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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iran : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date April 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Iran : Overview, April 2009, available at: [accessed 30 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated April 2009


Iran is surrounded by seven countries: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Armenia to the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, the Gulf to the south (with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates across the Gulf), and Iraq and Turkey to the west. This geographical location has a significant bearing on the country's minorities.


The main languages used in Iran are: Persian (official), and Persian dialects, Azeri and other Turkic languages, Kurdish, Arabic and Baluchi.

The main religions in Iran are: Shi'a Islam – strongly dominated by the Twelver Jafari School (referred to as Ithna'ashari in Arabic), Sunni Islam, and other Islamic groups such as Isma'ili Islam and Ahl-i Haq. The main minority groups are estimated as: Azeris 16 million (24% of the overall population), Kurds 5 million (7%), Baluch 1.4 million (2%), Arabs 1.4 million (2%), Turkmens 1.4 million (2%), (sources for all above percentages, CIA Factbook. Dom 1.3 million (1.9%) (Ethnologue, 2000), Bahá'ís est. 300,000 (0.5%) (US International Religious Freedom Report, 2007), Armenians 200,000 (0.3%) Assyrians 20,000 (0.03%), Jews 25,000 (0.04%), (US International Religious Freedom Report, 2007), Zoroastrians (Mazda-yasnie) 10,000 (0.02%), Sabean Mandaens 5,000 – 10,000 (0.01%), (US International Religious Freedom Report, 2007), and Ahl-i Haq (Yarsan) numbers hard to ascertain and variously categorised by outsiders as Shi'as, Sufis or an independent religion.

Most Kurds, Turkmens, Baluch and some Arabs are Sunni, and can be discussed as ethnic communities since they do not form a cohesive coherent whole as Sunnis. Instead the various communities tend to express their identity in ethnic terms. Sunnis represent some 10% of Iran's population.

The Dom ('Gypsies') migrated from the Indian sub-continent as early as the sixth century and speak various dialects of the Domari language. They are among the most marginalized peoples of Iran: not counted in any official statistics, living in isolated – sometimes fenced-off – ghettoes, and often deprived of employment and education because they lack identity cards. Many of the thousands of street children in Teheran are Dom.

[Sources: the above sources and the unsourced figures are based on widely circulated estimates. It is unclear how accurate these figures are in the absence of reliable disaggregated data]


Ever since the foundation of the Iranian State by the Achaemenids in the sixth century BC, Iran has experienced alternating phases of political coherence and regional disintegration. The state has had to handle indigenous groups, and to absorb periodic waves of tribal invasions. Ethnic differences in Iran only began to acquire political importance during this century when the state had the means to enforce centralization. Reza Khan (from 1925 Reza Shah), who seized power in 1920, sought to forge the disparate peoples of Iran into a single nation. The state adopted Persian, spoken by 45 per cent of the population, as the official language and used it for all administrative and educational purposes, banning publication in other languages. It also imposed western dress on the population and attempted to settle nomadic pastoralists, by force where needed. These measures created a sharp sense of difference among those peoples which did not belong to the dominant Persian community.

Under his son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, this sense of difference increased further. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi's rush to industrialize and modernize was concentrated on the central and northern areas of Iran. By 1976 the average level of urbanization in Iran was 46.8 per cent; the level in Kurdish and Baluchi regions, at opposite ends of the country, was less than 25 per cent, however, while that for the Persian-dominated Central Province was over 80 per cent. Other indices, for example literacy or electrification of homes, followed similar proportions. The non-Persian periphery felt it was subsidizing the industrialized core and this economic discrimination fueled community self-awareness on the periphery.

The Pahlavis liked to emphasize the ancient and pre-Islamic nature of the Iranian state. However, Iran had a strong Shi'a tradition going back to the initial schism with the Sunnis. The Safavid dynasty had adopted Shi'a Islam in the sixteenth century, and the Pahlavis underestimated the ability of the Shi'a clergy to mobilize popular disapproval and dissatisfaction, as demonstrated in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

In the Spring of 1979, following the Shah's overthrow, the Islamic Republic of Iran was proclaimed. All ethnic minorities, except the Azeris, sought autonomy, hoping that Tehran would be unable to maintain its grip on the periphery. The new regime feared that conceding autonomy to one community would lead to the disintegration of the state. Ayatollah Khomeini also argued that ethnic autonomy violated the universalism implicit in Islam.


