Iran is a multilingual and culturally diverse society in which less than one-half (45.6 percent) of its 61.2 million people speak Farsi (Persian) of the Indo-European family.
Farsi speakers are the descendants of the Aryan tribes who probably moved from Central Asia as early as the first or second millennium B.C.
Besides the Persian people, other groups such as the Kurds, Luris, Gilakis, Mazandaranis, Baluchis, and Bakhtiaris form substantial minorities.
Their languages also belong to the Indo- European family. The Kurdish speakers account for about 9 percent of Iran’s population. They are a fiercely independent and nomadic people inhabiting the Kurdistan Mountains along the western borders of Iran, and the adjacent region in Iraq and Turkey. The Iranian government has tried to bring them into the mainstream of national life, but has had little success.
The Semi-nomadic Lurs and other groups such as the Bakhtiaris live in the Zagros Mountains. These groups speak a language distinct from, but related to, Farsi. The Baluchis, a small minority (about 2 percent of the population) inhabit the southeastern region of the country that borders on Pakistan. A very small minority of the Armenians numbering half a million have also maintained their Indo- European identity, and are concentrated in major cities, and are engaged in commercial activities.
About one-fifth of Iran’s population speaks Turkic languages, the largest of which, Azerbaijani, is spoken by 17 percent of the country’s population, and Turkmen, occupying the two border regions in the northwest and northeast corners of the country respectively.
A few scattered remnants of Brahui-speakers (related to the Dravidian tongues of Southern India) are found in the Sistan region to the southeast. The Arabs form the largest group, over 1.4 million, in the Semitic family occupying primarily the Persian Gulf islands and the Khuzistan area close to the Iraqi border. The Arab demand for autonomy was among the factors that led to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The Jews have retained their linguistic and religious identity and are clustered mostly in the large cities.
Most of the ethnic groups are concentrated in certain regions, the Persians in the Elburz, much of the Zagros, and the peripheral areas of the central plateaus; the Turkish groups in the northwest; the Arabs in the southwest; and the Baluchis in the southeast. In practically every instance, however, these groups overlap. There are substantial numbers of each group living in the major areas of the others.
Although Iran is predominantly an Islamic nation, it is not free from divisive religious forces. The majority of the population (93.5 percent) professes the Shiite branch of Islam (it is also the state religion), while Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen belong to the Sunni tradition. Other religious minorities include Christians, Jews, and Parsis (Zoroastrians).
The Parsis are largely concentrated in Yadz in central Iran, Kerman to the southeast, and Tehran. However, the preponderance of the Shia sect and the strong official backing accorded it has done much to subdue the ethnic differences. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and change in the administration, much of the religious toleration practiced under the monarchy suddenly came to an end.
While Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are recognized in the constitution of 1979 as official minorities, the revolutionary atmosphere in the country is not particularly conducive to equal treatment of non-Muslims. Most of the Jews, who formed a significant minority in the cities, have left. Under such circumstances, a strong, cohesive national identity covering all ethnic groups has yet to develop in the country.