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Iran: One state, several nations?

June 8, 2019
Guest Blog
5 min read
Iran: One state, several nations?

Afshin Berahmand

Mohammad Khatami’s recent remarks on federalism are admirable. Not because federalism is necessarily right for Iran but because the remarks question whether the institutional expression of Iran leaves room for improvement. What I argue here is to move the focus from federalism – which in any case is a remedy – to identifying the problem. And is federalism even an appropriate remedy or do we need to think out of the box?

The character of minority claims

The claims of Iranian minority organizations representing Kurds, Azeri Turks, Baloch, Turkmen and Ahwazi Arabs range from territorial autonomy (decentralization) to linguistic andor religious rights – sometimes all three at the same time. I have not been able to find a single political representative of an Iranian minority that is outright secessionist. But while they are not secessionists, some of these minorities do consider themselves more than just a group of Iranians with – for example – an extra language. They want to be recognized as something more than a traditional minority, but less than an independent state-people. Scholars such as Michael Keating and Stephen Tierney have – with reference to the Quebecois, Catalans and Scots – coined the term “minority nations” and their corresponding political ambitions as “sub-state national claims”. I understand this as movements that aspire to define the issue of nationality vis-à-vis the state. This leads us to the first critical point: What is the relationship between the nation and the state and what does this relationship mean with regard to minority rights?

The merger of nation and state

The nation-state is the modern, normative ideal for the political organization of peoples. It is relevant to understand the nature of the nation-state as a political concept because it determines the framework by which we understand and settle minority questions.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the nation-state was born. Some point to the peace at Westphalia in 1648 where polities mutually recognised each other’s’ sovereign borders, i.e. the external dimension of defining a nation-state. Others trace it back to the French revolution of 1789-1799 when the state went from being manifested in the king (in the words polemically ascribed to King Louis XIV: ”L’etat, c’est moi,”) to becoming a manifestation of the free French people or nation; i.e. internal dimension of defining a nation-state. The state managed to “marry” the people by offering an institutional expression that protects the freedom of the individual and the unity and sovereignty of one particular people or nation.

This fits with European thinking about the relationship between individuals, minorities, people, and state. In social contract terms, individuals sign the social contract – an act by which their unity as one nation gives birth to the state. In this scheme, a minority is simply a multiplicity of individuals leaving no room for a minority nation or people. It is almost counter-intuitive to think about minorities as nations within a given state.

In conclusion, the nation-state almost implies freedom. If a people wants freedom then it needs to become a nation-state. This may explain why many minorities have historically sought their own states. It certainly sets up a barrier to thinking about national diversity, when the state can only be comprised of one nation. Perhaps this is why the nation-state has had so much trouble accommodating diversity legally and politically.

The right to self-determination and federalism

The basis for minority national claims is the right to self-determination in international human rights law. This right almost never justifies secession. It points to arrangements within existing state borders such as federalism. Federalism is broadly speaking the combination of “self-rule” and “shared rule”. Rather than to disintegrate the state, federalism territorially consolidates a state and secures its territorial integrity (see the Canadian Supreme Court case regarding the Secession of Quebec, 1998). This may explain why secessionist sentiment exists even in federal countries: Federalism does not question the one nation paradigm, on the contrary.

Accommodating minority national claims

What does it mean to be a nation and why does it matter? It matters because sovereignty rests in the people or nation as a unit – not in a minority, which is part of that unit, but numerically inferior. This means that where a minority is in the hands of the majority, the minority nation can decide on some issues sovereignly (e.g. use of language).

Scholars agree that a constitutional accommodation of minority national claims involves three tenets: Territorial autonomy (deep decentralization), symbolic recognition, and representation at the centre.

In return for such arrangements, integrationist conditions can be set to oblige the minority nation to engage in strengthening the cohesion of society, contribute to the unity of the state, help design a common, encompassing identity etc; all of which are at the centre of the state’s project.

In order to move sensitive issues from a political sphere to a more “formal” sphere, a constitutional court can be established to settle issues between the minority nation and the central government. The professional make-up of the constitutional court could introduce minority representation quotas regarding the delegation of judges ensuring the fairness of judgements.

Unity in diversity?

There are countries who have looked at their legal framework, held it up against their socio-cultural realities and found that the European nation-state-paradigm was not a suitable institutional design for them. In 2008 and 2009, Ecuador and Bolivia introduced new constitutions designating their countries formally as “pluri-national states”. The former president of Ecuador has described pluri-nationalism as “the coexistence of several different nationalities within a larger state where different peoples, cultures and worldviews exist and are recognized”.

Whether one supports the Islamic revolution or not, Iranians have proved able to think outside the box: To choose a way of life that is unique to their characteristics. Federalism does not have to be the answer but the reality is that Iran is a vastly diverse country. Are Iranians bold enough to come up with new, creative structures of governance? Will they see diversity as a strength or a threat? Time will tell.



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