Iran – Not as Persian as You Think

I usually label posts about Iran with the tag ‘Persia.’ This week it occurred to me that this label is a tad inaccurate. Iran is a lot less Persian than you may think.

Here is the CIA World Factbook’s [1] break down of the Iranian population by ethnic identity:

Persian 61%
Azeri 16%
Kurd 10%
Lur 6%
Baloch 2%
Arab 2%
Turkmen and Turkic tribes 2%
other 1% 

The share of Iranians who speak Persian as their first language is even smaller. Again to the Factbook:

Persian (official) 53%
Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects 18%
Kurdish 10%
Gilaki and Mazandarani 7%
Luri 6%, Balochi 2%
Arabic 2%
other 2%

To see the same in map form:

The Linguistic Composition of Iran.
Image Source:

So what spares Iran the ethnic conflict that tears its neighbors apart?

Religion. In Iran’s religious demographics we find a unity it can find nowhere else:

Shia 89%
Sunni 9%
other (includes Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i) 2%

Shi’ism is the glue what holds Iran together. Those who think of that the theocratic structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran is an anachronism in the modern world do not understand these basic demographic realities. 

Modern Iranians have this guy to thank for the current state of affairs:

Ismail, founder of the Safavid Empire.
Image source: Wiimedia. 

Shah Ismail was the founder of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736), one of the largest empires Persian history can claim to its name. Ismail decided early on that his state was to follow the Twelver school of Shi’ite Islam. Making this vision a reality was not always a pretty process:

The promulgation of state Shi’ism was fraught with danger, and some of Isma‘il’s advisers were worried about the reaction to his announcement. “ Of the 200,000-300,000 people in Tabriz,” they said, “two-thirds are Sunnis. . .we fear that the people may say they do not want a Shfi sovereign, and if (which God forbid!) the people reject Shi‘ism, what can we do about it?” Ismi‘il’s reply was uncompromising: he had been commissioned to perform this task, he said, and God and the immaculate Imiims were his companions; he feared no one. “With God’s help,” he said, “if the people utter one word of protest, I will draw the sword and leave not one of them alive. [2]

Ismail and the other early Safavids succeeded. The Safavid Empire is gone, but it boundaries can be seen in any map of showing the Near East’s 21st century religious divides.

The Safavid Empire, c. 1600
Image Source: 
Major religions in the Middle East
Image Source: Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project


[1] All statistics referenced here come from CIA World Factbook. “Iran.” Accessed 6 June 2013.

[2] Roger Savory. Iran Under the Safavids. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 1980. p. 29.

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As an Iranian I can say that Persian population is well above 70% percent but intermarriages are very very common, specially within the last 40 years so, ethnic conflict and ethnic problems are unheard of in Iran. If there is an ethnic conflict it's mostly done by outside powers. But in reality Iran is 100% Persian what does that mean? It means all the people that live in Iran live by Persianate culture.