United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran Factor in U.S. Syria Strike

            Iran has been a constant subtext of the Obama administration’s campaign to justify a military strike on Syria. Both proponents and opponents of a strike have have referred to Iran’s controversial nuclear program as a factor in deliberations. Proponents have argued that an attack could deter Iran from using weapons of mass destruction. But opponents have warned that a strike could escalate the Syrian conflict into a wider proxy war pitting the United States against Iran or risk blowback on the United States by Iran-backed groups. The following are remarks by top officials and members of congress.

Proponents of Limited Strikes
Secretary of State John Kerry
            “Iran is hoping you look the other way. Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test, Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day. They’re all listening for our silence.
            “Even Assad’s supporters, Russia and Iran, say publicly that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And guess what?  Even Iran and Syria itself acknowledge that these weapons were used.  They just pretend that the other guys, who don’t even have the capacity to do it, somehow did it. 
            “And as the proof of the use becomes even more clear in the course of this debate, I think it is going to be very difficult for Iran or Russia to decide against all that evidence that there is something worth defending here.
            “If the Congress decides not to do this, it is a guarantee, whether it is with Assad in Syria, or nuclear weapons in Iran, or nuclear weapons in North Korea, we will have invited a for-certain confrontation at some point in time that will require you to make a choice that will be even worse, with a potential even greater conflict.
            “Iran and Hezbollah are two of the three biggest allies of Assad. And Iran and Hezbollah are the two single biggest enemies of Israel. So if -- if -- if Iran and Hezbollah are advantaged by the United States not curbing Assad's use of chemical weapons, there is a much greater likelihood that at some point down the road, Hezbollah, who has been one of the principal reasons for a change in the situation on the ground, will have access to these weapons of mass destruction. And Israel will for certain be less secure.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
            “Failure to act now will make this already volatile neighborhood even more combustible, and it will almost certainly pave the way for a more serious challenge in the future. And you can just ask our friends in Israel or elsewhere. In Israel, they can’t get enough gas masks. And there’s a reason that the Prime Minister has said this matters, this decision matters. It’s called Iran. Iran looms out there with its potential – with its nuclear program and the challenge we have been facing.  And that moment is coming closer in terms of a decision. They’re watching what we do here.  They’re watching what you do and whether or not this means something.
            If we choose not to act, we will be sending a message to Iran of American ambivalence, American weakness.  It will raise the question – I’ve heard this question.  As Secretary of State as I meet with people and they ask us about sort of our long-term interests and the future with respect to Iran, they’ve asked me many times, “Do you really mean what you say?  Are you really going to do something?”  They ask whether or not the United States is committed, and they ask us also if the President cuts a deal will the Congress back it up?  Can he deliver?”
           Sept. 10, 2013 in remarks to the House Armed Services Committee
Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat- New Jersey)
            “We will either send a message to Syria, Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and any other nonstate actors that the world will not tolerate the senseless use of chemical weapons by anyone, or we will choose to stand silent in the face of horrific human suffering.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel
            “Our refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America's other security commitments, including the president's commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The word of the United States must mean something. It is vital currency in foreign relations and international and allied commitments.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat - California)
            “Iran will view us as a paper tiger, when it comes to their nuclear program, and that is dangerous not only for us and our friends but for the world.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Marco Rubio (Republican - Florida)
            “The other [option], which some voices have advocated, is doing nothing. But that would guarantee the following outcome: an emboldened Assad, an emboldened Iran, increased instability in the country because portions of that country will still be ungoverned. And it will also send a message to the world that there is no red line that they should fear crossing. So Iran will move forward toward nuclear weapons… Israel may decide it needs to strike Iran unilaterally. Iran will move towards the bomb, which, by the way, it won't just be an Iranian bomb. It'll be a Turkish bomb as well and a Saudi bomb and maybe even an Egyptian bomb one day.”
            Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Proponents of Wider Strikes
Senator John McCain (Republican - Arizona), Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican- South Carolina)
            “We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests. Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing. And it would send the wrong signal to America's friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world – all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take.”
            Aug. 31, 2013 in a joint statement
Opponents of Strikes
Senator Rand Paul (Republican - Kentucky)
            “I think there's a valid argument for saying they'll [Israelis] be more likely to suffer an attack if we do this… If Iran gets involved, more likely or less likely that Israel launches a reprisal attack on Iran? There are all kinds of unknowns that I can't tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you, but I think there's a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this and that it may not deter any chemical weapons attack.”
Sept. 3, 2013 in remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Representative Rick Nolan (Democrat - Minnesota)
            “Beyond the potential for escalating the conflict and the killing, we risk danger to our ally Israel, involvement by the Russians and the Iranians, and blowback to the United States by radical groups operating in the region.”
Sept. 1, 2013 in a press statement

