Ethnicity and Identities in Iran: Progress and Equality

Kameel Ahmady

Social Anthropologist, University of Kent, MA in Social Anthropology


With worldwide progress, development and diversification come tensions between individual, local, national, and global identities, and the fight for equality and justice and opposition to discrimination. Iran is no different, but little has been written about the historical, current, and future identities of Iran’s ethnic groups. This study looks at the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, and Baloch alongside the Persian ethnic identity, which is predominant in modern Iran and which many claim is upheld politically and socially as the ideal for a future, collective Iranian ethnic identity, promoting discrimination against different ethnic identities. This theory is grounded by conducting and analysing in-depth questionnaires across 13 Iranian provinces in relation to religious, local, and national identities;

inter-ethnic cultural borders; hindrances to progressive movements; the purging of certain ethnic cultures; and possible steps to resolve crises. Some data has been extracted from the author’s recently published book, From Border to Border: Comprehensive research study on identity and ethnicity in Iran.

This data presents practical steps to achieving stable, equitable and sustainable cultural, social, economic, legal, and political conditions in Iran, based on the results of questionnaires. Taken into consideration is the realization of economic, socio-cultural, and political justice and indiscriminate social welfare, promoting interethnic solidarity and justice in the media, separating the legal and political systems from religious and ethno-centric thought in acknowledgement of the diversity of religious identities in Iran, and implementing the pending articles of the Constitution.

Keywords: Iran, ethnic claims, Iranian national identity, Persian, Azeri, Kurd, Arab, Baloch, development, justice, minority


When governments fail to ensure that progress and development are nation-wide and that justice is applied equally to all people groups, tensions will arise, especially as globalisation brings about immense changes to individual, local, national, and global identities. As the population of the planet diversifies, ethnic and national identities diverge and converge, causing tensions and conflicts when certain identities are favoured or discriminated against.

Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has struggled to solidify a national identity while respecting and honouring the distinctions between the different ethnic identities within its borders. There is a push and pull between modern globalisation processes (including the awareness of the very concept of identity as diffused by the media, as well as the breaking of taboos in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation) and traditional identities (associated with ethnicity, religion, and nationality).

Presently, there is a greater push for a collective national identity. Much of the discourse is centred on the dominant Persian identity, which many feel is being upheld politically and socially as an ideal, to the exclusion of other ethnic identities such as those that were the subject of the research discussed in this article, namely, the Azeris, Kurds, Arabs and Baloch. The discourse is currently justified as an attempt to maintain national unity and the security and political integrity of the country. However, this approach has led to wider gaps between ethnic groups, and between those groups and the Government, as well as to the emergence of identity-seeking political movements and groups.

Accordingly, research focusing on the five abovementioned major Iranian identities addresses different aspects of the issue by applying qualitative and hybrid methods to a study of the elite and the public from various ethnic groups. Moreover, the cultural mosaic in Iranian society, along with the constant, ever-increasing significance of ethnic communities in the development and enhancement of social integrity, has highlighted the concern for the basic notions in this research—justice and development. This is closely connected to the quality of the collective identities of Iranian ethnic groups and the underlying reasons for their existence.

The spirit dominating contemporary human societies demands democracy and development. This is more prominently observed in multicultural societies where emphasis has been made on interethnic issues and relations between participating social groups and governments.

Research Scope

A branch of the Aryan ethnic group that immigrated towards Iran, originally from Southern Russia, gradually entered the Iranian plateau in the late second and early first millennia BC (Sanie Ejlal, 2005, p. 55). Ever since then, the plateau has frequently been invaded by various ethnic groups. A number of nationalist thinkers have blamed Arabs for destruction brought about in Iran upon their invasion (Bigdelo, 2001).

According to some researchers and historians, however, components of Iranian identity were so culturally powerful that they have remained alive and dynamic despite the domestic diversity and multiplicity of new identities and cultures and invasions by foreign identities. Iranian identity still involves diversity and multiplicity from its variety of constituent discourses. The present identity conditions in modern Iran have been compared, appropriately, with pieces of cloth of various colours sewn together (Shayegan, 2005).

The historical notion of Iranian identity took shape during the ethnic, political, and religious movements in the Sassanid Era, persisted (with ups and downs) through the Islamic Era, was reborn in the Safavid Era, and was manifested as the national identity of Iran in the modern era (Ashraf, 1999). It can be said to have been influenced, to date, by three areas of civilisation: Iranian, Islamic and Western (Kachooyan, 2008).

Different ethnic groups, including the Lur, the Baloch, the Turkmen, Azeris, Arabs, Kurds and Persians, live in Iran today, most of whom arguably reside in regions near the borders, culturally linked to groups in the neighbouring countries. This has turned Iran into a heterogeneous country in terms of social structure, where different ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious identities live, and similar groups reside across country borders, sometimes turning those borders into wells of crisis. These groups, including Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, Azeris in the Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Baloch in Pakistan, can be considered sources of conflict and crisis (Fuller, 1993).

Despite the status of Persian as the official language, each Iranian collective identity has its own language(s), dialect(s) and accent(s). There also exist various religions and religious branches among the ethnic groups, yet they have similarities in other aspects, as well as being Shia, which is the official religion (Yusofi, 2001, p. 17).

On that basis, legislators have included articles in the Constitution to acknowledge cultural differences and to facilitate constant intercultural life. For instance, Article 15 of the Constitution asserts that local and ethnic languages may be used besides Persian, and Articles 7 and 64–160 directly or indirectly address ethnic groups’ and minorities’ rights. Moreover, mentions have been made in Articles 24 and 26 of the freedom to establish ‘parties’ and ‘societies’, and the freedom of publications and the press.

The social groups in Iran have, throughout history, usually lived next to each other in peace and with little conflict. However, conflicts have appeared between them following the emergence of nation-states and the expansion of identity-seeking movements around the world, on the one hand, and the increase of ethnic marginalisation and discrimination by dominant groups, on the other.

This research investigates five collective identities: Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, and the Baloch.


