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Iran has a total land area of 1.6 million square kilometres. It has common borders with seven countries - Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To its immediate south lie the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Oman.
The western and northern areas are very mountainous. Stretching from the north western corner to the south is the broad Zagros range, with ridges consistently above 1,500 metres and up to 3,600 metres. Across the north lies the Alborz range, which is narrower but higher (one peak, Damavand, is more than 5,400 metres). Tehran is situated at the foot of the southern slopes of the Alborz range. Between the two systems lies a great plateau, covering two-thirds of the country and up to 1,800 metres in altitude, itself bisected by many smaller mountain ranges. The plateau varies from salt desert to semi-arid grazing land, with settlement for the most part along the foot of the mountains wherever water can be trapped for limited irrigation. Similarly the coastline is dry, stretching from the Pakistan border to the head of the Persian Gulf where the Shatt-el-Arab, the union of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, reaches the sea.
Most of Iran's enormous wealth originates in the delta province of Khuzestan. Khuzestan suffered heavily during the Iran-Iraq war and because of its significance as the centre of the Iranian oil industry. The dryness of much of Iran south of the Alborz range contrasts with the small but heavily populated provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan along the Caspian Sea, where the average rainfall ranges up to 212 cm per annum and the vegetation is green and lush. Forests, tea plantations, rice paddies and citrus groves stretch down to the grey expanses of the Caspian. Azerbaijan, in the north west, and northern Khorassan, in the north east, also enjoy enough rainfall for a reasonably flourishing agriculture, although winters are very severe. Over the rest of the country where rainfall is low, water resources are generally limited to irrigation or oasis farming or animal husbandry - in some places still on a nomadic basis.
The population is about 68.5 million and increasing at a rate of about 2.5 percent each year. The largest cities after Tehran – which has a population of 12 million - are Isfahan, Mashad, Tabriz, Shiraz and Qazvin. The Persian language and cultural influence disseminated from the capital are predominant. About eight million in the north western area (East and West Azerbaijan) speak a Turkish dialect and Arabic is spoken in parts of Khuzestan Province. There are a number of tribal groups in Iran still identifiable by their distinct mode of life, dialects and often colourful costumes: Turkmen in the north east, Kurds, Baluchis, Qashquai, Lurs and Bakhtiari in the Zagros Mountains.
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC
10 February 1979, ten days after the return of Ayatollah Khomeini- the founder of the Revolution - from exile and a few weeks after the departure of the Shah, is commemorated as the day marking the victory of the Islamic Revolution. An Islamic Republic was formally declared on 1 April 1979 following a popular referendum which was overwhelmingly supported. In August of that year, an Assembly of Experts, about half clergymen, was elected to draw up a Constitution for the Islamic Republic which was adopted again by referendum on 23 December 1979.
Iran is +3:30 hours ahead of GMT and 5 ½ to 7 ½ hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time depending on summer / winter daylight saving in each country.
Tehran has been the capital of Iran for less than two hundred years in which time it has grown from a village to a city of an estimated 12 million people. Most of the population growth has occurred in the years after the revolution, causing over rapid expansion and an enormous strain on urban services. The poor tend to congregate in the southern part of the city, while the more affluent live in an area stretching from the city northwards for about 10-12 kilometres to the foot of the Alborz mountains. Traffic and pollution are growing problems.
IRANIAN CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE
As Iran is an Islamic Republic, local customs and standards of behaviour differ from those with which Australians are familiar. Iranians pride themselves on their hospitality to visitors. The following tips relating to customs and etiquette may prove useful:
Certain business etiquettes should be observed during interaction with Iranian business people. Although officials of the Islamic Republic are not allowed to wear a tie, it is very common for visitors to do so although proper business attire need not include a tie. Women must adhere to the Islamic dress code referred to below. It is important to note that most officials will not shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, especially in public. The same is true for private citizens who are particularly religious.
When visiting an Iranian household for the first time or on a special occasion, it is customary to bring a small gift. Gifts should also be offered when visiting an Iranian home for a meal. Flowers and/or sweets or pastries are popular gift choices.
Meal times in Iran vary considerably from those in Australia. Lunch can be served from 1.00-3.00pm and dinner is often eaten after 10.00pm. However official functions, such as dinners, are usually held at conventional times. These and other social occasions are often long, drawn-out affairs conducted in a relatively relaxed ambience. On arrival at an Iranian home or a business meeting, visitors are served tea often with pastries and followed by fruit and possibly nuts. As it is considered impolite to refuse what is served, visitors should accept the items offered even if they do not intend to consume them.
The official working week is from Saturday to Thursday. Most businesses are closed on Fridays.
Islam sets strict rules governing relations between men and women and these should be respected at all times. These and other Islamic standards should be adhered to not only to ensure culturally appropriate behaviour, but also because they are often legal requirements in Iran.
The importation and consumption of alcohol is strictly banned. Penalties are severe and could include corporal punishment. Pork and pork products are forbidden and, like alcohol, their import is illegal.
Men and women do not shake hands and physical contact between men and women who are not related should be avoided.
Swimming and all forms of outdoor sports are subject to Islamic rules. Mixed bathing is prohibited and public beaches and most sporting facilities are segregated.
Attire for men is similar to that in Australia. However visitors should note that shorts should not be worn outside the house and garden. Short sleeved shirts are sometimes frowned upon and should never be worn when making business calls. Ties are acceptable although worn rarely by Iranian men. Tracksuits (but not shorts) are also acceptable. Loud western clothing (T-Shirts, etc) should be avoided.
