Originally published on The LobeLog
By Shireen T. Hunter, Former AIC Board Member
Since the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, articles have appeared in the West arguing that, sooner or later, Iran’s ethnic and linguistic diversity will lead it to go the way of the USSR and dissolve into several states. Moreover, subscribers to this theory believe that the United States should encourage such a disintegrative process by further isolating Iran economically and politically, while also supporting its separatist elements.
Others, meanwhile, talk about a wholesale rearranging of Middle East/West Asia borders along ethnic and sectarian lines. One such article was “Blood Borders” by Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters, published in The Armed Forces Journal. Now that the Trump administration has again put regime change in Iran on the US agenda, similar articles have again proliferated.
Of course, the risk of disintegration exists for all nations and not just Iran. From the UK to Spain, Italy, and potentially even France, devolutionary forces might emerge. For example, if Catalonia becomes independent, Occitania in France might try to follow suit. And if Occitania, why not Brittany, the Basque area, Corsica, and so on? Italy might split between north and south, and the United Kingdom might fracture into Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.
Of course, none of these events will occur because, unlike in some Middle Eastern countries, no regional or great power will help such separatist movements.
But there are other reasons why it is unlikely that Iran will go the way of the USSR. These reasons relate to the real causes of the USSR’s break up and the nature of the Iranian nation and state.
Ethnic Revolt Was Not the Cause of Soviet Collapse
What led to the Soviet Union’s demise was not ethnic revolts. Rather, deep differences emerged within the Soviet leadership following Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. The eruption of nationalist movements in the USSR from 1989 onwards was partly encouraged by these competing factions: first by Gorbachev’s opponents to demonstrate the dangers of perestroika (restructuring) and then by Gorbachev himself to show that without it the Union could not hold. Later, supporters of Boris Yeltsin encouraged centrifugal tendencies. Famously, Yeltsin called on the USSR’s ethnic minorities, including Chechens, to take as much sovereignty as they could.
Even so, the Union’s coup de grace was not delivered by ethnic minorities but by Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. Once it declared independence in early December 1991, clearly the Union could not hold, even in a reformed and liberalized form. This decision of the Russian Federation stunned the heads of other republics. For example, in utter astonishment, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, reportedly asked, “from whom Russia wants to separate,” since the USSR without Russia would not exist.
Regarding intra-regime differences, there are some similarities between Iran and the USSR. However, in Iran neither the hardliners nor the reformists would go so far as fomenting ethnic unrest to advance their interests because their interest is bound with Iran within its current borders. There is no Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin in Iran.
Unlike the USSR, Iran is not a colonial empire. During its long history, Iran has lost territory rather than incorporating other lands. Some of Iran’s ethnic and linguistic minorities, such as the Arabs and the Turkic-speaking inhabitants of Azerbaijan, are remnants of the Arab and Turko-Mongol invasion of Iran. Thus, any past colonialization in Iran has been by Arabs and Turks and not vice versa. Therefore, the logic of the inevitable dissolution of colonial empires does not apply to Iran.
Misunderstanding the Issue of Iran’s Ethnic Composition
One reason for exaggerating the likelihood of Iran’s disintegration along ethnic lines is the conflation of Iranian and Persian. From the beginning of Iran’s recorded history, the word Iranian encompassed more than only the Persians and included the Medes, the Sarmatians, and other groups, some of which no longer exist. This fact is clear from the way Darius I, the Achaemenid Emperor, described himself: “I am Darius, the son of Vishtasp. My clan is Achaemenid, my tribe is Persian, and my nation is Aryan” (the latter didn’t possess negative connotations at the time).
After Alexander the Great conquered Iran, the Greeks and later all Westerners referred to Iran as Persia. For Iranians, however, Iran was always far more than Persia and the Persians. The Sassanids (205-651 A.D.) referred to their country as Eranshahr. Even at the time of the Qajars (1785 to 1925), Iranians called their country Iran. Contrary to a belief in the United States, Reza Shah Pahlavi did not change Iran’s name from Persia to Iran. He only insisted that foreign governments refer to it by its proper name and not Persia, which is only a province in Iran.
In today’s Iran, Kurds, Lurs, and the Baluch are Iranian peoples. Despite their linguistic Turkification, the percentage of Turkic blood in Azerbaijanis is no more than that in the average Iranian. The Kurdish and Baluch languages are Iranian languages. Kurdish is actually closer to the pre-Arab invasion Persian than to the Persian spoken in today’s Tehran.
The regions of Sistan and Baluchistan, where many of those who would like to see separatist movements erupt, are among the most important places where the post-Arab invasion Persian national revival began.
“Rustam” the mythical Iranian Hercules and the hero of Shahnameh, the Persian national epic, was from Sistan. Recently, there has been a revival in reading Shahnameh in the region and elsewhere in Iran. The Kurd’s culture and historical memory began with their appropriation of Kaveh, who restored Iran’s legitimate monarchy during the time of the Achaemenids, and his banner Derafsh e Kaviani” (“the standard of the kings”) is based on Iranian history and historical memory. Even if they wanted to, the Kurds could not escape their Iranian heritage without greatly impoverishing themselves.
Iran as a Historical and Cultural Nation
Another reason for arguing against Iran’s disintegration, certainly in the absence of a massive military attack, is that Iran is a historical and cultural rather than an ethnic-based nation. What unites Iranians is not ethnicity, but rather shared history, culture, and to a great extent religion. In fact, given how many conquerors Iran has had, its survival within more or less its ancient borders is nothing short of a miracle. Its culture and traditions, instead of being obliterated by its invaders, has seduced and absorbed its conquerors. The best example of Iranian culture’s seductive nature can be seen in Mughal India and to some extent in the Ottoman Empire.
The USSR never achieved such an attractive and all-embracing culture. Its project of creating a Homo Sovieticus failed miserably.
In addition, Iran’s minorities have no attractive alternatives. A Kurdish state is still a mirage. For Kurds, joining Turkey or Iraq is no alternative. For Iran’s Azerbaijanis, life under Ilham Aliev, president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, would be no picnic. Pakistan’s Baluch are much worse off than those of Iran.
Additionally, internal strife in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen—just to mention a few—are a sobering reminder for all Iranians that they should avoid similar situations. In short, looked at with a sober eye, remaining within Iran is the best bet for all its citizens.
Considering these facts, the best option for the United States is to try promoting positive change within Iran through constructive engagement, including in the economic area, rather than seek regime change by force or even the country’s disintegration. Indeed, that would be a sure way to guarantee that virtually all Iranians would pull together to protect the integrity of their nation and state. Had America chosen constructive engagement in the 1990s, Iran would today look very different and most likely would enjoy non-hostile relations with the United States.