Although Iran’s state religion is Shiite Islam and the majority of its population is ethnically Persian, millions of minorities from various ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds also reside in Iran. Among these groups are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, and Azeris. Many of them face discrimination and live in underdeveloped regions. Though they have held protests in the past, they mostly agitate for greater rights, not greater autonomy. Most are integrated into Iranian society, participate in politics, and identify with the Iranian nation. Tehran occasionally criticizes the United States and Israel for stirring up trouble among its large ethnic groups but the extent of outside involvement with these groups is not clear.
Iran's Minority Groups
Iran has small pockets of Baha’i, Turkmen, Christian, and Jewish communities, but its primary ethnic minorities are:
Azeris. Roughly one out of every four Iranians is Azeri, making it Iran’s largest ethnic minority at over eighteen million (some Azeris put the number higher). The Turkic-speaking Azeri community is Shiite and resides mainly in northwest Iran along the border with Azerbaijan (whose inhabitants are more secular than their Azeri cousins in Iran) and in Tehran. Although they have grievances with the current regime in Tehran, most Azeris say they are not treated as second-class citizens and are more integrated into Iranian society, business, and politics (the Supreme Leader is an ethnic Azeri) than other minorities. A common complaint among Azeris is they are often poked fun at by the Iranian media. Last May, violent demonstrations broke out in a number of northwest cities after a cartoon published in a state-run newspaper compared Azeris to cockroaches.
Kurds. Predominantly Sunni, the Kurds reside mainly in the northwest part of the country—so-called Iranian Kurdistan—and comprise around 7 percent of Iran’s population (there are roughly four million Kurds living in Iran, compared to twelve million in Turkey and six million in Iraq). Unlike Iran’s other minorities, many of its Kurds harbor separatist tendencies, creating tensions with the state that have occasionally turned violent (the largest in recent years occurred in response to Turkey’s February 1999 arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, then-leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party). The governments of Turkey and Iran fear the creation of a semiautonomous state in northern Iraq might motivate their own Kurdish minorities to press for greater independence. But Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, a U.S.-based expert on Iranian foreign policy, says Iran’s concern about Kurdish separatism does not approach the level of Turkey’s. Still, there have been repeated clashes between Kurds and Iranian security forces, the most recent of which was sparked by the July 2005 shooting of a young Kurd. Some experts say Israel has increased its ties with Iranian Kurds and boosted intelligence-gathering operations in northwest Iran to exploit ethnic fissures between the Kurds and the majority Shiite Persians.
Arabs. Along the Iranian-Iraqi border in southwest Iran is a population of some three million Arabs, predominantly Shiite. Arabs, whose presence in Iran stretches back twelve centuries, commingle freely with the local populations of Turks and Persians. During the 1980s, they fought on the side of the Iranians, not the Iraqi Arabs. However, as Sunni-Shiite tensions have worsened in the region, a minority of this group, emboldened by Iraqi Arabs across the border, has pressed for greater autonomy in recent years. In the southern oil-rich province of Khuzestan, clashes erupted in March 2006 between police and pro-independence ethnic Arab Iranians, resulting in three deaths and over 250 arrests (the protests were reportedly organized by a London-based group called the Popular Democratic Front of Ahwazi Arabs). In April 2005, rumors spread that the authorities in Tehran planned to disperse of the area’s Arabs, leading to protests that turned violent, according to Human Rights Watch.
Baluchis. Iran has roughly 1.4 million Baluchis, comprising 2 percent of its population. Predominantly Sunni, they reside in Baluchistan, a region divided between Pakistan and Iran. The southeastern province where Baluchis reside remains the least developed part of Iran and boasts high unemployment rates. That, plus the porous border between the two countries, has encouraged widespread smuggling of various goods, including drugs. Iranian Baluchistan, despite holding few resources, remains an important region militarily because of its border with Pakistan. Earlier this year the Iranian government built a military base there. Tehran has kept a watchful eye on Baluchi militants in the region. In March, a group called Jundallah attacked a government motorcade (which left twenty people dead), kidnapped a number of hostages, and executed at least one member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations: Iran's Ethnic Groups (Lionel Beehner, 2006)