More than half of Iran is covered by mountains and in the vast majority of places there will be a peak of some size looming at the end of the street. Four ranges are most prominent. The smaller, volcanic Sabalan and Talesh Ranges in the northwestern Azeri provinces provide fertile pastures for nomads. Nearby, the majestic Alborz Mountains skirt the Caspian Sea from the border of Azerbaijan as far as Turkmenistan, and are home to forests, ski fields and the snowcapped Mt Damavand, the Middle East’s tallest mountain. Sitting on the world’s second-largest known reserve of natural gas, the immense Zagros Mountains stretch about 1500km from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, rising and falling like the ridged back of a great crocodile. There are several peaks reaching more than 4000m, though heights fall to an average of 1500m in the southern parts of the range.
East of the Zagros Mountains is the central plateau and its two vast deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir (more than 200,000 sq km) in the north and the Dasht-e Lut (more than 166,000 sq km) in the southeast. The deserts include occasional salt lakes and, in total, account for almost 25% of the country.
Think of Iran’s mountain ranges as being the foundations and support for a vast central plateau. Everything but the narrow coastal regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and the Khuzestan plain near southern Iraq, is about 1000m above sea level or higher. This elevation, combined with the prevalence of mountains and the complete lack of major rivers, has had a huge effect on the development of Persian culture.