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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