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Geography

I:   Introduction

Iran, officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, country in southwestern Asia, located on the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf. One of the world's most mountainous countries, Iran contains Mount Damāvand, the highest peak in Asia west of the Himalayas. The country’s population, while ethnically and linguistically diverse, is almost entirely Muslim. For centuries, the region has been the center of the Shia branch of Islam (see Shia Islam). Iran ranks among the world’s leaders in its reserves of oil and natural gas. As is the case in other countries in the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf region, the export of oil has dominated Iran’s economy since the early 20th century.

In the 6th century bc the territory of present-day Iran was the center of the Persian Empire, the world’s preeminent power at that time

 

. For more than 2,000 years, the region’s inhabitants have referred to it by the name Iran, derived from the Aryan tribes who settled the area long ago. However, until 1935, when the Iranian ruler demanded that the name Iran be used, the English-speaking world knew the country as Persia, a legacy of the Greeks who named the region after its most important province, Pars (present-day Fārs). Iran was a monarchy ruled by a shah, or king, from 1501 until 1979, when a yearlong popular revolution led by the Shia clergy culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic. See Islamic Revolution of Iran.

 

Iran lies at the easternmost edge of the geographic and cultural region known as the Middle East. The country is bordered on the north by Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Turkmenistan; on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan; on the south by the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Persian Gulf; and on the west by Iraq and Turkey. Iran’s capital and largest city is Tehrān, located in the northern part of the country.

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II   Land and Resources

Iran is the second largest country in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia. It extends over a total area of 1,648,000 sq km (636,300 sq mi). The country is roughly triangular in shape, with its longest side extending in a slightly outward arc for 2,500 km (1,600 mi) from the border with Turkey in the northwest to the border with Pakistan in the southeast. The third point of the triangle lies in the northeast, about halfway along Iran’s border with Turkmenistan. Iran’s greatest extent from north to south is 1,600 km (1,000 mi) and from east to west is 1,700 km (1,100 mi).

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A:   Natural Regions

Iran’s interior plateaus are almost completely surrounded by mountains. The main mountain system, the Zagros Mountains, cuts across the country for more than 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from northwest to southeast. With the exception of the Khūzestān coastal plain, which extends from the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf, the Zagros Mountains occupy all of western Iran. The central part of the range averages more than 340 km (210 mi) in width. Many peaks of the Zagros exceed 4,000 m (12,000 ft) in elevation; the highest is Zard Kūh (4,547 m/14,918 ft). Peaks rising above 2,300 m (7,500 ft) capture considerable moisture, which percolates down to the lower-lying basins as groundwater. These basins, ranging from about 1,200 to 1,500 m (4,000 to 5,000 ft) in elevation, contain fertile soil that traditionally has sustained diverse and intensive crop cultivation.

In Iran’s northern reaches, a steep, narrow mountain range, the Elburz Mountains, rims the entire southern coast of the Caspian Sea. This range extends more than 600 km (400 mi) in length and averages about 100 km (about 60 mi) in width. The country's highest peak, Mount Damāvand (5,670 m/18,602 ft), lies in the central part of the range. Several other peaks of the Elburz Mountains exceed 3,600 m (12,000 ft). The northern slopes of the range receive considerable rainfall throughout the year and support forests. A fertile coastal plain averaging 24 km (15 mi) in width lies between the Caspian Sea and the mountains. East of the Elburz Mountains is a series of parallel mountain ranges with elevations of 2,400 to 2,700 m (8,000 to 9,000 ft). These ranges are interspersed with many narrow, arable valleys. Several low mountain ridges, generally referred to as the eastern highlands, run along Iran’s eastern border.

Within this mountainous rim lies a series of basins known collectively as the central plateau. They include the Dasht-e Kavir, a huge salt-encrusted desert in north central Iran; the Dasht-e Lūt, a sand-and-pebble desert in the southeast; and several fertile oases.

The mountains of Iran constitute an active earthquake zone, and numerous minor earthquakes occur each year. Major earthquakes causing great loss of life and property damage also occur periodically. During the 18th century earthquakes twice leveled Tabrīz, the principal city in the northwest, killing at least 50,000 people on each occasion. Several severe earthquakes resulting in 1,000 or more deaths occurred during the second half of the 20th century. The most devastating earthquake, centered in the fault zone where the Elburz and Zagros mountains intersect, killed an estimated 40,000 people in June 1990. Several of Iran's highest mountains are volcanic cones; only Mount Damāvand and Kūh-e Taftān in southeastern Iran are active volcanoes, both periodically emitting gases near their summits.

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B:   Rivers and Lakes

Nearly all of Iran’s numerous rivers are relatively short, shallow streams unsuitable for navigation. The country’s only navigable river, the Kārūn, flows through the city of Ahvāz in the southwest. Most rivers rise in the mountainous regions and drain into the interior basins. Since ancient times, the region’s inhabitants have used the rivers for irrigation. Dams constructed in the 20th century on the Āb-e Dez, Karkheh, Karun, Sefid Rud, and other rivers have expanded the area under irrigation and also have provided a principal source of hydroelectricity. Three rivers form portions of Iran's international boundaries. The Aras River lies along the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Atrek River borders Turkmenistan, and the Shatt al Arab is part of the border with Iraq. Iran also shares the Caspian Sea, the world's largest inland body of water, with four other countries. Several smaller saltwater lakes lie entirely within Iran; the largest is Lake Urmia in the northwest. A few small freshwater lakes exist in high mountain valleys.

