Iran is a mountainous, arid, ethnically diverse country of southwestern Asia. Much of Iran consists of a central desert plateau, which is ringed on all sides by lofty mountain ranges that afford access to the interior through high passes. Most of the population lives on the edges of this forbidding, waterless waste. The capital is Tehrān, a sprawling, jumbled metropolis at the southern foot of the Elburz Mountains. Famed for its handsome architecture and verdant gardens, the city fell somewhat into disrepair in the decades following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, though efforts were later mounted to preserve historic buildings and expand the city’s network of parks. As with Tehrān, cities such as Eṣfahān and Shīrāz combine modern buildings with important landmarks from the past and serve as major centres of education, culture, and commerce.
The heart of the storied Persian empire of antiquity, Iran has long played an important role in the region as an imperial power and later—because of its strategic position and abundant natural resources, especially petroleum—as a factor in colonial and superpower rivalries. The country’s roots as a distinctive culture and society date to the Achaemenian period, which began in 550 bc. From that time the region that is now Iran—traditionally known as Persia—has been influenced by waves of indigenous and foreign conquerors and immigrants, including the Hellenistic Seleucids and native Parthians and Sāsānids. Persia’s conquest by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century ad was to leave the most lasting influence, however, as Iranian culture was all but completely subsumed under that of its conquerors.
An Iranian cultural renaissance in the late 8th century led to a reawakening of Persian literary culture, though the Persian language was now highly Arabized and in Arabic script, and native Persian Islamic dynasties began to appear with the rise of the Sāmānids in the early 9th century. The region fell under the sway of successive waves of Persian, Turkish, and Mongol conquerors until the rise of the Ṣafavids, who introduced Ithnā ʿAsharī Shīʿism as the official creed, in the early 16th century. Over the following centuries, with the state-fostered rise of a Persian-based Shīʿite clergy, a synthesis was formed between Persian culture and Shīʿite Islam that marked each indelibly with the tincture of the other.
With the fall of the Ṣafavids in 1736, rule passed into the hands of several short-lived dynasties leading to the rise of the Qājār line in 1796. Qājār rule was marked by the growing influence of the European powers in Iran’s internal affairs, with its attendant economic and political difficulties, and by the growing power of the Shīʿite clergy in social and political issues.
The country’s difficulties led to the ascension in 1925 of the Pahlavi line, whose ill-planned efforts to modernize Iran led to widespread dissatisfaction and the dynasty’s subsequent overthrow in the revolution of 1979. This revolution brought a regime to power that uniquely combined elements of a parliamentary democracy with an Islamic theocracy run by the country’s clergy. The world’s sole Shīʿite state, Iran found itself almost immediately embroiled in a long-term war with neighbouring Iraq that left it economically and socially drained, and the Islamic republic’s alleged support for international terrorism left the country ostracized from the global community. Reformist elements rose within the government during the last decade of the 20th century, opposed both to the ongoing rule of the clergy and to Iran’s continued political and economic isolation from the international community.
Iran – Country Profile
||Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Īrān (Islamic Republic of Iran)
|Form of government
||unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house (Islamic Consultative Assembly )
|Supreme political/religious authority
|Head of state and government
||(2011 est.) 75,276,000
|Total area (sq mi)
|Total area (sq km)
Loaded ‘first domestically-made nuclear fuel
Iran has staged an elaborate ceremony to unveil new developments in its nuclear programme.
Tehran says it has used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time, and also unveiled more efficient enrichment centrifuges.State television showed President Ahmadinejad inspecting the rods as they were loaded into a reactor.
Western countries fear Iran wants to make nuclear weapons; Tehran says it only wants to produce its own energy. The government unveiled the “new generation” of faster, more efficient uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility in the centre of the country.
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, said they were three times more efficient than their existing capacity.
President Ahmadinejad was wearing a white coat at the research reactor in Tehran, and was also shown attending the ceremony to mark what he has called the great achievements in the nuclear sphere. He said that his country would never halt its programme to enrich uranium.
In January, 2012 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had started the production of uranium enriched up to 20% at its Qom plant.
A deal to provide fuel for the reactor from abroad collapsed two years ago – at which point Iran decided to make the fuel itself.
