Iran's minority communities – both ethnic and religious – make up nearly 50 per cent of the population. But they are subject to human rights violations by the state, such as intimidation, arbitrary detention, confiscation of property, denial of education and inequality in legal matters. Large numbers of both Iranian Kurd and Azeri activists have been detained for reasons of 'national security'. In 2008 the use of security, educational, press and anti-dissident laws increased dramatically, according to Human Rights Watch.

A dramatic rise in repression of political and minority activists throughout 2008 culminated with the forcible closure of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi's Centre for Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) in December. According to Amnesty International, its closure 'threatens the entire country's human rights movement'.


A policy of assimilation seems to be embedded in Iran's approach to education. The Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization (UNPO), an international group that advocates for stateless minorities around the world, claims that Iran has an official policy of 'Persianization' which puts at risk rights to cultural and linguistic heritage.

The Iranian Constitution states that all school textbooks must be in Persian, and while literacy rates in Iran are generally good, children from minority communities forced to learn in Persian/ Farsi have high rates of illiteracy and often drop out of school early.

The government requires all heads of schools or institutes to identify students and staff affiliated and belonging to 'subversive and non-subversive sects' and to report on them.

Teachers in Iran have been particularly vulnerable to arrest, torture and even execution, because of state intolerance of minority-language education. In February 2008, Kurdish teacher Farzad Kamangar, superintendent of high schools in Kamayaran, was sentenced to death for 'endangering national security'. According the US State Department Human Rights Report on Iran, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence in July.

This policy of discrimination in education extends into severe restrictions on freedom of speech, opinion and the press, summarized by Human Rights Watch in its 2008 World Report: 'Most journalists arrested in 2008 were targeted for covering ethnic minority issues and civil society activities.' According to Iranian Minorities Human Rights Organization (IMHRO), 'Any type of free media in ethnic minority languages is banned and the use of ethnic languages in any arts form is also prohibited.'

Minorities by group

Ahwazi Arabs make up about 3 per cent of Iran's population. In January 2008, the government executed four Ahwazi political activists. The charges against them included 'identity crimes', such as raising the Ahwazi flag and giving their children Sunni names. In April 2008, dozens, possibly hundreds, of Ahwazi were detained in advance of the anniversary of riots in Al Ahwaz, which had erupted after a disputed letter was leaked from the government detailing plans to reduce the province's Arab population.

Azeris make up nearly 25 per cent of the country's population. While a number of key establishment figures are Azeri and they may be more generally accepted than other minorities, Azeris are nevertheless denied rights to be educated in their own language. On 21 February 2008, hundreds were arrested in connection with a peaceful demonstration on International Mother Language Day, demanding the right to use their own language in schools.

UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers Leandro Despouy issued appeals early in 2008 on behalf of an activist arrested for campaigning for greater rights to use the Azeri mother tongue, and on behalf of a journalist who wrote in and taught Azeri. Arrests of minority journalists, activists and intellectuals continued throughout the year and into early 2009.

Baha'is, Iran's largest religious minority, have about 300,000 members. Their situation may be worsening as they face state-sponsored persecution, personal threats, restrictions on employment, expulsion from university and high school, and continued defamation in the media. In 2008 the government arrested more than a dozen leading Baha'is.

Ethnic Baluchis constitute about 2 per cent of the population and practise Sunni Islam. They live in the county's poorest region. MRG has reported that since 2005 a Sunni organization based in Baluchistan, Jondallah, claimed responsibility for attacks against Iranian government targets. In August 2008, a Tehran-based Baluchi newspaper journalist, Yaghoub Mehrnehad, was arrested and executed for associating with Jondallah.

Around 7 per cent of Iran's population is Kurdish. Clashes between the Partî Bo Jîyanî Azadî la Kurdistan (PJAK), the militant Kurdish group, and the Iranian government continued in 2008. The state has also engaged in numerous arrests, detentions and executions of Kurds this year, including at least one Kurdish juvenile. Kurdish newspapers have been closed, and journalists have been detained or executed.

Minority women have also been targeted: Hana Abdi and Ronak Safarzadeh were arrested in 2007. They were members of Azarmehr Association of the Women of Kurdistan, organizing literacy courses and other capacity-building workshops in the Iranian Kurdish areas, as well as participants in the wider Campaign for Equality for an end to legal discrimination against women in Iran. Abdi was released in February 2009 after 16 months in jail; at the time of writing Safarzadeh is awaiting trial and could face the death penalty.

This 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.