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—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— 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.
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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 Azerbaijan, Ardabil, and Zanjan. About one-third of Tehran’s population is also reportedly Azeri. Smaller numbers reside in Hamadan, Qazvin and Karaj.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.