From Philip Carl Salzman
There is a natural tendency to reify countries and think of them as unitary entities, often indicated by calling countries “nations” and presuming a homogeneity and uniformity among the population. But this reification and assumption of homogeneity are almost always inaccurate and misleading. In the case of Iran, it would be a great error to think of the population as being homogeneous, for the people of Iran are in fact quite diverse. There are ethnic, linguistic, organizational, and religious differences among Iranians. (To enlarge any map in this post, click on it.)
Diversity in Iran. The core population of Persian civilization consists of the Persian (Farsi)- speaking city and village dwellers who tend to occupy central Iran. These Persians make up about half of the population. Generally on the geographical peripheries of the country are a number of important populations who differ ethnically and linguistically from Persians:
- In the south around Bandar Abbas and the southwest in Khuzistan, are Arabic-speaking populations.
- In the southwest, in Fars province, are important Turkic-speaking peoples.
- In the west are Lurs, an important population speaking Luri.
- In the west northwest are Kurds, speaking Kurdish.
- In the northwest are the Azeri Turks, speaking Turkish.
- In the northeast are Turkmen, also speaking a Turkish language.
- In the southeast are Baluch, speaking Baluchi.
It is noteworthy that many of these populations have ethnic compatriots across the boundaries of Iran:
- Arabs in Iraq and across the Gulf.
- Kurds in Iraq and Turkey.
- Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
- Turkmen in Central Asia.
- Baluch in Pakistan.
One important difference between the Persian heartland and the periphery, is that the Persians are urban dwellers or village peasants, while most of the other populations are tribal: some of the Arabs, the Turks of Fars, the Lurs, the Kurds, some Azeris, the Turkmen, and the Baluch. Tribes are political organizations designed to provide protection and security for their members, and mobilization against enemies. Tribes have a strong preference for independence, and strive always to stay out of the clutches of the state. However, modern times and modern military technology, combined with state antipathy, have undercut tribal independence and integrated tribal populations, to a greater or lesser degree, within state structures. Nonetheless, tribal structures remain, and can be activated if circumstances permit.
One major cultural unifying factor in Iran is religion. Some 90 percent of Iranians are Shi’a Muslims, traditional enemies of the Sunni majority in the Arab world and elsewhere. Shi’ism cuts across ethnic boundaries, providing a commonality for most Iranians. Under the Islamic Republic, Shi’ism has become a central focus of culture and governance. There are small minorities of Christians and Jews, a somewhat larger group of Baha’is, but the great bulk of the non-Shi’a are Sunni.
Sectarian politics: internal and external. The cultural, linguistic, organizational, and religious diversity of Iran is not, however cause for celebration on the part of the rulers of the Islamic Republic and their agents. Diversity, plurality, and difference do not fit the vision, the duty, and the mandate of the Islamic Republic. Rather, the Islamic Republic has for its raison d’etre the advancement, exclusively, of Shi’a Islam. This is believed to be God’s mandate to the Islamic Republic. Consequently, “inclusion” is not a value in its own right, but is only possible within the parameters of Shi’a domination.
Furthermore, religion aside, non-Persian ethnicities, speakers of Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, Turkman, Baluchi, as well as tribal peoples are suspect in regard to their loyalty to the state. The Islamic Republic only established its control after military campaigns against the tribes, the Kurds, the Turkmen, and the Baluch—just as Mohammed Reza Shah had to do, and just as Reza Shah before him had to do. Each fall of a regime in Iran is followed by declarations of independence by ethnic groups and tribes around the country, and must be suppressed militarily if the new government is to take effective control. So the diffidence of the Islamic Republic toward these groups is historically grounded.
The Islamic Republic is not fully satisfied by the imposition of Shi’a dominance in Iran; it acts to extend Shi’a dominance outside of its borders. Two effective campaigns along this line are the alliance with the Alawites of Syria and the financial, military, and political support for Lebanese Shiites especially through Hezbollah. It is even prepared, as the new champion of Islam, to extend its influence through support of Sunnis, such as Hamas, as long as the alliance is directed against more distant enemies, such as the Jews of Israel. Iranian envoys and missionaries in Africa carry the good Shi’a word to more distant lands, such as Northern Nigeria, backed by financial and other aid. The Sunni stalwarts, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, appear to the on the defensive against Iranian-backed Shi’a incursions.
State-minority relations: Baluchistan. Baluchistan, the larger part of the Province of Sistan and Baluchistan, is the most alien region of Iran. It is geographically farthest from the centers of governance. Its deserts are shaped by the most extremely arid climate (the unpopulated central desert aside). The population deviates from the Persian majority in the Islamic Republic in ethnicity, language, organization, and religion: Baluchi ethnicity; Baluchi language, tribal organization, and Sunni Islam. It is the least developed and poorest province. Furthermore, it abuts on the east the vast Pakistani Baluchistan with its much larger population of Baluch, and on the south the Indian Ocean, which opens Iran’s borders in the region to vulnerabilities.
What to do with this unpromising and potentially threatening region? The Islamic Republic, perhaps following the example of the Chinese in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, decided to flood Baluchistan with Shi’a Persians. But how to do this? A brainstorm led the Islamic Republic to make Baluchistan a center of university education—this in a land which some decades before had not even a primary school or madresseh. Universities were built and have drawn staff and multitudes of students from the Persian heartlands. Now the University of Sistan and Baluchistan is the second-largest university in Iran, and has branches in Baluchi towns that were little more than oases. There is even an international university on the southern coast.
