Democratic Federation of Iran
If Iran, ever transformed into a federation, can solve not only the problem of identity, that could give the Iranians a stronger sense of belonging and patriotism
August 22, 2006
I have previously written a few things about Iran's identity problem. And I have very often thought about it and analyzed it through, as being one of Iran's two most serious problems, the other being oil. An Iran, which would deal with its oil wealth (more like a curse) and its national identity could become a great country indeed. And these two problems are seriously intertwined as I will explain.
One way to deal with oil, hypothetically, would be to slowly and steadily move the country toward a liberal and functional market economy which could take care of itself, and the oil could only be used as an extra income for expanding infrastructure and education. Iran's current way of using oil revenue for feeding people is just a terrible mockery of rationality. Which is no surprise.
Anyway, oil is not as serious an issue as the definition of Iran's national identity. This is a much more serious problem that is much harder to deal with. And the fixing of Iran's identity problem would take generations, if anyone cared.
The reason I care about this problem is because I strongly believe in the existence of such a serious problem, especially after having compared Iran to other countries that I have visited and studied.
Let's take Britain for an example. Although Britain does not have any independence date, any revolution, any special event that could mark a serious beginning of any sort that could be a defining moment for the nation, it has some commonalities among the Brits that hold a strong sense of identity. Britain is an island (Ireland, or Northern Ireland is not Britain, though we add it to the UK) or it is essentially an island nation. Its people are mostly English, and even the Scots or the Welsh speak mostly English. And even if it would only be about the English (those who populate England) they are more than 85% of the population of the British isles. The fact that Britain is an island nation, where they speak English and have a quite simple straight-forward history of Britishness has made Britain a strong country where people truly feel they live where they belong to, and where they have the duty to defend.
Another quite different case would be the United States. It's not an island for sure, and there is no real sense of ethnic and historic bondage. This is something quite remarkable about the US that separates it from most of the world. Americans share quite a different characteristic that binds them and gives them a great sense of unity and pride. All Americans are either the children of, or those who have left their homelands themselves, to have a better future, and they always fight for this hope, which is never truly materialised. Americans are always fighting for what they hope the future will bring for them. So, hope is the American people's link with each other, though they never really communicate this with each other because they are competitors. But when it comes to defending their hopes, they are not competitors anymore, but rather comrades who have something to share.
However America cannot be compared to Iran. Iran, like Britain, is the land of old settled peoples who have usually got used to old inheritances, material or cultural.
But where the problem with Iran (and some other countries) lies is that they have a serious unconscious problem defining themselves, and their identities. Iran's boundaries have been drawn due to battles or intimidations engaged with the Ottomans, the Russians, and the British. There is nothing extraordinary about Iran's boundaries. The cat that has come up is nothing but an accidental shape, representing nothing. It doesn't even represent the map of the Shia. Shias are left outside Iran in large numbers in the north, Azerbaijan, in the west, Southern Iraq, in the south to the Persian gulf area, and in the east in western Afghanistan.
Iran's boundaries have nothing to do with Iranian traditions and customs. Iran shares very similar traditions and cultures with the Azerbaijanis, the Kurds, Afghans and the peoples in central Asia. One can hardly reason why some peoples and tribes belong to Iran and not to any other neighbouring country. And of course, Iran's boundaries have nothing to do with language. Less than, or close to, half of Iran's population are native Farsi-speakers. Not that Iran's other languages are not Farsi, some of them (and a very large proportion) are not even of the same origin, Indo-European.
The languages are so different that they could more easily be related to languages thousands of miles away rather than to each other inside Iran. Examples are Turkic languages that are more related to those in western China or Hungarian rather than Farsi, or Arabic that is about the same in Morocco, but definitely not related to either Farsi, or Turkic.
Histroy though somehow, to some extent, unites at least some Iranians who feel they have something in common. But a very large number of Iranians have had very little to do with Iran's history. And it's not just about the Arabs, the Kurds, the Baluchis or the Turkmens. Various Iranian peoples, far from the capital (wherever it may have been in various times) had usually been too busy with their own internal affairs, and their real contact with the central government was often felt only when they had to pay their duties, taxes, to the more masculin, tougher strongmen residing in the capital.
The fact is that, prior to Reza Shah, with his new ideas (borrowed from the West) about nationalism, Iran's real and absolutely clear unifying factor was the shah, whoever he was at any time. And Iran, due to so many difficulties, some of which were mentioned above, never was anything seriously united other than becasue of the wrath of the central government. This is not to say that other countries were any different.
Nationalism was not new just for Iran. It was new everywhere, more so in the Middle East. Every shah knew one thing clearly, that he was to be respected. And he had one thing in mind, and that was his power. If this happened to be over Iran, so be it, as it was quite big and the power that came with it respective to the size of the land. Those times didn't need any pondering about national identity. It simply made no sense. Democracy, or the power of the people, in the West, changed all that and no simplistic tyranny could any longer match the might of a country with nationalistic pride and popular backing.
