3 Major Ethnic Minority Groups in Western Iran

Modern Iran traces its roots to ancient Persia and Persians remain a majority in the country. However, the country is home to many languages and ethnicities. Indeed, the share of non-Persians among Iran’s population, which totals 82 million people, is at least 39%, according to The World Factbook. Given that ethnicity can be a fluid concept, Iran’s non-Persian population might actually be closer to 50%. One indication is that only 53% of Iranians speak Persian. There are at least seven other languages spoken by a significant number of citizens.

All that being said, although Iran is thus a country of astounding ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity, Persians continue to dominate the country’s central government.

This brief report, produced by Arsenal For Democracy and The Globalist Research Center, covers three major ethnic minorities in western Iran today, examining their modern history and how their presence has affected post-Revolution relations between Iran and its neighbors. (Major western Iran minority ethno-linguistic groups not covered: Lurs, Gilaks, Mazanderanis.)

Map of selected ethno-linguistic minorities of Iran. (More info at Wikimedia)

Map of selected ethno-linguistic minorities of Iran. (More info at Wikimedia)

Arab Iranians

Arabs are a small ethnic minority in Iran. They account for only about 2% of Iran’s population. Some 1.5 million Arabs live along the Iraqi border in southwest Iran. Arabs have lived there since the Islamic conquest of Iran 12 centuries ago.

Much of the Arab-dominated border area is within the country’s oil-rich Khuzestan Province, the center of the brutal Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied it in 1980. He did so, mistakenly believing Arab-Iranians would rally to him after protests and riots there during the 1979 revolution. Instead, they fled the area until the new Iranian revolutionary military could regroup and counterattack by 1982.

Khuzestan remains poor and was never fully rebuilt after the war. Deadly clashes between Arab-Iranians and security forces break out on a regular basis, including several in 2015. Separatists also sometimes stage terrorist attacks.

Kurdish Iranians

Iran’s four million Kurds predominantly populate a mountainous northwestern region of the country. Accounting for about 10% of Iran’s population, they have long harbored separatist tendencies.

In 1946, the Soviet Union tried to establish puppet buffer states in northwest Iran, including a Kurdish state. It had occupied the area in 1941 to block Germany from capturing Iran’s oilfields. However, unlike in the case of Eastern Europe, this early Cold War partition proved short-lived, after the Red Army decided to withdraw, pursuant to the UN Security Council’s second and third resolutions ever.

There are also separatist Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. In Iraq, some six million Kurds comprise roughly 15-20% of the population. In Turkey, 14.3 million Kurds make up 18% of the population. In war-torn Syria, the Kurdish population is probably between one and two million and accounts for a much smaller share. Syria’s government has sometimes supported Kurdish militants as a counterweight against enemies or rivals, including Turkey. The four major Kurdish populations, totaling at least 25 million people, live largely contiguous to each other across national borders. While this proximity sometimes encourages cooperation between separatist groups, they have also often been rivals for influence within the Kurdish nationalist movement.

The leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979 viewed Kurdish ethnic separatism as a serious threat to their ideology of unity through religion. Kurdish separatists, who had helped overthrow the Shah earlier that year, saw the revolution as the moment for independence and began seizing control of their communities. However, Iran’s revolutionary armed forces focused on crushing this major Kurdish rebellion as early as 1980, even in the face of Saddam Hussein’s invasion into the Khuzestan province. Violence between the state and Kurdish separatists continues intermittently, 36 years later. The Kurds’ integration into Iranian society has also been limited.

Azeri Iranians

Iran is also home to at least 12 million Azeris, a Turkic-descended ethnicity comprising 16% of the country’s total population. They mainly live in the Iran’s northwest border provinces, next to the former Soviet republic Azerbaijan. That country has nearly nine million ethnic Azeris among its citizens, who account for about 92% of its 9.8 million people.

While concentrated in the northwest, Azeris live throughout Iran in conditions closely resembling those of the Persian majority. Despite sporadic problems, Azeris are comfortably integrated into Iranian society and hold positions of power in the government and military.

