Former president Mohammad Khatami recently sparked fresh debate on the future of Iran, announcing that he supported a federalist form of government.
The controversial comments led to a flurry of responses from activists, pundits, and political analysts both within Iran and among the diaspora.
In IranWire’s new series on federalism, we ask activists, analysts, lawyers, and academics to give their views on federalism and whether it could be a future for Iranian politics and society.
Could it be the pathway for ushering in greater freedoms, or will it sow greater divisions in an already fragmented country? What would it mean for Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities, and does it go against the principles of equality so many Iranians want to see in their country?
IranWire invites academics and specialists from different countries – particularly those who have dealt with federalism in countries such as Spain, Canada, Belgium, and the US – to contribute to the series. The articles will be published in both English and Persian.
Kamran Matin is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Sussex University in the UK.
Dr. Matin, some Iranian pundits believe that federalism is not the right system for Iran. Does this mean that the establishment of a federal system depends on a country’s national and ethnic make-up, and can therefore be right for one country and wrong for another?
Federalism is a model of distributing political power in a society. Regardless of the political roots of recent discussions in Iran, I feel that those who strongly oppose federalism have a faulty understanding of the system.
They do not pay attention to the fact that, for instance, in the US, Australia and Germany, power is not distributed along ethnic or linguistic lines, and the governments are not always or necessarily different in terms of ethnicity and language.
The important point is that, in a federal system, the autonomous units recognize each other as different governments but, at the same time, pledge to protect each other. Through a partnership based on negotiations and consensus, they control a shared political domain. These units’ power and autonomy is also decided through consensus, and special mechanisms acceptable to all parties are set up to resolve differences.
In distributing power, federalism does not follow a unique formula, and it is implemented in different ways in different places. This ranges from distributing power based on language and ethnicity to geographic distinctions or historical considerations – the last of which, for example, applies to the German model.
If we agree that the ethnic divide in Iran is an active one, and that some Iranian citizens feel they are denied their fair share of power, politics, and culture because of their ethnicity, then can a federal Iran mitigate these divisions?
Federalism is a combination of self-management and shared governing. Shared governing means that all members that make up the federal system implement a set of unified policies in the areas that affect all units, such as national defense, finance, border policies, and so on. Self-management means that the constituent units enjoy powers at a local level, within the federal unit they have agreed upon.
This model can be a beneficial and effective one, not only for Iran but for all countries. Right now, approximately two billion people in many of the biggest countries in the world live under federal systems.
In the case of Iran, if we believe in the necessity of establishing a federal system, how should the borders of federal units be decided?
In the case of Iran, a set of considerations must be taken into account. For instance, if the federal units are shaped based on ethnic identities, such a system must adopt a radical democracy to make it possible for all federal units, from small to large, to exercise power and set laws to guarantee all minority rights and thwart the danger of tyranny by the majority.
This way, the rights of all ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities would be guaranteed at both national and federal level, regardless of the size or population of the unit.
In this model for distributing power, unlike in the pyramidal power distribution system in a centralized model like the one that exists in Iran today, the powers enjoyed at each level are not a function of their position in the structure or their distance from the center. An example is the US, where both the powers of the states and their representation at the Senate is not dependent on their size or population.
In the case of Iran, which model of federalism is more suitable?
My emphasis is on the effectiveness of a federal system in Iran and its benefits. The specific model of federalism must be decided through negotiations among various parties.
In a very abstract way, if I want to venture an opinion, I would say a model similar to the one established in Syria’s Kurdistan, notwithstanding all its problems and the criticisms that can be made against it. This model takes into account both territorial and ethnic considerations, and does not bestow advantages based on ethnic and linguistic distinctions. Its radical democracy provides equal levels of political participation for all religious-cultural groups.
But, again, I emphasize that the details of power sharing and distribution must be agreed through a process of negotiation. In Iran, there are many national-ethnic movements that have tried to guarantee the rights of minority groups, so it is largely already clear who would make up the negotiating parties in such discussions.
Some critics of a federal system have pointed out that it is designed for small political entities that desire unification, not for a country that has been historically unified. How justified is this criticism?
This view is historically and conceptually wrong. It has been said that Iran is a homogeneous country, and that one cannot find an example among existing federal countries where a homogeneous country has become a multicultural country by adopting a federal system.
There are two main objections to this view. First, Iran is not a homogeneous country; if it were, this discussion about federalism would have been irrelevant and would not have taken place. Iran is a multi-ethnic country with a variety of languages.
The second objection is that we do have a history of countries with centralized power that chose to become federal, like South Africa and Belgium. Even in Britain, we can see how a system that used to be centralized has become federalized. Wales and Scotland are now semi-autonomous entities that were once part of a British “United Kingdom”.
India is another country where federalization took place when both the centralized system moved towards federalism and smaller units within the country joined together to enter the federal system.
The other criticism levelled at federalism in Iran is the fear that, in a country with such a high level of ethnic diversity, federalism would be the first step towards disintegration. Is this criticism justified?
On the contrary, if there is only one way to prevent the disintegration of a country like Iran, it would be the establishment of a federal system, along with decentralization, a radical democracy, and the political participation of all ethnic groups from equal legal and political positions.
If the critics were right then Switzerland would have disintegrated four times by now. Switzerland is a unified country because its federal system guarantees equal rights for all its constituent nationalities: speakers of German, French, and Italian. The Swiss system works well because nobody feels discriminated against in the running of the country.
It is only natural that if the units comprising a system do not feel that their interactions with each other are based on legal and political equality, they would gravitate towards separatism. Political participation by itself does not guarantee equality, and the parties that see themselves as losers would have no reason to wish to remain part of that system. This is true for all centralized government systems in countries with linguistic and cultural diversity.
In fact, those who are worried about the future of Iran and want to protect its territorial integrity must staunchly support decentralization and a federal system based on legal and political equality among its ethnic, linguistic, and cultural constituents.
If they do not, the centrifugal force resulting from a centralized, single-nationality system will continue to push these groups away from center and motivate them to break away. As history has shown repeatedly, centralized systems cannot repress such movements forever.