Ethnic minorities in Iran

Ethnic minorities in Iran

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


Iran is an ethnically diverse country, and interethnic relations are generally amicable. [cite encyclopedia | title = Iran:Ethnic groups| encyclopedia =britannica |url= ] Persians form the majority of the population. However, historically the terms "Iran" and "Persia" have refereed to a confederation of all groups native to the Iranian Plateau, and the speakers of Iranian languages, whether located in Iran or not (e.g. Tajiks, Ossetians, etc.). Therefore, historically, the use of the term "Persian" has included all the various regional dialects and subgroups of Iran.

The main ethno-linguistic minority groups in Iran are the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkmen, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, and Georgians. The tribal groups include the Bakhtiaris, Khamseh, Lurs, Qashqai, as well as others. 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 [ [ Library of Congress – Federal Research Division page5] ] sources, ethnicity/race in Iran breaks down as follows: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1%. However, these statistics are largely discredited and viewed as flawed by Iranians themselvesPart II: Iran] Shahrough Akhavi, "Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period", State University of New York (1980), ISBN 0-87395-456-4.] Nikki Keddie, "Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution", Yale University Press (2003), ISBN 0-300-09856-1.] ,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 [ [] 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.] , and identify with their sub-identity only secondarily [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
] 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 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. While many of these ethnic groups have their own languages, cultures, and often literature, their languages and cultures are essentially regional variations of PersianFact|date=March 2008 and are all native to Iran. 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. 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: [ [ Encyclopaedia Iranica. R. N. Frye. Peoples of Iran.] ]

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. [] 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". [ Annika Rabo, Bo Utas, “The role of the state in West Asia”, Swedish Research institute in Istanbul , 2005. pg 156. Excerpt:"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. [ [ رادیو زمانه | خبر اول | ایران | عربی دومین زبان دانشگاه پیام نور شد ] ]

"Regional and local radio programmes are broadcast in Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Baluchi, Bandari, Persian, Kurdish, Mazandarani, Pashtu, Turkoman, Turkish and Urdu". [World of Information Staff, “ Middle East Review 2003 2003: The Economic and Business Report”, Kogan Page, 2003. pp 52-53]

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:

Some Western journalists and commentators have expressed similar views. John Bradley is of the opinion that: [ [ Iran’s Ethnic Tinderbox] ] Nevertheless, representatives of various ethnic minorities have enjoyed a successful political career in Iran. For example Ali Khamenei the current Supreme Leader is 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, with many Iranians in Tehran of mixed Persian and Azeri origin. Most provincial governors and many members of the local ruling classes and clergy are members of the relevant ethnic groups.Fact|date=June 2007 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:

Similar tendencies have been observed in other provinces such as Balochistan, Khuzestan (see "Politics of Khuzestan") and Iranian Azerbaijan. However, many have been suspected of being instigated by foreign colonial powers.

Foreign involvement

The Charter of the general assembly of the United Nations has accepted the declratation of the "inadmissibility of interference in the Internal Affairs of States". [United Nations document. Link: [] ] [] .

Foreign governments, both before ["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 093421106X] [See "Russia and Britain in Persia: A study in Imperialism". F. Kazemzadeh. Yale University Press.] and after the revolution, have often been accused of attempting to de-stabilize Iran through the formation of ethnic tensions, [Iran even went so far as to expel AlJazeera from its territory for allegedly inciting ethnic unrest in Ahwaz. Link: [,12858,1463289,00.html] ] . Western media reports and statements from former CIA operatives seem to corroborate such suspicions [See:
* [ Financial Times: US marines probe tensions among Iran's minorities]
* [ Khuzestan: The First Front in the War on Iran?] by Zoltan Grossman
* [ "Al-Ahwaz: Al-Fiction"]
* [ Asia Times: British Arabism and the bombings in Iran]

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. [ [ Asia Times Online :: Middle East News, Iraq, Iran current affairs ] ] [ [ Calls to boycott Israel underscore history of Arabism in British intelligensia - International Herald Tribune ] ] 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). [Robert Dreyfuss, Thierry LeMarc. "Hostage to Khomeini". New York: New Benjamin Franklin House Publishing Company. 1980. ISBN 0-933488-11-4 p.157]

Some Iranians accuse Britain of "trying to topple the regime by supporting insurgents and separatists". [ [ BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | Iran's fear of the 'little devil' ] ] Other states however are also believed to be involved in the politics of ethnicity in southern Iran. Professor Efraim Kash traces out the origins of Saddam Hussein's wish to annex Khuzestan using the ethnic card: [Efraim Karsh, ’The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988, Osprey Publishing, 2002, pg 27.]