Rouhani Wishes Jews Happy New Year

            On September 4, President Hassan Rouhani used Twitter to wish a happy new year to the world’s Jews. Iran is home to some 25,000 Jews—the second largest population in the Middle East outside of Israel. His tweet contrasted starkly with the tone of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly challenged Israel’s right to exist between 2005 and 2013. “We say that this fake regime [Israel] cannot logically continue to live,” he said at the 2005 World Without Zionism conference in Tehran. “Open the doors (of Europe) and let the Jews go back to their own countries.”  


Iran Minorities 2: Ethnic Diversity

Bijan DaBell

      Persians are Iran’s largest ethnic group, but nearly a dozen other ethnicities represent well over a third of the 79 million population. The largest ethnic groups, which are major factors in Iranian politics, are Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and Lors. Others include Turkomen, Qashqai, Mazandarani, Talysh and Gilaki. They hold dozens of seats in the current parliament. Some of the revolution’s biggest names have come from ethnic minorities:

      Mir-Hossein Mousavi (far left)—a former Prime Minister in the 1980s and a reformist presidential candidate in 2009—is an Azeri. He has been under house arrest since shortly after Green Movement protests erupted to dispute results of an election that his followers believed he had won. He comes from East Azerbaijan province.
      Mehdi Karroubi—(left) a former speaker of parliament and another reformist presidential candidate in 2009— is a Lor. He was born in Aligoudarz in western Lorestan.
            Mohsen Rezai—former head of the Revolutionary Guards and a 2013 presidential candidate—was born in the Lor region of Khuzestan.
            Ali Khamenei— current supreme leader is reportedly half Azeri, although his official bio does not mention any Azeri heritage and says he was born in Mashhad.
            Sadeq Mahsouli
—former minister of interior from 2008-2009 and minister of social security from 2009 to 2011—is also Azeri. He was born in the Azeri city of Urmia.
            Rahim Safavi
—former commander of the Revolutionary Guards from 1997 to 2007, is an ethnic Azeri.

      Yet ethnic minorities are a sensitive political issue, which is one reason accurate numbers in politics and the military are not easily available. The Islamic Republic prefers to emphasize religion to foster national identity and avoid problems of ethnic divisions. Many politicians do not discuss their ethnicity, although several Azeri, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Arab groups have expressed frustration with Tehran. Some have openly protested over several issues, including:
            • Lack of government spending on development in provinces with large ethnic
            •  Revenues from oil and natural resources in their regions being spent on other
               cities and provinces,
            • Greater regional autonomy,
            • And limits on use of their traditional languages.
            Two articles of Iran’s constitution cover the status of ethnic minorities:
      Chapter 2, Article 15: The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.
      Chapter 3, Article 19: All people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.
            Ethnic rights occasionally come up in elections. In his successful bid for the presidency in 2013, Hassan Rouhani promised to allow ethnic and religious minorities to be involved “in all political and administrative levels of government, including membership in the cabinet.” He also pledged to allow the “teaching of Iranian native languages” such as Kurdish, Azeri, and Arabic. And he met with Arab tribal sheikhs from Ahwaz during the campaign. The election results reflected a strong showing in provinces with significant minorities. The map below highlights areas where minorities are concentrated.
            Generally, however, the integration of ethnic minorities into Iran’s Persian-centric society has varied since the 1979 revolution. Activists have faced arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse, according to the U.S. State Department. Non-Persian languages have been restricted in schools. Iran’s ethnic minorities are less interested in secession and more interested in increasing their rights as Iranian citizens. Some have proposed that Iran become a federation that allows ethnic autonomy in governing their own affairs. The following is a rundown of the five largest minorities, their activism, and their political influence.
            Azeris are Iran’s largest ethnic minority, numbering at least 12 million. But according to some estimates, up to 20 million live in Iran—almost one-quarter of the population. Most Azeris are well integrated into Iranian society, although their traditional language is closer to Turkish than Persian. Most are Shiite Muslims and are afforded more freedoms in the Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic than non-Shiite ethnic minorities.
            But Azeris have faced political and cultural discrimination. The U.S. State Department reported that the government prohibited Azeris from speaking their language in schools, harassed Azeri activists, and changed Azeri town names.
            Azeris share the same ethnic background with the majority population in neighboring Azerbaijan. These groups were divided in 1828 by the Treaty of Turkmanchai, which gave the northern portion of Azerbaijan to Russia and southern portion to Iran. Azeri involvement in Iran’s government was greatly reduced by the rise of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. The Islamic Republic continued to suppress the Azeri population, notably during a brutal 1981 crackdown against an Azeri uprising in Tabriz.