The revolutionary government, while opposed to Azeri nationalist activity in Iran, has defended Azeri-Iranians from persecution, in contrast with its own actions against Arabs or Kurds. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2006 said, “Azeris have always bravely defended the Islamic revolution and the sovereignty of this country.”

Ethnic Azeris have been divided between Iran and Azerbaijan (formerly part of Russia and then the USSR) since 1828, when Iran was pushed out of the Caucusus by a peace treaty with the growing Russian Empire.

Both Iran and Azerbaijan are Shia-majority Muslim nations, of which there are only four in the world; the others are Iraq and Bahrain. However, Azerbaijan is largely secular in practice, in contrast with the public religiosity of Iran’s Islamic Republic.

During the post-Soviet war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the early 1990s, Iran economically aided Armenia after Azerbaijan’s president suggested a desire to unify “Greater Azerbaijan.” This threatened Iranian sovereignty, since a majority of all Azeris live in Iran.

Iran’s regional rivals Turkey and Israel also formed lasting military and economic ties with Azerbaijan during the war.

Despite some continued bilateral tension, an unofficial strategic understanding has been reached: Iran will not try to spread Islamic Revolution to Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan will not foster ethnic separatism inside Iran. Neither country’s Azeri population seems to be interested in pursuing such an option anyway.

Mapping the projected Turkish occupation zone in Syria

Arsenal For Democracy estimates and maps the perimeter dimensions of Turkey’s potential occupation zone / U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. (The detail map is near the middle, after the evidence used to prepare it. A regional map showing the area in context is attached at the end.)

As I’ve explored previously, for the past month, the Turkish military and the Turkish government have been disagreeing quasi-publicly as to whether to invade and occupy northern Syria to establish a “humanitarian zone” (supposedly for refugees).

The military brass is trying to delay at least until a new government is formed and the newly-elected parliament can take a vote on it, while the ruling AK Party is pushing for an intervention sooner. It seems to have been an AK Party aspiration, off and on, since at least September 2014, whereas the military isn’t entirely sure it’s a good idea in a general.

On February 22, 2015, Turkey’s military staged a lightning incursion in and out Syria, moving more than 600 troops and 100 tanks along the Euphrates River for some 22 miles (35 km) and then returning to the Turkish border a few hours later. The objective then was ostensibly to secure and re-locate a historic tomb of national significance (which was being guarded by Turkish Special Forces in a vulnerable position). But it may have also served to test Turkey’s ability to invade that far into Syria’s warzones without major resistance, although it was on the other side of the river, south of Kobani.

Of course, a speedy raid and departure would be quite different from a full-scale intervention to hold territory indefinitely. So how big of an area are we actually talking about for this possible massive military operation?

Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, indicated in The Globalist in early July (based on “media reports”) that the zone would be as follows:

Specifically, Turkish forces may be aiming to seize a [88-km] 55-mile-long stretch of territory from Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east, thus establishing a [32-km] 20-mile-deep cordon sanitaire against the violence next door and creating a staging ground for pro-Turkey Syrian rebels.

Following meetings between U.S. and Turkish government officials this week, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported the latest rumors, which were far more expansive:

A recent joint action consensus between Turkey and the United States, which includes the use of the İncirlik Airbase in southern Turkey in fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists, also covers a partial no-fly zone over the Turkey-Syria border, according to sources.

The 90-kilometer line between Syria’s Mare [Marea] and Cerablus [Jarabulus] will be 40 to 50 kilometers deep, sources told daily Hürriyet, while elaborating on the consensus outlined by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, following a cabinet meeting on July 22.

However, sources avoided saying whether such a zone would be broadened in the future.

In addition to that representing a larger area, this news also suggests Turkey’s longstanding demand of getting U.S. air support and a no-fly zone for such an operation may have been met.