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,cquote|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. [Amanda Roraback, "Iran In A Nutshell", Enisen Publishing, pg 30]

During the cold war, the Soviet Union's "tentacles extended into Iranian Kurdistan". [Patrick Clawson, "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos". Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. ISBN 1403962758 p.59] 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". [Patrick Clawson et al., "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos". Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. ISBN 1403962758 p.59] For example, in a cable sent on July 6th 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

#Consider it advisable to begin preparatory work to form a national autonomous Azerbaijan district [oblast’] with broad powers within the Iranian state. At the same time develop a separatist movement in the provinces of Gilan, Mazandaran, Gorgan, and Khorasan.
#Establish a democratic party in Southern Azerbaijan under the name “Azerbaijan Democratic Party” with the objective of guiding the separatist movement. The creation of the Democratic Party in Southern Azerbaijan is to be done by a corresponding reorganization of the Azerbaijani branch of the People’s Party of Iran and drawing into it supporters of the separatist movement from all strata of the population.
#Conduct suitable work among the Kurds of northern Iran to draw them into the separatist movement to form a national autonomous Kurdish district.
#Establish in Tabriz a group of responsible workers to guide the separatist movement, charging them with coordinating [kontaktirovat’] their work with the USSR General Consulate in Tabriz.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 [] ]

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 his article in The New Yorker revealed 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". [Seymour M. Hersh, the Iran Plan, "The New Yorker", April 2006. Link: [] .]

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. [Simon Whelan, " Bush courts Azerbaijani President as Part of Build-Up against Iran", Global Research, May 9, 2006] . Statements made by various Pentagon officials have supported such claims. In September 7, 2004, referring to Iran's ethnic minorities, U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage stated:

Pentagon officials have further met with minority separatists such as Mahmudali Chehregani. [Sharon Behn and Khadija Ismayilova, "Pentagon officials meet with regime foe",The Washington Times, 2003.] And both Iran [ [ | Archive Pages ] ] and Turkey [ [ JTW News - Drawing Borders with Other People’s Blood: A Brief Comment on Ralph Peters’s 'Blood Borders' ] ] reacted angrily to a map of "The new Middle East" [ [ Redrawing the Map | The Brussels Journal ] ] 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. [ [ Dickey: Redrawing Mideast Map Won’t Work - Newsweek Christopher Dickey - ] ] [ [ New Yorker in DC: Mapping a more peaceful Middle East ] ] [ [ ARMED FORCES JOURNAL - Blood borders - June 2006 ] ] [ [ Environmentalists Against War ] ] [ [ Redrawing the ME map at The Arabist ] ] [ [ ARMED FORCES JOURNAL - Mapping new wars: A rebuttal to 'Blood borders' - January 2007 ] ] [ [ Redrawing the ME map at The Arabist ] ] ( [ Interview with Colonel Ralph Peters] )

Some representatives of Western governments have even met with leaders of such groups. An example is June 31st 2005, when Pierre Pettigrew met Rafiq Abu-Sharif, a separatist representative of the Al-Ahwaz Arab Peoples Democratic Popular Front. [Al-Ahwaz website:] 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". [ [ دیدار مهم رفیق صلاح ابو شریف با وزیر خارجیه دولت فدرال کانادا ] ] [Picture of meeting:]

The Republic of Azerbaijan is also accused of encouraging ethnic divisions in the Iranian region of Azerbaijan. [ Asia Times Online] ] 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". [David Eshel, "Ethnic Opposition on the rise in Iran", Link: [] ] [ [ ContreInfo :: Débat sur l’Iran : James Woolsey, Tom McInerney and Ken Timmerman ] ] 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 [ [ Pakistan May Turn Over U.S. Spies to Iran] ] :

Seymour M. Heresh in his article in July 7, 2008 mentions that the Bush Administration is increasing its secret moves against Iran by supporting ethnic separate groups in Iran [Seymour M. Hersh -- The New Yorker, "Preparing the Battlefield: Secret US Moves Against Iran", July 7, 2008 ] . Hersh mentions that part of the covert activities include "the support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations" [Seymour M. Hersh -- The New Yorker, "Preparing the Battlefield: Secret US Moves Against Iran", July 7, 2008 ] . .

Historical notes

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. ["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.] 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: [Lois Beck. "Revolutionary Iran and Its Tribal Peoples"."MERIP Reports, No. 87," (May, 1980), p. 16]

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." [Patrick Clawson. "Eternal Iran". Palgrave Macmillan. 2005 ISBN 1-4039-6276-6 p.23]


ee also

* Religious minorities in Iran
* Iranian Kurdistan
* Iranian Kuwaitis
* Anti-Persianism by Arabs
* Armenian-Iranians
* Georgians in Iran
* Demographics of Iran
* Azarbaijan (Iran)
* Iranian Azeris
* Human rights in Iran
* Koreans in Iran

External links

* [ 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
* [ Iran's Challenges from Within: An Overview of Ethno-Sectarian Unrest] by Chris Zambelis

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