Ethnic minorities in Iran

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This article focuses on ethnic minorities in Iran and their related political issues.

Overview

Ali Khamenei, a half ethnic Azerbaijani,[1][2][3][4] is the current Supreme Leader of Iran, which makes him the Head of the State and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.

Iran is an ethnically diverse country,[5] and interethnic relations are generally amicable.[citation needed] Persians form the majority of the population. However, as erroneously as it is, historically the use of the term "Persian" has often included all the various regional dialects, ethnics, and subgroups of Iran and its territories, in its various large empires. The same way as it went and still goes for Iran's neighboring country of Turkey.

The main ethno-linguistic minority groups in Iran are the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, Balochs, and Jews. The tribal groups include the Bakhtiaris, Khamseh, Lurs, Qashqai, as well as others. Other small minorities include the Circassians, Russians, Turks, French, British, Koreans, Iraqi's, Kazakh, Pastuns, and many more. While many Iranians identify with a secondary ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional background in some way, the primary identity unifying virtually all of these sub-groups is their distinctly Iranian language, and/or culture. Though many of the tribal groups have become urbanized over the decades, some continue to function as rural tribal societies. According to the CIA World Factbook and other Western.[6][7] sources, ethnicity/race in Iran breaks down as follows: Persian 61%, Azeri 16%, Kurd 10%, Arab 2%, Lur 6%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%. However, these statistics are largely discredited and viewed as flawed by Iranians themselves,[8][9] because the Western data ignores considerable intermarriage rates over centuries between these groups, and the fact that almost all of these groups speak Persian as well as their ethnic language,[10] and identify with their sub-identity only secondarily[11] Moreover, there is debate as to what the definition of a Persian is. According to Western sources, such as the CIA World Factbook, anyone in Iran who associates with a regional linguistic sub-identity is deemed an "ethnic minority", even though the individual speaks Persian as their first language, and is ethnically indistinguishable[clarification needed] from the rest of Iranians, including Persians. Conversely, Western sources erroneously define the "Persian" "ethnicity" as basically anyone living in Iran who does not claim a secondary regional linguistic identity.

Kurdish wedding dance in Sanandaj, Iran.

While many of these ethnic groups have their own languages, cultures, and often literature they all native to Iran and majority of Iran's ethnic groups are Iranian people. Despite their overwhelming similarities, in modern times, their differences occasionally emerge as political ambitions, largely as a result of provocation from outside powers(See section foreign involvement). Some of these groups are also religious minorities. For instance, the majority of Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims, while the state religion in Iran is Shi'a Islam. Some of these groups however have large Shi'a majorities and the overwhelming majority of Persians and Azeris are Shi'a.

One of the major internal policy challenges during the centuries up until now for most or all Iranian governments has been to find the appropriate and balanced approach to the difficulties and opportunities caused by this diversity, particularly as this internal diversity has often been readily utilized by foreign powers. According to Professor Richard Frye:[12]

Current policy

The Constitution of Iran guarantees freedom of cultural expression and linguistic diversity. Many Iranian provinces have radio and television stations in local language or dialect. School education is in Persian, the official language, but use of regional languages is allowed under the constitution of the Islamic Republic, and Azeri language and culture is studied at universities and other institutions of higher education.[13] Article 15 of the constitution states:

Further, Article 19 of the Iranian constitution adds:

There is in fact, a considerable publication (book, newspaper, etc.) taking place in the two largest minority languages in the Azerbaijani language and Kurdish, and in the academic year 2004–05 B.A. programmes in the Azerbaijani language and literature (in Tabriz) and in the Kurdish language and literature (in Sanandaj) are offered in Iran for the very first time.[14] In addition, Payame Noor University, which has 229 campuses and nearly 190000 students throughout the country, in 2008 declared that Arabic will be the "second language" of the university, and that all its services will be offered in Arabic, concurrent with Persian.[15]

Regional and local radio programmes are broadcast in Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Baluchi, Bandari, Persian, Kurdish, Mazandarani, Pashtu, Turkoman, Turkish and Urdu.[16]

However, some human rights groups have accused the Iranian government of violating the constitutional guarantees of equality, and the UN General Assembly has voiced its concern over "increasing discrimination and other human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities."[17] In a related report, Amnesty International says:

Some Western journalists and commentators have expressed similar views. John Bradley is of the opinion that:[19]

Nevertheless, representatives of various ethnic minorities have enjoyed a successful political career in Iran. For example Ali Khamenei the current Supreme Leader is half Azeri and Ali Shamkhani the former defense minister is Arab. Many, if not most, members of the national cultural and political elite have mixed ethnic roots. Most provincial governors and many members of the local ruling classes and clergy are members of the relevant ethnic groups.[citation needed] Many, if not most, members of the national cultural and political elite have mixed ethnic roots.

Separatist tendencies, led by some groups such as the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and Komalah in Iranian Kurdistan, for example, had led to frequent unrest and occasional military crackdown throughout the 1990s and even to the present.[20] In Iran, Kurds have twice had their own autonomous regions independent of central government control: The Republic of Mahabad in Iran which was the second independent Kurdish state of the 20th century, after the Republic of Ararat in modern Turkey; and the second time after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Jalal Talabani leader of the Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in a 1998 interview, contrasted the situation in Iran with that of Turkey, with respect to Kurds:

Devolution has also occurred in other provinces such as Balochistan, Khuzestan (see Politics of Khuzestan) and Iranian Azerbaijan. However, ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy are suspected of being instigated by foreign powers.

