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This article focuses on the status of ethnic minorities in contemporary Iran.

Ethnic demographics

Main article: Ethnicities in Iran

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 (maximum less than 5%–24%), 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.[1][2]

Furthermore, there are recent immigrant groups, arriving in the 20th to 21st century, such as Russians, Turks, Koreans, Iraqis, etc.

Some of the main ethnic groups in Iran are also religious minorities. For instance, the majority of Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims, the Armenians are Christian and Mandaeans follow Mandaeism, while the state religion in Iran is Shi'a Islam. Some of these groups, however, have large Shi'a minorities, and the overwhelming majority of Persians and Azeris are Shi'a.

Many of the traditional 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.[3][4][5] Some groups may identify with their status as "ethnic minority" only secondarily, or cite multiple ethnic affiliation.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] In addition, Payame Noor University, which has 229 campuses and nearly 190,000 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.[9]

Regional and local radio programmes are broadcast in Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Baluchi, Bandari, Georgian, Persian, Kurdish, Mazandarani, Turkoman, and Turkish.[10]

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."[11] 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.[12]

Some Western journalists and commentators have expressed similar views. John Bradley is of the opinion that:[13]

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.

Supreme leader of Iran (Seyyed Ali Khamenei) as the highest-ranking in Iran, is an Iranian Azeri

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.[14] 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]".[15]

Foreign involvement

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:[16]

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[17][18] and after the Islamic Revolution have often been accused of attempting to de-stabilize Iran through exploiting ethnic tensions.[19]

In 2006, U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence commissioned two research projects into Iraqi and Iranian ethnic groups.[20]

Ahwazi Arabs dissidents in Iran have been persecuted by the Iranian authorities, with a number of activists reporting being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and forced to give false confessions.[21]

Some Iranians accuse Britain of "trying to topple the regime by supporting insurgents and separatists".[22] 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:[23]

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.[24]

During the cold war, the Soviet Union's "tentacles extended into Iranian Kurdistan".[25] 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".[26] 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 to "Organize a Separatist Movement in Southern Azerbaijan and Other Provinces in Northern Iran."[27]

The Republic of Azerbaijan is also accused of encouraging ethnic divisions in the Iranian region of Azerbaijan.[28]

Historical notes

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Assyrians in Urmia, Iran.

Iran (then called Persia) traditionally was governed over the last few centuries in a fairly decentralized 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.[29] 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.[30]

According to Lois Beck in 1980:[31]

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."[32]

See also


  1. ^ "Country Profile: Iran" (PDF). Library of Congress – Federal Research Division. November 20, 2011. p. 5.
  2. ^ "Iran". CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. April 27, 2022.
  3. ^ Shahrough Akhavi (1980). Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period. State University of New York. ISBN 0-87395-456-4.
  4. ^ Nikki Keddie (2003). Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09856-1.
  5. ^ "Socio-Economic characteristics survey of Iranian households (2002) (Amârgiri az vizhegihâ-ye ejtemâ'i eqtesadi-ye khânevâr. Tehran, Markaz-e amâr-e irân, 1382), CNRS, Université Paris III, INaLCO, EPHE, Paris, page 14" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 28, 2008.
  6. ^ van Bruinessen, Martin (1978) Agha, Shaikh and State. On the Social and Political Organization of Kurdistan, University of Utrecht, Utrecht. 1978, Utrecht: footnote 102: 430

    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

  7. ^ "تأسيس گروه زبان و ادبيات ترکي آذري". University of Tabriz. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007.
  8. ^ Annika Rabo, Bo Utas, ed. (2005). The role of the state in West Asia. Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. p. 156. ISBN 978-9186884130. 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
  9. ^ عربی دومین زبان دانشگاه پیام نور شد (in Persian). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  10. ^ World of Information Staff, “ Middle East Review 2003 2003: The Economic and Business Report”, Kogan Page, 2003. pp 52–53
  11. ^ Third Committee Approves Draft Resolution Expressing Serious Concern About Human Rights Situation In Iran. (November 21, 2006). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  12. ^ Amnesty International, "Iran: New government fails to address dire human rights situation", AI Index: MDE 13/010/2006, February 16, 2006 Archived October 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Iran’s Ethnic Tinderbox Archived September 26, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. (PDF) . Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  14. ^ "Iran sends in troops to crush border unrest". The Guardian. August 5, 2005.
  15. ^ Interview in the Jordanian newspaper al-Ahram al-Yawm (amman), December 1, 1998, BBC ME/3398 MED/17
  16. ^ R. N. Frye. "Peoples of Iran". Encyclopædia Iranica.
  17. ^ The Strangling of Persia: Story of the European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue That Resulted in the Denationalization of Twelve Million Mohammedans, Morgan Shuster, 1987 edition. ISBN 0-934211-06-X
  18. ^ See Russia and Britain in Persia: A study in Imperialism. F. Kazemzadeh. Yale University Press.
  19. ^ Brook, Stephen (April 19, 2005). "Iran closes al-Jazeera offices". The Guardian. London. Iran even went so far as to expel AlJazeera from its territory for allegedly inciting ethnic unrest in Ahwaz.
  20. ^ "US marines probe tensions among Iran's minorities". Financial Times. February 23, 2006.
  21. ^ Rahim Hamid (November 30, 2011). "Ahwazi Activists Cling to Hope as Iranian Regime Persecution Worsens".
  22. ^ Harrison, Frances (June 21, 2007). "Iran's fear of the 'little devil'". BBC News. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  23. ^ Efraim Karsh, The Iran–Iraq War 1980–1988, Osprey Publishing, 2002, pg 27.
  24. ^ Amanda Roraback, Iran in a Nutshell, Enisen Publishing, pg 30
  25. ^ Patrick Clawson, Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos. Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. ISBN 1-4039-6275-8 p.59
  26. ^ Patrick Clawson et al., Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos. Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. ISBN 1-4039-6275-8 p.59
  27. ^ Decree of the Central Committee of CPSU Politbureau on "Measures to Organize a Separatist Movement in Southern Azerbaijan and Other Provinces of Northern Iran", GAPPOD Republic of Azerbaijan, f. 1, op. 89, d. 90, ll. 4–5, obtained by Jamil Hasanli, translated for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars by Gary Goldberg Archived June 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ Asia Times Online. (June 8, 2006). Retrieved November 20, 2011.
  29. ^ "Memorandum by the Rev. George Percy Badger on the Pretensions of Persia in Beloochistan and Mekran, drawn up with special reference to Her Claim to Gwadur and Charbar," London, Dec 23, 1863, FOP 60/287.
  30. ^ Tadeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. p.122, ISBN 0-231-07068-3
  31. ^ Lois Beck. "Revolutionary Iran and Its Tribal Peoples". MERIP Reports, No. 87, (May, 1980), p. 16
  32. ^ Patrick Clawson. Eternal Iran. Palgrave Macmillan. 2005 ISBN 1-4039-6276-6 p.23