      Yet Azeris have played a larger role in the Iranian military and politics than other ethnic minorities. Yahya Rahim Safavi (left) was commander of the Revolutionary Guards—one of the most important military positions in Iran—from 1997 to 2007. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister in the 1980s and a reformist presidential candidate in 2009, is Azeri. Sadeq Mahsouli, former minister of interior from 2008 to 2009 and minister of social security from 2009 to 2011, is also an Azeri.
      Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is also believed to be an ethnic Azeri. His grandfather was born in the Azeri village of Khamane, but was raised in Najaf, Iraq. Khamenei’s official website makes no mention of an Azeri heritage.
      Azeri nationalism has grown over the last two decades, although most Iranian Azeris are not openly in favor of separation from Iran. Nationalist publications aimed at Iranian Azeris have been on the rise. Many also have access to Turkish satellite television, so their knowledge of Turkey and Azerbaijan has increased. In 1996, Mahmudali Chohraganli—an Azeri nationalist leader—was elected to represent Tabriz in the Iranian parliament. The government did not allow him to take his seat in the parliament and detained him.
            In May 2006, large-scale protests erupted in Tehran and northwestern Iran after a state-run newspaper published a cartoon depicting an Azeri as a cockroach. The newspaper was shut down, and the cartoonist and editor were jailed. The Supreme Leader blamed the protests on the West. “Azeris have always bravely defended the Islamic revolution and the sovereignty of this country,” he said.
            Azeris mostly live in northwestern Iran, notably in the provinces of East Azerbaijan, West AzerbaijanArdabil, and Zanjan. About one-third of Tehran’s population is also reportedly Azeri. Smaller numbers reside in Hamadan, Qazvin and Karaj.
            Iranian Kurds total nearly 8 million, representing around 10 percent of Iran’s population. Kurds reportedly have 18 members in Iran’s 290-seat parliament, according to the Kurdistan Tribune.

