Since the wave of late-1990s reformism, Iran has witnessed an emerging ethnic mobilization among the many minorities that make up almost half of the Iranian society.
Signs include a surge of interest in minority languages, histories and cultures; ethnic unrest and public displays of discontent; demands for cultural rights and autonomy; a lively but limited ethno-nationalist discourse; and an acute anxiety among political leaders, intellectuals and in the public of threats to established notions of Iranian-ness and territorial integrity. The place of this topic in the presidential election campaigns in 2009 clearly showed that ethnicity is no longer a taboo but indeed at the center of the discussion on Iran’s future.
The general response of both secular-nationalist intellectuals and rulers of the Islamic Republic has often been to conflate ethno-political demands with separatism or anti-Iranian activity. This paper will explore more constructive views. The main argument is that while minority cultural rights should be recognized and granted, there is also a need to protect national unity and the territorial integrity of Iran. The opposite – a mounting crisis and the possibility of ethnic, sectarian and transnational strife – could result in cataclysmic violence and regional war.
Thus, this paper will seek to identify some of the obstacles to achieving ethno-cultural rights and minority self-determination while maintaining Iran’s national unity and integrity – in particular the political, ideological and socio-cultural barriers for attaining unity and diversity. After all, ethnic minority rights are inscribed in the Iranian constitution and Unity Within Diversity (vahdat dar ‘eyn-e kesrat) was actually one of Khomeini’s central slogans. The question then is: why do some feel that this slogan has not been translated into policy?
Instead of federalism/separatism (proposed by some minority intellectuals) and instead of a Persian-centered Iranian nationalism (reminiscent of the Pahlavi era), Iran will need a third way to balance ethnic diversity with national unity. The consequences of failure to identify this third way can have dire consequences for the stability and security of Iranian society.