With several minority groups living in harmony, the Islamic nation is a melting pot of people and cultures.
Mohammad Taqi Bahar, considered one of Iran’s finest poets, described the country’s highest peak, Mount Damavand, as the “dome of the world”. The 20th century poet was, however, not just writing about a geographical landmark but describing the country’s status in the world from a nationalist perspective. Recorded in history books as the once-mighty and prosperous empire of Persia, Iran in its pinnacle of glory was indeed the dome of the world.
An aggressive expansionist policy saw the Persian empire grow in size and shape, subsuming different communities and ethnic groups within the larger Iranian people.
Today, this country is one of the political leaders of the region, undoubtedly dominating the Shia camp and one of the contenders for a leading role in the global Islamic world. The population of the country is 78.5 million, of which about 1.5-2 million are refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan.
The majority group of Iran — the Persians — constitutes about 61 percent of the population, and is mostly concentrated in central, southern and eastern regions of the country. Ethnically, they are Indo-Aryans and speak a new Persian language called Farsi.
Genetically close to the Persians are Tajiks, who speak a similar language and also descend from Indo-Europeans. In fact, the strip of landmass from the shores of the Persian Gulf to the Fergana Valley is home to a group more or less homogeneous in ethnicity.
Large Azeri minority
The largest ethnic minority in Iran are the Azerbaijanis. Every fifth inhabitant of Iran is an Azerbaijani. According to various estimates, about 17.5 million Azerbaijanis live in modern Iran, while in the most eponymous Caucasian country there are about 8 million. That is, two-thirds of Azerbaijanis live outside Azerbaijan.
But this does not mean that they are migrants or refugees. A large part of the region where the Iranian Azerbaijanis live now is close to present-day Azerbaijan, which was once part of the Persian empire. Administratively, Azerbaijanis completely dominate the regions of western and eastern Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan, and also make up more than half of the population in the provinces of Hamadan and Qazvin.
Azerbaijanis can rightfully be considered the indigenous people of Persia, since they have occupied an important position among the elite for many centuries of history. Their role can be compared with the position of Ukrainians in the Russian empire and the USSR. That is, there were periods of influence, but there was also discrimination.
The second senior-most Supreme Leader of the state after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was the ethnic Azeri Ali Khamenei. He has held power in Tehran for 32 consecutive years. His power and position were comparable to that of Leonid Brezhnev, a Ukrainian who led the USSR for the second-longest term after Stalin18 years.
The ethnogenesis of the Azerbaijani people is complicated. Apart from their main Turkic nomad ancestry, they also constitute proto-Caucasian tribes and Iranian farmers. But in linguistic terms, they are closer to the Turks since their language is included in the Turkic group of the Altai language family and is very different from the Iranian group of the Indo-European language family.
Because of such paradoxical features, Azerbaijanis are considered a kindred people, both in Turkey and in Iran. In addition, under the rule of Tehran, the Azerbaijanis were significantly Iranised, in contrast to their Russian-Soviet compatriots.
The Kurd imbroglio
The third-largest ethnic group in Iran is the Kurds. They are a people with a peculiar history and an even more amazing present.
Their total number is about 40 million, about half of whom live in southeastern Turkey, about a quarter in northwestern Iran, 15 percent in northern Iraq, and every tenth Kurd is from Eastern Syria. In total, about 10 million Kurds live in Iran.
They constitute the majority in Iranian provinces like Kermanshah and Ilam. In addition, about half of the population of the North Khorasan region in the northeast of the country, near the border with Turkmenistan, are also Kurds.
The fact is that the Persian, Shah Abbas I, back in the 17th century, expelled militant Kurds to the northeastern border regions to protect the empire from the Turkmen. Also, Kurds live in about 20 percent of the territory of the West Azerbaijan province, mainly in the southern part of the region. The border between Iran and Turkey runs in these places.
For the record, Shah Abbas I also resettled a small group of Georgians in the city of Fereydunshehr, and now there is a local Georgian community there. They converted to Shia Islam, and speak a unique Georgian dialect called Fereidan.
The Iranian Kurds have distinct regional groupings — those living in the north are similar to Turkish Kurds, while their southern counterparts are more Iranian.
The Lura people live to the south of Iraq in the region led by the Kurdish Regional Government. Their number is about 5.5 million and they are often considered as a sub-ethnic group of the Kurds. Luras is in an absolute majority in the provinces of Lurestan, Boyirahmed and Bakhtiariya, as well as about a third in Khuzestan.
Balochi: less populated, but no less divided
Another stateless people of the Middle East — the Balochis — live in the southeast of Iran. It is a common nationality for a group of tribes that inhabit the border regions of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In total, there are about 11 million Balochis. By Middle Eastern standards, this may seem small, but for comparison, it is twice as much as the population of all the Baltic countries combined.