      After the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Kurds launched a failed separatist movement to break away from the Islamic Republic. They shifted in recent years to non-violent tactics, although occasional clashes with Iranian security forces continue. Persecution of Kurds who protest government policies has increased since 2000, particularly under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
      After the disputed 2009 presidential elections, Iranian security forces targeted Kurdish activists. The U.S. State Department reported that more than two dozen Kurds were sentenced to death in 2012 for political and security-related crimes. Kurdish newspapers are also banned in Iran.
            Kurdish groups in the neighboring countries of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have fought their governments to establish various levels of autonomy. But Kurdish groups in Iran have not reached a consensus for demanding autonomy. Many Kurds prefer to work within Iran’s current political system in order to strengthen their rights as citizens. An Iranian Kurd dressed in traditional clothing is pictured above.
            Iranian Kurds also have mixed opinions about the new president. In the 2013 election, Hassan Rouhani promised to improve the status of minority groups, which made him popular among some Kurdish voters and activists. The president of United Kurds in Iran, a political group, urged Kurds to vote in the June 2013 presidential election. Kurdish Member of Parliament Salar Muradi also said, “This election is an opportunity to get Kurdish rights and, if any candidate has solution to Kurdish issues, we will support them.”
            But other Kurdish leaders remained unsure about Rouhani’s proposed reforms, and some Kurdish groups boycotted the election. Following the election, Khalid Azizi, secretary general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, a political group, said the election would not change things for Iranians. “These elections aren’t about human rights or the rights of the Iranian people,” he said. “It is a way for the Iranian regime to come out of its own crisis. People participate only to find a solution for the economic crisis the regime has got them into.”
            Iranian authorities in Tehran recently announced plans to establish a new security force in Iran’s western provinces that would recruit local Kurds. But some Kurdish groups said the new force was only part of a plan to exert greater control over the Kurdish regions. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran questioned Tehran’s intentions since Kurdish groups have not engaged in unrest.          
            Most Iranian Kurds reside in the mountainous areas bordering Turkey and Iraq, mainly in the provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah. West Azerbaijan, Hamadan, Ilam, Northern Khorasan, and Lorestan also have Kurdish communities. The majority practice Sunni Islam, although some are Shiites, Sufi, or Jewish.
      Baluchis number between 1.5 million and 2 million in Iran. They are part of a wider regional population of about 10 million spread across Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Baluchis (a man in traditional clothing, left) are largely Sunni Muslims, which has contributed to tension with Iran’s Shiite government. Baluchis are noticeably underrepresented in government positions. Yet the local government in the Baluchistan province is largely made up of Shiite Persians, and the region has many Shiite missionaries.
      Jundallah (Soldiers of God)—a Baluchi militant group—was established in 2003 to fight for Sunni Baluchi rights. Jundallah has reportedly organized suicide bombings and small scale attacks. In March 2006, Jundallah ambushed a government convoy, kidnapped eight soldiers, and executed a Revolutionary Guard. It also allegedly kidnapped an Iranian nuclear scientist in September 2010. Jundallah is part of a larger separatist conflict playing out in Baluchi inhabited areas of neighboring Pakistan.
            The Iranian government has also cracked down on Baluchi journalists, and human rights activists have faced arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and unfair trials, according to the U.S. State Department. Three political prisoners were tortured and forced to make confessions on television before being executed in 2012.
            Baluchistan is significant to the Iranian government since the region borders Pakistan and is rife with drug smuggling, although the government has struggled to control the area. The Baluchis live in Iran’s arid southeast, which is a poorly developed area with limited access to education, employment, health care, and housing, according to the United Nations. Around ten percent of Baluchis are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The rest live in towns or on farms.
      Arabs make up two percent of Iran’s total population and number more than 1.5 million. They have faced increased oppression and discrimination in recent years, according to the U.S. State Department. Since 2005, international human rights organizations have reported arrests of protesters over discrimination or calls to boycott elections. Arabs from the town of Ahwaz in the Khuzestan province (left) have faced discrimination in education employment, politics, and culture, the human rights groups claimed.
The member of parliament from Abadan, Mohammad Saeed Ansari, has repeatedly complained about high unemployment in the province of Khuzestan, despite the region’s significant oil reserves and its agricultural, ship-building, manufacturing, and petrochemical industries. Only half of those employed by these companies are local Arabs, he said, and less than five percent of the workers in Abadan are actually from the province. Ansari claims that racism towards Arabs has also denied them opportunities to work in local government.
             In August 2013, an elderly Arab from Ahwaz publicly confronted President Rouhani with accusations that the government systematically ignored Arab demands for jobs, education, clean water, and human rights. Rouhani remained silent and the man was interrupted by a presidential aid.
             Former Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani—the only Arab to have served in any government cabinet—criticized the regime for its poor treatment of Arabs. He accused it especially for failing to develop the Ahwaz area, which was badly hit during Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Shamkhani called on the government to fight discrimination and poverty, which he warned was spurring disloyalty among Arabs.
            Arabs reside mainly along the border with Iraq in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. Most are Shiite Muslims. A minority are Sunni, and smaller numbers are Christian and Arabic-speaking Jews. Iranian Arabs fought on the Iranian side during the Iran-Iraq war.
      The Lors are an ethnic group numbering around 4.8 million. They are a mix of Persian and Arab descent. Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament and a presidential candidate in 2009, is a Lor. He was born in Aligoudarz in western Lorestan. Mohsen Rezai (left), former head of the Revolutionary Guards and a presidential candidate in 2013, is a Lor from Khuzestan.
      Lors have been less vocal than other ethnic minorities about their plight. But in August 2013, a Lor member of parliament, Mohammad Bozorgvari, reportedly said that unless President Hassan Rouhani’s ministerial nominees paid special attention to his region, he would beat them up with sticks. A representative of Lorestan’s writers union, Ali Sarmian, called Bozorgvari’s remark “irresponsible.” More than a dozen Lors reportedly protested the comment outside parliament.
            The majority of Lors are Shiite Muslims. They mainly reside in the mountainous along the western border with Iraq. Most Lors live in the provinces of Lorestan, Bakhtiari, Kohgiluyeh, and Boyer-Ahmed. Smaller numbers live in Khuzestan, Fars, Ilam, Hamadan, and Bushehr. They speak Lori, an oral language that is similar to Persian.
Bijan DaBell is a former Iran specialist at Freedom House.


