Iran's Challenges from Within: An Overview of Ethno-Sectarian Unrest

Chris Zambelis

Ethnic Kurds, Baloch, Arabs, Azeris and Turkmen in Iran also share ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with their kin in neighboring states such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. This leaves them susceptible to the influence of social and political currents outside of Iran, especially nationalism.

Iran continues to face international pressure over its nuclear program and heightening tensions with the United States regarding its role in Iraq and Afghanistan. A pillar of U.S. strategy in the Middle East after the fall of the shah has been to check Iranian power in the Gulf region and Eurasia through a policy of strategic encirclement. U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war is widely perceived as the first salvo in this plan.

Fearing Iran's territorial ambitions and the spread of its revolutionary Islamism, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies followed the U.S. lead by helping to finance Iraq's war effort. Meanwhile, the United States built a formidable presence in Arab Gulf states in the form of bases and security pacts. In addition to the robust U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deployment of carrier battle groups in the Gulf, Iran is flanked on its frontiers by pro-U.S. Azerbaijan, major non-NATO U.S. ally Pakistan and NATO member Turkey. A nuclear-armed Israel is also perceived as a threat in Iran. Another factor contributes to Iran's anxiety about U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Tehran is convinced that the United States and other foreign powers are actively exploiting Iran's diverse ethnic and sectarian society by supporting violent secessionist and insurgent movements—including terrorist groups—in an effort to destabilize the ruling government (IRNA, July 27, 2006).

The Domestic Threat

Iran believes that a marked increase in domestic unrest orchestrated from abroad will precede any future U.S. attack. Indeed, Tehran attributes the steady rise in incidents of violence and terrorism across the country by ethnic Baloch, Arab and Kurdish minority rebel groups and signs of growing ethnic Azeri and Turkmen dissent to foreign meddling in its internal affairs by U.S. and other foreign intelligence services. Iranian security forces are currently engaged in low-intensity counter-insurgency operations across the country against an array of nationalist and terrorist groups.

In principle, the United States supports political opposition groups seeking an end to clerical rule. Some American proponents of a U.S. attack against Iran have gone as far as to call for enlisting the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), also known as Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK)—a bizarre militant group cited by the U.S. Department of State as a foreign terrorist organization whose ideology combines a mix of leftist and Islamist discourse with a fanatical cult-like veneration for its leaders—as an armed proxy in a future invasion. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq provided MEK with arms, training and bases on Iraqi soil, such as Camp Ashraf located near the Iraq-Iran border. MEK units were disarmed and remain under the watch of U.S.-led forces. Tehran, nevertheless, worries that they may still be mobilized to serve as a proxy ground force in a future confrontation with the United States (Terrorism Monitor, February 9, 2006). Although not an ethnic or sectarian-based movement, MEK is affiliated with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella organization of anti-regime movements based in Iran and the diaspora that include ethnic and sectarian minority-led groups agitating for an end to the Shiite Islamist regime (

Given this background, Tehran has cause for concern, as U.S. planners are likely to use the threat of aiding active insurgent groups as an effective lever over Iran, especially as a response to allegations of passive and direct Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq and, more recently, Afghanistan. Iran, however, has long been plagued by domestic instability and tensions rooted in minority grievances due to what is widely viewed as a failure or refusal by the ethnic Persian-dominated Shiite Islamist regime to integrate minority communities into the fabric of society. This includes respect for minority rights and the preservation of unique cultural identities. Ethnic Kurds, Baloch, Arabs, Azeris and Turkmen in Iran also share ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with their kin in neighboring states such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. This leaves them susceptible to the influence of social and political currents outside of Iran, especially nationalism.

The shifting geopolitical landscape in the Middle East following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which propelled traditionally oppressed communities such as Shiite Arabs and Kurds to unprecedented positions of power and influence in the country, has also emboldened Iranian minorities to agitate for greater cultural rights and political representation. The debate over the proposed federalization of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines is inspiring similar calls in Iran and from a sophisticated network of activist groups advocating on behalf of Iranian minorities from abroad. The Congress of Iranian Nationalities, an association of Iranian opposition groups based in the diaspora representing ethnic Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, Turkmen and Baloch, called for the federalization of Iran along ethnic lines in a joint manifesto issued in February 2005 [1]. In other cases, armed rebel groups representing ethnic Kurdish, Baloch and Arab interests in Iran have taken up arms, while communities such as the Azeris and Turkmen have staged protests in an effort to assert themselves.

The Demographic Picture

Iran's Farsi-speaking, ethnic Persian community comprises only a slim majority of the total population of an estimated 70 million, of whom nearly all are Shiites. Ethnic Azeris, who are estimated to number between 15 and 20 million and are also Shiites, constitute the second largest minority. Ethnic Kurds represent the third largest ethnic group, with a population between four and seven million, and are mostly Sunnis. Ethnic Baloch, the majority of whom are Sunnis, number between one and four million. Ethnic Arabs number between one and three million and are predominantly Shiites. Turkmen number between one and two million and are mostly Sunnis. Iran is also home to Gilakis, Mazandaranis, Bakhtiaris, Lurs and Qashqais, most of whom are Shiites, as well as Bahais, Zoroastrians, Armenian Christians and Jews [2].

