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Iran: the people

Our guide to the Iranian population.

The disputed election in June 2009 brought Iranians on to the street in scenes that some compared to the 1979 revolution. However, Iranian society is far from a homogenous entity with its mosaic of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups.

Ethnic pluralism

Of Iran's 74 million population, estimates on the proportion that is ethnically Persian ranges from between 51 to 65 per cent. Although "Persian" is a somewhat controversial term with a range of different historical applications, it became synonymous with "Iranian" in 1935 when Reza Shah Pahlavi insisted foreign correspondents referred to the country solely as Iran. As such, "Persian" generally refers to those who use Farsi as their mother tongue.

There are a range of minority ethnic groups in Iran, the largest of which is the Azeri community, which accounts for around 24 per cent of the population. While Azeri culture has not been completely suppressed in Iran, there have been accusations that restrictions have been placed on their language and culture. Iran has been accused of anti-Azeri propaganda through its Azeri-language Sahar TV, which is alleged to have depicted Azerbaijan as Zionist due to its commercial ties with Israel.

The Mazandarani, and the linguistically similar Gilakis, are from northern Iran and account for eight per cent of the population, largely based on the shores of the Caspian. Unlike some ethnic and linguistic groups, they enjoy a peaceful coexistence with the Persian majority. Famous Iranians of Manzandarani descent include Reza Shah Pahlavi and the current elected speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani.

Armenians, Kurds and Balochs

The Kurds are one of the most maligned ethnic groups in the history of the Middle East, however their story has been somewhat brighter in Iran, where they account for seven per cent of the population, than in neighbouring Iraq or Turkey. The Iranian constitution recognises the Kurdish language and their status as ethnic minorities, however there is no regional autonomy as some demand. The new found confidence of Iraqi Kurds is problematic for Tehran, and the past years have seen clashes and insecurity escalate. Most notably with the disputed murder of Shivan Qaderi and the incarceration of Roya Toloui.

Armenians have suffered a similarly awful fate but like the Kurds they have faired relatively well in comparison to their Turkish compatriots. Armenians form the bulk of the Christian population in Iran and are allowed their own clubs and schools. Further, Armenians are the only minority group granted official observing status in the Guardian and Expediency Councils.

Iranian Armenian worshippers walk past by the historic Qareh Kelisa (black church) during a religious festival in Qareh Kelisa village, northwest of Iran. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

The Arab population accounts for around three per cent of the Iranian population and is based along Iran's border with Iraq and the shore of the Persian Gulf. The majority of Arabs are not thought to have a secessionist agenda and many fought against Iraq in the eight-year war. It is a legal requirement to teach Arabic due to its religious significance.

The remainder of the population are comprised of Lurs, Turkmen and Balochs. The Balochs, based on the border with Pakistan, are arguably the greatest cause for concern in Tehran. Jundallah is an ethnically Baloch and violent Sunni group, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb that killed seven Revolutionary Guards in October 2009. It has been designated a terrorist organisation by Iran but the unwillingness of the US to recognise the group as such has caused consternation in Tehran. Jundallah, along with Baloch nationalism generally, are alleged to be covertly encouraged, supported by the US.

Iranians carry the coffin of General Nur-Ali Shushtari, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards ground forces, killed by a Jundallah suicide bomber in October 20, 2009. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

Shia dominance

As the NS noted in our previous edition on Islam, 13 per cent of Muslims are Shia. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world, with approximately 90 per cent of its population following the faith. Of the Shia population the vast majority are Twelver Shia, the official religion of Iran. Sunnis account for around 8 per cent of the population and are predominantly ethnic Balochs, Kurds and Turkmen. Along with Islam the Islamic Republic's constitution protects and recognises the status of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The Jewish and Zoroastrian community are both guaranteed a seat in the Majlis, while Armenians (the majority of the Christian population) are guaranteed two. The Jewish community appears to fair better than the Christian community, particularly the Protestant community, which has been viewed with suspicion as a "western" import. It is interesting to note that many Iranian Jews have resisted the overtures of Israel and have stayed put, while the Parsi population in India are descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians.

Iranian Jewish MP Siamak Morsadegh checks a message on his mobile during a speech by defence minister Ahmad Vahidi. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

The Baha'i faith is not recognised by the Iranian government and followers have been routinely marginalised and persecuted by the state and Islamic religious authorities since its inception in the nineteenth century. Since 1979, Baha'is have been banned from holding public office and have been incarcerated for their beliefs. Further arrests and trials of Baha'is have been reported this month.

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State