Demography - The Iranian People
The name Iran is derived from the country’s majority population, which has Aryan or Indo-European roots.
- The dominant settlers of what was originally called Persia are not ethnic Arabs, as in neighboring countries.
- Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic.
- Iran’s Persian heritage is a mix of many cultures and bloodlines combined over its ancient history through conquest and assimilation (see Timeline). Its multi-ethnic identity mirrors its geographical location at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Roughly one-half of Iran’s population is Persian. The other half is comprised largely of Azeris and Arabs, but also includes Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmen.
- Iran’s ethnic minorities are the same as those in neighboring countries, and these minorities obviously share cross-border affinities. However, the Iranian national identity has proven stronger than ethnic loyalties, so Iran does not suffer from secessionist disruptions.
- Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 through the Arab-dominated region of Iranian Khuzestan. The failure of Arabs living in the region to answer his call to pan-Arabism largely doomed his campaign and contributed to the bloody stalemate that ensued.
Iran’s population was converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam in the 600s and came to embrace the Shia sect.
- Today, 89% of Iranians are Shia Muslims, 9% are Sunni Muslims, and 2% practice alternative religions.
- The majority of Muslims in the world outside Iran are Sunni. Iran is the only nation in the world where Shia Islam is the official state religion.
- Iran has always been home to a significant Jewish population. Iranian Jews comprise the largest non-Israeli Jewish population in the Middle East.
Iran is the most populous nation in the region with nearly 70 million people, twice the population of Iraq or Saudi Arabia.
- Roughly 62% of Iranians live in cities, up from 42% in 1970.
- The country has had one of the highest population growth rates in the world, swelling from 34 million to 50 million in less than a decade after the revolution in 1979. Consequently, around 70% of Iranians are now under the age of 30. (See below for what this means for Iran’s society and economy).
- A successful family planning program implemented in the 1980s and 1990s rolled back birth rates to levels equivalent to the US and other developed countries.
- There are an estimated two million Iranians living outside the country, forming a significant diaspora in places like Los Angeles. Most of these exiles fled the country during the past three decades.
Next: Inside Iran - Society: A Youth Bulge