The Baloch reside in south-eastern Iran and have Aryan roots. As the competition between England and Russia intensified, they adopted settlements in different countries including Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (Abdollahi & Hosseinbor, 2002, p. 104).

Relations between the Baloch and central governments have always been accompanied by conflict. In fact, the adopted policies have marginalised this group. A source of conflict is their cultural similarity to the residents of the neighbouring country, which has caused them, for example, to prefer foreign television channels to domestic ones. This has also enhanced an ethnic identity (rather than a national identity) and a sense of belonging to a collective identity beyond borders, leading to the potential to seek autonomy (Mozafari, 2012).

Since Balochi is spoken in different countries, there has always been little consensus among linguists on its classification; hence there are multiple proposals in that regard. Some, for instance, have discussed ‘Northern and Southern Balochi’, while others have identified ‘Eastern and Western Balochi’. Some recent views classify the language into three groups: Eastern, Western and Southern. Ignoring these somewhat complicated divisions, the most important – in fact, the best-known –version of Balochi is Rakhshani, which has one of the largest numbers of speakers, in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan (Tameh, 2017).

All the Muslim Baloch belong either to the Hanafi Sunni majority or to the Twelver Shia minority, and there is no other sect or branch among them. Some of the characteristics that distinguish the Baloch from other ethnic groups are discussed below. Clothing made with a particular embroidery technique known as suzanduzi is a very popular cultural work and artistic product by Baloch women.


Living in areas neighbouring the Republic of Azerbaijan, Azeris have the same linguistic origin as the Turks. The ambition to unite the Republic and Iranian Azerbaijan and to integrate the territories on the two sides of the Aras River has been a commonly found dream of pan-Turkism since the Soviet era. Most Azeri speakers reside in south-western Iran (in East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil, Zanjan and Qazvin Provinces) and there are, of course, speakers of Khorasani Turkic in Iran. Most of the Iranian Azeri are Shia Muslims, but there is also a group of them known as Ahle Haqq.

While adhering to national and religious rites, Azeris have preserved their own customs in many areas of culture, and the rituals common among them have gained national popularity in some cases. The mourning processions of the Great Hussainiya of Zanjan, Tabriz, Urmia and Ardabil are among the best-known, and the group is found mourning the Islamic Prophet’s family in the month of Muharram. They also commonly practise rituals such as tashtgozari, ta’zieh, Shah Hussain guyan, chest-beating and self-flagellation, where lamentation is carried out in Azeri.

The mourning rituals held at Tabriz Historical Bazaar have also been registered nationally. Moreover, Azerbaijani music is considered to be an important part of this people’s cultural identity, Azerbaijani artists have presented unique, creative music, and those who sing their own poems in Azeri are known as the Ashiq. To describe Azerbaijan and its heroes, they sing beautiful poetry accompanied by Azerbaijani music in celebrations and mourning ceremonies, thereby appealing to many people. Traditional Azerbaijani clothing is a particular symbol of Azeris, which has come into existence following long cultural, religious, and other processes.

Persian (Persian/Farsi Speakers)

The Persians are Iran’s largest ethnic group. They mainly reside in central cities. They are politically dominant; that is, they have gained control over the other ethnic groups as a result of elements of their identity, including their language (Persian) and religion (Shia). Most Persian speakers in Iran are Twelver Shia Muslims, but there are also Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims residing in certain regions near the borders.

Persians live mainly in large Iranian cities, and culturally dominate areas far beyond Iran. Persian is an Indo-European language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In fact, it is the official language of Iran and Tajikistan and one of the two official languages of Afghanistan (alongside Pashto). It has also been the official language of India (before the English colonisation).


Following Arabs, Persians, and the Turkic peoples, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic block in the Middle East (Olson, 2002, p. 6). They mainly reside in regions close to the borders of four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish is a sub-branch of the Indo-European family of languages, related to Ossetian, Dari, Persian, Tajiki, Tati and Talysh; ancient languages such as Avestan, Sogdian, Khwarezmian and Scythian; and many others (Diakonoff, 2004, p. 439). It is an Iranian language belonging to the North-Western or South-Western family groups (Bruinessen, 1991, p. 35). The Northern Kurdish (Kurmanji); Central Kurdish, Southern Kurdish, Gorani and Zaza varieties can be seen within the geographic range.

According to Vali (2018), Kurdish identity is manifested in the differences between it and what defines other dominant identities. It is signified without signifiers, and is present by being absent. Vali regards this identity to be a kind of subjectivity without the requirements for representation/signification in history and politics. There are both Shia and Sunni Muslims among the Kurdish people. If Iranian Kurdish settlements were partitioned into two religious sections, most of the Sunni Kurds could be said to reside in the northern half. There is, of course, another group of Kurds, known as the Yarsani (Kaka’i/Ahle Haqq), who mostly live in certain cities and villages in Kermanshah Province.

Kurds adhere to the practice of national and religious rituals. They celebrate Nowruz with utmost glory, and highly value religious customs and feasts such as Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr and, particularly, the Islamic Prophet’s birthday. In some regions, food is made and distributed for free in celebration of religious feasts, including a particular type of soup-like dish known as âsh. There are also ceremonies involving daf-playing, prayers and particular utterances made by the dervish or in praise of the Islamic Prophet in celebration of his birthday.

In Kurdish settlements, various types of Kurdish clothing can be observed, each in a unique and beautiful form, slightly different from the others. Traditional Kurdish men’s and women’s clothing includes headwear and footwear as well as ordinary clothes. The designs and applications of each of these components varies by season, type of occupation, lifestyle and ceremony. Although different types of clothing are common in different parts of Kurdistan, such as Hawraman, Saqqez, Baneh, Gogulawa, Gerrus, Sanandaj, Mariwan and Mahabad, they are all the same in that they cover the entire body.


The Arabic-speaking community is scattered over a vast territory in Asia and Africa, including southern and south-western Iran and parts of Khuzestan Province (Amirahmadi, 1998, p. 32). It should be noted that Iranian Arabs, like Turks, share a common religion, and this undermines the transnational ethnic identity.