Photo credits:
Mir Hossein Mousavi and Medhi Karroubi via Facebook
Yahya Rahim Safavi via Sajed.ir and Wikimedia Commons
Baluchi man via Sistan and Baluchistan province web page
Mohsen Rezaei by By Sonia Sevilla (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Iran Minorities 1: Diverse Religions

Bijan DaBell           

            Iran may be the world’s only modern theocracy, but the Islamic Republic’s constitution actually mandates a political role for three religious minorities. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all have seats in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to their populations:

      Two seats for Armenian Christians,
      • One for Assyrian and Chaldean  Christians,
      • One for Jews,
      • One for Zoroastrians.
      Iran’s constitution is a unique hybrid that blends the concepts in a modern republic—borrowing heavily from French and Belgian law—with Islamic Sharia. Two articles are particularly relevant to the status of Iran’s religious minorities, who make up about two percent of the non-Muslim population.
            Article 13:  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. 
            Article 14: In accordance with the sacred verse -- "God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8] -- the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
            The idea is not new in Iran. Some religious minorities were first granted seats after the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 produced Iran’s first legislature--in what was also the first elected parliament in Asia. Neither the 1906 constitution nor the 1979 constitution include all minorities, however. Some Protestants, notably evangelicals, also do not have representation in parliament.
            The Baha’is are Iran’s largest religious minority, numbering up to 350,000. They are not recognized by the constitution, are not protected under the law, and are hindered from practicing their faith.
            Baha’is—an independent world religion—are viewed as apostates by the Iranian government due to the Islamic belief that Mohammed was the final prophet. Bahai’s follow Bahá’u’lláh, who founded the faith in the 19th century.  In July 2013, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a new fatwa against the Baha’is. He warned Iranians to “avoid any kind of association with this misguided and misleading sect,” according to the news website Tasnim.
            Seats in parliament also do not guarantee equal rights for any of the religious minorities. In practice, they face many obstacles in employment, education, and property ownership, according to the U.S. State Department. They are also largely excluded from senior government or military positions.
            For parliament, candidates from religious minorities must meet certain requirements: They have to be Iranian citizens, not have a “notorious reputation,” be in good health between the age of 30 and 75, and support the Islamic republic, the constitution, and the Supreme Leader. The following is a summary of Iran’s recognized religious minorities.
            There are two major types of Iranian Christians: ethnic and non-ethnic Christians. Ethnic Christians include Armenians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians.

      Armenians are the largest Christian group. Their current population has significantly declined—from 300,000 in 1979 to between 40,000 and 80,000 today. They hold two seats in the Majles but also have observer status in the powerful Guardian Council and Expediency Councils, the two oversight bodies.

            Most Armenians live in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Orumiyeh and smaller groups towns, such as Rasht, Bandar Anzali and Arak. The member of parliament from northern Iran is Karen Khanlari, who is serving his first term. The member of parliament from southern Iran is Robert Beglarian. He has served three consecutive terms since 2004.
            The Assyrian population, which has one seat in parliament, reportedly numbers around 20,000. Most Assyrians live in Tehran, with smaller numbers around Orumiyeh in the north. Their current representative, Younatan Betkolia, has been in office since 2000. He also became head of the International Union of Assyrians in 2008, when he moved the headquarters from Chicago to Tehran.
            Christians not associated with an ethnic heritage group do not have Majles representatives. These groups—largely Protestant or evangelical—proselytize their religious beliefs and have been subject to persecution, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. In Sharia law, apostasy—or conversion from Islam to another religion—is considered an offense punishable by death.

            Iran’s Jewish population now numbers about 25,000, down from around 80,000 in 1979. Yet it is the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. Their representative in parliament is Dr. Ciamak Moresadegh. Most Jews live in Tehran, which has active synagogues, a Jewish school and kosher butchers. Smaller numbers live in Esfahan, Shiraz, Hamadan and a few other towns.

