Physical Geography

Charlotte Albright

Iran is a land of varied climate and topography. It varies from mountains to flatlands, from wet and tropical to arid salt desert. Iranian compensate for aridity of much of the country by surrounding their houses with gardens filled with cyprus trees, fruit trees, and rose gardens and city streets are lined with shade trees where possible.

Iranians who have come to the United States to live say that our southwest reminds them of home. That is, parts of New Mexico and Arizona remind them on Iran. Let’s get a more accurate mental picture of Iran by learning something about its physical geography- elevation, rainfall, and so forth.

Where is Iran?

Look at a map of Asia and Iran. You will see that it is located in the southwestern corner. Refer to a small map in this unit (Illustration 1) to see the modern boundaries of Iran. You can see that Iran has many neighbors. Starting in the north of Iran and moving clockwise, Iran’s neighbors are the Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan (from what used to be the Soviet Union), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey. Iran is also bordered by the Caspian Sea in the north and the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the south. Iran covers 636,294 square miles (1,648,000 kilometers). That means Iran is more than twice the size of Texas.


The north and west borders of Iran are quite mountainous (see illustration 2). Several peaks are over 14,000 feet high and Mt. Damavand, which lies between the Caspian Sea and the capital Tehran, is 18, 375 feet high). Much of the interior of the country is a plateau lying above 3,000 feet. Almost all of the cities in Iran are within sight of some mountain range and most of the farming is done in the mountain valleys or in the broad plains closest to the mountains, where irrigation is possible.

In the central part of the country are two large basins covering an area of over 300,000 square miles, or over half the land area of Iran. These inhospitable places are very hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and sometimes covered with salt deposits left by the evaporation of ancient lakes. In some places the basin are only 1000 ft. above sea level.


As you know, when clouds are blown of oceans onto land, they often drop most of the moisture they contain when they run into the mountains. With this information in the mind, you might suspect that most of the rain and snow in Iran would fall on or around the mountains, and you would be right! This pattern is particularly true for the clouds that blow south from the Caspian Sea onto the Elburz Mountain ranges from 1000 to 1500 mm (about 40-60 in.). Just a few miles to the south in Tehran on the south side of the mountains, the average annual rainfall is less than 100 mm. Since many people live in areas that receive 200-300 mm of rain a year, they have to rely on irrigation.


Irrigation to provide water for crops and for home use has been used in Iran for thousands of years. Traditionally, people have used three main methods of irrigation. They have taken water directly from streams, sometimes after damming the streams, they have dug wells, or the have used qanats (see Illustration 3).

Qanats were apparently invented in the Iranian plateau and have been used in use in Iran for thousands of years. To build a qanat, landowners dug a well until water was found. Once found, a series of shafts were dug to lead the water to the village or fields where it was needed. Then a tunnel was dug to connect the shafts. Some of these qanats are engineering marvels that bring water from hills 25 miles distant to a village. The qanats require regular maintenance since they may cave in or be damaged by floods. Today some qanats are lined with concrete pipes to reduce damage.

When qanats reach a village the water may still be underground. In this case a staircase is built down to the water where people can fill their water jugs.

Of course, in modern times dams have been built on the larger rivers and water is piped to individual houses in cities and towns.


Iran lies at a point where two of the earth’s tectonic plates, the Arabian and Eurasian, are pushing together. This means that people living in this area have suffered from devastating earthquakes throughout history. Since 1960, Iran has experienced 12 earthquakes that have measured greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquakes cause landslides, ruin irrigation systems, and cause many buildings to collapse to collapse. In a recent earth in Iran in June 1990, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 people lost there lives.


Iran’s major natural resources are oil and natural gas. The oil fields lie mainly in the southwest part of the country along the Persian Gulf ad next to Iraq. Iran has about 50 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (compared to 168 billion in Saudi Arabia and 27 billion in the U.S.). Sale of oil and natural gas have financed much of Iran’s development in this century.

Oil in Iran was first discovered in the early 1900’s by British prospector, William D’Arcy. The British controlled access to Iranian oil for many years and used it to fuel their fleet during both World Wars. In 1951, Iran took over operation of its own oil fields. Several of the fields and refineries were badly damaged during the Iran/Iraq War which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

In addition to rich oil and gas reserves, Iran has extensive underground resources of coal, iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, titanium, and chromite, among others.

Iranian farmers grow wheat, barley, rice, sugar beets, many kinds of fruit, cotton, tea, and tobacco. They also produce sheep and goats for meat, milk, and wool products. Iran has not been self sufficient agriculturally since 1970. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iranian farmers are producing more food, but population growth has literally eaten up any gains in production.

Iran’s major export commodity is, of course, oil and natural gas. Additionally, Iran exports carpets, usually handmade by women and children.

Iran: Statistical Picture of the People

To understand the physical features of Iran, we have looked at maps that show us altitude, rainfall, and so forth. We can get an idea of Iranians themselves by looking at some statistics (also see unit on Iranian people and culture). The population of Iran is about 60 million people, growing at a rapid rate of 3.23% annually. This rate of growth means that Iran’s population will double in 22 years. Take a look at illustrations 4, 5, and 6, charts showing population and age distribution. Compare the charts showing age distribution.

Several different ethnic and religious groups live in Iran. The majority (63%) of Iranians use Persian as their mother tongue, while nearly all Iranians use it as their literary and intellectual language. The remaining 37% are Turkic, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Arab. By far the majority of Iranians (98%) are Muslims. The main form of Islam practiced in Iran is Shi’i Islam, although some groups, such as Baluchis and Kurds are Sunni Muslims. The remaining 2% of Iranians are Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i.

The average Iranian will live to about 60 years of age. According to the 1986 census 61.7 percent of Iranians are literate, but the literacy rate for women is fifty-two percent. The per capita income has dropped sharply in recent years. In 1978 is was about $2300, whereas now it is about $700.

Study Questions

1. Which part of the United States would most remind an Iranian from Rasht of home? Which part of the United States would remind an Iranian from Tehran of home? Why?

2. Name two mountain provinces in Iran.

3. Name two techiques Iranians use for irrigation.

4. What statistics in the last three charts reflect real or potential problems for Iran's economic development? Explain your choice.

5. How are the age distrubution charts from Iran and the USA different?