The Arabs residing in Iran mostly speak Khuzestani Arabic, a dialect of Mesopotamia Arabic. They are scattered over four provinces, including Khuzestan, Hormozgan, Bushehr and the southern parts of Ilam, but the majority live in Khuzestan and are mostly Twelver Shia Muslims. Of course, there is also a Sunni Arab minority in Iran, which makes up a very low percentage of the Arab population.

Like any other Iranian people, the Arabs in Khuzestan have their own culture. Following the Arabs in the neighbouring countries, they find Eid al-Fitr to be of much greater significance in their public culture. It is celebrated with a large number of norms, behaviours and customs. A tradition common among the Khuzestani Arabs is the Gargee’an ceremony, held in Ahvaz on the 15th of Ramadan every year. Another highly important ritual commonly practised by the Arabs is the coffee-drinking ceremony involving pots known as dallah, which is held with a great deal of formality.


Figure 1. Distribution of ethnic groups and religions in Iran

Data available on the ethnic groups in Iran are insufficiently transparent. For instance, their true populations are inaccessible in censuses, and the Statistical Centre of Iran has simply publicised the provincial populations and features (Table 1).

Province Capital 2006 Population 2011 Population 2016 Population
Tehran Tehran 11228625 12183391 13267637
Razavi Khorasan Mashhad 5515980 5994402 6434501
Isfahan Isfahan 2399327 4879312 5120850
Fars Shiraz 4220721 4596658 4851274
Khuzestan Ahvaz 4192598 4531720 4710509
East Azerbaijan Tabriz 3527267 3724620 3909652
Mazandaran Sari 2893087 3073943 3283682
West Azerbaijan Urmia 2831779 3080576 3265219
Kerman Kerman 2584834 2938988 3164718
Sistan and Baluchistan Zahedan 2349049 2534327 2775014
Alborz Karaj 2053233 2412513 2712400
Gilan Rasht 2381063 2480874 2530696
Kermanshah Kermanshah 1842457 1945227 1952434
Golestan Gorgan 1593055 1777014 1868619
Kurdistan Sanandaj 1416334 1493645 1603011

Table 1. Populations of some the Iranian provinces based on the 2006, 2011, and 2016 censuses

Aims and Significance of the Research

Iranian society has long been based upon multi-ethnic, multi-identity life. Some experts argue that any generalising explanation of a multi-ethnic society will be inadequate if it disregards the ethnicity factor. Given the ever-increasing importance of ethnic communities in the formation and enhancement of social consensus, scientific investigation of ethnic groups has received greater attention than before. Along the same lines, many experts maintain that national integrity and identity are rooted in ethnic communities and very old ethnic emotions, as primitive nationalism. Ethnic integrity and identity consensus in a multi-ethnic, multicultural society can bring about peace and fill in ethnic gaps.

The main problem here, which makes this investigation significant, involves describing and explaining Iranian ethnic groups’ collective identity.

The efficiency of present-day governments depends on their capabilities of providing development. In societies with multiple identities, the notion of interethnic justice, as well as development, is of great significance, and this is what the present research is focused on. Thus, the formation and extension of a comprehensive understanding of other ethnicities and identities contributes to social solidarity and national integrity. This contrasts the variety of distinctions made between identities and invites civil society, the open minded, identity and cultural activists, and all who care about peace onto a dynamic field and attempts to enhance the multiplicity of cultures rather than eliminate them.

The identity of an individual or a group requires another identity to be distinct from. In that case, identity results from distinction, while distinction and its denotation are artificial, just as identity itself is. Therefore, it is the other identity that is there in the first place and is responsible for formation or development (Grossberg, 1996, p. 93–96).

In this research, ‘identity’ has been employed to mean an awareness of who an individual is and of their social belongings, which assumes an external, collective aspect and may turn into a basis for socio-political relations and actions (Jenkins, 2014, p. 6–20), but is realised mainly through comparison and differentiation between the in-group and the out-group (Brown, 1996, p. 9).

Given the trend in societies toward systems of participative management and the considerations required for observing citizenship principles and establishing civic institutions (Faulks, 2000, p. 197), it can be asserted that the significance of the transformation of societies into participative systems, observing the above principles, is highlighted for two reasons. Firstly, it indicates the individual’s self-perception and others’ perceptions thereof in society. Secondly, it results from the dynamic identity relationship between the state and the nation (Oldfield, 1990).

Ethnicity Versus Nationality

Ethnicity is a dynamic combination of a real or hypothetical common descent (common historical memory), a common ethnic awareness, symbolic elements, and political-territorial belongings within a social group on which ethnic experience is based (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 1998, p. 84). Anthony Smith enumerates the following components for ethnic identity: human population; common ancestors; historical memory; common culture; specific territory; and correlation and integration of interests.


The words national and nationality entered the lexicon of social science following the Industrial Revolution and the spread of nationalist feelings. National identity results from an identified unit of land and a state (military–political), characterised as follows by Ernest Renan.


Some scholars name two groups of elements as the components of a nation, i.e., objective elements (territorial) and subjective elements (mythical, memories, beliefs, and cultures) (Alamdari, 2004, pp. 27–30). Ahmad Ashraf also lists a number of factors in the formation of national identity (Ashraf, 1999, p. 139–140).

Giddens (2006, p. 41) expresses the conditions of present-day global and local identities as follows.

Type of identity Level of


Time Place Effective factors Place-space


Local Local Pre-modernity Place


Local customs

and traditions



Global Global Post-modernity Super-local Thoughts

resulting from modernity



Table 2. Types of identity according to Giddens

The relationships between levels of collective identity are controversial today against the attitude of ethnic particularism, and media manifestations have turned them into routine facts (Hall, 1997, p. 2002).

Numerous studies have verified the claim that negative images from ethnic groups promote discriminative attitudes, stereotypes and myths of distinction and superiority (see, for instance, Entman & Rojecki, 2000; Graves, 1999). The major alternative for meaning (identity) construction in society involves cultural communities, with religious, national or regional bases, perhaps leading ethnicity to be influenced by religion, nationality and locality (Castells, 2010, p. 87).