Violence and Rebellion

Tensions in the ethnic Azeri community boiled over in May 2006 when a state-run newspaper published a cartoon they believed likened them to cockroaches. The publication inspired widespread protests in ethnic Azeri-dominated regions of northern Iran and communities in Tehran. Despite their Shiite faith, ethnic Azeris mobilized in protest against what they saw as the ethnic Persian and Farsi chauvinism of the clerical regime and to agitate for greater cultural and linguistic rights (

Although the publishers of the cartoon were quickly reprimanded and their actions were condemned by officials in Tehran, the spontaneous outburst of anger among ethnic Azeris, Iran's largest ethnic minority that shares close links to the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially their kin in former Soviet Azerbaijan, is another example of the nascent domestic tensions that could ignite violence and unrest in Iranian society. Iranian officials blamed outside agitators, namely pan-Turkic nationalists acting on the behest of the United States, for inciting the riots (IRNA, May 25, 2006). The ethnic Azeri cause in Iran is represented by the Federal Democratic Movement of Azerbaijan and South Azerbaijan Human Rights Watch (;

Iran's ethnic Turkmen community, a predominantly Sunni population that inhabits northern parts of Iran along the border with Turkmenistan, appears to be following the lead of other Iranian minorities and raising its voices in protest against what it sees as a deliberate policy to stifle its cultural identity and rights, especially in regards to religion, language and education. Ethnic Turkmen are also emboldened by the plight of their kin in Iraq and their attempt to return to oil-rich Kirkuk, where they were expelled along with other minorities as part of the former Baath regime's "Arabization" program. Tehran accuses foreign elements based in Iraq and the wider Turkic world of supporting Turkmen dissent in Iran. Iranian Turkmen are represented by the Organization for Defense of the Rights of Turkmen People and the Turkmensahra Liberation Organization (

Kurdish insurgents are among the most prolific militants operating in Iran. Most Iranian Kurds inhabit the mountainous region of northwestern Iran, where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet, while smaller communities reside in Iran's northeastern region of Khorasan. Like their kin elsewhere in the region, they face widespread discrimination by the ethnic Persian-dominated Shiite clerical regime. As Sunni Muslims with a proud sense of cultural and national identity, they do not identify with the Shiite Islamist regime and efforts by the state to suppress their culture and identity. Iran's Kurdish regions have experienced growing violence in recent months between the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a group alleged to have ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, and Iranian security forces (Terrorism Monitor, June 15, 2006). Iran claims that PJAK operates in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and receives support from the United States (IRNA, July 14). On the political front, groups such as the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (DPKI) and the Komoleh-Revolutionary Party of Kurdistan advocate for Iranian Kurdish rights in the diaspora (;

Iranian Baloch nationalist groups such as Jundallah (Soldiers of God), also known as People's Resistance Movement of Iran (PRMI), have orchestrated a series of high-profile attacks against Iranian security forces dating back to 2003. Ethnic Baloch inhabit Iran's impoverished and desolate southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, a lawless region and smuggling crossroads. Sistan-Balochistan is a frequent target for Iranian security forces. As a fiercely independent tribal society that has been neglected by a highly-centralized state, ethnic Baloch have always felt a sense of alienation from Tehran. Despite a lack of evidence, Iranian authorities often label Baloch militants as agents of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in an effort to tarnish the group's reputation due to their Sunni faith (Terrorism Monitor, June 29, 2006). Ethnic Baloch animosity toward Tehran runs so deep that they look to their kin in Pakistan's neighboring province of Balochistan, who are engaged in their own secessionist struggle, and the Baloch community in Afghanistan in what Baloch nationalists label as "Greater Balochistan." Iran accuses the United States of supporting Jundallah from Pakistani territory (IRNA, April 18). Baloch nationalists are represented by the Balochistan People's Party (BPP) and a host of other groups abroad (

The southwestern province of Khuzestan located on the Iran-Iraq border is home to most of Iran's ethnic Arab population known as the Ahwazi (Ahvazi in Farsi). Khuzestan contains much of Iran's oil and gas wealth, yet remains one of the country's least developed regions. This is partly a legacy of the devastation it endured as the frontline for much of the Iran-Iraq war and, according to many Ahwazis, a deliberate policy by Tehran to ensure that the region remains underdeveloped and impoverished. Despite the fact that most Ahwazis are Shiite Muslims and speak Farsi, they maintain close tribal and cultural links with their Shiite Arab kin in southern Iraq and maintain a strong sense of Arab identity. The region was the scene of a number of bombings and attacks against government targets in recent years. Tehran blamed Ahwazi militants, including the obscure Hizb al-Nahda al-Arabi al-Ahwazi (Ahwazi Arab Renaissance Party) and other groups as acting on the behest of U.S. and British intelligence ( Ahwaz nationalists are represented in the diaspora by the Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz, Ahwaz Revolutionary Council, Ahwaz Study Center (ASC) and British-Ahwazi Friendship Society (;;

The issues inspiring minority ethnic and sectarian-based dissent in Iran are the result of a multiplicity of factors, only one of which can be attributed to acts of foreign intervention by outside powers. Deep-seated grievances rooted in practical issues, such as Iran's inability to integrate entire communities into its social, political and economic fabric, is a case in point. Iran also has to adapt to the changing geopolitical landscape in the region that is seeing the rise of new centers of power and influence, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, which will reverberate well beyond their borders by serving as an inspiration to underserved communities to assert themselves, even through violence.


1. See "Manifesto of the Congress of Iranian Nationalities for a Federal Iran," February 9, 2005, The manifesto's signatories included the Balochistan United Front, Federal Democratic Movement of Azerbaijan, Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, Balochistan People's Party, Democratic Solidarity Party of Ahwaz, Organization for the Defense of Rights of Turkmen People and Komoleh-Revolutionary Party of Kurdistan.

2. The demographic data were amalgamated from a variety of sources. It is important to note that demographic figures for Iran, especially as they relate to ethnic and sectarian minority representation, are frequently used to bolster and/or diminish a given community's presence for political reasons. This is often the case for data provided by official government sources or activists and parties based abroad representing ethnic and sectarian minority interests. For more information on the ethnic and sectarian breakdown of Iran, see Eliz Sanasarian, Religious Minorities in Iran, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Also see Massoume Price, Iran's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005.