• Friday 22nd January 2021



Iran has an estimated population of just over seventy million but no census has been made since the last one in 1976, and no breakdowns have been calculated regarding the ethnic composition and make-up of the Islamic Republic. This, alongside the closed and concealed nature of research in Iran, makes it extremely difficult for practitioners and researchers to make estimates about linguistic, ethnic, sectarian and religious demographics.  Using only the statistics from 1976, the state has projected Persian and therefore Farsi as the dominant ethnic and linguistic group. Little attention is given to the numerous and diverse ethnic groups which inhabit Iran’s 70% land mass.


The 1976 projection was as follows: Persian 51%, Azeri 24%, Gilaki and Mazandarani 8%, Kurd 7%, Arab 3%, Lur 2%, Baloch 2%, Turkmen 2%, other 1% .[1]


In 2008 the Islamic Republic of Iran submitted the following information regarding the ethnic concentration in different regions (provinces) in Iran to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.



Province Ethnic Composition
West Azerbaijan Azeri – Kurdish
East Azerbaijan Azeri
Ardabil Azeri
Sistan and Baluchetsan Baloch
Golestan Turkman
North Khorasan Kurdish – Turkman
Khuzestan Arab – Lor
Chehar Mahal and Bakhtiyari Lor
Kohkiloye and Boyer Ahmad Lor
Lorestan Lor
Elam Lor & Kurdish
Kermanshah Kurdish
Kurdistan Kurdish & Azari
Zanjan Azeri



The Iranian regime, however, provided the UN with misinformation by stating that the Baloch population was only significant in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan. In fact there exist large Baloch populations in neighbouring provinces such as Hormuzgan and Kerman. Several districts in Kerman province are Baloch majority districts and more than half of the Hormozgan province’s population is comprised of Baloch people.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has further documented the fact that the Baloch populated region has been systematically divided by successive regimes in Tehran to create a demographic imbalance. According to a HRW report from 1997, “The administrative and political districts were arranged so as to avoid the creation of any Balochi majority provinces, thus preventing locally elected officials. Immigration of non-Balochis into the area was encouraged under the Pahlavi state to the extent that almost forty percent of the population of Zahidan are non-Baloch immigrants”[۲]. The report further notes that since the mid-1990s, “a systematic plan has been set in motion by the authorities to specify the region by changing the ethnic balance of major Balochi cities such as Zahdan, Iranshahr, Chahbhar and Khash”[۳].

In August 2010, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found Iran’s submission on ethnic minorities satisfactory and stated that “the Committee recommends that the State party make renewed efforts to update the information on its ethnic composition, relying on the principle of self-identification. It recommends that such a self-identification question be included in the next census carried out by the State party and requests that the results of the census be made public and this information be provided in the next State party report”.[۴]

The Iranian state manipulates statistics to support their statement to the international community that more than 50 percent of Iran’s population are Farsi speakers, making it an absolute majority. However, the current Education Minister, Mr. Hamid Reza Haji Babai, said in a seminar in November 2009,  that “۷۰ percent starting schools in Iran do not have Farsi as their mother language and do not successfully learn the language after several years in school”[۵]. This admission, whilst intended to bolster calls for widening the use of Persian across the country lends support to claims that 70 percent of school children are not Persian, undermining the State’s statistics and any subsequent division of finances based on population proportions along ethnic lines.


Iran’s population is a mosaic of ethnicities, but the non-Persian groups are largely located in the peripheries and far from the power base, Tehran. Unfortunately, their geographical location in the margins is matched by cultural, linguistic and political marginalisation and coupled with low socio-economic indicators.

Historically, the Pahlavi dynasty promoted an Aryanisation policy to amalgamate other ethnic groups into Persian. In fact, the Pahlavi Regime set in motion a policy to erase non-Persian heritage from Iran by banning ethnic languages on school premises, other official places, religious ceremonies, as well as in the publication of books and other newspaper and magazines.  ‘Persianisation’ also involved changing non-Persian geographic names to Persian ones and ensuring that the names of newborns were also Persianised.

The Aryan policy was predominately featured during the Shah’s regime; the Shah had titled himself “Ariyamehr” meaning “Aryan Friend”.

In official literature, Iran was interpreted as “Land of Aryans”. This opposed the fact that Iranian Arabs are of the Semitic race, and Azerbaijanis and Turkmens of the Turkic race. Even though race characteristics found some support in Persian-speaking society, they never became universal among other nations in Iran.