With the flood of government money, and the new incoming population to accommodate, Baluchistan has undergone a lightning-fast urbanization. The provincial capital, before the Islamic Republic no more than 10,000 in population, has now reached half a million. Farther south, small villages or artificial government posts now can boast, along with their universities, more than 50,000 residents. Many Baluch from the countryside, formerly nomadic pastoralists, have moved to the towns and cities to take jobs in various support services.
Governance in Baluchistan is largely by Shi’a Persians for Shi’a Persians. Shi’a religious authorities are present, and Shi’a rituals and displays are prominent. It has been alleged recently that Shi’a missionaries are active among the Baluch. The Sunni Baluch do not appreciate this imposition of Shi’ism in Baluchistan.
It also appears that Baluch are not favoured for posts and jobs. According to Dr. M. Hossein Bor, in a recent briefing to the U.S. Congress,
A practice widely used to discriminate against Baluch and other minorities is Gozinesh meaning selection, an ideological test requiring applicants to universities and candidates for government jobs to demonstrate allegiance to Shia Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran including the concept of Vilayat-e Faghih (Governance of Religious Jurist), a concept not adhered to by Sunnis. This practice has been used to exclude Baluch from admission to universities or employment by government ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
In the world of business, many Baluch work for Shi’a Persians, which adds a class dimension to relations between Persians and Baluch.
To insure government control, there are a large military presence and frequent roadblocks. This has been heightened due to a small but effective insurgency by the Jundallah (“Soldiers of God”), also called the People’s Resistence Movement of Iran, run by Abdulmalak Rigi, from the Rigi tribe of the Sarhad region. During the past several years, the Jundallah has attacked and killed military personnel (26 in two attacks this January), kidnapped military personnel, and recently set off a suicide car bomb at a police facility in Saravan. The Jundallah stands for greater respect for Sunni Islam within the Islamic Republic and, presumably, better treatment of Baluch in Baluchistan. The Jundallah is not a mass movement, and many Baluch remain ambivalent about it. But it does signal the potential for something larger, something that the Islamic Republic would wish to avoid. However, in a recent speech, Supreme Leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attributed the insurgency to outside interference:
Those evil people at the border areas of Iran with Pakistan… We have recordings of some of these evil people, and we know that they are connected to Americans. They talk to them via wireless radio, and get their orders from them. These are evil, murderous terrorists, who are connected to American officers in a neighboring country. Unfortunately, this is still going on.
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic gives no indication he has reflected on the situation and treatment of Baluch in Baluchistan.
Minorities around Iran. Baluchistan is an extreme case, but one that reflects problems of minorities throughout Iran. Baha’is and Jews are under constant pressure, and are regarded as suspect by the Islamic Republic. So too with any national minorities, such as Kurds. All of these have seen arrests, disappearances, and executions for alleged anti-regime activities. But this should not be surprising, when opposition newspapers are shut down and Shi’a Persians with views differing from the Islamic Republic also are arrested, made to disappear, or turn up dead on the side of roads, and so on.
The position of minorities in Iran has not gone unnoticed outside of Iran. Baluchi nationalists in Pakistan regard Iranian Baluchistan as Occupied West Baluchistan. Saudi newspapers have recently denounced Iranian treatment of Sunnis and Arabs; the following is from the leading Saudi daily, Al-Watan:
Although a million and a half of Tehran’s native residents are Sunni, they do not have a single mosque in which to pray, or [a single] center in which to congregate…. A Sunni Muslim citizen cannot hold a senior position in the [Iranian] state, even if he is very knowledgeable and enjoys broad public support.…
Intense [efforts] are underway to ‘Persianize’ the Arab region of Khuzestan (Arabistan), and the oil-rich city of Al-Ahwaz, [although] it is situated in the southwest of Iran where the majority of population is Sunni Arab. This is being done by evicting Arab residents, particularly Sunnis, from their homes, and settling families of Persian origin in their place. Sunni regions, in both western and eastern Iran (i.e. in Baluchistan), are being subjected to a policy of intentional marginalization, [implemented by non-] development and by excluding their residents from [government] positions.
This racist attitude applies not only to Sunnis but to all Arabs [in Iran]….
In Iran, Arab and Sunni clerics and leaders are killed, [Arab] social activists are arrested, and there are attempts to restrict the Arab culture, yet international human rights organizations remain silent – as though they are in league with the regime of the mullahs.
Iran’s neighbors are watching Iran’s treatment of its minorities, as they watch Iran’s manoeuvres in the wider world of Persian-Arab and Shi’a-Sunni relations. Persian interference in Saudi Arabia through its Shi’a minority, could be met with counter-measures among the Sunnis of Iran. The ambitions of Baluchi, Kurdish, Turkish and other nationalists, both inside and on the borders of Iran, might begin to draw support from major Sunni powers if the Islamic Republic’s external initiatives tread too heavily upon their toes. The Islamic Republic has been looking at openings in other countries in the wider region to advance its influence and its goals. But now other countries are looking at potential openings in Iran as point of leverage on the Islamic Republic. What is good for the Persian goose,…
The rulers of Iran have got and stayed where they are because they are true believers. The weakness of their strength is their relations with the others. Being true believers, they cannot appreciate diversity, and have failed to be inclusive. The danger for the Islamic Republic is that the others, perhaps with external encouragement and support, turn from resentment to dissidence to outright rebellion and insurgency. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, the others in Iran have not had much of a say. They may find new ways to speak.
This post was originally presented at the conference on “The Future of Iran as a Regional Power,” March 30-31, 2009, organized by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and jointly sponsored by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, National Defence Canada, and the Privy Council Office. It is published here with the permission of Academic Outreach, CSIS.