When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was campaigning, he promised the country’s many ethnic minorities to expand the use of their languages. Rouhani recently signaled his intent to keep that promise, by appointing Iran’s first presidential aid for ethnic and religious minority affairs, acknowledging the country’s minority challenges.
In the multi-ethnic state that is Iran, the political meaning of the population’s diversity will have serious consequences as political normalization with the West continues. Both the United States and the European Union should understand the significance of Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup and prepare policies that can address it.
Washington and Brussels should view this process as similar to when Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, it quickly became apparent that the Soviet Union was –not only composed of Russians. Later, it became clear that what the West had considered to be “Yugoslavians” or “Czechoslovakians” were, in fact, many different ethnic groups. Few of these peoples shared a civic-state identity.
In the same way, while Iran is commonly referred to as Persia, Persians account for roughly half the population. The remaining half is comprised of ethnic minorities; mainly Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Baluch.
The Azerbaijanis are the largest minority, accounting for a third of the population. Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei is an ethnic Azerbaijani, as is one of the main opposition leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.