Iran has a population of 75 million people, the largest of the Gulf states and second only to Egypt in the Middle East. The country is also a geographic land bridge, connecting the Anatolian Peninsula, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia. Consequently, Iran is home to one of the world's most diverse ethnolinguistic populations, spread across Iran's mountainous geography. Nearly a dozen languages, and even more individual dialects, are spoken as the mother tongues of Iranians.
Modern Iran emerged in the early 20th century as modernization programs and infrastructure development began to connect the various cities and establish Farsi as the dominant language. Azeri Turkish, regional dialects and Arabic still figure prominently across Iran's landscape, especially in restive areas near national borders.
Historically, Iran's demographic challenge has been uniting and ruling a diverse population. This partly explains Iran's heavy emphasis on developing strong domestic security forces. Separatist segments within Azeri, Kurdish and Sunni Arab and Baloch populations threaten Iranian security, but Tehran's main demographic challenge today rests in addressing the economic and employment needs of a population expected to grow to more than 100 million by 2050.
Over half of Iran's population is younger than 35 and lack a personal connection to the events surrounding the revolution that brought the current cleric-led regime to power. Decades of economic sanctions and the resulting damage to Iran's economy, coupled with Iran's large population, have resulted in a median household income of less than $1,000 per month. This is in spite of significant oil and natural gas reserves and in stark contrast to the wealthy Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Rising unemployment and increasing dissatisfaction with the revolution-minded political system have led to a steady emigration of educated and skilled labor. According to a 2009 study by the International Monetary Fund, Iran suffers the highest rate of "brain drain," or loss of its educated labor force, in the world.
Tehran is struggling to address rising social and economic pressures affecting its fast-growing population, but large-scale economic reform will be unlikely without significant political reform. As the potential for unrest grows, Iran will have to rely more heavily on its security apparatus to maintain control, risking further isolation from the global system.