The ethnogenesis of the Baloch people is quite confusing. Their identity is associated with the area of their late settlement, but it is known for certain that they have occupied the territory of Balochistan only since the 10th century AD. Prior to that, they lived in western Iran, in the regions of Iranian Kurdistan and Kermanshah. The Baloch language has a lot in common with the Kurdish.
Due to numerous conquests of the territories of their residence by other people (the raids of Hephthalites, the conquests of Tamerlane, and the migration of the Seljuk Turks), the Balochis migrated in several stages from western Iran to the southeast. This process was quite long, from about the 5th to the 13th century.
There were also small groups of Baloch people who sought refuge in the Arabian Peninsula. About half a million Balochis live in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Most Balochis—more than six million—live in the western Pakistan province of Balochistan. In Iran, this ethnic group is in majority in the provinces of Sistan and Balochistan. Also, small numbers of Balochis live in Kerman, South Khorasan and Hormozgan.
In general, there are about 1.5 million of them in Iran, which is about 20 percent of all Balochis. In Afghanistan, they are mostly concentrated in the southern regions of the provinces of Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar, adjoining the border with Pakistan. There are up to half a million of them in Afghanistan.
Arabs are another minority in Iran. They make up about 2 percent of the population, which is 2.2 million. Of these, 1.5 million live in the province of Khuzestan bordering Arab Iraq, including the coastline of the Persian Gulf. Iran is a bit wary of Arabs due to their support to Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi-Iranian war.
In the regions of Iran bordering Turkmenistan, are the Turkmen live— another nation divided by borders. They are concentrated in the provinces of Golestan and Khorasan-Rezavi and to a lesser extent in North Khorasan. Turkmens live in a thin strip of territory along the northern border. In the west, their area of residence is on the coast of the Caspian Sea, and in the east, at the crossing point of the Iranian-Turkmen-Afghan border.
The Kurds of North Khorasan are wedged in between them. In total, there are about 1.5 million Turkmen in Iran out of a total of 8 million, and only 4 million of them live in Turkmenistan. They belong to the Turkic people, speak the language of the Turkic subgroup and profess Sunni Islam.
The Turkmens of Iran, due to their nomadic lifestyle, have always lived worse than their compatriots abroad. Therefore, after Turkmenistan gained independence, the national revival of the Turkmen began in Iran.
The Turkmens are now one of the most assimilated people of Iran. In everyday life, many have already abandoned Turkmen in favour of Farsi.
In Iran, where the majority of the population is Muslim, Shia Islam dominates. Shias are Persians, Azerbaijanis, southern Kurds and Lurs, and even Arabs. Among the Sunnis are the Kurds of the northwest and northern Khorasan, Balochis, Turkmen and Tajiks living along the border with Afghanistan.
Christians in Iran are represented mainly by Armenians and Assyrians. Historically, Armenia was a part of the Persian empire for a long time. However, during the reign of Shah Abbas I, about a quarter-of-a-million Armenians were resettled deep in Persia. The modern Armenian community of Iran numbers about 200 thousand people. Despite the Islamic character of the state, there are about 40 Armenian churches.
Its echoes are still found among the Turkic people, for example, the common holiday of the new year for them - Noorus / Navruz. This religion has been dominant in Iran for thirteen centuries. Then it was replaced by Islam.
Another religious minority is the followers of the Bahai faith. The essence of this religion, which originated in Iran in the 19th century, lies in the declaration of their leader as a god. There are only 5 million of their followers around the globe, which is 0.0006 percent of the world's population.
Moreover, in no country in the world do the Bahais have a majority, but everywhere they represent a very small community. In Iran, Bahais are persecuted, and their organisation is prohibited at the state level.
In addition, there is also a small Jewish community in the country. There have never been a large number of Jews in Persia, and after the region adopted Islam, their number dropped to a record low of 8 thousand people.
Iran also has a small population of Assyrians, an autochthonous population of Persia who lived on these lands even before the arrival of the Iranians. They are the descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient Assyrian Empire—the state of the upper interfluve of the Tigris and Euphrates in the 1st-2nd millennia BC.
Assyrians are Christians and belong to the Assyrian Church of the East or the Chaldean Eastern Catholic Church. Their total number back in the twentieth century was about 200 thousand, but it declined sharply after the Islamic Revolution, Presently, the number of believers of the Assyrian Church in Iran is about 30 thousand.
For minorities other than Bahais, there are special quotas in the country's parliament. Two seats for Armenian Christians and one each for Zoroastrians, Jews and Assyrians. In the elections last year, Armenians Ara Shaverdyan and Robert Belgaryan, Assyrian Sharli Anveh, Jew Homayon Samekh, and Zoroastrian Esfandiar Ekhtiari entered parliament as minority representatives.