The treatment of ethnic minorities is a fundamental question in building a stable, democratic, and prosperous Iran. As a former multinational Empire strategically poised on the Eurasian bridge, Iran has a civilization of exceptional diversity with a rich and complex culture. It has variously dominated, and been dominated by, differing nationalities. Some came as conquerors, and some as subjects, of the Empire. Some were assimilated while others maintained their distinctive identities. Some were ruling dynasties while others were on the margin of power. Either way, Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Lurs, Turkomans, and many others, have come to call this land their home over the centuries, and share a common destiny.
As it has with other multi-ethnic nations, the process of modern nation-building in Iran brought with it the need for centralization and assimilation. This entailed a common language, a common allegiance, a common identity. In this respect, Iran was no different from France, Germany, or Italy, which from the 18th century onward began their transformation from absolutist monarchies with feudal fiefdoms to modern states with centralized institutions, often in nationalistic competition with other states. As happened in other countries, Iran's ethnic minorities were often denied their collective identity, and subjected to varying forms of forced assimilation and even repression. The extent of violence escalated dramatically with the 1979 Islamic revolution and the imposition of a totalitarian and particularistic religious ideology that could not tolerate any diversity or dissent.
There is at the same time legitimate concern that extremist ethnic politics linked with territorial claims could lead to the catastrophic scenarios that the world witnessed in places such as Yugoslavia. Talk of secession is usually full of danger. Territorial disintegration is almost invariably associated with widespread civilian atrocities. In Bosnia for example, "ethnic cleansing" demonstrated the collision between the political assertion that certain territories should be "ethnically pure" and the reality that in the contemporary interdependent world, most often people of different ethnicities live side by side, and not necessarily in their traditional lands. Witness the ethnic composition of Tehran and other big cities in Iran. Nonetheless, some cynical neo-conservatives have even proposed using ultra-nationalist separatist movements to dismember Iran as a "solution" to the nuclear issue and perceived strategic threats. Needless to say, this would lead to a catastrophic outcome that would destabilize the region for generations to come. Between the two extremes of violent repression of minorities and secessionist movements, what vision should Iranian citizens aspire to as they chart a path for a better future?
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It is useful to consider first what international human rights law states about minority rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, provides in Article 27: "
"In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language."
It is evident that in a democratic Iran based on respect for human rights, ethnic minorities would have the right to use their own language and to profess their own religion and culture without discrimination and repression, even if they would simultaneously use Persian as the national language. Diversity would no longer be perceived as a threat to a totalitarian religious ideology that must forcibly assimilate its citizens to preserve its power. Rather, diversity would become a source of cultural wealth, and an expression of human dignity. After all, identity is the most basic form of self-definition for human beings. Furthermore, without discriminatory and repressive policies, there would be a significant disincentive for secessionism, which almost always exploits anger at repression to advance its cause.
Beyond such basic considerations however, it must be emphasized that the question of decentralization or autonomy for ethnic groups short of secession, must be viewed within the context of the global forces of integration. With the free movement of goods and peoples across the world, the formation of identity in cyberspace and other factors of cultural integration, borders become increasingly unimportant. Witness the European Union where once intractable nationalist hatreds and wars over borders have been subsumed in a common political and cultural space, not least because of the devastating historical experiences of wars and genocides. There are still separatist movements, whether among the Catalan in Spain, or the Scottish in the United Kingdom, and they are most popular when the economic situation is in decline. But these movements have limited following and even then their notion of sovereignty is limited. What would it mean for these entities to become "independent"?
Would the Scottish and Catalans cut themselves out of the immense benefits of having access to wider markets and alliances? How important would it be to say that their status is independence rather than autonomy given that economic and cultural forces have blurred such distinctions dramatically? The U.S. State of California has the same population and economy as the independent country of Canada. Which wields more influence in the world? The German state of Bavaria has greater wealth than many independent countries in the world. Global interdependence and transcendence of old boundaries is no longer a distant poetic dream; it is an inescapable reality. Therefore, autonomy, whether through federalism or more modest devolutions of power, is always a relative concept, and not an absolute distinction as it was in the earlier age of romantic nationalism. That is why secession is as obsolete as it is dangerous.
Beyond this framework of debate and dialogue, there is a bigger question of how a future Iran could transform the ethnic minority question to its advantage and make it a significant strategic asset rather than a liability. If Iran were to achieve freedom and prosperity for its citizens, and move beyond the present political culture of abuse and corruption to a culture of human rights and accountability, it could dramatically exploit its strategic centrality as a bridge between the Middle-East, South-eastern Europe, and Central Asia, to resolve ethnic divisions to its advantage. These are the same historical forces that shaped Iran's diversity in the first place. Imagine for example that instead of the violent repression of Iran's Kurdish citizens, Mahabad became a stable and prosperous free trade zone and cultural centre that would become a regional focal point for Kurds from Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Or if Tabriz became a similar centre for Turkic-speaking peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia? Or if Ahvaz became a bridge to the Arab world competing with Dubai and Abu Dhabi as a commercial and cultural hub in the Persian Gulf?
The question of ethnic minorities therefore is not merely a problem to be solved; rather, it is also an immense opportunity for a wise and just leadership to transform Iran from its current pariah status into a leader among nations. In this light, embracing human rights and global interdependence is not merely a poetic dream for the future of Iran; it is an existential necessity for its survival and prosperity in the years ahead.