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C:   Coastline

More than half of Iran's international border of 4,430 km (2,750 mi) is coastline, including 740 km (460 mi) along the Caspian Sea in the north and 1,700 km (1,100 mi) along the Persian Gulf and adjacent Gulf of Oman in the south. Both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf have important ports and contain extensive underwater deposits of oil and natural gas. Iran's largest harbor, Bandar-e ‘Abbās, is located on the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage separating the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

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D:   Plant and Animal Life

Although more than 10,000 plant species have been identified in Iran, the natural vegetation in most of the country has been uprooted and replaced by cultivated crops or pastures. Natural forests consisting of beech, oak, other deciduous trees, and conifers grow in parts of the Elburz Mountains. Some regions of higher elevation in the Zagros Mountains contain wooded areas consisting primarily of oak. Wild fruit trees, including almond, pear, pomegranate, and walnut, grow in both the Elburz and Zagros mountains. In the more arid central part of the country, wild pistachio and other drought-resistant trees grow in areas that have not been disturbed by human activity. Tamarisk and other salt-tolerant bushes grow along the margins of the Dasht-e Kavir.

A wide variety of native mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects inhabit Iran. Many species of mammals—including wolves, foxes, bears, mountain goats, red mountain sheep, rabbits, and gerbils—continue to thrive. Others—including Caspian tigers, Caspian seals, desert onagers, three species of deer, gazelles, and lynx—are endangered despite the establishment of special wildlife refuge areas and other government programs initiated to protect them. Some 502 species of birds inhabit Iran; more than 200 species are migratory birds that spend part of the year in other countries.

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E:   Natural Resources

Iran's extensive petroleum and natural gas deposits are located primarily in the southwestern province of Khūzestān and in the Persian Gulf. Iran also has one of the world's largest reserves of copper; deposits are located throughout the country, but the major lode lies in the central region between the cities of Yazd and Kermān. This region also serves as a center for the mining of bauxite, coal, iron ore, lead, and zinc. Additional coal mines operate throughout the Elburz Mountains; iron ore mines also exist near Zanjān in the northwest, near Mashhad in the northeast, and on Hormuz Island in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran also has valuable deposits of aluminum, chromite, gold, manganese, silver, tin, and tungsten, as well as various gemstones, such as amber, agate, lapis lazuli, and turquoise.

Although about one-third of Iran’s total land area is arable, only 10.7 percent is under cultivation. An additional 6 percent of the total land is used for pasture. Forested areas, found primarily in the Elburz Mountains and the higher elevations of the Zagros Mountains, have declined slightly in recent decades and account for 4.5 percent of the total land area.

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F:   Climate

Iran’s varied landscape produces several different climates. On the northern edge of the country, the Caspian coastal plain, with an average elevation at or below sea level, remains humid all year. Winter temperatures rarely fall below freezing, and maximum summer temperatures rarely exceed 29° C (85° F). Annual precipitation averages 650 mm (26 in) in the eastern part of the plain (Māzandarān Province) and more than 1,900 mm (75 in) in the western part (Gilān Province).

At higher elevations to the west, settlements in the Zagros Mountain basins experience lower temperatures. These areas are subject to severe winters, with average daily temperatures below freezing, and warm summers, averaging 25° C (77° F) in the northwest and 33° C (91° F) in the central and southern Zagros. Annual precipitation, including snowfall, averages more than 280 mm (11 in) at higher elevations. Most precipitation falls between October and April.

The central plateau region also experiences regional variations. In Tehrān, located at an elevation of 1,200 m (3,900 ft) on the northern edge of the plateau, the temperature averages 2° C (36° F) in January and 29° C (85° F) in July. The city receives an average of 230 mm (9 in) of precipitation annually. The arid basins of central and eastern Iran generally receive less than 200 mm (8 in) of precipitation per year. Yazd, for example, averages less than 70 mm (3 in) of precipitation. Its winters are cool, but temperatures almost never fall below freezing; summers are very hot, averaging 38° C (100° F) for most of July and August.

The coastal plains along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in southern Iran have mild winters, with average January temperatures ranging from 7° C to 18° C (45° F to 64° F) in Khūzestān Province; average temperatures are even higher in Bandar-e ‘Abbās on the Strait of Hormuz. Summers are very humid and hot, with temperatures exceeding 48° C (119° F) during July in the interior areas. Annual precipitation ranges from 145 mm to 355 mm (6 to 14 in) in this region.

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G:   Environmental Issues

Iran's rapid urbanization and industrialization have caused major environmental problems. Air pollution, primarily from automobile and factory emissions, has become a serious problem in Tehrān and other large cities. A rising incidence of respiratory illnesses prompted the city governments of Tehrān and Arāk, southwest of the capital, to institute air pollution control programs. These programs aim to reduce gradually the amount of harmful chemicals released into the atmosphere. Pollution of the Caspian Sea has increased substantially since the early 1990s, reaching levels that threaten sturgeon and other fish that sustain the Iranian fishing industry. Although Iran enforces stringent controls on the dumping of municipal and industrial wastes into Caspian waters within its territorial limits, the other countries that border the Caspian Sea do not control pollution in the northern two-thirds of the lake. Iran has urged these countries to sign a binding international agreement for cleaning up the Caspian Sea and preserving its water quality.

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