One central point links these developments, says the BBC’s Iran correspondent James Reynolds: Iran is determined to show that it can master nuclear technology on its own, and that international sanctions against its nuclear programme will make no difference.
The US and the European Union have recently imposed new sanctions targeting Iranian oil sales as part of a drive to increase international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Talks between Iran and six world powers – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – on the nuclear programme collapsed a year ago and show little sign of resuming.
Iran’s key nuclear sites
Arak – Heavy water plant
Iran is building a reactor at Arak, where it already has a heavy-water production plant
The existence of a heavy water facility near the town of Arak first emerged with the publication of satellite images by the US-based Institute for Science and International Security in December 2002.
Heavy water is used to moderate the nuclear fission chain reaction either in a certain type of reactor – albeit not the type that Iran is currently building – or produce plutonium for use in a nuclear bomb.
In August 2010, the IAEA visited the IR-40 heavy water reactor site at Arak. It said the facility was still being built but some major equipment had been installed. Iran told the IAEA the operation of the reactor was planned to start by the end of 2013.
The IAEA said that based on satellite imagery, the heavy water production plant appeared to be in operation, but had not had access to it to confirm such reports.
Bushehr – Nuclear power station
The reactor building at Bushehr was built with Russian help
Iran’s nuclear programme began in 1974 with plans to build a nuclear power station at Bushehr with German assistance.
The project was abandoned because of the Islamic revolution five years later, but revived in the 1990s when Tehran signed an agreement with Russia to resume work at the site.
Moscow delayed completion on the project while the UN Security Council debated and then passed resolutions aimed at stopping uranium enrichment in Iran.
In December 2007, Moscow started delivering the canisters of enriched uranium the plant needs.
Earlier in the same month, a US intelligence report said Iran was not currently running a military nuclear programme.
There are two pressurised water reactors at the site.
Satellite images from March 2010 show the first completed reactor building on a site that occupies 2.5 square kilometres (one square mile), about 17 km (11 miles) south of the city of Bushehr.
Iranian state media said the plant was connected to the national grid in September 2010.
When it was inspected by the IAEA in October 2011, the agency noted that the reactor was in operation.
Gachin – Uranium mine
Yellowcake is used in the preparation of fuel for nuclear reactors
In December 2010, Iran said it had delivered its first domestically produced uranium ore concentrate, or yellowcake, to a plant that can make it ready for enrichment.
Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said the first batch of yellowcake had been sent from Gachin mine sent to a conversion facility at Isfahan.
Mining operations started at the Gachin in 2004.
Iran was believed to be running low on its stock of yellowcake, originally imported from South Africa in the 1970s.
Isfahan – Uranium conversion plant
Men making hexafluoride gas at the Isfahan uranium conversion facility
Iran is building a plant at a nuclear research facility to convert yellowcake into three forms:
- Hexafluoride gas – used in gas centrifuges
- Uranium oxide – used to fuel reactors, albeit not the type Iran is constructing
- Metal – often used in the cores of nuclear bombs. The IAEA is concerned about the metal’s use, as Iran’s reactors do not require it as fuel.
Natanz – Uranium enrichment plant
Iran is planning new facilities at Natanz
Iran resumed uranium enrichment work at Natanz in July 2004, after a halt during negotiations with leading European powers over its programme.
It announced in September 2007 that it had installed 3,000 centrifuges, the machines that do the enrichment. In 2010, Iran told the IAEA Natanz would be the venue for new enrichment facilities – construction of which would start around March 2011.
This is the facility at the heart of Iran’s dispute with the United Nations Security Council.
The Council is concerned because the technology used for producing fuel for nuclear power can be used to enrich the uranium to a much higher level to produce a nuclear explosion.
One area at Parchin has been identified as a suspected nuclear weapons development facility.
The overall complex is one of Iran’s leading munitions centres – for the research, development and production of ammunition, rockets and high explosives. A limited inspection carried out by the IAEA in 2005 found no proof of any nuclear weapons activity at Parchin.
But according to information from an IAEA report in November 2011, it is believed the site has also been used for testing high explosives that could be used in nuclear weapons.
Qom – Uranium enrichment plant
IAEA says work started on Qom site earlier than Iran suggests
In January 2012, Iran said it had begun uranium enrichment at the heavily fortified site of Fordo near the holy city of Qom.
