From Irish Political Review: September 2007

Iran: Part Two
Ethnicity And Nationalism

I had assumed before going there, on no actual evidence, that Iran, unlike Iraq, was a fairly homogeneous country. Wrong again. Less than 50% of the population of about 65 million are Persians. There are over 25 million Azeris who speak Turkish. About 2 million Turkmen, and the rest are made up of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and 'others'.

I remarked to a Turkish Turk that his language had a very Slavic sound to it. He agreed and said that it was because of the Turkish extensions into Eastern Europe. He added that if I wanted to hear pure Turkish spoken I would have to go East of Turkey and that there were over 200 million Turkish speakers in the world including the 70 million in Turkey itself. Turkish was spoken in most of the Southern Republics of the Soviet Union, but also in parts of Iran, Pakistan, India and China.

Turkmenistan is a vast country with only 5 million people plus the 2 million within Iran. It was only here that I came across an obvious presence of Iranian soldiers because of an American presence in Turkmenistan. The Turkman people are a strange mixture. The majority were of Cossack appearance with the men wearing fur hats, tunics, baggy trousers and long evil-looking knives in their belts. The women wore clothes made in the most brilliant colours.

In Iran they work the rice fields near the shores of the Caspian Sea. But mostly they are semi-nomadic, driving herds of sheep from one pasture land to the next, accompanied by donkeys and some camels. There is an effort to enclose the lands and the animal drivers are often forced to move and camp along the roadsides—albeit that the roadsides can extend for several hundred metres. Though a tougher life, the nomads cling on to their old travelling ways as much as possible.

The Turkmen people live to a ripe old age. The Guinness Book of Records once decided that a man from this area was the oldest recorded person in the world at 165. But the entry was deleted when the scoundrel was found to have fibbed and added 10 years to his age and doctored the Tsarist records! 120 years is quite usual and these old people are very fit. I was introduced to one old man who hadn't a clue how old he was but reckoned he was old enough to swap his donkey for a motorbike. As I have discovered in life, the so-called backward peoples are a thousand times more individualistic, interesting and intelligent than the modern, semi-homogenised carriers of civilisation.

The Turkman area is quite racially mixed—most look Russian but many are of Mongolian appearance. Like Northern Syria there is also a good sprinkling of what appear to be Kerrymen—red hair and freckles.

I didn't get the opportunity to visit the Azeri part of the country, but met many Azeris in Tehran. Several younger ones talked about wanting to live in the West. I reminded them where the airport is. There are no restrictions on movement, either internal or international, in Iran.

There are about 50,000 Jews in the country. Recently very large sums of money were offered to them to move to Israel. The Jewish leadership was publicly very irate about this. They said that they were in Persia long before many other peoples and intended to stay there and were insulted by what they called the attempted bribery. Nevertheless they regularly go on holiday to Israel. They are guaranteed a seat in the Iranian Parliament.

After the Second World War the Azeris set up an Autonomous Socialist Republic. But within Iran and not the USSR who didn't much want them anyway. This was put down by the Tehran Government in 1946. The Azeris are the businessmen of the country and look down a bit on the Persians, and find it irksome that the Persians in turn look down on them. But I found no evidence of any movement to link up with the now independent Azerbijan across the border.

There was a large scale transfer of Armenians to the USSR, but many still remain. I need to know more about Armenians as I've come across them in large numbers in Iran, Syria and Palestine where they seem to have a lot of property and a very vibrant church. After the break-up of the USSR they attacked Azerbijan. But this was not a religious dispute as Christian Georgia supported the Azeris, while Iran, Russia and America supported Armenia.

There are many Arabs, including Sunni Arabs in the oil-rich area bordering Iraq. Their behaviour, along with that of the Azeris further up the border over the last thirty years, brought home to me again the extent that nationalism has taken hold in the larger countries of the Middle East—in spite of the artificial borders constructed by the imperialist countries in many places there.

The Iran-Iraq War was really two wars. Throughout the eight years of these wars the Shias formed the backbone of the Iraqi army on the border. And the Arabs on the Iranian side were loyal to Iran.

In 1980 Iraq, with Western urging and backing, launched an attack on the oil rich Iranian border area. They took advantage of what they and the British and Americans assumed was chaos following the setting up of the Iranian Islamic Republic. The chaos was far more apparent than real. By 1982 the Iraqis had been driven back across the border and the war could have ended at that point.

But the Iranians were full of confidence, and decided to capture the holy cities of Karbala and Najev which, in effect, meant capturing most of the Southern, Shia, part of Iraq. They were in turn driven back to their borders after about three years. What followed for the rest of the eight year war was mostly devastating bombing of Iranian cities.

I stayed in Abadan and Khormanshahr on the border—the latter is about 30 km. South of Basra. The older parts of both cities are functioning and several villages are being rebuilt to incredibly high standards. But there are miles of former urban areas which are almost completely flattened. I could make out the routes of former streets and house foundations, with the odd bit of wall sticking up. The closest thing I've seen like it were news reels of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb.

Here the Tigris forms the border, and the harbour area of Khormanshahr is still full of bombed wharves and cranes and the rivers are littered with rusting cargo ships. Abadan airport was once a major international hub. Now it is a minor regional airport.

Iran takes an anti-occupation line on Iraq and acts accordingly. But you'd be hard put to find an Iranian who loses any sleep over the sufferings of any Iraqis—Sunni or Shia.

There are repeated attempts by the Americans to control and direct disaffected groups in Iran. These efforts come to virtually nothing. The substantial danger to Iran is within the clerical leadership and it is the British who are working in that area, as explained in Part One of this series.

The most serious armed group fighting the Iranian Government is the MKO (Mojahedin-e Kkalk). These arose from the Islamic Mojahedin which was one of the main groups fighting the Shah and was then suppressed by the Islamic Republic. They reorganised later in Iraq. The Americans used them for a while against Iran but they soon turned on the Americans and joined the Iraqi insurgency.

In Iran they are still conducting attacks on their own behalf against the Government. But they do not have the strength or the support to conduct a guerilla campaign and mostly confine themselves to assassinating political leaders and internal security personnel. While I was there they blew up a leading cleric in Aswad, and a few years ago set off a bomb in the Presidential Palace, killing the President.

For a long time there was a large Afghan refugee population in Iran. The Iranian Government offered a deal where for every family that returned to Afghanistan, one family member would be given a permanent work permit to stay in Iran and so be able to support his family. This has been hugely successful and there are very few Afghani refugees remaining.

One thing that makes Iranians of all shades proud of being Iranians is the overall sense of community. They are an honest people who would rarely, if ever, demean themselves by cheating or thieving. Their welcome for outsiders is genuine and almost extravagant. And given the attraction of the holy city of Mhashad for millions of foreign pilgrims, and of the pretty cities like Isfahan for people from all over the world, there are a great number of outsiders to contend with. In this the Iranians are like the Syrians and the Palestinians (apart from Bethlehem).

They are proud to contrast themselves to what they consider to be the degenerate Muslim countries like Egypt or Morocco where much of the population demean themselves trying to shake down foreigners and steal from each other. Saudi Arabia is not considered degenerate because the people by and large are not degenerate—only the ruling elite. I will deal with the religious dimension in part 3 of this series.

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