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Iran’s Multination Country: A Historical Approach to Understanding the Lack of a United Opposition

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The Iranian ability to remain in power despite the ongoing uprising within the country can be largely attributed to the lack of a united opposition. [1] Given the regime’s extremely oppressive nature, the question arises is why, over the course of more than four decades, a viable political opposition has not emerged. To fully comprehend this phenomenon, one should understand Iran’s socio-historical framework as a multination state. A historical approach can explain the complexity of the dynamics of politics between Persians, as the holders of sovereignty in Iran, and the non-sovereign nations (peoples) of the country–namely, Kurds, Azeri Turks, Balochis, Ahwazi Arabs, and other distinct groups such as Lurs and Caspians who seek special status for their regions. In contemporary history, the sovereignty of Persians in Iran has been established at the cost of denying the self-determination rights of other nations within the country.

Despite the widely-held view among political analysts, Iran is not, in reality, a nation. There is no such a thing as the single Iranian nation; rather, Iran consists of several distinct nations within its political borders. Despite this fact, Iranian ultranationalist ideology denies the existence of these non-Persian nations and peoples, reducing them to the status of a ‘qowm’ (large tribe) and thereby denying their legitimate collective rights. As a result, non-sovereign nations have lived under Persian colonial rule during the last century.

The main slogan of the ongoing revolution, ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadî’ (woman, life, freedom), originates from other parts of Kurdistan, providing evidence of the dynamic nature of the cross-border cultural and political kinship in the region. Providing another clear example of this phenomenon, the sensitivity of Azerbaijani Turks in Iran to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is more pronounced than their attention to domestic political issues in Iran. The same logic applies to the Balochis—who are partitioned between Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—and the Ahwazi Arabs in south and southwest  Iran, with all these cases highlighting the impact of geopolitical boundaries on cultural and political identification.

Furthermore, Iran has never been completely colonised by European colonialists. This has led to a specific type of state that is perceived by Iranian nationalists as the continuation of its pre-modern Empire. Unlike many other states which were colonised and then partitioned during the process of decolonisation, modern Iran, as a multinational state, despite losing some territories, has avoided partition to date. Many nations became independent through the process of the United Nations’ decolonisation policies, and some have achieved independence even during the post-colonial era. However, non-sovereign nations within Iran have experienced a different type of colonialism, which needs to be properly addressed and understood – an objective beyond this article’s purpose.

From the Persian nationalist perspective, Iran is not a typical nation-state but rather a precious remnant of Persia’s pre-modern empire and a supreme civilisational state representing a regional civilisation which offers a superior alternative to both the Western and regional options for the region. [2] This imperialist perception of Iranian identity presents a serious challenge for Persian nationalists in understanding the wholly different nature of nationalism among the colonised (non-sovereign) nations and peoples in Iran. As a result, any self-determination movement among these nations is perceived by Persian nationalists as an externally led attempt to partition Iran.

Persian nationalists have never viewed the question of self-determination for non-Persian peoples as a domestic matter but instead have attributed the very idea and support for it to external powers; this is true both under the rule of the current so-called Islamic Republic regime and the preceding Pahlavi dynasty’s (1925-1979). For example, according to this nationalist narrative, the establishment of the Kurdistan Republic (1946) and Azerbaijan People’s Government (1945-1946) stemmed solely from Soviet attempts to partition Iran; this ignores the numerous previous uprisings in these colonised nations against rule imposed by Tehran. For instance, the Kurdish uprising led by Simko Shikak (1918-1922) and the Kurdish nationalist movement during the early years of the so-called Islamic Revolution in 1979 seriously challenged Iran’s sovereignty in Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, in Ahwaz in Iran’s south and southwest, as in much of the Middle East, the discovery of oil and gas was more of a curse than a blessing for the Ahwazi Arab people. Since Iran first annexed the formerly independent emirates between 1920 to 1925 in a cynical deal with the British Empire following the discovery of large oil and gas reserves in the region, successive regimes have pursued a policy of persecuting and marginalising the predominantly Ahwazi Arab population in a strategy that veers between attempting to assimilate the people and attempting to deny their culture, history and existence. Since the current theocratic regime came to power in 1979, its leadership has accelerated its brutal efforts to drive Ahwazis out, using strategies including rerouting the region’s rivers to other areas of Iran in order to make Ahwaz uninhabitable for its native people.

