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“Iran is a long way from federalism”

June 6, 2019
9 min read
Jalil Roshandel: A federal system cannot be realized without satisfying its cultural, political, social, and economic prerequisites.
Jalil Roshandel: A federal system cannot be realized without satisfying its cultural, political, social, and economic prerequisites.

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.

Jalil Roshandel is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Security Studies at East Carolina University, North Carolina

What is Federalism?

Federalism is a mechanism for distributing power among different levels of government with the support and guarantees of the Constitution.

Under this system, federal units are granted powers to manage their affairs in certain areas, while enjoying shared powers in other areas. As political scientist Daniel Elazar has said, federalism is a synthesis of semi-autonomous and semi-shared sovereignty.

Usually, federal systems are culturally diverse and territorially vast. Examples include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Russia, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and the US. Belgium and Spain are also usually included in this list, but what they prove is that, according to the brief definition above, cultural diversity is more important than a vast territory.

Besides, each country can have its own unique reasons for becoming federal. For instance, Belgium is geographically very small but culturally diverse, and its people are very different from each other. Belgium is a federal monarchy, where a person with the title of king has a special place in the system.

In Spain too the king is the head of the country, but since the separation of powers — the judiciary, legislative and executive — in 1978, control has rested in practice with the federal government.

Over the past 35 years, a vast decentralization has taken place in the country, giving the provinces extensive powers to act as federal governments within their own sphere.

Spain is the opposite of Belgium. According to its Constitution, Spain is a “one and indivisible” country, but at the same time it consists of 17 autonomous regions where the political power is decentralized.

In the Spanish system, each region distributes power in its own unique way, so these smaller units also act as federal governments. Usually Spain is listed among federal countries, but since its Constitution defines it as “indivisible”, Spain cannot be said to be completely federal.

Even in the US, which is considered an established federal system, there is much emphasis on “one nation, indivisible”. In citizenship ceremonies, people must pledge allegiance to the ideal of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Almost all federal systems are intent on guarding the integrity of the system through democratic means. In recent years, we have witnessed how governments have acted in places like the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, or even in Canada’s province of Quebec, to prevent them from seceding.

What is Khatami Saying?

Khatami’s prescription of federalism as the “most desirable democratic form of government for Iran” raises some questions.

The first question is whether Khatami is referring to a federal system like, for example, that of the US or Germany, or merely using a tactic to divert people’s attention from foreign affairs to domestic affairs in order to distract from the current crisis?

Though Khatami refers to federalism, he makes it clear that the Iranian Constitution does not allow it. He seems to desire an alternative form of government, therefore, while being aware of its impossibility within the current legal framework.

In this case, Khatami is like a patient who is torn between excruciating pain and his religious faith. He cannot decide whether he should take a substance banned by his religion to get rid of the pain or tolerate the pain because his religion has banned the cure.

When Khatami made the statement, he was talking to a city council he himself had founded.

What he appears to want more than a federal system, therefore, is a greater role for local councils and democratic institutions.

It seems most likely that Khatami was just expressing his views rather than calling for a change to the Constitution to accommodate a federal system. Otherwise, he would have offered a roadmap to do so.

Criticism of Khatami’s Statement

A look at reactions to Khatami’s speech reveals a wide range of views both for and against the idea of a federal Iran.

Those arguing against include 200 activists from both inside and outside Iran. They wrote an open letter warning that such comments threaten the country's integrity and could even lead to ethnic disputes and civil war.

The letter, entitled "No to federalism, no to national disintegration," maintains that no integrated country with a consolidated political system has ever been turned into a federal country. It points to Iraq as an exception to the rule because of "colonial demarcations, dictatorial rule and foreign intervention."

The letter accuses Khatami of ignoring “the fact that Iran already exists as a country, and that is why he says the Constitution is the only barrier to Iran's move toward federalism, mindless of the fact that Iran is an age-old country that has always remained integrated."

Even in Europe, Belgium is “an exception, and if it were located outside Europe there can be no doubt that it would have broken up by now.”

