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  • The Nation and Its Minorities:Ethnicity, Unity and State Policy in Iran
  • A. William Samii

The Iranian constitution has specific provisions guaranteeing equal rights to minorities. They have the right to their specific religious practices, as well as the right to use their languages in the mass media and in education. The constitution also grants the minorities a modicum of legal and administrative autonomy in regions where they are the majority. These constitutional provisions have little meaning in reality, and the state is pursuing policies of religious, linguistic, and cultural unity at the expense of minority rights.

A comprehensive analysis involving participants from the National Intelligence Council in the United States, non-governmental institutions, academia, and the private sector, predicts that internal conflicts stemming from ethnic or religious disputes might increase in the next fifteen years.1 "Responding to emerging and dynamic religious and ethnic groups," according to the analysis, will be an important challenge for states between now and 2015.

Iran is clearly one of the countries that must come to terms with ethnic diversity if its territorial integrity or, at least, its political stability is to remain unthreatened. The Islamic Republic's population of roughly 65 million people consists of many religious and ethno-linguistic groups. The largest ethnic group is Persian, which makes up 51 percent of the population. This is followed by Azeris at 24 percent, Gilakis and Mazandaranis at eight percent, Kurds at seven percent, and Arabs at three percent. The Baluchi and Turkmen minorities make up two percent of the population each. There are some 96 independent tribes scattered throughout the country.2

After years of difficulties encountered under the monarchy, ranging from forced relocation to co-optation to extortion at the hands of government agents, some of these minorities welcomed the 1978-79 Islamic revolution and what they hoped would be greater autonomy. What they encountered instead was a system that frowned on anything distinctive to an ethnic minority — be it language, religion, culture, or even territorial identification. Minority demands were ignored out of concern that the state would disintegrate and also because the revolutionaries believed that the purpose of the revolution was to create an Islamic state with a Shia leadership. In some cases, the state crushed the resulting ethnic insurgencies.

Currently, the state downplays factors that are distinctive to minority groups, and instead emphasizes the preservation of "unity." In the words of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest-ranking political and religious figure in Iran, "The noble nation gives priority to unity over factors which might divide it."3 In line with its concept of unity, the state promotes the image that there are no ethnic problems in Iran and all minorities see themselves as part of the Iranian nation-state first and foremost.

Nevertheless, ethnic groups in Iran militate for the right to use and study their different languages and practice minority religions. As recently as May 2001, writers, intellectuals, and parliamentarians wrote a letter to President Mohammad Khatami in which they criticized insufficient funding for cultural activities in ethnic communities and inattention to ethnic rights. The letter's signatories also appealed for protection for the country's ethnic languages and called for an end to discrimination.4

Tehran is clearly sensitive to any possible separatist tendencies and the possible exploitation thereof. The Minister of Intelligence and Security issued a warning about the "enemy's deceitful use of ethnicity as a tool in conspiracy."5 When different minorities do make occasional demands for greater national rights, they are usually ignored. This led a Tehran daily to warn that "the specific lack of attention paid to the civil demands of ethnic groups has also led to their grievances and many frustrations."6

The Iranian government already faces a restive population, as was demonstrated when there were a number of soccer riots in October 2001. In one case, the authorities arrested over 1,000 people after Iran lost a World Cup qualifying match. The destruction caused by the rioters might have been sufficient reason for arresting them, but what really frightened the government was the rioters' anti-government slogans and their calls for the return of the exiled crown prince, Reza Pahlavi. A...


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