Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reflections on Democracy & Ethnic Diversity in Iran

This article of mine was originally published last year in A Mideast and North Africa Foreign Policy Magazine.

Since last December, when mass anti-government protests began in Tunisia and ultimately lead to the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, a revolutionary tide has swept across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Two months later, on February 11, 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was similarly pressured to leave office, after ruling Egypt for nearly 30 years. Many observers have rejoiced in these developments and are hopeful that Iran, amongst other countries in the region, will follow in the footsteps of its North African counterparts.

In my opinion, however, democracy brings with itself new dangers of which many have not been sufficiently mindful. It is no exaggeration to describe Iran as an extremely heterogeneous country (in fact, using a conventional measure of ethno-linguistic fractionalization, I have estimated that Iran is more than twice as fractionalized as the average Arab League country). It is home to numerous ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, some members of whom have taken up arms in their fight for self-determination.

If Iran were to democratize, how will it impact peace and stability in such a uniquely diverse country? Would democratization satisfy the political demands of the various ethno-nationalist groups operating within the country’s periphery? Or, would it encourage the formation of ethnic political parties with the electoral incentive to politicize communal differences, exacerbating ethnic tensions even further? Would Iran be torn asunder by a balkanization reminiscent of Yugoslavia’s bloody disintegration?

Although it is difficult if not impossible to offer definitive answers to these questions, it remains important to draw attention to these timely issues and to suggest ways in which they may be addressed.

A History of Ethnic Tension
To be sure, one must take care not to overstate the extent of disunity in Iran. The country’s largest ethnic group – i.e., the Persians – comprise between 51-65 percent of the total population, and yet over 90 percent of Iran, in both 2000 and 2005, expressed pride in being Iranian. It appears, therefore, that large numbers of non-Persians share in this national pride, refusing to see the Iranian state as merely the political expression of Persian ethnicity.

Nevertheless, several ethnic minority groups within the country, including the Arabs, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis and Kurds, have been described as presenting multiple risk factors for rebellion, such as being territorially concentrated and having suffered various forms of government repression. Of course, revolts of this sort have materialized on numerous occasions throughout Iran’s history, and instances of alleged ethno-nationalist terrorism abound. From statistics provided by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute (Oslo), one discovers that ethno-nationalist groups have engaged in armed conflicts with Iranian security forces in as frequently a 1/3 of the years for which data is available. Periodic skirmishes (particularly in Iranian-Kurdistan) continue to occur.
Using figures from the Global Terrorism Database, I observed that there were at least 68 alleged terrorist incidents committed during the years 1979-2008 by ethno-nationalist organizations in Iran, resulting in 127 fatalities (although the actual number is likely higher, given that many attacks for which no organization claimed responsibility occurred in ethnic minority regions). As recently as last December, 30 people were killed in the Iranian city of Chabahar by a suicide bomber belonging to the Baluchistan-based Jundullah organization, whose stated objective is to protect the rights of Sunni Muslims and ethnic Baluchis. As an aside, the regions for which these organizations are seeking greater autonomy or independence are amongst Iran’s most impoverished. These regional disparities, which were noted in a 1999 UN human development report that found Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan to have the lowest levels of human development, appear to persist and their likely link to political violence in these regions should not go unnoted.

Is Decentralization the Answer?
One solution to Iran’s ethnic problems, many have argued, is to transfer political power to the country’s various regions. As the argument goes, justice seems to demand that minority peoples be given greater control over their own economic, social and cultural affairs. It may also appear politically expedient to do so, as such a move would reduce separatist tendencies and thereby contribute to peace and stability.

Despite these arguments, however, decentralization occasionally produces the opposite effects, as well. A 2006 study published in International Organization demonstrated that decentralization increases or decreases ethnic conflict and secession, depending upon the strength of ethno-regional political parties. According to the author, Dawn Brancati, “regional parties intensify ethnic conflict and secessionism by reinforcing ethnic and regional identities, producing legislation that causes certain groups to feel threatened in a country, and mobilizing groups to engage in ethnic conflict and secessionism or supporting terrorist organizations that participate in these activities.” Brancati goes on to suggest ways in which governments can regulate the strength of such regional parties, so that decentralization will not yield such adverse effects. My own suggestion – not necessarily in contradiction to Brancati’s – is to adopt a global approach, as I explain below.

Towards an International Convention on Secession
Presumably, most states do not repress minority rights for its own sake, but rather do so out of fear that political stability or territorial integrity might otherwise be compromised. While it may be an idealistic proposal, there is much reason to believe that international law on self-determination could go far in allaying these fears, particularly in the form of an international convention that permits secession (as the ultimate expression of self-determination) only under explicitly narrow conditions. Under this framework, as long as the state respects the cultural, economic and other human rights of its peoples, its territorial integrity would be guaranteed based on the convention’s unequivocal rejection of secession without just cause. Otherwise, those charged with adjudicating this treaty (e.g., a panel of judges akin to those of the International Court of Justice) could vote to recognize the independence of an aggrieved people, should the group opt for secession.

This treaty-based solution involves costs and benefits to both states and minority groups, although a strong case can be made that, for each party, the benefits more than compensate for the costs. Beginning with the state, while it may be ceding a good measure of sovereignty to an international body (a particularly unpalatable circumstance for many countries if an institution like the UN Security, dominated as it arguably is by the Great Powers, were authorized to enforce the convention), it must be recognized that, whether or not it chooses to sign such a convention, the state (and this is particularly true of states with a diverse ethnic makeup) will likely have to confront secessionist challenges at some point. In this situation, it would be to the advantage of the state to accede to a convention that would establish procedures by which these centrifugal impulses would be channeled in more peaceful directions, while also serving as a form of “sovereignty insurance” in two ways. First, such a convention would arguably permit states to devolve power without fearing that decentralization would ultimately degenerate into secessionism. Second, the convention may deter foreign states from destabilizing other countries by encouraging (overtly or otherwise) secessionist movements, or from unilaterally recognizing the independence of breakaway regions.

As for minority groups, it is true that the convention would effectively close the door to independence, unless the state is found to be in violation of its terms. After all, supposing most or all states sign and comply with the treaty, secessionist regions would be diplomatically isolated and denied membership in such key international organizations as the UN. On the other hand, these groups may stand a better chance of enjoying greater autonomy under the convention, given that it places firm obligations on states to respect the fundamental rights of their peoples.

While we must be cognizant of the potential dangers that attend democratization and work both domestically and internationally to design institutions to mitigate these dangers, these suggestions are not in any way intended to imply that Iranians do not deserve democratic rights. At the same time, there are certainly a number of critical questions (e.g., what if a state fails to respect the decision of the convention’s enforcement body to recognize the independence of a breakaway region? How might this convention undermine the UN General Assembly’s power in accrediting new UN members?) raised by this proposal that remain unanswered, and that will hopefully be the subject of future debate and critical analysis.