Ethnic minorities in Iran
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The majority of the Iranian population is formed by the Persians (estimated at between 51% and 65%). The largest other ethno-linguistic groups (accounting for more than 1% of the total population each) are: Azerbaijanis (16–25+%), Kurds (7–10%), Lurs (c. 7%), Mazandaranis and Gilakis (c. 7%), Arabs (2–3%), Balochi (c. 2%) Turkmens (c. 2%).
There are numerous minor groups, various tribal Turkic groups (Qashqai, Afshar, etc.) accounting for about 1% of the population between them, and small groups with presence in the region going back at least several centuries, accounting for 1-2% as well, such as the Talysh, Armenians, Georgians, Assyrians, Jews, and Circassians.
Some of the main ethnic groups in Iran are also religious minorities. For instance, the majority of Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims and the Armenians are Christian, while the state religion in Iran is Shi'a Islam. Some of these groups, however, have large Shi'a minorties, and the overwhelming majority of Persians and Azeris are Shi'a.
Many of the traditionally tribal groups have become urbanized and culturally assimilated during the 19th and 20th centuries, so that ethnic identity in many cases is less than clear-cut. There have also been considerable intermarriage rates between certain groups, and nearly all groups are fluent in Persian, in many cases marginalizing their traditional native tongue. Some groups may identify with their status as "ethnic minority" only secondarily, or cite multiple ethnic affiliation.
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. Article 15 of the constitution states:
|“||The Official Language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian||”|
Further, Article 19 of the Iranian constitution adds:
|“||All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.||”|
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. 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.
Regional and local radio programmes are broadcast in Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Baluchi, Bandari, Georgian, Persian, Kurdish, Mazandarani, Turkoman, and Turkish.
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." In a related report, Amnesty International says:
|“||Despite constitutional guarantees of equality, individuals belonging to minorities in Iran, who are believed to number about half of the population of about 70 millions, are subject to an array of discriminatory laws and practices. These include land and property confiscations, denial of state and para-statal employment under the gozinesh criteria and restrictions on social, cultural, linguistic and religious freedoms which often result in other human rights violations such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, grossly unfair trials of political prisoners before Revolutionary Courts, corporal punishment and use of the death penalty, as well as restrictions on movement and denial of other civil rights.||”|
Some Western journalists and commentators have expressed similar views. John Bradley is of the opinion that:
|“||Iran’s ethnic minorities share a widespread sense of discrimination and deprivation toward the central Tehran government. Tehran’s highly centralized development strategy has resulted in a wide socioeconomic gap between the center and the peripheries, where there is also an uneven distribution of power, socioeconomic resources, and sociocultural status. Fueled by these long-standing economic and cultural grievances against Tehran, unrest among the country’s large groups of ethnic minorities is increasing.' The violence in remote regions such as Khuzestan and Baluchistan clearly has ethnic components, but the far greater causes of the poverty and unemployment that vexes members of those ethnic groups are government corruption, inefficiency, and a general sense of lawlessness, which all Iranians, including Persians, must confront.||”|
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 (and the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council) 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. 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. 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:
|“||Iran never tried to obliterate the Kurd's identity. There is a province in Iran called Kordestan province. The Iranian name their planes after the province in Iran [including Kordestan]".||”|
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.
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 ethnic or sectarian divisions have often been readily utilized by foreign powers, notably during the Iran–Iraq War. According to Professor Richard Frye:
|“||Although many languages and dialects are spoken in the country, and different forms of social life, the dominant influence of the Persian language and culture has created a solidarity complex of great strength. This was revealed in the Iran–Iraq War when Arabs of Khuzestan did not join the invaders, and earlier when Azeris did not rally to their northern cousins after World War II, when Soviet forces occupied Azerbaijan. Likewise the Baluch, Turkmen, Armenians and Kurds, although with bonds to their kinsmen on the other side of borders, are conscious of the power and richness of Persian culture and willing to participate in it.||”|
Foreign governments, both before and after the Islamic Revolution have often been accused of attempting to de-stabilize Iran through exploiting ethnic tensions. Western media reports and statements from former CIA operatives seem to corroborate such suspicions
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. 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).