Since the colonisation of Ahwazi territories, several Ahwazi Arab groups and movements have emerged to fight against Iranian colonisation, with hundreds of Ahwazi political and cultural activists, as well as writers, poets and thinkers, being persecuted, imprisoned and executed up to the present day. Despite Ahwazis’ heritage, successive regimes, driven by the need to deny the Ahwazis any claim to ownership of the resources on their own land, have endeavoured to deny their culture in a policy of massive historical revisionism, essentially to depict them as interlopers in their own land.

Balochi people have faced similar state-sponsored brutal oppression, denial of all their fundamental rights and the highest number of execution, living in full marginalisation and poverty, and, like the Kurdish nation, risk their lives to trade oil and various goods across the border, with IRGC killing them on a daily basis. Like the Kurdish and Ahwazi issues, several Balochi groups and movements formed and fought inside Balochistan against Iranian colonisation and in reaction to the Shah’s and the current regime’s oppression and wholesale discrimination.

The presence of large populations of national kins of non-sovereign nations in the neighbouring countries (e.g., Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; Baloches in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Azerbaijani Turks in the Republic of Azerbaijan and Turks in Turkey; and Ahwazi people who are close to Arab Gulf countries as well as Iraq), has complicated the issue of self-determination movements in Iran. Although Persian nationalism seeks to assimilate these nations into a unified pan-Iranian identity, the colonised nations strive for national self-determination and share cross-border characteristics that connect them beyond Iran’s political borders.

The current contentious debate surrounding the future of Iran is marked by contrasting perspectives. Persian nationalists argue that Iran needs a more nationalist and integrationist state to complete the process of nation-building, positioning it as an alternative to the current Islamic Republic regime. In contrast, the non-sovereign nations of Kurdistan, Baluchistan, South Azerbaijan, and Al-Ahwaz argue that the right to self-determination should be recognised and implemented in any future government. These opposing viewpoints are rooted in two international legal principles: the principle of territorial integrity and the principle of self-determination.

The Persian opposition to the current regime is largely represented by the Royalists, centred around Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s former dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Royalists’ pan-Iranian discourse and their political agenda have become the major obstacle to the formation of a united opposition against the current regime. The divisions between Royalists and other opposition groups are so deep that it is difficult to imagine reaching any reasonable and viable consensus among them. People in Iran are facing a challenging situation, caught between an autocratic regime and an ultra-nationalist opposition that also presents risks due to its far-right discourse on the collective rights of not only non-sovereign nations but also of other groups such as feminists, liberals, and leftists, all of whom fear being excluded under the Royalists’ authoritarian political agenda.

Finally, the regime’s ongoing use of chemical weapons in schools against students has already sparked the possibility of a civil war, further adding to the uncertainty and darkness now shrouding the ongoing protests. The current situation in Iran demands a wholly democratic approach that recognises and respects the right to self-determination of all Iran’s peoples and nations. The Royalists’ agenda, however, falls far short of any such aspirations. A potential solution could be a coalition among non-sovereign nations to shift the balance of power among opposition groups, which may push the Royalists to reconsider their pan-Iranian project. Unfortunately, uniting opposition groups is a daunting task, compounded by the Islamic Republic’s blind determination to remain in power at all costs. Only when all nations’ individual and collective rights are genuinely recognised and respected can we hope for a truly inclusive and effective opposition to the current regime.

By Sirwan Renas

Sirwan Renas is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Sirwan tweets under@SirwanRenas

Notes:

[1] It is not the purpose of this piece to establish the exact terminology to describe the characteristics of this uprising. However, in order to remain neutral, I use the terms uprising, protests, movement, and revolution interchangeably throughout the article to describe the same phenomenon.
[2] I am using Persian nationalism and Iranian nationalism interchangeably.

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