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“Iran” from Ethnic Groups Worldwide

(c) Berkshire

The Islamic Republic of Iran is located in the Middle East and is bordered by Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan on the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman on the south, and Iraq on the west. The region has been settled for 12,000 years and through a series of wars, empires, and alliances the Persian Empire emerged and ruled the region from the sixth century B.C. until conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century A.D. However, Persian culture survived and along with Shiite Islam is an important unifying force for the Persians in Iran today. The population is about 66 million. About 99% of the population is Muslim, with 95% Shiites and 4% Sunnis. The remaining 1% of the population (about 700,000 people) is religious diverse and includes Zoroastrians (the religion of the ancient Persians), Bahai’s, and Christians including Nestorians and Chaldeans, two ancient eastern Christian religions.

Ethnic Composition

Iran is an ethnically heterogeneous nation, although ethnic Persians comprise 51% of the population and are culturally, politically, and economically dominant. Because of its location at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and the arbitrary nature of current political boundaries, Iran has within its borders sizeable populations of people culturally aligned with the populations of neighboring nations. These include the Baluch in the southeast who also live in southwest Pakistan, the Aimaq in the northeast the majority of whom live in Afghanistan, Armenians, the Azerbaijani in the north who also live in Azerbaijan, and Uzbeks, Turkmen, Karakalpaks, and Tajiks who are Central Asian Muslim peoples. Of these groups only the Azerbaijani are a significant population in Iran, as they number about 16 million and comprise 24% of the population (see Azerbaijan). In addition, there are a number of distinct ethnic minorities located mainly in the eastern part of Iran.

Persians number about 34 million and constitute about 51% of the Iranian population. Persians live mainly in the large cities of eastern and central Iran and in the central plains. Persians speak dialects of Farsi which is the national language and the second language of many non-Persians. In the ethnic sense, Persian and Iranian refer to the same people, although Iranian can also be used in reference to all citizens of Iran. In addition to their language, Persian art, music, and literature have survived from ancient times and are the dominant forms in modern Iran. Persians also dominate the government, the leadership of the Shiite Muslim community, the military, commerce, and industry. In short, they are the dominant ethnic group in Iran. Persians who continue to adhere to Zoroastrianism or Baha’i and who number less than 500,000 along with the Sunni Muslims, continue to be the object of persecution and discrimination and many have fled the country in the last 20 years.

In the seventh century Persia was conquered by the Arab Muslims from Arabia and conversion to Islam began as did settlement by Arabs, about 500,000 of whom now live in Iran. They live almost exclusively in the west in Khuzestan and further south along the coast. The majority are Shiite Muslims, with those on the coast more often Sunni Muslims. In comparison to the Persians, they are economically poor group, with many working in the oil industry, in factories, or as farmers or herders. Tribal affiliations remain strong. In addition to the Arab enclaves in the west, there is a large Kurd population in the northwest. Kurds are the indigenous people of the region known as Kurdistan, located in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northeastern Iraq and western Iran. Although it has never been politically unified under Kurd control, the Kurds claim Kurdistan as their homeland. Kurds number about 26 million with 13.7 million in Turkey, 6.6 million in Iran, 4.4 million in Iraq, and 1.3 million in Syria. Kurds speak dialects of Kurdish, a language related to the Persian spoken in neighboring Iran. Kurds are mainly Muslims of the Sunni sect. Traditionally a mountain people who lived by herding and farming, Kurdish culture is today more varied and several million Kurds live in cities. The Kurds have never been politically unified and are organized into a number of tribes and confederacies. Politically, they are now represented by a number of different political parties.

In addition to the Arabs, Kurds, and Armenians who number about 250,000, the mountainous western region is home to other distinct ethnic groups. The largest such group are the Lur, an amalgam of tribes who number about 500,000 with the majority in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran and smaller populations elsewhere in the nation. The Lurs are Shiite Muslims who were traditionally herders but under the government policy from 1925 to 1979 were forced to live in settled communities, learn Farsi in the schools and farm rather than herd. The Lur are organized into distinct tribes with wealthier tribes traditionally exerting considerable economic and political control over the poor tribes. This structure was disrupted in the twentieth century and it is not clear if it has recovered since the end of secular dictatorial rule and the beginning of Muslim rule in 1979. Living between the two major Lur population centers are the Bakhtiari who number about 250,000 and are culturally and linguistically related to the Lurs. A significant percentage of Bakhtiari, however, moved to the cities in the twentieth century and became part of the urban, educated elite and are now assimilated into Persian society. Further south in the west are the Qashqa’i who also number about 250,000. Like the two other groups, they were traditionally herders who were forced to become settled farmers in the twentieth century. They are also Shiite Muslims but speak a Turkic language and are often labeled Turks. Other Turkic groups are located in the northwest, the largest of which is the Shahsevan (Ilsaven) who number about 100,000. Their history and modern culture is the much the same as the other groups–Shiite Islam and nomadic herding replaced by settled agriculture in the twentieth century. In addition to these groups in the northwest, there are also about 20,000 Assyrians and several dozen other Turkic-speaking tribes who are often classified as Azerbaijanis, Shahsevan, or as Turks.

Iran is also the current home for a sizeable refugee population including about 1.6 million Afghans, 600,000 Iraqis who are mainly Shiite Muslims, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis from Azerbaijan.

Ethnic Relations

Due to closed nature of Iranian society since the overthrow of the government in 1979 and the establishment of a Shiite Muslim government, little is known about the current situation. It is likely however, that the government schemes to settle the nomadic herders in the west have ended or been curtailed, and as Shiite Muslims these peoples have enjoyed greater freedom. There have been charges from Iraq that Arabs and Sunni Muslims have been persecuted in Iran, but whether this is true or not is unknown. The Kurds have revolted at various times since the 1940s, although the region is now under government control and there is no major separatist movement as in Iraq and Turkey.

David Levinson

(c) Berkshire

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