If it comes to pass with those enlarged specifications, as depicted in the map below, the U.S.-patrolled no-fly zone and Turkish-occupied “humanitarian zone” on the ground in Syria is going to run to the edge of the city of Aleppo at minimum — and could theoretically even include the entire city (not depicted). That variance represents the aforementioned range of a 40-50 km depth from the border, which falls either on the north side of the city (leaving it out) or the south side (including it).

However, it seems unlikely to me that an initial zone would include Aleppo itself, simply because it has been the site of a protracted siege for several years and Turkey would have to break into it to take it over, while the U.S. would have to fight for air supremacy over the city. Of course, some hardline nationalists in Turkey have never gotten over the loss of Aleppo to the French and Syrians in the border-setting wars that followed the Ottoman Empire’s destruction in World War I.

Regardless of motivations, even stopping just short of Aleppo would put the Turkish military into position to provide direct military support to its allied opposition forces trapped in Aleppo. The Syrian Army would likely have to withdraw, and the Syrian Air Force might not be able to continue aerial attacks.

Below is my approximated projection of the minimum Turkish Occupation Zone based on various recent Turkish media descriptions, as well as (loosely upon) local highways and land features. In terms of west-east width, this is using the wider “Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east” parameter than the one reported in Hurriyet (Marea to Jarabulus). In terms of depth, it is using the much larger 40-50 km measurement from Hurriyet, at least on the southwest corner, where it seems most applicable.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

First, a key observation: Manbij is located on the M4 highway. If Manbij is indeed the big southeast anchor point of the occupation zone, as even the conservative estimate would suggest, that highway not only forms a convenient southern perimeter line but also restricts ISIS movements westward from Raqqa. Moreover, it is the same road that extends to the Euphrates, to the precise spot where the Tomb of Suleyman Shah was located until it was moved in the February operation. So that might be another sign that the incursion was a test.

Second: That’s a pretty huge area, currently controlled (to my knowledge) almost entirely by ISIS and the Syrian Army, except for some of the western locations, which are held by Saudi-backed rebel groups that are theoretically also aligned with Turkey. They might, however, not be overly receptive to a Turkish military occupation in a predominantly Arab territory (though ethnic facts on the ground didn’t deter Turkey’s “peacekeeping” occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, which hasn’t ended 41 years later). On either side of the Syrian zone are Syrian Kurdish forces and communities (including Kobani, across the Euphrates on the eastern side).

Third: The U.S. no-fly zone would reportedly be based out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey (see our map) if that deal doesn’t fall apart again.

Fourth, a qualification, as I was taught to make at the University of Delaware Geography Department: keep in mind that I am looking at satellite and road maps with a somewhat limited familiarity with the area in question. Military conditions and physical features on the ground that I can’t see might make some of the lines way off.

[Added at 4:45 AM EDT: While I was writing this report, the wires broke the news that Turkish fighter jets began airstrikes across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis on ISIS targets inside Syria. You can see Kilis is directly north of the northwest corner of the zone mapped above, which means the targets are probably inside the zone. Turkey says the jets fired from within Turkish airspace.]

[Added at 6:25 PM EDT: The Turkish Foreign Ministry has confirmed that U.S. Air Force planes and other coalition partners will be permitted to fly armed and manned missions from Incirlik Air Base and bases at Diyarbakir and elsewhere. The Ministry did not confirm whether a no-fly zone was part of the deal.]

[Added at 3:30 AM EDT on July 25, 2015: And below is a zoomed-out map showing the same area drawn above, this time in red, but within the regional context.]

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.


The malnutrition paradox: Obesity and hunger crises

In China, in 2009, nearly 100 million people were obese, but around the same time (in 2008), more than 200 million were suffering from undernourishment. While the latter figure has declined since then, this data highlights a seeming paradox of modern life. Hunger and obesity can now exist in the same countries side by side – and both reach a large scale.

Today, in Nigeria, to give another example, 37% of children under 5 are stunted from undernutrition, even as 25% of women age 15-49 are overweight or obese.

In advanced economies, side-by-side obesity and undernutrition generally reflects income inequality, weak social safety nets, and poor access to high-quality nutrition instead of junk food.

