OpinionMiddle East

Some opponents of the Islamic Republic are helping it

Advocating secession by Iran's ethnic minorities only strengthens the Islamic Republic of Iran and pushes regime change further away.

A billboard displaying Iranian Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. Credit: Erdalislakphotography/Shutterstock.
A billboard displaying Iranian Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. Credit: Erdalislakphotography/Shutterstock.
Shay Khatiri. Credit: Courtesy.
Shay Khatiri
Shay Khatiri is the vice president of development and a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute.
Andrew Ghalili. Credit: Courtesy.
Andrew Ghalili
Andrew Ghalili is a senior policy analyst at the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI).

Calls to help ethnic minorities in Iran are increasing. A casual observer would see this as a good thing, but too often Iranians read separatism between the lines. Sometimes, advocacy of territorial secession by Iran’s ethnic minorities is explicit. Disappointingly, most though not all of these calls come from Israel or those with strong ties to Israeli institutions.

This is especially unfortunate because it is at odds with official Israeli policy and discredits Israel and the Iranian dissidents who are increasingly partnering with the Jewish state against a common enemy.

The only solution to the Iran problem is regime change. Touching on secession, an extremely sensitive topic among Iranians, only undermines this cause.

Over the last decade, there has been a radical change of opinion on Israel inside Iran. Other than Israel itself, Iran is the only nation in the region that could be described as having positive feelings towards Zionism. This has a lot to do with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of directly engaging with the Iranian people.

But Iran’s formerly hostile view of Israel was not simply due to Islamic anti-Zionism. It was also due to Israel’s policy of supporting separatist movements inside and across Iran’s borders. Dropping this policy has been essential to reviving Iran’s 2,500-year-old Zionist heritage.

The worst example of Israel’s wrongheaded approach to Iran was a letter cosigned by dozens of Knesset members endorsing secession in northwestern Iran, where ethnic Azeris dominate. This happened shortly after Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s exiled prince and most prominent opposition figure, made a historic visit to the Holy Land, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other cabinet members, as well as praying at the Western Wall.

There was a backlash and walk-backs. Israeli Minister of Intelligence Gila Gamliel condemned the letter immediately. Most signatories withdrew their signatures. The Iranian American Jewish Federation censured it. Persian Israelis raised objections. Iranian diaspora leaders were quick to point out that the letter violated Israeli policy. Iran experts in the Zionist community like Mark Dubowitz rebuked it.

But the damage had been done and regime outlets had a field day discrediting Israel and those like Pahlavi who seek the support of the Jewish state in pursuit of overthrowing the Islamic Republic.

The lesson was not learned and the problem is reaching beyond the pro-Israel community. Op-eds, tweets, and essays advocating secession kept popping up. Recently, The Jerusalem Post published a column supporting secession that raised the ire of Iranian dissidents in the United States—Jews and non-Jews alike. Canadian opposition leader Pierre Pollievre also touched a nerve in Iran. On March 20, he released a video statement for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, but falsely reduced the holiday to a Kurdish tradition.

This problem is multifaceted.

First, as mentioned above, the Islamic Republic uses advocacy for secession as a tool to discredit the Iranian opposition and Israel. Distinguishing between opinion articles or worse a letter signed by multiple Knesset members and a government policy, requires a certain level of political sophistication to which societies enduring totalitarianism are not attuned. Like many peoples in the Middle East, Iranians are prone to conspiracy theories and consequently often view op-eds and essays by private individuals as duplicative language or secret messaging by the government.

This is especially the case under tyrannical regimes. People who live without a free press or a democratic government do not have an immediate understanding of politics in a free society. Instead, conspiracies are a fact of life. But the consequences of this mindset are making the ideal of reviving Iranian–Jewish friendship in a post-Islamist Iran more challenging and undoing Netanyahu’s work in building trust.

Second, advocacy of secession exposes the advocates’ ignorance of the very issue on which they opine.

Most of these experts have cut their teeth on understanding the Middle East through an Arab lens. The Arab states are only a century old and their national identity is still evolving. With this loose sense of nationality, tribal and ethnic identities are very strong in countries like Syria and Iraq.

Iran is different. It is an ancient country and has a strong sense of nationhood. Most Iranian ethnic minorities have a strong attachment to their country.

Soccer is often the best reflection of Iranian attitudes because it is the largest public good not entirely captured by the regime. Unlike Catalans in Spain who do not celebrate the victories of the Spanish national team, Iranian minorities show their love for the country by honoring and grieving over the national team the same way Persians do—some minorities even more intensely than the Persian majority. It is common for the most tribalist minorities to be the most passionate fans.

This might sound counterintuitive, but there is a simple explanation: Minorities, however attached to their heritage, envision themselves as distinct Iranian ethnicities, not separate nations.

Furthermore, because of the economic attraction of larger cities, especially Tehran, these minorities often migrate to metropolitan areas and intermarry with Persians. Their children largely adopt mainstream Iranian culture and are fluent only in Farsi. “Persian” itself is a non-identity in Iran. Very few Iranians think of themselves as Persian but rather as Iranian. Arabs, in contrast, have a tribal element in their identity that transcends borders because their states are young and national identities are not deeply rooted.

There are indeed minorities on Iran’s outskirts who wish to secede, but mostly not for tribal reasons. They want to do so simply to escape the tyranny of the Islamic Republic by any means possible; the same way many Persians in the north might accept secession as an acceptable means of freeing themselves from the shackles of the regime. The tribal identities of most ethnic minorities are placed in the context of being Iranian, not an alien nation within another people’s country.

Minorities do not seek to escape an imposed Persian identity. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, is an ethnic Azeri, not a Persian. He is an example of a minority who has assimilated into a mainstream national identity whose tyranny is encouraging separatism, not tribalism.

The appeal of secession as a means of escaping Islamist tyranny makes Iranians extremely concerned about losing Iran’s territorial integrity. In history textbooks, every Iranian child sees Iran’s shrinkage from the largest empire in the world to a mid-size country and bemoans the decline of national status. Torkamanchay and Golestan, referring to treaties that enforced losses of territory, are words used in political discourse meaning a humiliation that must never be repeated.

When someone in the U.S. or Israel raises the issue of secession, they signal to Iranians that further humiliation is just around the corner. This undermines the cause of regime change because—as most Iranians will confess—the Islamic Republic’s collapse is inevitable, but territorial loss would be irreversible. Hence, Iranians are willing to endure tyranny a bit longer in order to prevent permanent dismemberment. The same patriotism that mobilizes them against the regime prompts them to defend Iranian territory.

The regime is well aware of this and is increasingly propagating the claim that the Islamic Republic is the last bulwark against separatism. Most Iranians reject this claim and correctly argue that their rulers are the primary cause for any separatist purchase, but foreign advocates of secession are helping the regime make its case.

Lastly, even if advocates of secession succeed in chopping off Iranian territory, they will have reduced the size of the problem but not solved it.

Iran’s nuclear program remains the biggest threat to regional security, and that program’s success is almost entirely independent of Iran’s size.

Furthermore, Iran’s economy is largely reliant on oil, and there is no separatist movement among the Arabs in the south, most of whom are Shi’ites with no ethnic or religious loyalty to the Persian Gulf Arab states. On the contrary, they resisted Iraqi occupation and fought to expel Saddam Hussein’s military from their cities during the Iran–Iraq War side-by-side with Persians, Azeris, Kurds, and others.

Those who wish to diminish the Islamic Republic’s power through secession will not accomplish much even if they get their way. Regime change is the only solution to the cancer of the Islamic Republic and advocates for separatism undermine this objective.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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