Investigation of ethnicity and ethnic relations has not appealed to classic theoreticians, and no explicit concern for these relations can be found in the thoughts of sociologists such as Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Georg Simmel.

Three competitive theoretical perspectives on the formation of ethnic and national identity are discussed below.

Firmly associated with Anthony Smith, the first approach, known as primordialism, sees national identity as a natural phenomenon and regards nations as having ethnic cores (Barrington, 2006, p. 13). According to primordialists, evolutionary psychology demonstrates man’s successful accordance with the conditions that have taken shape during the prehistoric period (Kaufmann, 2015, p. 194). A fixed cultural formation is assumed there, which has been established by ethnic activists, enabling constant sense-making for generations.

Instrumentalism is the second approach, based on which ethnicity is a resource that is used by the elite to define group identities, regulate group membership and boundaries for making claims to it, and extracting resources (Brown & Langer, 2010, p. 413).

The last approach is constructivism. Unlike primordialism, constructivism is focused on processes that help ethnic groups to emerge. It contains elements of both the primordialist and the instrumentalist approaches (Brown & Langer, 2010, p. 413). Constructivism argues that national identity is a social construction, like other group identities, including those listed by primordialists as indicators of national identity.

Issues that have been addressed in regard to ethnic groups include political ethnocentrism (Motyl, 2000), ethnic identity-seeking, ethnicity politicisation with respect to internal colonialism, the cultural division of labour (Hechter, 1975), and the role of communication in the development of ethnic awareness (Sidamami, 2000). Theoreticians such as Hans Kuhn and, more regularly, Anthony Smith have analysed the role of the elite in nationalist movements, considering the extension of the government’s control domain and greater tendency toward centralisation to be sources of the appropriate conditions for ideological mobility provided by ‘scientific intellectuals’. John Viruili also regards nationalism as a particular, successful form of modern policy adopted by the elite to divest the dominant class of the power of government (Ahmadi, 2018).


The diversity of theories about contemporary human, social and economic change allowed notions such as the quality of life, participative development and alternative development to enter the literature in the humanities, in which ‘social development’ can be used as a cover term of which social development is a qualitative and substantive inclusion.

Sen (1983, 2003) defines ‘development’ as the process of developing real freedom and regards it as the aim and means of freedom.

Michael Todaro (1987) considers development to be a multidimensional trend that requires fundamental changes in the social structure and public perception, and the structures of national institutions, acceleration of economic growth, reduction of inequality, and eradication of absolute poverty (Azkia, 2000).

According to Peter Donaldson, development involves fundamental political changes made in the social structure, orientations, and institutions for the complete realisation of society’s objectives (Ghaffari & Niazi, 2007, p. 8).

Misera also emphasises the cultural aspects in his definition of development (Azkia & Ghaffari, 2010).

Bernestein argues that the objectives of development include the keenness to overcome malnutrition, poverty, and disease.

According to Eisenstadt, development involves activities to transform from nondemocratic to democratic governance.

Huntington maintains that the political development of a system increases as it switches from simplicity to complexity, from dependence to independence, from inflexibility to flexibility, and from multiplicity to unity (Ghavam, 2000, p. 86).

Thus, the neglected aspects of development are considered, and the conceptual quality that it involves is highlighted, on which basis progress, improvement and synonymous notions are taken into account and local culture is emphasised (Habermas, 2001; Bauman, 2001; Mahrooyan, 2006).

Furthermore, ‘development’ denotes decreases in inequality, poverty and unemployment and increases in participation and democracy, which require appropriate conditions and improvement in the quality of life.


Social Justice

It can be asserted that man’s most important ideal throughout history is social justice. Injustice has brought about numerous inequalities and intensified wealth gaps and social problems. On that basis, different aspects of social justice have been investigated in the humanities, and several theories have been developed. These include liberalist, neoliberalist, socialist, communitarianist, and religious (Islamic, Christian, etc.) discourses, as summarised in the following discourse analysis by Akhtari and Zolfaghari (2017, p. 116–119).

When a just action is discussed, an action is meant that is not unjust. When justice is modified by the social attribute in social justice, methods should naturally be sought of establishing social laws and regulations that provide justice rather than lead to injustice. In other words, social justice denotes the observance of equality in legislation and law enforcement. That is, the law should provide all with equal means of progress and welfare.

It is the government’s responsibility to enforce and practise social justice. Therefore, the government should practise no discrimination against individuals and make it possible for them to make progress and acquire social welfare (Motahhari, 2004, p. 253). Variables effective on social justice include reduction of poverty and deprivation, supply of employment, supply of basic needs (such as accommodation, health and education), stabilisation of prices in accordance with payments, just distribution of income and wealth, establishment of security and discipline, observance of all people’s rights, and provision of social security and welfare services.

The following aspects can be considered for social justice: equality, political participation, and economic, cultural, legal and distributive justice (Poursaeed and Zahiri, 2012, p. 61). Thus, the principles of social justice include: (1) the supply of the primary needs of all members of society; (2) the observance of everyone’s rights for equal freedom; (3) the provision to everyone of equal access to economic opportunities; and (4) the establishment of economic inequality where the poorest classes can maximise their wealth (Hemmati, 2007).

John Rawls’ Theory of Justice involves two key principles. The first concerns every individual’s equal rights with respect to the broadest freedom available in a social institution or participation, and the second principle pertains to the exclusion of inequality, unless it eventually benefits all. 

Results and Findings

The results of this research demonstrate that the notion of justice-orientated, development-based identity/ethnicity suggests the condition of a performance gap on the government’s part. The results often find national consensus to be dependent on achievement of interethnic justice, aspects of which are examined below.

Ethnic Groups’ Local Economies

Iranians long made their livings through pastoralism and agriculture, until trade and commerce began to thrive in Iranian cities along the passage of the Silk Road through the country.