The Islamic Republic of Iran has proven a highly centralised government, strongly opposed to any form of autonomy to the regions as risking the disintegration of the state. The early revolutionary period and the subsequent invasion of Iran by Iraq in 1979/1980 led to some rebellions and attempts to claim autonomy, particularly in the Kurdish areas. However, those claiming secession as well as the communities they came from, paid a heavy price for this.

Article 5 of the constitution defines Iran as a Shi'a Republic. Article 115 debars non-Shi'as from presidential office. Article 12 of its Constitution declares Twelver Ja'fari Shi'a Islam as its official religion.


The Islamic Republic formally recognized the dhimmi communities in Article 13 of the new Constitution "Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education"; but was less tolerantly disposed towards Protestant evangelical churches, and has been vehemently hostile to the Bahá'ís. In fact, no recognition has been given to the Bahá'í community, despite it constituting the largest non-Muslim religious minority community in Iran..

Article 19 of the Iranian Constitution states: "All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; colour, race, language and the like, do not bestow any privilege." However, discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity is rife in Iran. Minority languages are suppressed and many minorities are disadvantaged politically, socially and economically.

The treatment is not constant across minority groups. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a discerning minority policy which distinguishes between the history of the demands of that minority, whether it constitutes an ethnic or religious minority, their relationship with outside actors, whether and in what area a threat is perceived from that group and, these factors determine the disadvantage and repression they may suffer. Hence, Azeris suffer linguistic and cultural discrimination in order to stem Azeri nationalism, the tolerance of Kurdish expression ebbs and flows in some areas depending on the latest encounter between Kurdish political activists and government forces, but intolerance of evangelical Christians and the persecution of Bahá'ís on religious grounds has remained largely intact throughout the changes of the past 28 years. Nevertheless there has been some change – the position of Ismailis in Iran has improved whereas official harassment of Sufis has increased since President Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Ethnic and religious minorities make up nearly half of the Iranian population. Discontent among various minority groups has risen sharply over the past three years. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in August 2005, the government has more forcefully promoted the country's majority Persian and Shia Muslim identity. In contravention of formal guarantees in the Iranian constitution and international commitments, in 2007 the government continued a crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities through methods including police repression, discrimination in education, and state media campaigns. There was significant overlap between minority rights abuses on ethnic and religious grounds in Iran, as nearly all ethnic Baluchis and Turkomans, most Kurds, and some Arabs practise Sunni Islam disfavoured by the regime. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a report on human rights in Iran in October 2008 that highlighted the regime's abuses against women and minorities.

Rising tension among Western governments over the Iran's nuclear programme and alleged backing for Shia militias fighting American-led forces in Iraq have contributed to a poisoned environment for some minority groups within Iran. The government is wary of the large US and UK military presence in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, especially given the steady flow of reports from Washington over the course of 2007 that senior members of the Bush administration are advocating military attacks on Iran. The government has accused disgruntled minority groups including Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis and Kurds of accepting covert support from the US, the UK and Israel. Reports of such assistance are murky, and it remains unclear to what extent, if any, they are true, or merely serve Tehran as a pretext to discredit and clamp down on regime opponents from minority communities.

