Iran country overview

The land of Iran

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

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Geographic regions of Iran


Iran’s high interior basin is surrounded by a series of massive, heavily eroded mountain ranges. The majority of the country sits above 1,500 feet (460 meters), with one-sixth of it reaching over 6,500 feet (1,980 meters). However, the coastal regions outside the mountain ring present a stark contrast. In the north, there is a strip bordering the Caspian Sea that stretches for 400 miles (650 km) and is never wider than 70 miles (115 km) (often narrower). This strip descends sharply from 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) summits to the marshy lake’s edge, which is approximately 90 feet (30 meters) below sea level. Along the southern coast, the land drops from a 2,000-foot (600-meter) plateau, backed by a rugged escarpment three times as high, to meet the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

The Zagros (Zāgros) Mountains extend in a northwest-southeast direction, from Iran’s borders with Turkey and Iraq in the northwest to the Strait of Hormuz in the southeast. Moving further south, the range widens into a band of parallel ridges that are 125 miles (200 km) wide. These ridges lie between the plains of Mesopotamia and Iran’s great central plateau. The range is drained on the west by streams that have carved deep, narrow gorges and water fertile valleys. The land in this area is extremely rugged and challenging to access, and it is primarily inhabited by pastoral nomads.

The Elburz (Alborz) Mountains run along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea and meet the border ranges of the Khorāsān region to the east. The tallest peak in this chain is the snow-covered Mount Damāvand (Demavend), which also happens to be Iran’s highest point. Many parts of Iran remain isolated and poorly surveyed, leading to disputes over the elevation of its peaks. However, Mount Damāvand is generally recognized as standing at 18,605 feet (5,671 meters).

Volcanic and tectonic activity

Mount Taftān, located in southeastern Iran, is a prominent cone that stands at an impressive height of 13,261 feet (4,042 meters). This volcano intermittently releases gas and mud. On the other hand, Mount Damāvand in the north, as well as Mount Sabalān (15,787 feet [4,812 meters]) and Mount Sahand (12,172 feet [3,710 meters]) in the northwest, have remained inactive in historical times. The Sahand-Bazman Belt, which was formed by volcanic activity during the Eocene period, stretches approximately 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) from the northwest border with Azerbaijan to Baluchistan in the southeast. This belt encompasses volcanic peaks like Mount Sahand, Mount Karkas in Eṣfahān province, Mount Lalahezar in Kermān province, and Bazman in Sīstān va Balūchestān province. Furthermore, in the northwestern part of the country, a 200-mile (320-kilometer) stretch of land from Jolfā on the Azerbaijan border to the Caspian Sea is covered in lava and ashes. Another volcanic region, measuring 250 miles (400 kilometers) in length and 40 miles (65 kilometers) in width, lies between Lake Urmia (Orūmiyyeh) and the city of Qazvīn.

Iran experiences frequent and severe earthquake activity throughout the country. In the 20th century, when reliable records were available, there were a total of twelve earthquakes measuring 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale, resulting in significant loss of life. One of the most devastating earthquakes occurred in 1990, claiming the lives of approximately 50,000 people in the Qazvīn-Zanjān area. In 2003, an earthquake of relatively lower magnitude struck the ancient town of Bam in eastern Kermān province, causing extensive destruction and leading to the death of over 25,000 individuals.

The interior plateau

The arid interior plateau, which extends into Central Asia, is bordered on the west by the Zagros Mountains, on the north by the Elburz Mountains and the Kopet-Dag (Koppeh Dāgh) Range, and on the south by the Bashagard Range, which stretches east from the Strait of Hormuz into the Baluchistan region of Iran. The plateau is intersected by several smaller mountain ranges. Within the flatlands lie the most notable features of the plateau, the Kavīr and Lūt deserts, also known as the Dasht-e Kavīr and Kavīr-e Lūt. In the lowest elevations, basins in the poorly drained soil remain dry for extended periods; the evaporation of any accumulated water results in the formation of salt wastelands called kavīrs. As elevation increases, the surfaces of sand and gravelly soil gradually transition into fertile soil on the hillsides and mountain slopes.


The desiccated central plateau is drained by a few streams that eventually dissipate in saline marshes. The main drainage pattern is towards the sea, with the outward slopes of the mountains leading the way. Among the three large rivers in the region, only the Kārūn River is navigable. It originates in the Zagros Mountains and flows south to the Shatt Al-Arab (Arvand Rūd), which then empties into the Persian Gulf. The Sefīd (Safid) River, on the other hand, starts in the Elburz Mountains in the north and initially flows as a mountain stream. However, it quickly transitions into the Gīlān plain and eventually reaches the Caspian Sea. Notably, the Dez Dam in Dezfūl is one of the Middle East’s largest dams. Additionally, the Sefīd River Dam, completed in the early 1960s at Manjīl, serves as a source of hydroelectric power and irrigation water.

The Zāyandeh River, which is crucial for Eṣfahān province, also originates in the Zagros Mountains. It flows southeastward and eventually reaches Gāv Khūnī Marsh (Gāvkhāneh Lake), a swamp located northwest of the city of Yazd. The completion of the Kūhrang Dam in 1971 redirected water from the upper Kārūn River through a 2-mile (3 km) long tunnel into the Zāyandeh River for irrigation purposes.

Other streams in the region are seasonal and vary in their water flow. Spring floods can cause significant damage, while many streams dry up during the summer. However, there is a natural underground storage of water, which finds its way to the surface through springs and tap wells.

The largest inland body of water in Iran is Lake Urmia, located in the northwestern part of the country. Its size fluctuates between approximately 2,000 to 2,300 square miles (5,200 to 6,000 square km). Other lakes in the area are mostly seasonal and have a high salt content.

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