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 rainfall.
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 centuries.
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.
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