The central parts of Iran, where the Persians reside, contribute the most to the industrial sector.[1]

The agricultural sector involves high-return crops such as the pistachio and saffron commonly grown in Central Iran; that sector also, therefore, is a large share of the gross domestic product.

The economy of the Kurdish settlements of Iran is based on agriculture, pastoralism, and horticulture. Due to the settlements’ location close to the borders, however, border trade (in its legal form) and occupation as kolbars (the illegal form) have gained popularity there.

The economy of the Azeri settlements is based on agriculture, pastoralism and factories and industries such as tractor manufacturing, the petrochemical industry, machinery manufacturing and the steel industry.

The settlements of the Arabs are characterised by communication opportunities and maritime boundaries, on which international commerce and trade and maritime transit have thrived in those parts, which include the port cities. Moreover, there are abundant oil resources in those areas.

In the Baluchistan region, equatorial and tropical fruits are grown, such as dates, bananas, citrus fruits, mangos, papayas, sapodillas, pistachios, and grapes. They each have their own particular markets. The nomads raise camels as an occupation, and alternate industries have also taken shape in some parts.

According to the data obtained in this research, the majority of the political claims made by Iranian ethnic groups concern the centralised economic policies that have led to the formation of core-periphery relations. A kind of objection has been made in the interviews to the economic and livelihood gaps arising from the core economic policies, as the periphery (Iranian ethnic groups) is believed to have an unjust share of the economy.

Identity (National–Religious) Justice

Although there are two aspects of Iranian identity, i.e. national and religious, the justice-orientated approach is focused on different ethnic groups’ senses of belonging to the notion of ‘nation’ and the framework of Iranian national identity.

Religious orientations are not opposed to national issues.
In case of a conflict, however, religious issues are more
vulnerable than those pertaining to ethnicity and identity.

~ Javadi Hesar, Journalist and Political Activist

As shown in the following charts, the researcher has investigated the amount of interethnic communication in Iran. According to the interview results, 53.9% of the elite state that they frequently communicate with other ethnic groups, and 28.9% experience less communication. Among the general public, there has been a smaller amount of ethnic communication: 55.4% experience a lack of communication and 37.3% experience little.


Chart 1: Interethnic communications – elite

Chart 2: Interethnic communication – public

As noted by many of the participants, national identity has two basic aspects in Iran: the Iranian aspect and the spiritual (religious) aspect. According to an interviewee, ‘Both must be preserved, and if we have a kind of cultural self-destruction or cultural alienation after the revolution, it is because we have badly taught Islam to the child after the revolution and we have not taught Iranianness at all.’

Part of the research results concerns identity symbols. There are three groups of interethnic Iranian symbols that contribute to national integrity. Symbols such as Nowruz, Chaharshanbe Suri, Mehregan and Yalda are ancient. The second group is religious symbols, including Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Ghadir, the Islamic Prophet’s birthday, and the anniversaries of the Shia Imams’ martyrdom. The third group includes government symbols related to the Islamic Republic Era, as exemplified by the ten-day Fajr celebration, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the 13th of Aban (3rd of November), Quds Day, and the flag and anthem of the Islamic Republic.

The data suggest that the ancient Iranian ceremonies, festivals and rituals (Cyrus’ birthday, the Mehregan and Sadeh feasts, etc.) and those of the non-Shia religions and Islamic branches need to be celebrated (this was emphasised by the interviewees). Thus, conducting these celebrations along the same lines as the Shia religious ceremonies (Muharram, Safar, Sha’ban feasts, etc.) could eliminate the conception that politics is ideological or that the religious (Shia) view is dominant and can remove the religious minorities from society.

Charts 3 and 4 show the religious gap from the perspectives of the participants (i.e. how many participants feel that there is religious discrimination in Iran). Respondents are categorised as the ‘elite’ and as the ‘general public’.


Charts 3 and 4: Religious Gap and Discrimination – elite (top) and public (bottom)

Cultural Aspects of Interethnic Justice

According to the research findings, Persian-speakers typically adopt global and super-local attitudes to define their identities and have reconstructed and even changed most of their conventional characteristics, while the other ethnic groups under investigation, i.e. the Kurds, Azeris, Baloch and Arabs, exhibit lesser acceptance in that regard.

The interviewees from the ethnic groups other than Persian have argued that the Iranian central governments following the Constitutional Revolution have not adopted a just approach to the issue of ethnic mother tongues, causing the deprivation of education in the mother tongue by recognising Persian as the official language.

On that basis, in Charts 5 (elite) and 6 (public), 85.9% of the elite and 63.9% of the general public who participated in the study argue that education in the mother tongue is a legitimate, legal right. On the other hand, 14.1% of the elite and 15.7% of the general public disagree on its legitimation.

Charts 5 and 6: Legitimacy of learning in the mother tongue – elite (top) and public (bottom)

However, if a variety of ethnic groups and religious minorities reside in the most important, strategic parts of a country and those close to the borders, and if people with the same social and cultural backgrounds are located across the borders, without national governance and influence any external issue or crisis will easily spread into the country due to communication and connection between those groups, dramatically reducing the Government’s capability of monitoring the region. The results obtained from this research also demonstrate that ethnic groups have a constant view of the borders and the same ethnic groups across them.

Iranian rulers’ coercive, suppressive approach to confrontation of the ethnic groups’ identity-seeking movements has always caused social rebellion. On the basis of the above, it would make sense for rulers to consider the identity groups’ claims, which naturally rise up from the heart of society, at the end of a protestant process and to resolve many of the claims through negotiation and interaction. This could be the key to national consensus and integrity, if practised.

Media Justice

The reality of the national media is activity in line with cultural monopoly, which is why they can be referred to as ‘the media of governance’. The results obtained in this section indicate inappropriate relationships between the Government and the ethnic groups. One objection made by these groups, particularly by the Sunni community, the largest religious minority in the country, is the lack of religious centres in province capitals, especially in Tehran; however, media programmes have approved of the Government’s performance in that regard.