That dramatic change never really took place in Iran. It took place in Turkey, and the previous Ottoman empire gave way to the national state of the Turks, though other minority groups (relatively few compared to the Turks) also happened to be inside the Turkish state, due to bad luck probably. Iran however, being realistic about no clear way of having a Persia where there would be true Persians, chose the Aryan path, which seemed very tempting, especially during a time when it was fashionable in Europe to be proud of being Aryans. So Iran jumped in and separated itslef from the inferiors, trying to show to the world that it in fact belonged to the club of the blue-eyed Northern Aryans, though with the technical difficulty of looking a bit too much non-Aryan.
All this is history now. And we have already got what we have. Presently a Shia state (Aryanism being given up in 1979, about 34 years overdue) which spent all its religious vigour during the Iraq-Iran war. And the sad (or funny) side was that Iran was fighting mostly Shia fighters of Iraq in the name of Shia Islam. Iranians don't really swallow religious nationalism now. The problem still exists, how to define an Iran which can realistically represent its peoples, or make one people comprising all those living inside Iran, or at least a very large majority of them. This reckoning can bring Iranians together, though the way to do it can hardly be anything but fantastic theory.
One thing is for sure. Iran will stay a weak country as long as the problem of identity is not solved one way or the other. And one suggestion, which has worked quite well in India and many other countries rich or poor, would be to have a federal system. Iranian authorities would fear such an idea because of one real reason and another declarative reason. The real reason would be that central politicians would lose power. The declarative reason would be that federation would be the most serious threat toward Iran's territorial integrity. This declarative reason is absolutely wrong as history has shown that federations such as India and the US, let alone many other democratic countries, have been united and very strong.
And there have also been candidate countries desiring to join a federation, which is unconceivable for a nationalistic state with an authoritarian central government. Another example, though a bit different (not being a federation but something close to it), is the EU. Nevertheless, it's absolutely clear that if the United States, like the EU, would welcome other countries to join the club, there would a very long waiting list for it.
And it's not just for the prosperity. It's also becasue a federal system (or any similar system that allows for self-determination in a large extent) is very desirable for smaller states becasue it does not take away the possibility for politicians to stay powerful, and it gives them a sense of security, being part of a big and powerful club.
Therefore I think if Iran, ever transformed into a federation, can solve not only the problem of identity, that could give the Iranians a stronger sense of belonging and patriotism, but it also could make Iran a possible candidate where neighbouring smaller countries could eventually join (where they historically belonged), or at least ally with. In a hypothetical federal state, Iranian provinces or territories, could have a lot of independence as the states in the US enjoy.
And as there are so many ethnic groups in Iran, they could protect not just their beautiful cultural diversities, dialects and languages, but they could also enter a healthy competition for prosperity, trying to offer better lives for their own populations. This is indeed the case for the EU and the US, as states are engaged in a healthy competition, and time to time a small state becomes a sort of testing ground for various new and challenging social, fiscal or political ideas. This was the case for Ireland, which introduced a very lax fiscal system that was considered risky at the time, though after having succeeded attracted many followers in other parts of Europe.
Offering freedoms to various groups does not push them toward desiring independence. It would be absurd for an Iranian province to wish for independence while it can have the protection of a very strong large military for a not-so-large tax contribution and also stay mostly independent within a large club. A small independent state in a dangerous region like the Middle East can never feel truly safe and would always feel the need for protection. And no Iranian province in a federal system would ever desire complete independence as long as it could have a large degree of independence within the Iranian boundaries, also enjoying the protection of the central government from possible foreign hostilities.
Nevertheless even a federal Iran could have one really big problem, and here comes the issue of oil. Iranian central governments, ever since oil became a serious source of revenue, have been extremely dependent on oil, both to establish their own powerbase, and also to prevent others from plotting to take over. And, as long as oil belongs to the land largely populated by Iranian Arabs, where would the oil revenue go? To the administrations of the regions where it is extracted from, or to the central government?
The fair reality is that oil belongs to the region where it is extracted from and Iran's central authority has been systematically engaged in bullying the regions (especially Khuzestan, or Arabestan as it was called) and stealing their wealth. But that's life. Life is not supposed to be fair, and it will never be. So the solution for this problem would be to make at least a temporary exception for the oil revenue, so that the central government would take charge of most of the oil revenue, but not all of it. At least some proportion of the oil revenue must go to the region where it is extracted from, to be at least partially fair.
And to make a federal state in a hostile area such as the Middle East workable there must also be some sort of a rule against separatism, so that any referendum for separatism would not be permitted. This is not fair either, but in a country like Iran where there are great risks of regional nationalism and separatist activities it can be an inevitable temporary measure for keeping stability and peace.
However, unfortunately Iranians don't even have a democracy yet, let alone a more complex type of it. But it's possible, imaginable at least, to become luckier and find a path to have it both ways and almost simultaneously. Maybe Iranians are not out of luck. Comment