      Iranian Jews are allowed to practice their religion, but they have faced periodic prosecution and harassment. In April 2000, 13 Iranian Jews were tried for spying for Israel. Those tried included one rabbi, community members, and a teenager. Their sentences were eventually reduced. They were all released by April 2003. Jews have periodically been accused of supporting Zionism.

            Iran’s Jews have also felt the overspill from the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iranian newspaper, Yalesarat, published pictures of synagogues that it claimed were in Iran showing people waving Israeli flags. The pictures were actually synagogues outside Iran. But the publication spurred attacks on two synagogues in Iran, according to Maurice Motamed, a former Jewish parliament member.
            Jewish members of parliament have occasionally expressed grievances. In 2005, Motamed challenged President Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust. He also complained about the portrayal of Jews in the media. Ironically, Ahmadinejad donated money to Tehran’s Jewish hospital, a sign that the Jewish community has some relevance in Iranian politics. Dr. Moresadegh, the current Jewish member of parliament, heads the hospital and has stated that Iranian Jews were not threatened by Ahmadinejad’s policies.
            Moresadegh has attempted to distance Iranian Jews from Israel. “We are Iranian Jews and are proud of our nationality. No amount of money can encourage us to give up Iran. Our nationality is not up for sale,” he said after 40 Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel in December 2007. “There are no specific problems for Jews in this country,” Morsadegh said in a May 2008 interview with Reuters. He has also spoken out against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza. 

            About 20,000 Zoroastrians live in Iran, down from around 300,000 in the 1970s. The current Zoroastrian member of parliament is Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari, who is serving his second term. Most Zoroastrians live in Tehran, with other communities in Yazd and Kerman.
            Zoroastrians are the oldest religious community in Iran. The faith was established sometime between 1800 and 1000 B.C. in Iran. It was the dominant faith during the Persian Empire and later became the state religion. It waned after the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century.
            Some of the basic Zoroastrian tenants include concepts of heaven and hell, resurrection, a supreme and universal God, divine creation, the spiritual nature of the world and humans, belief in the afterlife and the basic goodness of humanity. The Iranian new year Nowruz—originally a Zoroastrian tradition—is a state holiday in the Islamic Republic celebrated by all Iranians.

            Iran’s Zoroastrian population faces decline due to emigration, conversion to Islam, harassment and discrimination. The Iranian media has portrayed Zoroastrians as devil worshipers and polytheists. Some Zoroastrians do not identify their religious background, fearing persecution.
            In November 2005, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, chairman of Guardian Council, referred to Iran’s religious minorities as, “sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.” Kourosh Niknam—the Zoroastrian member of parliament at the time—protested Jannati’s comments. Niknam faced a revolutionary court and was threatened with execution. He was released with a warning. Niknam was succeeded by Esfandiyar Ekhtiyari in the 2008 Majles elections.
            In recent years, some Iranians have adopted Zoroastrian symbols and traditions to celebrate Iranian culture that pre-dates Islam. In January 2013, some 2,000 people – reportedly including Muslims -- attended a Zoroastrian winter festival called Sadeh. One Muslim who attended the festival explained that it should not be seen only as a religious festival. “Sadeh is an ancient celebration that symbolizes Iran's rich cultural heritage. There is no reason why Iranian Muslims shouldn't observe the event,” he reportedly said.

Bijan DaBell is a former Iran specialist at Freedom House.
Photo credits: Faravahar by Sodacan, vector image was created with Inkscape. [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Entrance of Church of Saint George in Isfahan by Bontenbal via Wikimedia Commons
Menorah by Alex Milad via Flickr
MP Moresadegh via Majlis.ir
Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, Iran by A. Davey via Flickr
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Iran Officials Warn Against Syria Strike

      Iran’s political and military leaders have condemned calls for Western military intervention following reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. Military action would drag the Middle East into “the abyss of violence and conflict,” warned Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 27. Some leaders have outlined potentially dangerous repercussions for the United States. “Syria will turn into a field of slaughter and a fiasco much more dangerous than Vietnam,” said Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
      But President Hassan Rouhani and other top officials have also taken strong stances against the general use of chemical weapons, remembering the repeated use by Iraq during the 1980-1988 war. The following are excerpted remarks by top Iranian diplomats, military officials, politicians and clerics on Syria.