Around 7 per cent of the Iranian population is Kurdish and concentrated in the north-west, along the borders with northern Iraq and south-west Turkey; another sizeable community of Kurds lives in the north-east, along the border with Turkmenistan. The Iranian regime has watched with alarm as Kurds have consolidated their autonomy within Iraq, and fears the establishment of a Kurdish state that would make claims on Iranian territory. An Iranian Kurdish militant group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which is affiliated with the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) of Turkey, operates in Iran from bases in the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran accuses the US and Israel of supporting PJAK, and over the course of 2007 shelled northern Iraq indiscriminately in response. The regime has extended accusations of complicity with foreign enemies to other Kurds protesting, or even talking about Kurdish issues. In February 2007, Amnesty International reported that police allegedly killed three Kurds and injured dozens more during a demonstration for Kurdish rights in the town of Mahabad. Reporters without Borders announced in July that two Kurdish journalists had been sentenced to death in the town of Marivan. Both of the journalists had written on Kurdish issues for a magazine banned in August 2005, and the prosecution cited interviews one of them conducted with Voice of America as evidence of 'activities subverting national security' and 'spying'.

Ethnic Baluchis, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, live on both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border and comprise around 2 per cent of the Iranian population. Baluchistan is the country's poorest region and in recent years has been plagued by severe drought. Baluchis complained of government discrimination and neglect following severe storms in June 2007 that cost over 20 lives, and claimed that the government response was inadequate. Since 2005 a Baluchi militia called Jondallah has claimed credit for attacks on government targets; Tehran also accuses it of attacks on civilian populations. Amnesty International reported that by August 2007, in the wake of a February bomb attack on a bus full of Iranian army troops claimed by Jondallah, around 50 Baluchis had been executed in the intervening months. In August 2008, the regime executed a Teheran-based Baluchi journalist it accused of cooperating with Jondallah.

The ongoing war in Iraq has stirred unrest in the neighbouring Iranian province of Khuzestan, which in Arabic is called al-Ahwazi. High poverty rates among Ahwazi Arabs, despite their province's production of 90 per cent of Iran's oil revenue, have fuelled resentment, as has discrimination on cultural-linguistic grounds. Some Arabs are Sunni and not allowed to practice their faith publicly, or construct a single Sunni mosque. In January and February 2007 the Iranian government executed eight Ahwazi Arabs for alleged participation in 2005 sabotage of oil infrastructure in Khuzestan by the intentionally excruciating method of slow strangulation. Three UN rapporteurs deemed the one-day trial deeply flawed. The accused had not been allowed access to their lawyers and, when the Ahwazi lawyers complained, they were arrested. In September the government conducted three more such executions, sparking public protests on which police opened fire. In November 2007, eight additional executions appeared imminent, but an international advocacy campaign subsequently succeeded in removing two Ahwazi men from death row.

Azeris, who are Turkic-speaking Shias, make up nearly one-quarter of the population and are concentrated in north-western Iran, along the borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. Of all of Iran's ethnic minorities, Azeris receive perhaps the greatest acceptance among Persian Iraqis; indeed, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is ethnic Azeri. Nevertheless, Azeris continue to face discrimination and are denied education in their mother tongue. In February 2007 Iranian security forces arrested dozens of Azeris peacefully protesting for Azeri-language education in towns across the north-west. According to Amnesty International, some of those detained allegedly were mistreated in custody. In May, Azeris again demonstrating for language rights were arrested in their hundreds; these protests were timed for the one-year anniversary of a cartoon in a government newspaper that depicted a cockroach speaking Azeri.

Iran's largest religious minority, the Baha'i, also faces some of the worst government abuse. The estimated 300,000 Baha'i adherents are persecuted for their belief that other prophets followed Muhammad and, as followers of an unrecognized religion, are barred from public worship or contact with co-believers in other countries. Baha'i rights organizations reported an increase in government harassment in 2007. This included police raids on Baha'i homes and businesses in Tehran in February, criminal prosecution of group members for promotion of an 'un-Islamic' organization, and government orders to 25 industries in April to deny business licences to Baha'i. A 2006 government edict led to the expulsion of more than half of all Baha'i university students during the 2006-7 academic year, solely on the basis of their religion.

In May 2008, the Iranian security services arrested six Baha'i leaders and held them incommunicado. The October 2008 report of the UN Secretary General on human rights in Iran noted, '[a] significant increase has been reported in violence targeting Baha'is and their homes, shops, farms and cemeteries throughout the country. There have also been several cases involving torture or ill-treatment in custody.'

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