran have extremely shallow lakes that dry up, leaving thick, broken salt crusts known as kavirs with mud marshes underneath. Iran also has major areas of coastal wetlands, including those bordering the Caspian Sea.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
The length and depth of some rivers in Iran vary by season. Some rivers are dry most of the time but begin to flow from snowmelt in the spring.
The Kārūn River, at 890 kilometers (553 miles), is Iran's longest river and its only navigable one. Still, it is navigable for just 180 kilometers (112 miles), and only by shallow draft vessels. The Kārūn runs from the Zagros Mountains to the Persian Gulf delta region in western Iran. This region also contains the following related rivers: the Karkheh (755 kilometers/469 miles); the Dez (515 kilometers/320 miles); the Hendijan (488 kilometers/303 miles), and the Jarahi (438 kilometers/272 miles).
Other notable rivers of Iran include: the Sefidrood (765 kilometers/475 miles), Atrek (535 kilometers/332 miles); the Mand (685 kilometers/426 miles) in the southwest; and the Zayande (405 kilometers/251 miles), which flows through the city of Isfahan in the Zagros foothills.
More than 300,000 square kilometers (115,831 square miles) of Iran is covered with deserts. That coverage is increasing through the process of desertification, as farmland, grassland, and forests continue to lose vegetation and then soil. The drought of 1998–2001 increased desert area when lakes and wetlands dried up.
Iran's immense Lūt Desert covers some 80,000 square kilometers (30,888 square miles). It includes the Dasht-e-Kavīr and Dasht-e-Lūt, and the adjacent Namakzār-e Shahdād. It is one of the hottest places on Earth with temperatures reaching as high as 57°C (135°F). The Lūt Desert goes without rain for years at a time. Sand mountains rise up to 475 meters (1,558 feet) in the desert's eastern sector and there are also sand dunes moved by wind. The region contains an interior area lacking in all life forms, even bacteria. The similar Jaz Mūrīān Desert lies to the south of the Lūt Desert.
The outer deserts are scrubland, habitats for rare Asiatic cheetahs and koulans (Asian zebras). Inner desert areas are covered with hard layers of stones, gravel, and pebbles. Salt lakes and marshes create salt flats when they dry out. There are also salt-water springs and salt mines in the Iranian deserts. Scattered oases, linked by roads, are shaded by groves of date palms, poplars, and other trees.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Iran has no substantial pasture lands. There are some grasslands in upland areas, however, such as the hills around Isfahan and foothills in the southeast.
The foothills of Iran's mountain ranges are terraced for farming and housing, although wild pistachio forests are still found in the foothills of the southeast. The Elburz foothills follow the Caspian Sea shoreline. In the Zagros foothills, salt domes cover Iran's major oil fields. The Kandovan hills in northwest Iran are a group of rock formations with inhabited cave-dwellings.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The broken and irregular ranges of Iran's mountains, extending from Armenia and Azerbaijan in the north to Pakistan in the south, are barren, but the valleys between them are fertile. In the north of Iran, where the mountains reach 2,133 to 2,743 meters (7,000 to 9,000 feet), livestock grazing and settlements can be found above 1,219 meters (4,000 feet).
The narrow Elburz Range curves from west to east along the Caspian Sea shoreline. Iran's capital, the sprawling city of Tehran, is located on the south side of the Elburz range. The highest of Iran's mountains, Mount Damāvand (5,671 meters/18,606 feet), is a symmetrical volcanic cone located in the Elburz Range just northeast of Tehran.
The forbidding Zagros Range, a group of parallel mountain chains, runs northwest to southeast through Iran. Much of the Zagros Range towers above 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), until it declines in height in the southeast to an average of less than 1,500 meters (4,921 feet). The Zagros Range extends down to the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman coasts in rocky cliffs. There are forests of oaks and other deciduous trees in the Zagros Mountains. Iran's major oil fields are located in the Zagros foothills in the southwest.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
The Zagros Mountains have steep folds and eroded valleys, where streams and small rivers have created deep gorges. In the Zagros region are found the Kārūn River Canyon, Sezar River Gorges, Bactiara River Canyon, and other deep canyons in the vicinity of the Gahar Lakes.
The mountains and hills of the country contain numerous caves of various sizes. One of the most beautiful caves is the Ali Sadr, located near the city of Hamadan. Ali Sadr is a water cave containing a crystal-clear lake that stretches the cave to about 11 kilometers (9 miles). The underwater walls of the cave are covered by calcite crystal, which also spreads to about 3 meters (10 feet) above the water's service.
Another notable cave is the Cave of Shapoor, located near Bishapoor in the Zagros Mountain. One of the largest cave entrances in the country, Shapoor has a 12-meter (39 foot)-high entrance which leads to an underground hall that covers an area that is 50 meters wide and 100 meters long (164 feet wide and 328 feet long). The cave contains the remains of the eighteen-hundred-year-old statue of Shapoor I, an ancient Iranian leader. The Talar Cave (or Surakh Reis) is located in Niasar and is a combination of a natural and man-made cavern. It is a temple cave dedicated to the ancient Persian god, Mitra.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Silk Road is an ancient seven thousand-mile-long trading route that extended from east-central China through the present-day countries of India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It connected the region of the Yellow River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. From there, costly Chinese silk could be transported throughout the Roman Empire. The Silk Road served not only as a transportation route for trade but also as a route of cultural exchange, as travelers and traders from different regions shared religious, political, and social beliefs and customs.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
Iran is located on the Plateau of Iran, a high triangular plateau with average elevations of 914 to 1,524 meters (3,000 to 5,000 feet). Parts of the plateau spread to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Great salt deserts such as Dasht-eLūt and Dasht-e-Kavīr occupy the eastern section of the Plateau of Iran; mountains cut through the center and west of it. The plateau has an area of approximately 2,590,000 square kilometers (one million square miles), of which about 1,554,000 square kilometers (600,000 square miles) is in Iran. The region was formed and shaped by the uplifting and folding effect of three giant tectonic plates pressing against each other: the Arabian, Eurasian, and Indian Plates.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Iran has a huge network of underground water canals called qanats , with about 50,000 qanats covering an estimated 400,000 kilometers (248,548 miles). In the absence of major rivers, the qanats have served as Iran's traditional irrigation source, constructed with underground storage structures. Water-use analysts have called for a return to the qanat system and smaller-scale irrigation projects as the best ways to combat ongoing water shortages throughout Iran.
14 FURTHER READING
Bartol'd, V. V. (Vasilii Vladimirovich). An Historical Geography of Iran. trans. and ed. by Svat Soucek; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Fox, M. Iran . Chicago: Children's Press, 1991.
Schemenauer, Elma. Iran . Chanhassen, MN: Child's World, 2001.
Wearing, Alison. Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey. New York: Picador USA, 2000.
The Green Party of Iran: Geography. http://www.iran-e-sabz.org/link/geography.htm (accessed April 24, 2003).