Military Officials
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, Revolutionary Guards commander
            “The U.S. opinion about its ability to limit a military intervention to Syria is nothing more than an illusion. The reactions will go beyond Syrian borders.
“Just as U.S. meddling in the Muslim world has led to the spread of extremism, violence and terrorism, attacking Syria will intensify the spread of extremism.”
Aug. 31, 2013 to the press
            “Despite numerous bitter experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans, in case of a military measure against Syria, will complete the domino effect of their failure and will experience the most shameful historical defeat. Syria will turn into a field of slaughter and a fiasco much more dangerous than Vietnam…
            “The world’s people, especially regional Muslims, have not forgotten America’s false excuse for [its] military attack against Iraq.”
Aug. 28, 2013 in an interview with Tasnim Student Agency
Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, defense minister
            “Sowing the seeds of warmongering and violence has never resulted in lasting peace and security. [The United States wants to launch strikes] to rebuild the shattered morale of terrorists, weaken the operational capability of the Syrian armed forces and change the balance of operation in the favor of takfiris [Islamic extremists].”
Sept. 2, 2013 to the press
Brig. Gen. Esmail Kowsari, member of parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission
            “America does not [have the courage] nor the capability to attack Syria. Although, perhaps, it may be able to begin a war in a limited fashion, and this possibility is also unlikely. It will certainly not be the decision-maker of the war’s end.”
“Any measures based on attacking Syria will bring the occupying Zionist regime and Western-supported Arab countries to their deaths more quickly, so they do not commit such acts easily.” 
            August 30, 2013 in remarks to journalists
Hassan Rouhani, president
            “We completely and strongly condemn use of chemical weapons in Syria because [the] Islamic Republic of Iran is itself victim of chemical weapons.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in a tweet via @HassanRouhani
“Any action on the Syrian crisis should be based on international law, lead to more stability in region and reduce terrorism. The Middle East doesn’t need another war.”
            Aug. 28, 2013 in a tweet via @HassanRouhani
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme leader
            “U.S. intervention in Syria or any other country will turn into a disaster for the region. The region has turned into a gunpowder stock. The United States’ intervention means nothing but warmongering and acts like a spark in a stockpile of gunpowder.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet
Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker
            “The Americans do not see the wave of popular hatred of their warmongering policies and still pursue military action against Syria.
            “They say they have evidence of the use of chemical weapons so why are they not presenting this evidence to the Security Council?”
            Sept. 1, 2013 in an address to parliament
            “It is impossible for the Americans to prepare themselves in a span of a few days for military operations in Syria. They began their work several months ago and this measure was designed earlier, just like the 33-day war [2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah].”
            Aug. 30, 2013 in remarks to journalists
Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Expediency Council chairman and former president
            “It seems that the main target of U.S. adventurism in the region is not restricted to Syria, but it involves the entire Middle East region… their dangerous warmongering game could engulf the entire region.”
            Sept. 1, 2013 during an Expediency Council meeting
Ayatollah Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari, Assembly of Experts member
            “If a war begins in Syria, this country will turn into a graveyard for American and Israeli forces.
            “America seeks war to preserve the Zionist regime, but before any action it [should] know that in case of invading Syria, Tel Aviv and the Zionist regime [are finished].”
            Aug. 30, 2013 in a sermon
Mohammad Javad Zarif, foreign minister
            “Iran, as a victim of chemical weapons, cannot in any way tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Iran is also not prepared to tolerate a group of countries… invading the region under an excuse… and drag it into the abyss of violence and conflict.”
            Aug. 27, 2013 in an interview with Iranian state television
            “Only the U.N. Security Council, under special circumstances, can authorize a collective action… Mr. Obama cannot interpret and change the international law based on his own wish… warmongering is not in the interest of anyone.
            “Using force has very dangerous consequences… which are not within the control of the initiator.
            Sept. 1, 2013 in a phone conversation with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias José Jaua Milano
             “In that memo [sent via the Swiss embassy to the United States in late 2012 or early 2013], we warned that extremist groups may use the chemical agents. The Americans never replied to the memo.”
            Sept. 1, 2013 in an interview with Iranian weekly Aseman
Marziyeh Afkham, foreign ministry spokesperson
            “The Arab League [adopting this] position [calling for action] before the official announcement of the United Nations inspectors’ report shows that it is politically-motivated and a pre-determined judgment.
            “The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that remarks and measures must focus on preventing the spread of the crisis and the region from entering into a phase for which no end is imaginable.”
            Sept. 2, 2013 to the press

Connect With Us

Our Partners

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Logo