An analysis of the contents of media programmes from the interviewees’ perspectives indicates ethnic groups’ overt and covert dissatisfaction with the performance of the media active in the country. According to the participants, the domestic audiovisual media are directed towards the assimilation of Iranian ethnic groups, while the Persian respondents exhibit somewhat greater satisfaction with the performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Of course, the interviewees also argue that the provincial audiovisual channels do not perform better than the national broadcasting.

Charts 7 (elite) and 8 (public) show levels of satisfaction with the provincial and national channel programmes of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

Charts 7 and 8: Satisfaction with radio and television – elite (top) and public (bottom)

In the conditions of censorship and control of the media, the audience definitely functions as a group of activists, seeking an alternative by searching for media with similar orientations. This has been confirmed by the results obtained from the interviews with the different ethnic groups.

Exclusion of Cultures

Under conditions of ethnic and cultural diversity, it is the quality of management that determines whether it should be considered a threat or regarded as an opportunity. However, the interests of particular groups within governments and their inabilities to manage ethnic-cultural diversity usually direct matters towards exclusion.

Part of the data obtained from the research participants reveals a cultural monopoly of the Persian ethnic group, which has led to the deterioration of the rich Iranian culture and cultural diversity. This is severely imposed by the Azeris on the Kurds and other social groups in West Azerbaijan Province, to the extent that some participants in this study used the term ‘colonisation in colonisation’ to refer to it.

According to Dr As’ad Ardalan (a researcher, university instructor and social activist from Sanandaj), Reza Shah’s policy in 1925 and 1937 caused signs to be installed in the schools of Kurdistan which said, ‘You have to speak in the Persian language.’ The cultural dominance of the Persians, along with the attenuation of other cultures, has officially continued since then. Thus, the policy was officially promoted in magazines, including Iranshahr, Farhangestan, and Ayande.

In an article on religion and nationality, Iranshahr reads: ‘The issue of ethnicity is so serious that whenever an Iranian who has travelled abroad is asked about his nationality, he mentions his birthplace instead of the proud name of his country. We must eliminate local sects, local dialects, local dress, local customs, and local sensitivities.’

In 1928, parliament declared the Iranian ethnic groups’ old costumes illegal and forced all men except registered clergy to wear Western clothes, including ‘Pahlavi hats’. Eight years later, these hats were replaced by European chapeaus. Reza Shah prescribed the latter hats not only to exclude ethnic identities, but also to interfere with the Islamic ritual of saying prayers, which requires the forehead to rest on the ground. He also changed the names of many cities.

Since the 1979 Revolution, the article in the Constitution that grants ethnic groups the right to read and write in their mother tongues at all levels of education has never been practised as expected and desired by these groups, due to the relevant authorities’ subjective behaviour.

A result of the present research in this area is that there have been three dominant issues over most of Iranian history: confrontation, exclusion, and ridicule of ethnic groups’ cultural manifestations. A type of this exclusion is applied by the national media. For instance, radio and television programmes fail to reflect the above diversity and clearly represent one culture as more prominent and honourable. Another type of exclusion is revealed in the failure to allow ethnic and religious rituals. In fact, ethnic groups have been encouraged to imagine that there is an attempt to ridicule them culturally and prevent their cultural intergenerational continuity, and to value a specific culture instead and apply cultural assimilation for reasons such as easier management and incapability of intercultural acceptance.

Charts 9 and 10 show perspectives on the restrictions on ethnic and religious ceremonies.

Charts 9 and 10: Restrictions on ceremonies – elite (top) and public (bottom)

Many scholars and experts in social science maintain that the current conditions in the country are anomic. They discuss attenuations of social order and integrity (Abazari, 2014).

Reformist Abbas Abdi was first to seriously raise the problem of social collapse in Iranian society. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his associates are among others who have recently addressed the issue. They argue that collapse has already occurred in economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, and other fields. Activists in various fields find the current conditions unsuitable, which could pose a risk to the future of the country. The results obtained from the present study also confirm the existence of these crises.

According to Dr Mehdi Feizi (a faculty member from Mashhad),

We have a series of crises and challenges and, in fact, super-challenges in the country that are ready to explode like time bombs. From banks to pension funds, the water crisis, unemployment, divorce, and more. Each of these is dangerous and becomes more dangerous when put together. It can be scary to blow up one or the other.

Since the Pahlavi Era, central governments have hardly been concerned with measures to earn public trust in such areas, and have adopted the simplest solution, such as confrontation and coercion. Committees have been dispatched in certain cases to regions such as Kurdistan, and there were negotiations soon after the Revolution with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and popular Sunni figures such as the Central Sunni Council (Shams). However, such attempts failed due to the dominant centre-based, power-orientated, non-pluralist spirit, and the negotiators from the ethnic and religious groups were imprisoned or exiled in most cases.

Charts 11 and 12 show the political conditions of the country from the perspective of the elite and the general public.

Charts 11 and 12: Iran’s political conditions – elite (top) and public (bottom)

It was found, based on the research data, that ethnic issues are the most complicated, and at the same time the most influential socio-political issues in Iran. Enhancement of ethnic identities and movements seems to be one of the most prominent manifestations of socio-political dynamism in Iran in the near future.

The factors involved include wider gaps between national and ethnic identities; more serious social, dignity, economic, political and cultural claims; progressively more developed ethnic organisations, institutions, associations and centres; more severe extremist ethnocentric feelings among some of the elite, intellectuals and some political parties; more intense political alienation and separation of ethnic groups from the political system; and more explicit identity claims on opportunities for political expansion, such as national and local elections (Karimi Maleh, 2009, p. 23).


The major social issue related to the topic under investigation here is the socio-political gap that has caused justice-based claims to take shape among the ethnic and social groups in Iranian society. The changes in Iran’s living and economic conditions, arising from the dominant ideology’s management, can be regarded as a pivotal issue on which ethnic groups’ other claims have been based. Furthermore, these conditions result from the type of management applied to the country’s social capital, which has been confronted with decline for decades and from which other challenges have originated.

The following paradigm presents the (basic, intervening, and grounded) factors, phenomenal basis, strategic action, and consequences within a GT framework.

