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.

According to Mr Alireza Sarafi, an educational researcher, non-Farsi speaker admission to education institutions drops from 42 percent in college to 10 percent in post-graduate education. His research is based on the result of admission to Iranian education centres following attendance of intermediate schools from 1376 to 1377 (Iranian years), that is to say 1997 to 1998. Here I have translated the table from his finding from Farsi into English. It clearly demonstrates the proportional decrease of non-Farsi speakers with increasing level of education. Furthermore, the representation of minorities within the education system is not in proportion with the general population quota in Iran.


Non-Farsi Speakers Farsi-Speakers Enrolment in higher education


42% 58% College Degree
36% 64% Under-Graduate
12% 88% Post-Graduate
10% 90% PhD and doctorate


The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2010 notes: “that, according to the State party, measures are being taken to promote minority languages, and the teaching of minority languages and literature in schools is permitted, it expresses concern over the lack of sufficient measures to enable persons belonging to minorities to have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue and to have it used as a medium of instruction. It would have appreciated more information on the literacy levels of ethnic minorities. (Art. 5)

The Committee recommends the State party to continue its efforts to implement measures to enable persons belonging to minorities to have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue and to have it used as a medium of instruction. It requests the State party to provide more information on the literacy levels of ethnic minorities”.

In contrary to official statements that the teaching in minority languages is permitted, Tehran does not permit teaching in Arabic, Balochi, Kurdish, Luri, Turkic or Turkmen languages. The only language that has been accepted is Armenian for the Armenian minority in Iran, which has been benefiting from this right since the instatement of the Iranian Pahlavi regime.

Human Rights Watch also has documented that “the repression of Balochi language and culture out of fear that movement for greater Balochistan would endanger the territorial integrity of the Iran  predates the Islamic republic. Mohammad Reza Shah had banned the use of the Balochi language and prohibited the wearing of Balochi National dress in schools. The publication of Baloch books and magazines and newspapers was a criminal offense”. Human Rights Watch further emphasises that “the Islamic Republic has done nothing to reverse these trends”.[۱۵]

Both the Shah and the Islamic Republic have used the Persian language as one of the characteristics of Iranian national identity to assimilate non-Persians into the Persian state identity. These efforts have failed, however, since Persian is the mother tongue of less than half of the population (indeed only around 30 percent according to the Minister for Education as mentioned earlier). Others speak Arabic, Balochi, Lori, Kurdish, Turkish and Turkmen languages.


Investment in job and education in minority areas have led to a lack of social and cultural development of the population and especially of women; the national minorities face double discrimination and their female populations even face triple discrimination.

The Iranian constitution and government policy have led to marginalisation of women in economic, cultural, social and political life. Any attempts by NGOs to campaign for women’s rights and for their empowerment been suppressed by the state apparatus. Small efforts that have been made by women activists in those regions have always led to harassment and arrest, and many activists have been forced to go underground or leave the country.

In the case of women activists from minority groups, their situation has not been given the same level of international recognition as that of women from Farsi-speaking areas. Women activists from Tehran and other Farsi-speaking areas, for instance, have been granted refugee status and have been praised for their activities by Western democratic countries and organisations. They have further been given a safe haven from where to give a voice to the women in Iran. Activists from non-Persian minorities are less well-known and their activities have not been given the same amount of recognition by the international media. Minority activists also find it much harder to enter European or North American countries. Often, after their flight, they are forced to stay in insecure neighbouring countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they face constant security risks and extradition to Iran.


Azerbaijanis are banned from gathering at Babek Castle to celebrate their national hero, and they are forbidden to celebrate Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan, Azerbaijani heroes of the constitutional revolution of 1905. In May 2006, demonstrations took place in towns and cities in the Azerbaijani provinces of Iran to protest against a cartoon published on 12 May 2006 by the state-owned daily newspaper Iran, which was regarded as offensive to Iranian Azerbaijanis. Hundreds, if not thousands were arrested as a result, some of whom were tortured in prison. Dozens were believed massacred and injured.

Protest by ethnic minorities has been suppressed by Iranian security forces and Baseej Militias in Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Ahwaz  Balochistan and Turkmen.

Qaderi, a 25 year old Iranian Kurd and political activist, was shot dead along with two others and had his body bound and dragged by the police through the streets of Mahabad. Qaderi’s death catalysed six weeks of protests across Kurdish regions that resulted in many deaths and hundreds of arrests. The Kurdish region once again stopped working when five Kurdish political were executed on 9 May 2010 in the infamous Evin prison.

In April 2005, the Arab people protested against the plan by then Khatami regime to intensify the policy to change the region demography this policy led to widespread protest which continued for several days, many people were killed and hundreds arrested some later were executed.