It had revealed the existence of the facility, about 30km (20 miles) north of the city, in September 2009.
Iran initially informed the IAEA that it was constructing the plant to produce uranium enriched up to 5% – commonly used in nuclear power production.
In June 2011, Iran told the IAEA that it was planning to produce uranium enriched up to 20% at Fordo – and would subsequently stop 20% fuel production at Natanz.
In January 2012, the IAEA confirmed Iran had started the production of uranium enriched up to 20%.
Iran says the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is for use as a fuel in research reactors. Uranium – with a concentration of 20% or more – is needed to build nuclear weapons.
The IAEA says environmental samples taken from the site at Fordo in April 2011 did not indicate the presence of enriched uranium.
UN sanctions against Iran
Iran has been subjected to four rounds of United Nations Security Council sanctions in relation to its nuclear programme.
In spite of this, it has continued its uranium enrichment operations and there is growing pressure for sanctions to be tightened further.
The following are the UN resolutions relating to Iran’s nuclear programme.
In March 2006, the issue was discussed at the UN Security Council, which called for a report by the IAEA to establish Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
The treaty allows for the use of nuclear technology for peaceful energy purposes, as long as countries can demonstrate that their programmes are not being used for the development of nuclear weapons.
In July 2006, the Security Council said it was “seriously concerned” that the IAEA was unable to provide assurances about Iran’s undeclared nuclear material. It demanded that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development”, giving it one month to do so. Failing that, it would face the possibility of economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Iran asserted that its nuclear programme was for civilian use permitted by the NPT. On this basis it said it rejected the validity of the Security Council’s calls. It claimed that while subscribers to the NPT were being punished, those who had not signed up to the agreement were being rewarded by generous nuclear cooperation agreements.
The deadline for Iranian compliance with the Security Council’s demands passed without being heeded. In December 2006, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1737.
This called on states to block Iran’s import and export of “sensitive nuclear material and equipment” and to freeze the financial assets of those involved in Iran’s nuclear activities.
The Council decided that all countries should prevent the supply or sale of equipment and technology that would aid Iran’s nuclear programme in any way.
With Iran’s nuclear programme ongoing, in March 2007 the Security Council voted to toughen sanctions. It banned all of Iran’s arms exports. It also froze the assets and restricted the travel of people it deemed involved in the nuclear programme.
Financial and trade
Further restrictions imposed in March 2008 encouraged scrutiny of the dealings of Iranian banks.
It also called upon countries to inspect cargo planes and ships entering or leaving Iran if there were “reasonable grounds” to believe they were goods prohibited by previous resolutions.
In June 2010, the Council approved fresh sanctions against Tehran.
The measures prohibit Iran from buying heavy weapons such as attack helicopters and missiles.
They also toughen rules on financial transactions with Iranian banks and increase the number of Iranian individuals and companies that are targeted with asset freezes and travel bans.
There is also a new framework of cargo inspections to detect and stop Iran’s acquisition of illicit materials.
The sanctions were passed after being watered down during negotiations with Russia and China. There are no crippling economic sanctions and there is no oil embargo.
U.S., EU welcome Iran’s offer to restart nuclear talks
Western nations welcomed 17.12.2012 a letter from Iran offering a resumption of stalled nuclear talks, though they were still determining the Islamic republic’s sincerity.
European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “cautious and optimistic” about the prospect of dialogue between Iran and six world powers — the United States, France, Britain, China, Russia and Germany. “Let me say that it’s good to see that the letter has arrived and that there is the potential possibility that Iran may be ready to start talks,” Ashton said at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton called the letter from Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili “an important step.” “This response from the Iranian government is one we’ve been waiting for and, if we do proceed, it will have to be a sustained effort that can produce results,” she said.
Sanctions hit Iran
Russian steel, Ukrainian maize, tea from India, palm oil from Malaysia — myriad products are shipped through the Gulf emirates. Iran wants and needs them all. But in the last few months, the growing web of U.S. and European sanctions has begun to paralyze its ability to import and export key products.
Multiple banking, shipping and trade sources tell that Iran is struggling to import staples and export crude oil as its access to the global financial system is curbed. As a result, inflation is rising and shortages of basic products are growing.
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