Figure 2: Conceptual model of the research (GT)

Given the above model, an unequal economy has taken shape based on the ethnic, centre-periphery and religious variables in Iranian society. This accounts for the conditions of development, which have realised most of the claims made by the ethnic groups under investigation in regard to the phenomenal orientation of the study. A major part of heavy industry, including steel and car companies, is located in Persian-speaking provinces such as Alborz, Isfahan, Markazi, and Semnan, to which the largest amounts of economic revenue belong.

The Azeri (particularly those residing in East Azerbaijan Province) are the second-most affluent ethnic group, following the Persians, in terms of gained economic revenue. Despite these conditions, Azeris are no more satisfied with the Government than the other groups. Their feelings of inequality have been expressed in two terms. Firstly, they compare their economic conditions to that of Persian-speakers, arguing that the Azeri-speaking provinces hold a very insignificant share compared to the central provinces, such as Isfahan, Semnan, Markazi, Qom, Alborz, and Tehran. The second point of this ethnic group’s dissatisfaction with the Government is the belief in the concealed fact that most of the industries available in the region were established in the previous system of government.

In Iran’s Kurdish settlements, from the cities in southern West Azerbaijan Province to Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam, factories, workshops, and industrial towns have developed very little in the industrial sector. There is a high unemployment rate in the region in spite of the young, educated human resources, who have to immigrate to Persian-speaking provinces, Tehran in particular, to earn a living or to work at bricklaying workshops in East Azerbaijan Province and other regions. Moreover, occupation as a kolbar has spread dramatically in the absence of official employment in the region, involving even unemployed youngsters with high-level academic degrees.

The Iranian Arabs are scattered in the Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormozgan provinces. International commerce and business have thrived in the region on the oil-richness of their settlements and the presence of important port cities in the south-west and south. Therefore, labour forces from other regions are admitted beside the local workforce. The occupations of the non-Arabs there has caused feelings of inequality and dissatisfaction with the Government among the residents.

It can be concluded that feelings of inequality and dissatisfaction have taken shape among ethnic groups in the past, along with the assumption of the Government’s role in an increase and persistence of these feelings, which heighten every day. The relevant research data suggest that the Baloch suffer the worst economic conditions and the severest dissatisfaction, and regard this mainly as a consequence of their dual ethnic-religious difference from the Government. Other reasons for the inequality and dissatisfaction include the underdevelopment of the industrial sector, drought and water scarcity, illiteracy and lack of education, little engagement in managerial occupations or provincial and national administrative positions—and remote, marginal geographic locations. The consequences include an increase in occupation as smugglers, social harm, religious and ethnic extremism, etc.

Two major scenarios have been presented for Iran in this study: social stability and social capital decline. If the current conditions persist, various aspects of social capital will decline leading to social, economic, political, and cultural collapse. In the second scenario, however, social stability will be achieved, and it can therefore be referred to as the favourable scenario, which depends on fundamental reforms in the economic, political, social, cultural, educational, medical, and other infrastructures and superstructures, in association with the country’s governmental institutions and ethnic groups.

Upon acceptance of the current conditions, the inequality and dissatisfaction will persist, and the interethnic gaps will continue to expand. The wider social, ethnic, and religious gaps in this scenario will cause the social system to collapse and enmity and conflict to occur among the social groups. As a consequence, the younger generation will leave the country, particularly the elite, and the human-resource crisis will persist.

In the second scenario, that is, the favourable scenario for the future, Iran will be in a stable and sustainable cultural, social, economic, and political condition. According to the results obtained, the three years to come will make known the country’s eventual future trend and will specify which of the above scenarios will be realised. Iran’s overall prospects in favourable conditions can be shown as follows: Iran will be a country characterised by ethnic and religious diversity, from which national unity and solidarity originate. Political and cultural decisions will be made so as to develop interethnic relationships based on national reconciliation. The political system will abandon the hierarchical social system and citizen-ranking in domestic policy-making by accepting ethnic identity as parallel to national identity. Moreover, national determination will take shape to fill the gaps and resolve the dominant discrimination.

To realise the above prospect, operating strategies have been formulated and proposed in various social, cultural, political, and legal fields, based on the results of the interviews with the research participants.

Suggestions and Practical Solutions

Under the present conditions, which foster feelings of interethnic discrimination and inequality, the enhancement of social trust and social capital in accordance with political loyalty to pluralist national integrity, favouring multiplicity, has taken precedence over any sort of planning. Moreover, where most human resources have been organised based on unspecialised criteria, and are unable to manage different crises, national integrity and ethnic solidarity have been reduced to theoretical mottos, void of social reality; continuous peaceful coexistence no longer makes sense, which implies that a more military-like atmosphere is dominating society, particularly the ethnic regions. Evidence suggests that this is being replaced by a spirit of applying rights, such as citizenship rights and the rights to social and economic security.

In this research, the following suggestions are made:

  1. Realisation of Economic Justice

In the industrial sector, the industrial centralisation established in the central provinces can be reduced by founding relevant centres, such as firms and factories. In the next stage, comprehensive laws should be formulated, related to the prohibition of trafficking, smuggling (mountain porters) and social issues that are rooted in economic problems resulting from long-standing centralism, and the necessary enforcement guarantees should be enshrined in these laws.

In such conditions, there would be less efficient human resource and foreign currency leaving the country’s economic market. Moreover, all Iranians could be employed, and their scientific and practical powers could be utilised.

  1. Realisation of Sociocultural Justice

Today’s research in various fields of science indicates the inefficiency of the dominant top-down, centralised policies and perspectives. The Government should contribute less to the management of many local affairs and leave it to the people themselves. This could be realised through independent parties and freedom of thought and action; otherwise, any activity is destined to be inefficient, like the local Islamic Councils, which have become weaker, more corrupt, and less efficient every day over five terms.