In November 2003, a minor was raped by an officer of Iran’s security forces in Konark, a township in Balochistan. This led to demonstrations in Konark and neighbouring cities. Six people were killed and many hundreds were arrested. Mr Mohamad Ali Abrawan later, without having had access to a defence lawyer, was convicted for Moharebah (being an enemy of god) and was executed in public. The rapist officer, on the other hand, was relocated to another city to continue his work.

Human Rights Watch reported the following: “In February 1994, rioters in Zahidan, the Capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province protested the destruction of a Sunni mosque in Mashhad. The riots were allegedly quelled by Passdaran firing live ammunition into the crowed. Some activities were detained.” [۱۶]

Another demonstration took place in May 2009 in Zahedan. In the aftermath of an arbitrary military operation, a bomb had exploded in a “Hosseinieh” adjacent to a Shi’a mosque which had been used by the Baseej and the Revolutionary Guards in the Baloch capital Zahedan.

After this incident ‘Baseej’, a paramilitary force backed by the Iranian security forces, attacked Baloch people’s property. Baloch people in Zahedan protested against the organised criminal attacks on Baloch people and their property. According to Fars News, a semi-official news agency, 150 Baloch people were arrested during this demonstration, some were tortured. Amnesty international reported that “prisoners under sentence of death include two members of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Baluch minority in Sistan-Baluchistan province. On 31 May 2010, the Zahedan prosecutor announced they had been sentenced to death for their alleged involvement in clashes between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims which led to the deaths of six individuals. He also said that the death penalty had been sought in the trials of six other individuals.[17]


As the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination indicated in August 2010, over recent decades, Iran has deliberately pursued a policy of exclusion towards Arab, Azerbaijani Turk, Balochi, Kurdish and Turkmen communities in areas including housing, education, health, jobs and “public life”[18].  Mahmud Khalatbary, who served as Director General of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), in a discussion with well-known international affairs scholar Selig S. Harrison, recalled that “In CENTO, we always assumed that the Baloch would attempt to create their own independent state with Soviet support some day, so it was desirable to keep them as politically weak, disunited, and backward as possible.”[۱۹]

Iran treats its religious and ethnic minorities as second or third class citizens, a form of apartheid.

This situation demonstrates the urgent need of a new social contract that recognises Iran’s different ethnic groups such as the Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baloch, Fars, Kurds, Lur and Turkmen as equal in their collective rights and duties. In the new millennium, a new scenario of national governance should prevail. The elements of this new system of governance should be harmonious partnership in a republican, liberal, democratic, and secular system with a federal structure and autonomous, provincial governance mechanisms. Such a state system would appropriately address the problems and offer the prospect of a positive new partnership of trust and coexistence. A mechanism based on the acceptance of genuine and justified demands of the constituent groups should generate participation, shared responsibilities, and at the same time offer opportunities to all nations. It would provide a foundation for strong, civilised, prosperous and proud peoples in a multinational state with a new vision.


This document was presented by Nasser Boladai in the meeting of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iran on 26 October 2010. Nasser Boladai is the spokesperson of the Balochistan Peoples Party and a member of the International Delegation of the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran.


[2] Human Rights Watch: Religious and Ethnic Minorities Discrimination in Law and Practice, September 1997 Vol. 9, No 7(E)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Seventy-seventh session 2 –۲۷ August 2010, Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the convention


[6] Dr Hosseinbor presenting to US Congress, March 2008, “Oppression of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iran: The Case of Baloch and Balochistan”

[۷] Baloch ‘Appeal for  international help to stop executions in Baluchistan’ accessed:

[8] /index2.php?option=com_news&task=print&code=84042301999102

[9] See reference to the “ethnic restructuring” program outlined in 2005 in secret correspondence between vice-President Sayed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi and General Gholamali Rasheed[9].  Ahwaz Human Rights dossier page 10 (

[10] Human Right Watch:  Religious and Ethnic Minorities Discrimination in Law and Practice, September 1997 Vol. 9, No 7(E)

[11] Hossienbor, ibid.

[12] Iranian Kurdistan: Minorities Suffer in Iran, Tuesday, 30 September 2008


[13] Amnesty International Report, March 2010:

[14] United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Fiftieth session, 24 August 1998,  quote of a Mersad commander in its declaration on Iran in August 1998 (Ettela’at, 25 February 1998), link to United Nations Report:

[15] Human Right Watch,  Iran Religious and Ethnic Minorities Discrimination in Law and Practice, September 1997 Vol. 9, No 7(E)

[16] Human Right Watch on its report on Religious and Ethnic Minorities Discrimination in Law and Practice, September 1997 Vol. 9, No 7(E)




[19] Selig S. Harrison 1981, pp 159.

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