There has never been a census of pastoral nomads in Iran. In
1986 census officials estimated that nomads totaled 1.8 million.
The number of tribally organized people, both nomadic and sedentary,
may be twice that figure, or nearly 4 million. The nomadic population
practices transhumance, migrating in the spring and in the fall.
Each tribe claims the use of fixed territories for its summer
and winter pastures and the right to use a specified migration
route between these areas. Frequently summer and winter camps
are widely separated, in some cases by as much as 300 kilometers.
Consequently, the semiannual migrations, with families, flocks,
and household equipment, may take up to two months to complete.
The nomadic tribes are concentrated in the Zagros, but small groups
are also found in northeastern and southeastern Iran.
The movements of the tribes appear to be an adaptation to the
ecology of the Zagros. In the summer, when the low valleys are
parched from insufficient rainfall, the tribes are in the higher
elevations. When the snows begin to fall and cover the pastures
of the higher valleys, the tribes migrate to low-lying pastures
that remain green throughout the winter because of the seasonal
Traditionally, the nomadic tribes have kept large herds of sheep
and goats, which have provided the main source of red meat for
Iran. During migrations the tribes trade their live animals, wool,
hair, hides, dairy products, and various knotted and woven textiles
with villagers and townspeople in return for manufactured and
agricultural goods that the nomads are unable to produce. This
economic interdependence between the nomadic and settled populations
of Iran has been an important characteristic of society for several
During the Qajar period (1795-1925), when the central government
was especially weak, the nomadic tribes formed tribal confederations
and acquired a great deal of power and influence. In many areas
these tribal confederations were virtually autonomous and negotiated
with the local and national governments for extensive land rights.
The largest tribal confederations, such as those of the Bakhtiari
and the Qashqai, were headed by a paramount leader, or ilkhan.
Individual tribes within a confederation were headed by a khan,
beg, shaykh, or sardar. Subtribes, generally composed
of several clans, were headed by kalantars. The head
of the smallest tribal unit, the clan, was called a kadkhuda.
Reza Shah moved against the tribes with the new national army
that he began creating while minister of war and prime minister
(1921-25). After he became shah, his tribal policy had two objectives:
to break the authority and power of the great tribal confederation
leaders, whom he perceived as a threat to his goal of centralizing
power, and to gain the allegiance of urban political leaders who
had historically resented the power of the tribes. In addition
to military maneuvers against the tribes, Reza Shah used such
economic and administrative techniques as confiscation of tribal
properties and the holding of chiefs' sons as hostages. Eventually,
many nomads were subdued and placed under army control. Some were
given government-built houses and forced to follow a sedentary
life. As a result, the herds kept by the nomads were unable to
obtain adequate pasturage, and there was a drastic decline in
livestock. When Reza Shah abdicated in 1941, many nomadic tribes
returned to their former life-styles.
Mohammad Reza Shah continued the policy of weakening the political
power of the nomadic tribes, but efforts to coerce them to settle
were abandoned. Several tribal leaders were exiled, and the military
was given greater authority to regulate tribal migrations. Tribal
pastures were nationalized during the 1960s as a means of permitting
the government to control access to grazing. In addition, various
educational, health, and vocational training programs were implemented
to encourage the tribes to settle voluntarily.
Following the Revolution, several former tribal leaders attempted
to revitalize their tribes as major political and economic forces.
Many factors impeded this development, including the hostile attitude
of the central government, the decline in nomadic populations
as a result of the settlement of large numbers of tribespeople
in the 1960s and 1970s, and the consequent change in attitudes,
especially of youth raised in villages and towns.
By the mid-1980s, it seemed that the nomadic tribes were no longer
a political force in Iranian society. For one thing, the central
government had demonstrated its ability to control the migration
routes. Moreover, the leadership of the tribes, while formally
vested in the old families, effectively was dispersed among a
new generation of nonelite tribespeople who tended to see themselves
as ethnic minorities and did not share the views of the old elite.
Data as of December 1987