Foreign involvement

The Charter of the general assembly of the United Nations has accepted the declaration of the "inadmissibility of interference in the Internal Affairs of States".[22][23]

Foreign governments, both before[24][25] and after the Islamic Revolution have often been accused of attempting to de-stabilize Iran through exploiting ethnic tensions.[26] Western media reports and statements from former CIA operatives seem to corroborate such suspicions[27][28][29][30]

While some commentators claim that these ethnic unrests in Iran are not inspired by foreign governments but by the policies of the Iranian government which have been described as discriminatory, others disagree.[31][32] Professor Bernard Lewis in fact first unveiled a project for the separation of Khuzestan from Iran, formally proposing the fragmentation or balkanization of Iran along regional, ethnic, and linguistic lines especially among the Arabs of Khuzestan (the Al-Ahwaz project), the Baluchis (the Pakhtunistan project), the Kurds (the Greater Kurdistan project) and the Azerbaijanis (the Greater Azerbaijan Project).[33]

Some Iranians accuse Britain of "trying to topple the regime by supporting insurgents and separatists".[34] Other states however are also believed to be involved in the politics of ethnicity in southern Iran. Professor Efraim Karsh traces out the origins of Saddam Hussein's wish to annex Khuzestan using the ethnic card:[35]

During Iran's 1979 revolution, after sending thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites into exile in Iran and the quick and brutal suppression of Kurdish dissent,

During the cold war, the Soviet Union's "tentacles extended into Iranian Kurdistan".[37] As the main supporter of ethnic communist enclaves such as the Republic of Mahabad, and (later on) as the main arms supplier of Saddam Hussein, both the Soviet Union and its predecessor the Russian Empire, made many attempts to divide Iran along ethnic lines. Moscow's policies were specifically devised "inorder to sponsor regional powerbases, if not to annex territory".[38] For example, in a cable sent on July 6, 1945 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Azerbaijan was instructed as such:

Foreign interest in the ethnic politics of Iran continues to resurface in modern times. In April 2006, Seymour Hersh brought widespread attention to claims of covert operations in Iran when he wrote in an article for the The New Yorker about special units that were "working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris in the north, the Baluchis in the southeast, and the Kurds in the northeast of Iran." According to the report, US troops in Iran were "recruiting local ethnic populations to encourage local tensions that could undermine the regime".[40]

Former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter has also suggested that the US military is setting up the infrastructure for an enormous military presence in Azerbaijan that will be utilized for a land-based campaign designed to bring down the government in Tehran. He also claims CIA paramilitary operatives and US Special Forces are training special Azerbaijani units capable of operating inside Iran in order to mobilize the large Azeri ethnic population within Iran.[41]

Statements made by various Pentagon officials have supported such claims. On September 7, 2004, referring to Iran's ethnic minorities, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated:

Both Iran[43] and Turkey[44] reacted angrily to a map of "The new Middle East"[45] by Colonel Ralph Peters, when it was revealed that the map was used in training programs at NATO's Defense College for senior military officers, and National War Academy.[46][47][48][49][50][51]

Some representatives of Western governments have even met with leaders of such groups. An example is June 31, 2005, when Pierre Pettigrew met Rafiq Abu-Sharif, a separatist representative of the Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front.[52] According to the front's website, Abu-Sharif "submitted a detailed letter to Pettigrew...detailing the nationalities under oppression in Iran", further meeting with Canadian parliamentaries "to further discuss the matter".[53][54]

The Republic of Azerbaijan is also accused of encouraging ethnic divisions in the Iranian region of Azerbaijan.[55] According to James Woolsey, former director of CIA, "Washington should also pay attention to Iran's geographic and ethnic fissures – for example, a large share of Iran's oil is located in the restive Arab-populated regions in Iran's south".[56][57] Iason Athanasiadis, quotes another CIA operative describing:

Iason Athanasiadis continues:

The Sunday Telegraph in an article titled "US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran" on February 25, 2007, wrote:

On May 23, 2008 , abc news released a report about the worsening of US-Pakistani relations that had negative effect on US support of Jundullah Militants, Led by Abdolmalek Rigi:[61]

Seymour M. Heresh in his article on July 7, 2008 mentions that the Bush Administration is increasing its secret moves against Iran by supporting ethnic separatist groups in Iran.[63] Hersh mentions that part of the covert activities include the support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.[63]

Historical notes

Assyrians in Urmia, Iran.

Iran (then called Persia) traditionally was governed over the last few centuries in a fairly decentralised way with much regional and local autonomy. In particular, weaker members of the Qajar dynasty often did not rule much beyond the capital Tehran, a fact exploited by the imperial powers Britain and Russia in the 19th century. For example, when British cartographers, diplomats, and telegraph workers traveled along Iran's southern coast in the early 19th century laden with guns and accompanied by powerful ships, some local chieftains quickly calculated that their sworn allegiance to the Shah in Tehran with its accompanying tax burden might be optional. When queried, they proclaimed their own local authority.[64] However during Constitutional Revolution ethnic minorities including Azeris, Bakhtiaris and Armenians fought together for establishment of democracy in Iran while they had the power to become independent.

Reza Shah Pahlavi, and to a lesser degree his son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, successfully strengthened the central government by using reforms, bribes and suppressions. In particular, the Bakhtiaris, Kurds, and Lurs until the late 1940s required persistent military measures to keep them under governmental control. According to Tadeusz Swietochowski, in 1930s Reza Shah Pahlavi pursued the official policy of Persianization to assimilate Azerbaijanis and other ethnic minorities in Iran:

According to Lois Beck in 1980:[66]

In studying the history of ethnicity in Iran, it is important to remember that "ethnic nationalism is largely a nineteenth century phenomenon, even if it is fashionable to retroactively extend it."[67]

See also

References

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    When I asked people in ethnically mixed areas whether they were Kurds of [sic] Turks or Persians I frequently got answers such as 'I am Kurd as well as a Persian and a Turk'. When I insisted and asked what they originally were, some answered 'my father speaks all three languages

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External links