National Unity, Ethnic Diversity and The Islamic Republic of Iran

First Name: 
Rasmus Christian
Last Name: 
Institutional Affiliation : 
University of Copenhagen
Academic Bio: 
R.C. Elling is a Ph.D. candidate with a research project on the politics of ethnic and national identity in post-revolutionary Iran. He has taught Persian language, Iranian history, Afghanistan & Central Asia's modern history and Middle East Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He has traveled and lived in Iran and the Middle East. His recent works include 'State of Mind, State of Order: Reactions to Ethnic Unrest in the Islamic Republic Iran' (Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2008).

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.

Academic Discipline : 
Political Science
Time Period : 

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