In many low-income and middle-income developing nations, however, this apparent contradiction – where a country’s malnutrition challenges simultaneously include both extremes of chronic hunger and obesity – is usually experienced as part of a “nutrition transition.”

In that transition, a combination of urbanization, changes in dietary intake and a growing middle class combines to produce this phenomenon. It becomes easier for many people to obtain unhealthy foods (or suppliers find it easier to reach them), even as some areas of the country or some economic strata of the population continue struggling to access any food at all.

Eventually, this crossover phase ends, as famines become infrequent, agriculture becomes more efficient and more people cross into a stable middle class.

India’s Remit

The following text is adapted from a quiz I produced for The Globalist Research Center.

Remittances are cash payments that foreign workers transfer to their families or others back in their country of origin.

India received a total of $70 billion in remittances in 2013 from its overseas workers, according to the World Bank. While this amount represents just 3.7% of the country’s GDP, India is the largest recipient country of remittances worldwide when measured by the total amount of transfers.

An estimated 14.2 million Indians were living or working abroad as of 2013 – a greater number than any other country’s emigrant population.

The world’s largest source-country for remittances is the United States, whose $123 billion in 2013 accounted for a fifth of the global total of $577 billion. Almost three-quarters of that — $418 billion — flowed to developing countries.

Remittances from the United States in 2013 exceeded those of the next four countries combined: Saudi Arabia ($42 billion), United Arab Emirates ($28 billion), United Kingdom ($24 billion) and Russia ($23 billion).

Altogether, developing economies received $418 billion in remittances in 2013. By comparison, the amount of official development assistance (or foreign aid) from the OECD countries to the developing world totaled just $134.8 billion in 2013. That’s equal to just a third of remittance flows to developing nations.

It has become easier than ever, with the ubiquity of mobile technologies in the developing world, to send remittances fast and cheaply, even to those without access to banking. Remittances will therefore continue to be a crucial anti-poverty and development tool across the world.


Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Tajikistan

The tiny ex-Soviet country of Tajikistan, located in Central Asia, has almost as many residents as New York City, at 8.2 million. It doesn’t have much to draw attention to its economy except for one thing: it is currently, by a wide margin for all countries where data is available, the national economy most dependent on remittance money transfers from its citizens abroad.

In 2013, 48.8% – or nearly half! – of Tajikistan’s 2013 GDP came from remittances from Tajikistani workers in other countries, who sent home $4.2 billion to their families, according to the World Bank.

Most of these workers are in Russia, the source for three-quarters of all remittances flowing to Tajikistan, which is very typical of the other ex-Soviet states in the region. Russia is, in fact, one of the top five destinations in the world for migrant workers.


For Central Asia’s economies, in some ways, the Soviet Union never really ended. Four of the top Tajikistani remittance sources are other former Soviet countries and neighboring Afghanistan – the Soviet invasion target that became the Union’s military undoing – is a fifth.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan holds the title of second-most dependent on remittances with 32% of its 2013 GDP coming from them and nearly 80% of that coming from Russia.

Tajikistan’s domestic economy has remained severely hampered by geopolitical chaos since the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991. A brutal 5-year civil war broke out almost immediately between the Communists, ethnic opposition and Islamists, as part of the continued fallout of the disastrous Afghan invasion.

I’ve mentioned this war in passing previously because it was particularly noteworthy among the post-Soviet wars of the Russian Near Abroad:

[In the months following the USSR’s collapse, newly “Russian” troops] were often ordered by Moscow to remain in place as outside “peacekeepers” (between the fighting populations of countries that had last seen self-rule around the time of the Franco-Prussian War) even though the Soviet Union had opposed peacekeeping as “anti-Leninist” and had thus had provided its troops and officers with zero training on how to conduct peacekeeping operations. In the most extreme case, ex-Soviet Russian troops hunkered down in defensive positions on Tajikistani military bases as a brutal civil war between Communists, democrats, and Tajik/Afghan mujahideen raged all around the bases and any heavy military equipment outside was stolen for use in the conflict.