Reformist political activist Mohammad Reza Javadi-Hesar explained Khatami’s reference to federalism as follows: “The discourse of Iran's reformists is based on the idea of justice. What Khatami said was within the context of local councils.

“He stressed that local councils were first formed during his administration [1997-2005], and he was alluding to the fact that people in various regions are interested in running their administrative affairs locally.

“So, in talking about federalism, in fact he is pointing out the benefits of local government and the dispensation of justice in society. What he says will unite people rather than divide society.”

The sharpest criticism came from Seyed Javad Tabatabai, former professor of law and political science at Tehran University. “Retract your words very respectfully and tell your associates to avoid this subject,” he wrote on his Telegram channel, while attacking the Khatami presidency and the so-called reform period.

He called both Khatami and his audience at Tehran City Council “unqualified” to talk about the subject. He added that “it is not dignified for statesmen to talk about political issues in such vulgar language.”

The various arguments against federalism can be summarized as follows:

  1. Federalism and stability are incompatible.
  2. The concept of federalism is good and would rally people around the ideals of revolution, but actually establishing a federal system would weaken and break up the country.
  3. Federalism is the same as political participation and decentralization, and this has been successful in a number of advanced countries.
  4. Khatami is not qualified to talk about such an important question as the system of government, and such talks endanger the supreme interests of the country. In other words, even talking about federalism is a taboo.

Federalism Impossible Without Equal Rights

The next question is whether it is actually possible to establish a federal system in Iran. This writer believes the answer is no. As the Iranian poet Hafiz once wrote, “Strewn with barriers was the path of love that seemed so easy at first.”

The idea of federalism begins with decentralization and is fulfilled by maximizing participation in all aspects of governing. The Constitution can consolidate agreements and guarantee distribution of power, but the examples cited above show federalism is possible without the Constitution providing for it.

For federalism to be realized, however, we must believe it is a realistic prospect. This is not currently the case in the Islamic Republic.

First, the totalitarian system must be replaced with tolerance for opposing views. A country where issues such as equal civil, political, and religious rights have been taboo for the past 40 years is highly unlikely to take steps towards a federalist system.

When orders by the Supreme Leader supersede any decision or policy of a popularly-elected government, how can he be expected to share this absolute power with those below him?

The prerequisite for democratic federalism is accepting the necessity of sharing political power and respecting the civic rights of every individual in the country. Then cultural foundations must be laid to give people a correct understanding of the system.

If these prerequisites are not satisfied – i.e. if federalism is instead created by an order of the central government, and is run from the center – it would not be able to withstand crises. The result would be the same as the bitter experience of Yugoslavia.

Some federal systems, like those of Pakistan and Sudan, are founded on ethnicity. In these countries, federalism was adopted to address ethnic conflicts between the central powers and minority groups. However, the conflicts continue today and disintegration remains a threat.  

Of course, ethnic diversity does not necessarily lead to disintegration, and a good system of government can prevent such an outcome. It is how a central government deals with ethnic groups and cultures that determines its chances of survival.

Disintegration would be a very real prospect for a federal Iran because it lacks the prerequisite economic strength and democratic foundations to maintain unity.

For many centuries, even after Iran became a nation-state, central governments have refused to invest in certain peripheral regions. Some have even forced ethnic groups to migrate in order to disrupt ethnic solidarity.

In some areas, the conflicts have been religious in nature, and the central government has clearly discriminated against non-Shia minorities.

So, while Khatami is right that federalism is one of the best forms of government, it cannot be realized in Iran without first putting in place the necessary cultural, political, social, and economic infrastructures.

As the case of Spain has shown, the Constitution is a very small obstacle. Iran’s problems go far beyond this. When even political opposition groups reject federalism as impractical, how can we view it as a realistic proposition?

Until the political and cultural foundations exist for a shared understanding of federalism, any move to impose such a system would only cause disruption and provoke internal tensions further.

More on Federalism in Iran:

Iran’s Future Lies Between Tolerance and Civil War, June 5, 2019

"Federalism in Iran Would Create Chaos", June 4, 2019

“Federalism and Radical Democracy Will Save Iran", June 4, 2019

The Misguided Debate about Federalism in Iran, June 3, 2019




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