In most private residences, women can dress in normal western clothes. In public, however, covering of the body and hair is mandatory. This consists of a long-sleeved, non-form fitting coat (rupush) and a headscarf covering the hair, ears and neck (rusari). This outfit must be worn all year round regardless of temperature. Scarves should be large enough to cover the head and to tie under the chin. Although most Iranian women wear the chador (black sheet held under the chin, draping over the head and body) or rupush and rusari, in practice a range of outfits is considered "acceptable". Moreover, greater tolerance tends to be shown towards foreigners over details of the dress code. "Acceptable" outfits may include a coat and scarf in winter (knee-length is acceptable if worn over pants or jeans), or a long loose dress or shirt worn over long loose skirt or pants with scarf in summer. All colours and styles are generally acceptable. However, if in doubt or planning to visit official/’Islamic’ areas (this includes the bazaar), a dark coloured rupush and head scarf with closed shoes and dark stockings should be worn.
If undertaking sporting activity in public (such as tennis or jogging), the rupush and rusari need to be worn over a tracksuit. Women skiing must wear a loose fitting jacket, sweater or skirt of some kind which covers up the shape of the body down to the knees. Head scarves must be worn at all times.
In general Iran is a safe country with few reported security incidents involving foreigners. However, as in any country, normal, common-sense security precautions should be taken with valuables and your personal safety. In Tehran there have been increasing instances involving bogus plain-clothes police demanding to examine tourists’ identification and undertaking searches for drugs and counterfeit currency. In the course of such encounters, tourists have had money stolen. Visitors should keep their passports separate from other valuables and maintain personal security awareness.
Visitors to Iran should refer to the DFAT Iran travel advisory for current advice on security matters (see link at homepage).
The official language is Persian (Farsi), written in a script derived from Arabic. English is not widely spoken outside hotels and airlines.
Shopping, obtaining taxis and other everyday functions generally require a basic knowledge of Farsi.
Shi'a Islam is the official religion. Visitors need to be sensitive to and respectful of Islamic values to avoid offending local sensitivities. This includes respecting Islamic dress requirements and other rules.
In areas of religious significance (e.g. mosques and shrines), non-Moslem foreigners may not be permitted to enter, or, if allowed entry, will need to dress suitably (women may be required to wear the full chador - see section on clothing). Some mosques, particularly in the religious cities of Qom and Mashad, are closed to non-Moslems. Foreigners can enter sometimes but should attempt this sensitively and in the company of an Iranian.
Religious occasions in Iran include the month of Ramadan. The timing of Ramadan varies annually and throughout this month fasting is observed during daylight hours when all restaurants are closed and both eating and smoking in public are prohibited. Visitors should be respectful of Ramadan and all other Moslem religious occasions. There are several other important religious occasions including Ashura, the period of mourning for Imam Hossein, the timing of which also changes annually.
The Iranian constitution recognises Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as official religions in Iran. A number of Christian denominations are represented in Iran including Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox forms of the Christian faith.
BANKING AND CURRENCY
The currency is the Iranian Rial (IRR). The "Toman" (10 rials) is the monetary unit commonly used. Prices are usually quoted in Tomans. The official exchange rate is approximately 9211 IRR to one USD and 8829 IRR to one AUD.
Credit cards and travellers cheques cannot be used. Visitors are advised to bring US dollars or EURO cash. All notes should be in good condition and USD should be dated after 1996. There are no ATMs linked to foreign banks.
Tourists should avoid currency exchange touts offering to change hard currency at black market rates. Such activity is illegal and currency should only be changed at authorised offices and banks.
Reliable landline telephone services exist throughout Iran and overseas. The mobile network, however, can be problematic with intermittent coverage in some areas and signal access during peak usage. In addition to IDD calls made from private telephones which have this facility, overseas calls can be placed through hotel operators or made from post offices. Telephone cards are widely available for international calls at reasonable rates. Australian mobile phones cannot be used in Iran. There is also GSM coverage in Iran.
Tehran is currently serviced by two international airports – Mehrabad Airport and the new Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA). All International airlines have moved to IKIA . Mehrabad is approximately 17km from the Embassy (30mins to 1 hr) depending on the traffic. A one-way taxi journey costs approximately 60,000 IRR . IKIA is approximately 60 km from the Embassy (1 - 2 hours) depending on traffic. A one-way taxi journey costs approximately 150,000 IRR. A bus to the centre of Tehran costs 10,000 IRR (approximately one USD). Hotels can arrange airport pick-up.
Telephone taxis are available through local agencies in Tehran, and most hotels in provincial centres can arrange taxis or hire cars. There are no taxi meters and fares should be negotiated prior to travel. The current rate in these taxis is approximately 20,000 IRR for the first journey, after which the additional fare is roughly 24,000 IRR per hour. Local orange taxis (or private vehicles operating as "taxis") are numerous and efficient for Farsi speakers as they provide an interlocking network of north-south and east-west transport on a shared basis. However, because of language difficulties, they are only suitable for more intrepid tourists.
Cheap bus transport is available in and between cities but is not convenient for business visitors. Tehran has a new metro system which as yet does not extend to all parts of the city. A line is planned to the new international airport.
Domestic flights in Iran are inexpensive but services can be unreliable. Visitors should instruct travel agents not to book flights on Russian aircraft as they have a poor safety record.