The current government, in the pursuit of Persianising Iran, has published a book consisting of Persian and religious names acceptable to Shiite thinking. All people of Iran have to choose their children’s names from this book. It excludes Arabic names, names of important people within Sunni Islam, and Balochi, Kurdish, Azerbaijani Turk and Turkmen names.

Iran has a systematic system of discrimination against non-Persian ethnic groups, which is institutionalised within the constitution. As the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated in August 2010, “the information furnished by the State party on the definition of racial discrimination in article 19 of the Iranian Constitution and reiterates its concern that this definition does not explicitly cover the forms of racial and ethnic discrimination prohibited under the Convention (Art. 1). The United Nations Committee further urges the State party to consider reviewing the definition of racial discrimination contained in its Constitution and domestic law in order to bring it into full conformity with article 1, paragraph 1, of the Convention”.   



Article 12 of the constitution states: “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelve Ja’fari School of Thought and this principle shall remain eternally immutable”. This explicit endorsement of a school of Shia Islam alienates the Kurds, Turkmen, Baloch, and Ahwaz, who practice Sunni Islam. Tehran has a population of 1 million Sunni Muslims, but planning permission for a Sunni mosque has yet to be granted; all applications for building a Sunni place of worship have been rejected and/or ridiculed. Article 115 excludes non-Shias from holding the office of the republic’s president.

A widely used practice, which discriminates against ethnic Sunnis and other religious minorities, is “Gozinesh”, meaning “selection”. Gozinesh is an ideological test requiring candidates for particular governmental 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. The use of this practice effectively excludes the majority of Baloch, Turkmen and Kurds from employment within the government and, in some cases, within the private sector. Some applicants to universities are also subjected to Gozinesh.

The Shah also used the Shiite religion as a uniting factor. The Islamic Republic has put more emphasis on religion but this has not been successful, either, since the majority of Baloch, Kurds and Turkmen are Sunni Muslims. These projects have been political disasters resulting in an enhanced sense of alienation among non-Persian and non-Shiite populations in Iran.



Many ethnic groups boycotted the 2009 Presidential Elections once their preferred candidates were officially forced to withdraw their candidature. No Baloch has ever served as a minister of cabinet or as an ambassador. The number of the Baloch in the provincial administration of Balochistan is no more than five percent of the total civil servants.[6] Arabs in Khuzestan make up around 70 percent of the population but they hold fewer than 15 percent of the important governmental positions. After the election of President Ahmadinejad in 2005, many ethnic minority civil servants were reportedly forced from their jobs in a widespread purge. The United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination “expresses concern at the low level of participation of persons from, Arab, Azeri, Balochi, Kurdish, Baha’i, and certain other communities in public life. This is reflected in, for example, the scant information provided about them in the national report, in the national census and in public policies. (Art. 5) The Committee urges the State party to carry out a study of members of all such communities that would enable the State party to identify their particular needs and draw up effective plans of action, programs and public policies to combat racial discrimination and disadvantage relating to all areas of the public life of these communities”.


Even though Sistan-Balochistan is a region rich in resources, 76 percent of the Baloch population live in extreme poverty. The national figure is 11 percent[7].  According to the Governor General of the Provincial  Social Department in Balochistan in June 2005, the “Sistan-Balochistan province despite of its richness and geographical advantages is the least developed area of the country”[۸].

Similarly, in Arab Khuzestan, the unemployment rate in the province’s Persian majority city of Dezful is 7 percent whereas in the Arab majority cities of Abadan and Mohammerah the rates are 41 percent and 60 percent respectively.

Despite signing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, strong evidence exists that the Iranian authorities encourage land confiscation, forced migration of ethnic groups and the resettlement of Persians in the ethnic regions.[9] In 2005, Baloch houses in sought after areas of the port city Chabahar were dismantled by Iranian Security forces with no alternative housing provided for those evicted. The homes of 4,000 Arab residents of Sapidar were destroyed in 2003. In 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing expressed concern regarding “the continued discrimination faced by ethnic and religious minorities and nomadic groups, as reflected in […] the considerable number of alleged cases of land confiscation and forced evictions”.

