Iran's population of more than sixty million people, which makes it one of the most populous state in the Middle East, contains within it sizable ethnic minorities, including Azaris, Baluchis, Kurds, Arabs, Turkamen, Lurs and other ethnic groups. Most Kurds, Baluchis and Turkamen are Sunni Muslims, making them a part of both religious and ethnic minority communities. Iran's population also includes smaller religious minorities, including Christians of various denominations, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, and Jews.
Shi'a Islam is the religion of approximately 80 percent of Iranians and is established by the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran as the state religion. The supreme leader of the Islamic Republic is a senior Shi'a cleric, and the position of president, created under the 1989 amendments to the constitution, is reserved for a Shi'a Muslim.
As in many countries, there is a considerable overlap between religion and national identity. Since the time of the Safavid dynasty, founded by Shah Ismail I in 1501, Iranian leaders have used Shi'ism as a central element of national identity, setting Iranians apart from the adherents of the dominant Sunni Muslim faith who form the majority in most neighboring countries. Through the centuries Shi'ism has received preferences and privileges over other religions within Iran. The carrying out of a revolution in its name, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic in 1979, has only contributed to Shi'ism's predominance.
The dominant Persian ethnic identity of Iran is also well established. Persian language and culture, tracing its origins back to the time of the great empire of King Cyrus II (559 - 530 BC) and beyond, has been espoused and championed by Iran's rulers for centuries. Persian nationalism was strongly pronounced in the official ideology of the Pahlavi dynasty, deposed in 1979, which characterized itself as the heir to 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. It remains an important tool by which the present government claims legitimacy. Many commentators have remarked that the present government is as much Persian nationalist in its policies and pronouncements as it is Islamic.
Ethnic affiliation is less clearly delineated than religious affiliation. In recent years, however, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of a self-ruling Kurdish entity in northern Iraq have highlighted the plight of non-Persian ethnic minorities with their own languages and cultures who have not benefitted from the centuries of official preference accorded to Persian language and culture. The Azari minority is the largest, by some estimates exceeding one quarter of the population, living primarily in the northwest of the country close to the newly independent state of Azerbaijan. The remote southeast, bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the center of Iran's several million strong Baluchi minority. In the west there are more than five million Kurds, and in the southwest at least a million Arabs.1
While the situation of some religious minorities, notably Baha'is and Evangelical Christians, has been well documented by their supporters outside Iran, the situation of Sunni Muslims and of various ethnic minorities is less well documented. Activists from these communities are less experienced at presenting their concerns and are afraid that if they are identified, they could be subject to reprisals from Iranian government agents. The situations of these minorities is also not well reported in the Iranian media, and independent journalists or observers are rarely permitted to visit the parts of the country in which they live. In addition, sensitive minorities issues have traditionally been neglected by many Iranian researchers. This report relies extensively on interviews with activists from various minorities living in Europe and the U.S. In some cases, Human Rights Watch was able to carry out telephone interviews with individuals in Iran.1 Precise figures on the ethnic composition of Iran's population are impossible to obtain. The last census in which such data was compiled was carried out in 1956.