Then, as its own civil war wound down, Tajikistan participated in the Afghan Civil War (between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban), which ended only with the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The country finally grew rapidly beginning around 2000, on the strength of aluminum and cotton, but this growth was beginning from a very small base. Therefore, Russia has continued to be an attractive source of employment for many Tajikistanis.

Unfortunately, this means the recent instability in Russia’s economy – from sanctions and falling oil prices – puts Tajikistan (and its neighbors) at risk. Migrants in Russia are losing their jobs and the value of their remittances is evaporating as Russia’s currency loses value.

While Tajikistan might not seem ripe for collapse and a return to war (and I certainly hope that is not on the horizon), its proximity to northern Afghanistan (where things are heating up again recently) means it is always in danger of a new flare-up. And the violently genocidal spiral Kyrgyzstan entered very suddenly in 2010 (full archive coverage➚) proved that the right spark at the wrong time can plunge these smaller Central Asian ex-Soviet republics back into chaos in the blink of an eye.

Young Yemen

Yemen has the lowest median age of any country in the Middle East/North Africa region.

The median age in Yemen is 18.6 years, according to the CIA World Factbook. This means that, as of last year, almost half of the 26 million people of Yemen were under 18 years of age. Yemen’s median age is 19 years below the U.S. median age and 23.3 years below that of the EU.

Flag of Yemen

Flag of Yemen

Yemen’s economy is small and under-developed. The country has depended for many years on dwindling oil reserves and was unable to provide enough educational opportunities or legitimate jobs for its young people. In addition, Yemen’s government has been weak for quite some time.

As a result, the country has not been in a position to pursue suitable policies to address and mitigate the challenges associated with this stark demographic reality.

Now that a full-blown civil war has unfolded in Yemen and almost a dozen countries are currently participating in military operations in the country, it has become next to impossible to tackle the issue of the youth bulge in any meaningful fashion.

Even before this recent turn of events, Yemeni children were at serious risk of enslavement and abduction for human trafficking, not just in Yemen itself, but also in neighboring Saudi Arabia and Oman. Girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution in Saudi Arabia’s hospitality and entertainment industry.

Young boys are also at risk of being forced into domestic servitude or prostitution. They bear the additional risk of being forced to fight in Yemen’s national army, clan militias and terrorist groups that operate in the country.

This piece was adapted from a Globalist Quiz I researched and wrote.

A theory of legitimate, ideal transitional government

There are always many questions in how best to transition a non-democratic country to democracy — particularly because these transitions often occur during periods of unrest and instability, if not outright war or revolution.

Moreover, the outgoing regime has usually worked hard to stamp out formal opposition leadership/membership as well as any likely interim replacements and lower levels of legitimate authority that could present an alternative to the regime’s continued existence. And rarely is there any workable means of conducting free and fair elections without first overhauling the entire system.

This creates a chicken-and-egg paradox: Which comes first — the new system to find leaders or the new leaders to create a system?


Key questions

So, with most popularly legitimate authorities destroyed by the outgoing regime and no way to immediately replace it, what is the next best alternative in an ideal situation? Here are some guiding philosophical questions that suggest preferable alternatives:

