Iran is one of the world's most mountainous countries. Its mountains have helped to shape both the political and the economic history of the country for several centuries. The mountains enclose several broad basins, or plateaus, on which major agricultural and urban settlements are located. Until the twentieth century, when major highways and railroads were constructed through the mountains to connect the population centers, these basins tended to be relatively isolated from one another. Typically, one major town dominated each basin, and there were complex economic relationships between the town and the hundreds of villages that surrounded it. In the higher elevations of the mountains rimming the basins, tribally organized groups practiced transhumance, moving with their herds of sheep and goats between traditionally established summer and winter pastures. There are no major river systems in the country, and historically transportation was by means of caravans that followed routes traversing gaps and passes in the mountains. The mountains also impeded easy access to the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.
Iran is about one-fifth the size of the continental United States, or slightly larger than the combined area of the contiguous states of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. As of 2008 Iran was bounded by Afghanistan (936 kilometers), Armenia (35 kilometers), Azerbaijan proper (432 kilometers), Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan enclave (179 kilometers), Iraq (1,458 kilometers), Pakistan (909 kilometers), Turkey (499 kilometers), and Turkmenistan (992 kilometers). Iran's coastline included 2,440 kilometers on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman and 740 kilometers on the Caspian Sea.
Iran consists of rugged, mountainous rims surrounding high interior basins. The main mountain chain is the Zagros Mountains, a series of parallel ridges interspersed with plains that bisect the country from northwest to southeast. Many peaks in the Zagros exceed 3,000 meters above sea level, and in the south-central region of the country there are at least five peaks that are over 4,000 meters. As the Zagros continue into southeastern Iran, the average elevation of the peaks declines dramatically to under 1,500 meters. Rimming the Caspian Sea littoral is another chain of mountains, the narrow but high Alborz Mountains. Volcanic Mount Damavand (5,600 meters), located in the center of the Alborz, is not only the country's highest peak, but also the highest mountain on the Eurasian landmass west of the Hindu Kush.
The center of Iran consists of several closed basins that collectively are referred to as the Central Plateau. The average elevation of this plateau is about 900 meters, but several of the mountains that tower over the plateau exceed 3,000 meters. The eastern part of the plateau is covered by two salt deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut. Except for some scattered oases, these deserts are uninhabited.
Iran has only two expanses of lowlands: the Khuzestan plain in the southwest and the Caspian Sea coastal plain in the north. The former is a roughly triangular-shaped extension of the Mesopotamia plain and averages about 160 kilometers in width. It extends for about 120 kilometers inland, barely rising a few meters above sea level, then meets abruptly with the first foothills of the Zagros. Much of the Khuzestan plain is covered with marshes. The Caspian plain is both longer and narrower. It extends for some 640 kilometers along the Caspian shore, but its widest point is less than 50 kilometers, while at some places less than 2 kilometers separate the shore from the Alborz foothills. The Persian Gulf coast south of Khuzestan and the Gulf of Oman coast have no real plains because the Zagros in these areas come right down to the shore.
There are no major rivers in the country. Of the small rivers and streams, the only one that is navigable is the Karun, which shallow-draft boats can negotiate from Khorramshahr to Ahvaz, a distance of about 180 kilometers. It is 830 kilometers in total length. Other rivers include the Safid Rud (1,000 kilometers), Kharkeh (700 kilometers), and Zayandeh Rud (400 kilometers). Several other permanent rivers and streams also drain into the Persian Gulf, while a number of small rivers that originate in the northwestern Zagros or Alborz drain into the Caspian Sea. On the Central Plateau, numerous rivers, most of which have dry beds for the greater part of the year, form from snow melting in the mountains during the spring and flow through permanent channels, draining eventually into salt lakes that also tend to dry up during the summer months. There is a permanent salt lake, Lake Urmia (the traditional name, also cited as Lake Urmiyeh, to which it has reverted after being called Lake Rezaiyeh under Mohammad Reza Shah), in the northwest, whose brine content is too high to support fish or most other forms of aquatic life. There are also several connected salt lakes along the Iran-Afghanistan border in the province of Baluchestan va Sistan.
Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dispute sovereignty over three islands in the Persian Gulf that were occupied by Iran as of 2008 and had been occupied since before the 1979 Revolution. Iran also had claims that its territorial sea extends 12 nautical miles and its contiguous zone, 24 nautical miles. The exclusive economic zone claimed by Iran was determined by bilateral treaties or median lines in the Persian Gulf. The maritime border with Iraq along the Shatt al Arab waterway was established by treaty in 1975 as the median line of the deep-water channel, but the final status of the treaty awaited the conclusion of a peace treaty to replace the 1988 cease-fire agreement between Iran and Iraq. In opposition to at least two of the other four littoral states, Iran advocated a division of the bed of the Caspian Sea that would give Iran control of an area about 20 percent greater than the area it would control under a division based on the actual length of each littoral state's coastline. The debate remained as of 2008 over whether the Caspian Sea was technically a sea or lake, which had implications on the drawing of borders, the requirements on bordering states before engaging in construction projects (such as underwater pipelines), and the distribution of resource rights.
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