Civilizations in Iran can be traced back 10,000 years. The Persian Empire was established in 550 B.C. and lasted until the invasion of Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. Iran has been profoundly influenced by the expansion of Islam, the devastating Mongol invasion led by Genghis Khan and the discovery of oil. Today's Iran has been shaped largely by the overthrow of the Shah by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran continues to evolve, and was thought to be entering an era of political and social transformation with the victory of the liberals over the long-ruling conservative elite in parliamentary elections in 2000. But the reformists, kept on the political defensive by powerful conservatives in the government and judiciary, failed to make good on their promises. This led to shift back toward the conservative elite with the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the post of president in 2005. Iran is constantly evolving, but political and social reforms are on hold for now.
The U.S. has not re-established formal diplomatic or consular relations with Iran and is concerned about anti-U.S. sentiment from large segments of the Iranian population and from some elements of the Iranian government. Iran's relations with the West have also degraded in recent years as the Islamic republic's influence in the region has grown and the regime has continued to develop its allegedly peaceful nuclear program. The country continues to be one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of oil.
Iran's government is a constitutional Islamic republic, governed by executive and legislative branches (the Majlis) that derive national leadership primarily through the Muslim clergy. Shia' Islam is the official religion. Religious beliefs provide the foundation of the country's customs, laws and practices.
Farsi (Persian) is the official language, although Turkic and Turkic dialects, Kurdish and Arabic are prominent in certain regions. Many businessmen and government officials also speak French.
Iran is bordered on the north by Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey; on the west by Iraq and the Persian Gulf; and by Pakistan and Afghanistan on the east. The climate varies by region. Rain falls regularly in the extreme north and west regions, and the winters are bitterly cold with considerable snow accumulation. Temperatures drop to -20 C (-4 F) and below. The Caspian Sea region is rainy and humid, while central Iran is hot and dry, becoming more extreme to the south. Areas along the Persian Gulf are characterized by mild winters and extremely hot summers, with temperatures exceeding 38 C (100 F).
Telecommunications systems in Iran are not modern. Making an international call can take hours - or even days. Tehran's main telephone or telegraph office is the best way to make international calls. Hotels can usually place the call for you, but expect up to a 100 percent surcharge. Calls may be monitored. Mobile phone coverage is good around Tehran, but extremely sparse in most other parts of the country. Fax service is available at central post offices in large cities and major international hotels. Internet cafes are growing in popularity in urban areas.
Iran is accessible by air, rail, road and ferry. The international gateway for air travelers is Mehrabad International Airport, outside Tehran. Taxis are readily available. Ferries operate across the Persian Gulf between Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Train service is another, more adventurous, means of travel. Buses and rental cars are available, but not recommended. Traffic flows on the right.
The cost of living in Iran is inexpensive compared to Western standards. Iran is a cash society. Very few establishments (only some upscale hotels) accept credit cards, though even those establishments may refuse U.S.-issued cards. There are no ATMs in Iran. Traveler's checks can only be redeemed at specific banks in Tehran and at the airport. U.S. dollars can be exchanged in-country.
Security is a concern, especially for U.S. travelers. Anti-U.S. and anti-government demonstrations occur with some regularity, especially in Tehran. Avoid all demonstrations. Violent crime is rare, but you may be subject to petty theft such as pickpocketing, purse snatching and the theft of unattended property. The state security services regularly place foreigners under surveillance, monitoring hotel rooms, phones, email and faxes.