In fact, migration and discriminative laws are used to marginalise ethnic groups from economic and social life. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination “expresses concern at the limited enjoyment of political, economic, social and cultural rights by, inter alios, Arab, Azeri, Balochi, Kurdish communities and some communities of non-citizens, in particular with regard to housing, education, freedom of expression and religion, health and employment, despite the economic growth in the State party. It notes information that the provinces where many of them live are the poorest in the country. (Art. 5)”

Human Rights Watch also reported that the Baloch “constitute one of the poorest and least developed communities in Iran”[۱۰].

The Committee also expressed “concern over reports that the application of the “gozinesh” criterion, a selection procedure that requires prospective state officials and employees to demonstrate allegiance the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State religion may limit employment opportunities and political participation for, inter alios, persons of Arab, Azeri, Balochi, Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish communities. (Art. 5)”



The death penalty continues to be applied in political cases, where individuals are commonly accused of “enmity against God”. In August 2007, Amnesty International noted that a disproportionately large number of executions in Iran that year were of Baloch citizens (50 out of 166). As of January 2010, there are 17 Kurdish political prisoners on death row, at least some of whom have been tortured and denied access to a lawyer. A large proportion of the child executions, that take place, are of Kurdish minors. On 8 June 2006, the Khuzestan Revolutionary Court announced that 35 Ahwazi Arabs were sentenced to death following a one-day trial conducted in the absence of both lawyers and witnesses. Two of the men sentenced to death were serving prison sentences at the time of the attacks.  In May 2007, six members of a Baloch cultural association were arrested; the head was tried in secret and executed in August 2008.[11] On 10 September 2008, security agents arrested more than nineteen Azeri-Iranians gathered in a private home in Tehran for an Iftar celebration.[12]

According to Association for Defence of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP): “The systematic violations of Azerbaijanis’ human and ethnic rights in Iran continued through August, 2010. Azerbaijani activists were sentenced to jail and tens of activists are still in temporary detention without access to a lawyer or visit their family. The activists are subjected to tortures or other ill-treatments. The judiciary authorities deny releasing the reason of detentions”.

After the presidential election in June 2009 and the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators, it was feared that demonstrators would be executed immediately to intimidate and terrorise people so they would not take part in demonstrations. The regime feared that the arrest and killing of people in Tehran would spark an internal and international outcry. Executions of Baloch, which are not even mentioned in the international media, on the other hand, were expected to fulfil the purpose to terrorise and to prevent people from joining protests against the regime in other parts of country.

To terrorise demonstrators in Tehran, nineteen Baloch prisoners were executed after short trials in closed courts without having had access to defence lawyers, in Zahedan, convicted among other crimes also as “Mohabareh” of “enmity against God”.

Five Kurdish political prisoners were hanged on 9 May 2010, which led to public protest and closure of business in the Kurdish regions.

According to Amnesty International “Even before last summer’s unrest, there were signs that President Ahmadinejad’s government was increasingly using the death penalty as a way of stemming unrest in areas with large ethnic minorities. Bomb attacks in the predominantly Arab province of Khuzestan and ethnic Baluch areas of Sistan-Baluchistan province in recent years were followed by a wave of often public executions. Some of the condemned men were shown on state television making “confessions” that are believed to have been extracted from them under torture or other duress.”[۱۳]

Extra-judicial killings have been a characteristic of Iranian state policy in ethnic minority regions, especially in Balochistan, Kurdistan and the Arab Ahwaz region. This was clearly stated by the head of Mersad, a paramilitary, who said: “We have not been given orders to arrest and hand over those who carry weapons. On the basis of a directive we have received, we will execute any bandits, wherever we capture them (Ettela’at, 25 February 1998)”.[14]



Despite Article 15 of the Iranian constitution and Article 27 of the ICCPR, the Ahwaz, Baloch, Kurds, Azerbaijani Turks, and Turkmen face difficulties in exercising their rights to use their own languages, in private and in public. For example, all state-schooling in these regions is conducted exclusively in Persian. As a result, drop-out rates are high (Ahwazi students drop out of high schools at a rate of 70 percent), and Ahwazi Arabs make up just 7 percent of the student population at the University of Shaheed Chamran in Ahwaz City.

Activists from minority cultures have had journals and publications banned, often for reasons of state security, and even when publishers had adhered to the condition that Farsi must be the main language. Cultural organisations are closed down, and those involved are subjected to imprisonment and execution. Advocates for broader linguistic and cultural rights for minorities are detained arbitrarily.