|Conferences : Which way is Iran going ? :|
A fragile multinational Empire
Iran is a veritable mosaic of cultures, languages and religious beliefs. Some seventy languages and dialects are spoken there, some of which belong to the Indo-European family while others, such as Azeri and Turkomenian belong to the Turco-Altaic group, no forgetting Arabic, which is spoken by the majority of the population of Khuzistan.
Out of this rich mosaic, the result of incessant population displacements according to the vicissitudes of a multi-millennial history, have emerged six peoples, each with their own territory, culture and identity, to which they proudly lay claim.
First of all come the Persians, whose speech is the country's official language and who possess the essential levers of power, whether in the name of Iranian nationalist, as under the monarchy, or of Shiite Islam, as under the Islamic Republic. However, they are, numerically, a minority - an important minority, representing 35% of the country's population.
Then come the Azeris, who mostly live in Azerbaijan, but also in several major Iranian cities, including Teheran. It is estimated that they number some 22 million souls. They speak a language, Azeri, that bears the same relation to Turkish as Spanish does to French. Unlike the Azeris of the ex-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, who are mostly Sunni Moslems, the Iranian Azeris are Shiites. To this extent, some of them are associated to the Shiite power structure of the Islamic Republic. They also have an important place in the bazaar, and thus ion the Iranian economy.
Iranian Kurdistan is the historic birthplace of the ancient Medes, the ancestors of the modern Kurds. It covers the administrative provinces of Kurdistan, Elam, Kermanshah and of Western Azerbaijan. However, some of the cities in this last province (Urmiah, Naghaden, Maku, Salmas) have a mixed population of Kurds and Azeris. There are about 8 million Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan, to which should be added the 3 million Kurdish émigrés living in compact communities in Khorassan (1.5 million) or in the main Iranian metropolitan cities. With a total population of 11 million, the Iranian Kurds are less numerous than their cousins in Turkey (15 to 18 million) but more numerous than those of Iraq (6 million) and Syria (1.5 million). Over 75% of the Iranian Kurds are Sunni Moslems, the rest Shiite of following a variety of rites.
The Baluchs inhabit Baluchistan, in the Irano-Pakistani border, which cuts across their country. They speak a language that, like Kurdish and Persian, belo9ngs to the Iranian group of Indo-European languages. About 90% of them are Sunni Moslems.
The Turkmen, who inhabit the North of the country, are reckoned at 2.5 million strong in Iran. They are much more numerous in the ex-Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan (capital Ashkabat). They speak a language of the Turco-Altaic family, and are Shiite Moslems.
Finally there are the Arabs, who mostly inhabit the oil-rich province of Khuzistan, that lies along the Arabo-Persian Gulf and which they call Arabistan. The majority of them are Shiite Moslems, but about 20% are Sunni.
Iran also contains Christian minorities, like the Armenians and Assyro-Chaldeans. There were formerly many Jews, but they have had to emigrate to Israel. There are also Baha'is, whose religion is considered "heretical" by the Iranian regime as well as esoteric faiths like the Ahli-Haq (Faithful to Truth) who are to be found in Kurdistan.
In total, the non-Persian peoples of the Iranian Empire represent over 45 million souls or about 65% of the 70 million strong Iranian population. None of them enjoys any public education in their own language. Moreover, those who, like the Kurds, the Baluchs and the Turkmen, are Sunni Moslems, are excluded by the Iranian Constitution from the more important organs of government.
Victims of national, linguistic and religious discriminations, these peoples do not identify themselves with the one-sided and dictatorial system of representation of the Islamic Republic and are increasingly demanding a democratic, federal and secular Iran.