  • In a transition to representative democracy from a non-democracy without a functioning voter system for immediate transitional elections, should interim power derive from the lowest available popular representatives? This seems likely to provide it with the most broad-based support from the public and authorities alike.
  • Or should interim power rest with a self-identified cadre of internal regime reformers and external academics/technocrats? Or a cadre identified by a supranational political organization (such as the United Nations, African Union, or Arab League)? Can a truly legitimate constitution and electoral system be developed by a representative cross-section cadre of non-elected transitional leaders? To all these, I suspect the answer is no because it risks limiting public cooperation.
  • Or should interim power devolve immediately to the local level to organize and oversee ad hoc transitional elections for a constitutional assembly to the best of their ability? Even in a non-democratic system without much of a civil society, there is nearly always some subsidiary local level of governance where popular will is not totally repressed and unrepresented. Absolute power eventually runs out of steam somewhere close to the bottom of the government structure in a country of any substantial size, thus leaving some level of officials relatively untainted. Can that level of government legitimately select useful transitional leaders? I believe so.
  • How can transitional leaders be made impartial and secured against the corruption of power? How do we ensure they will leave at the end of their transitional mandate? Strict checks, short timetables, and separation of transitional roles should resolve these issues.
  • During a transition, is it preferable to hew closely to the existing constitutional order and reform it through its formal mechanism, despite its corruption — or is it better to abandon it in favor of a creative vacuum that can rebuild the system from scratch? There are advantages and disadvantages to either course. To leave it entirely courts chaos, but to keep it risks failed or stunted transition (tearing down the master’s house with the master’s tools).

I have endeavored below to develop an idealized system that addresses as many of these concerns as possible while offering a regulated roadmap with clear guidelines for conducting a responsible and true transition in as many different countries as possible.

Desired qualities of the transition guide proposal, therefore, include: broad applicability, maximal interim stability, brevity of and limitations upon extraordinary conditions, thoroughness of overhaul, manageable democratic characteristics, and prevention of backsliding.

This roadmap discards the existing system and constitution at the national level but uses its local organs to form temporary replacements for the national government and select drafters of a new, permanent order. That initial approach returns governing and drafting legitimacy as close to the people as possible in an orderly fashion but without the need for infeasible, immediate nationwide elections.

Proposed transitional order to maximize stability, reforms, and interim legitimacy:
  1. Go to the lowest, most local body of government that is free of regime appointees and have that body (in every part of the country, collectively) nominate two separate assemblies with different mandates. (N.B. This step may require alteration if a single-party state exists and all members of the local bodies nationwide are from the same party.)
  2. Each of the two transitional assemblies has 1 representative per smallest local district level inclusive of the whole country (e.g. county, canton, department). The first assembly is just constitutional drafters. The second assembly is tasked only with naming and monitoring a caretaker cabinet and its leader, with no role in drafting.
  3. The caretaker cabinet is given a 3 month term, and its members are drawn from outside both assemblies to insulate drafting & governing roles. The cabinet leader — e.g. an interim Prime Minister — cannot be re-nominated to the cabinet at the end of a 3-month caretaker cabinet term.
  4. For transitional executive simplicity, the cabinet rules by decree (voted through by cabinet majority), but the nominating assembly holds veto power by 2/3rds vote to deter grievous abuses of power. Decrees hold effect until the expiration of 6 months and cannot effect elections or the drafting of the constitution. Even during the 6 months they hold effect, all decrees are not binding on next caretaker cabinet or permanent government elected later, but they can be renewed if desired.
  5. The constitutional assembly drafts the constitution on a 9-month non-extendable timeline. It also establishes first election procedures for a permanent legislature (or any other elective national offices under the new constitution) and supervises the first election. Both transitional assemblies go out of existence as soon as the permanent government and legislators are sworn in.
  6. The country’s security forces are tasked only with maintaining order, borders, and election safety during the transition. No official role is permitted in the political transition, both in the cabinet and the drafting process. Security forces answer to the civilian caretaker cabinet.
  7. Constitutional drafters and the final interim cabinet leader are automatically barred from all offices for 1 cycle under the new, permanent system. The other assembly’s members and other cabinet officials are not barred from running and serving in any elective or appointed offices under the new constitution.
    Optional additional points:

  9. A yes-no referendum could be held on ratification of the constitution prior to the first election of permanent officials. However, this risks exposing the new constitution to significant challenges to its authority and supremacy even if successfully ratified. It also risks no constitution being adopted within a concise timeframe.
  10. A temporarily higher threshold for amending the constitution could exist for the first two cycles to promote stabilization of the new order, encourage inter-party cooperation, and provide a cooling off period on proposed early major changes.