It is suggested that concern for meritocracy be enhanced; different social, cultural and political activities not be monitored as in a military setting; and local leaders and people should be provided freedom to manage their own cultural, social and religious affairs. Measures that can be taken for the realisation of social justice include founding centres and places of worship particular to the Sunni and each of the present religious branches in Tehran, as well as acknowledging and encouraging education in the mother tongue. These things meet the people’s innate needs and provide them with mental-social health and peace. It would also allow the energy of the ethnic elite, local linguistic groups, artists, and other ethnic activists to contribute to national productivity and effort.

Another important issue involves gender discrimination at the governmental level, as well as at the heart of the society, which pertains largely to social norms and rules, apart from legal restrictions. Undoubtedly, movement toward balanced, sustainable development requires that the entire potential capacity available in society be utilised, and it would denote a reduction of the power of national human and non-human resources to neglect part of the population, that is, women. Many of the participants in the interviews have pointed out this issue. According to them, girls and women in Iranian society are affected by orientations arising from the abovementioned sexist attitudes towards equal competition between men and women in nationwide examinations, recruitment procedures and appointments for administrative positions (at the levels of ministry, province, and county).

The notion of a second-order (or lower order) citizen was among the topics discussed by the interviewees, used by people from ethnic group societies to express their feelings, and should be regarded as a warning to cultural policy-makers. The following solutions are emphasised in that regard: comprehensive development of deprived regions, with priority given to ethnic groups and religious minorities; development of participatory planning through utilisation of ethnic groups’ diverse cultural capacities; reduction of centralisation and redistribution of economic and social opportunities; bottom-up planning and reverse development, so that the distribution of resources starts at the border and leads to the centre; and reformation of the country’s administrative system and managerial hierarchy through delegation of greater power to local managers.

  1. Realisation of Political Justice

According to the research participants, Iranian political parties mainly emerge en masse for no longer than two weeks for elections and fade away once the procedure is completed. Since they are rooted in particular groups’ or individuals’ plans for possession of presidential or parliament seats and the like, there is no party in the ethnic regions expressing the people’s ethnic claims. Perhaps the most significant reason for the isolation and withdrawal of Iranian parties is the dominant atmosphere, focused on security, monitoring and control, imposed by various institutions largely out of the control of the Government and the numerous filtering networks active in the country. The most important possible function of a party can be to express the claims of those with affiliated thoughts through democratic principles and the process of dialogue. When there is no such procedure in society, these strategies are replaced by strife and violence, and formation of such an atmosphere can jeopardise the legitimacy of the system.

The suggestions made in this research have been made by the participants. On that basis, the Government needs to spread the atmosphere involving parties to ethnic groups, as well as activate licensed parties, besides abandoning the militaristic atmosphere. Thus, the ethnic groups’ claims could be expressed and met in a fully democratic manner simply through the process of dialogue.

All four ethnic groups under investigation, other than the Persians, have exhibited dissatisfaction in that regard. The Kurds, Arabs, and Baloch have stated that there had been no case of election of those speaking their languages for top political ranks, such as the heads of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, government ministers, governors, and ambassadors, throughout more than forty years of the Islamic Republic Era.

  1. Realisation of Social Welfare

Definitions provided of ‘social welfare’ cover both the material and spiritual aspects of meeting human needs. According to the data collected in this research, access to hospitals, medical centres, and other necessary services in the field of healthcare in the ethnic regions under investigation has been distributed highly disproportionately and unfairly. In parts of Kurdistan, hospitals are incapable of performing the simplest surgeries and healthcare services, and the patient has to visit the province capitals (Urmia, Tabriz, Hamadan, etc.) for treatment. Of course, monitoring patients visiting Tehran hospitals well indicates the conditions of patients who have taken refuge there despite their poverty, due to deprivation in their own regions.

No access to natural gas has yet been provided in regions near the borders, particularly in the villages. Significant disasters have occurred in recent years in schools in Kurdistan and Baluchistan due to the use of oil heaters in the absence of natural gas, which have killed several students and teachers, and the burns will remain forever on many of the students’ bodies.

Movie theatres, parks, and leisure time do not make sense near the Iranian borders. Development, industry, and road infrastructures among the minorities and near the borders are horrendous, and the roads in those regions have turned into places of murder of youngsters. It is suggested that the indicators of social welfare be seriously revised with proper management and without ethno-religious discrimination, particularly in the fields of health and education, given at least the regional scopes and road infrastructures. Then, the troubles need to be shot and appropriate measures taken to prevent irreparable damage.

  1. Role of Mass Media in National Solidarity and Interethnic Media Justice

The Iranian national, official media are clearly monopolised by the Government, engaged in a particular form of religious and political promotion and manifestation. There is a huge amount of censorship in these media, which disables the free flow of information. This is an issue criticised by the ethnic groups under investigation, who consider it a source of discrimination in contrast to ethnic convergence and national integrity and solidarity. According to the research interviewees, this type of ideological manifestation censors Iranians’ cultural richness and common historical and social backgrounds, pursues assimilation policies that lead to the politicisation of cultural issues and undervalues ethnic groups’ cultural behaviours. This discriminative perspective has caused an increasing tendency to use Western and online media, playing a fundamental role in that regard. It is suggested that the issue be addressed openly to help admit the private sector into the field and allow each political party to possess different media. Provision of such access will lead to healthy competition and a return of the public’s trust to the national media.

  1. Provision Made for Proximity of Religions in Iran

Part of the research findings suggest that religious thought could be left out of the official political system, replaced by an adoption of the conditions of secular government. Thus, any identity preference or privilege could be eliminated, causing the feeling of oppression against different religious identities to fade away and making provision for utilisation of human talents with a multiplicity of knowledge and expertise.

  1. Utilising the Legal Democratic Capacity and Enforcing the Pending Articles of the Constitution

The pending articles of the Constitution, as is also emphasised by the research participants, address the issue of religious and human freedoms in accordance with different ethnic and racial groups’ equality, as in education in the mother tongue (Articles 12, 13, 14, 15, and 19). They provide for the democratic capacity of the country’s laws, making it possible to realise the ethnic and religious minorities’ rights, and also resolving part of the dissatisfaction observed among the groups under investigation here.


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