Some Iranians accuse Britain of "trying to topple the regime by supporting insurgents and separatists". 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:
|“||Nor did Saddam's territorial plans go beyond the Shatt al-Arab and a small portion of the southern region of Khuzestan, where he hoped, the substantial Arab minority would rise against their Iranian oppressors. This did not happen. The underground Arab organization in Khuzestan proved to be a far cry from the mass movement anticipated by the Iraqis, and Arab masses remained conspicuously indifferent to their would-be liberators||”|
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,
|“||Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to take advantage of Iran 's instability during its political transition and the weakness of its military (which had been decimated through regular purges of military officers once loyal to the former regime) in order to seize Iran 's oil-rich, primarily Arab-populated Khuzestan province. Hussein had wrongly expected the Iranian Arabs to join the Arab Iraqi forces and win a quick victory for Iraq.||”|
During the cold war, the Soviet Union's "tentacles extended into Iranian Kurdistan". 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 "in order to sponsor regional powerbases, if not to annex territory". 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:
To Cde. Bagirov
Measures to Organize a Separatist Movement in Southern Azerbaijan and Other Provinces in Northern Iran
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 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".
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.
|“||There are some things internal to Iran that one has to look at. Demographics are one. The Persians are almost a minority in their own country now – they're like 52% or something. There are many more Azeris in Tabriz than there are in Azerbaijan , just for the record. So that has an effect over time of changing things.||”|
Both Iran and Turkey reacted angrily to a map of "The new Middle East" 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.
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. 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".
The Republic of Azerbaijan is also accused of encouraging ethnic divisions in the Iranian region of Azerbaijan. 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". Iason Athanasiadis, quotes another CIA operative describing:
|“||Iranian Azarbaijan was rich in possibilities. Accessible through Turkey and ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, more Westward-looking than most of Iran, and economically going nowhere, Iran's richest agricultural province was an ideal covert action theater.||”|
Iason Athanasiadis continues:
|“||In his book Know Thine Enemy Reuel Marc Gerecht constantly mentally prods methods of destabilizing the Islamic republic, from cultivating high-ranking Azeris to inciting separatist Kurds to fostering divisive clerical rivalry between the holy Shi'ite cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran.||”|
The Sunday Telegraph in an article titled "US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran" on February 25, 2007, wrote:
|“||In a move that reflects Washington's growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran's border regions. The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime. Funding for their separatist causes comes directly from the CIA's classified budget but is now "no great secret", according to one former high-ranking CIA official in Washington who spoke anonymously to The Sunday Telegraph. His claims were backed by Fred Burton, a former US state department counter-terrorism agent, who said: "The latest attacks inside Iran fall in line with US efforts to supply and train Iran 's ethnic minorities to destabilise the Iranian regime.||”|
|“||U.S. officials tell ABC News U.S. intelligence officers frequently meet and advise Jundullah leaders, and current and former intelligence officers are working to prevent the men from being sent to Iran.||”|
|“||The capture of the Jundullah members is seen by intelligence sources in the region as another indication that Pakistan's new government is distancing itself from the U.S. and U.S. intelligence operations in the country.||”|
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. Hersh mentions that part of the covert activities include the support of the minority the Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.
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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. 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:
|“||The steps that the Teheran regime took in the 1930s with the aim of Persianization of the Azeris and other minorities appeared to take a leaf from the writings of the reformist-minded intellectuals in the previous decade. In the quest of imposing national homogeneity on the country where half of the population consisted of ethnic minorities, the Pahlavi regime issued in quick succession bans on the use of Azeri on the premises of schools, in theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, and, finally, in the publication of books. Azeri was reduced to the status of a language that only could be spoken and hardly ever written. As the Persianization campaign gained momentum, it drew inspiration from the revivalist spirit of Zoroastrian national glories. There followed even more invasive official practices, such as changing Turkic-sounding geographic names and interference with giving children names other than Persian ones. While cultivating cordial relations with Kemalist Turkey, Reza Shah carried on a forceful de-Turkification campaign in Iran.||”|
According to Lois Beck in 1980:
|“||Tribal populations, as well as all ethnic minorities in Iran, were denied many national rights under the Pahlavis and were victims of Persian chauvinism. National education, in which all students were required to read and write in Persian and in which Persian culture and civilization were stressed to the almost complete neglect of the contributions of other population segments, was culturally destructive.||”|
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."
- Azarbaijan (Iran)
- Demographics of Iran
- Georgians in Iran
- Human rights in Iran
- Iranian Georgians
- Iranian Circassians
- Peoples of the Caucasus in Iran
- Russians in Iran
- Assyrians in Iran
- Iranian Arabs
- Iranian Azeris
- Iranian Kurdistan
- Iranian Kuwaitis
- Koreans in Iran
- Languages and ethnicities in Iran
- Religious minorities in Iran
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- map of ethnic minorities in Iran
- Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reciting Azeri poetry
- Supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei giving a religious sermon in Arabic
- Ethnic groups of Iran
- (Video) A series of lectures hosted by The American Enterprise Institute
- Khuzestan: The First Front in the War on Iran? by Zoltan Grossman