Mustafa Fahs

Iran... The Identity of the Regime and The Geography of its Peripheries

The majority of the historical polities in the vast geographical area of the Iranian plateau, which had previously been independent states (city-states), were brought together under a single entity and central state centuries ago. However, while it seemed, superficially, that a nation-state had taken form, beneath the surface, it privileged particular ethnic and ideological groups. This prevented the emergence of real citizenship, which continued to be defined by the nature of the authorities that have ruled the peoples of the nations of the Iranian plateau for the past century.

Indeed, the protests that began ten weeks ago have demonstrated that the nation-state in Iran, from the Pahlavi regime to the Velayat, has a deep identity crisis. The identity of the united nation, or the unity of the nation, is being threatened after the oppressed nations in the country rose up in anger in defense of their sub-identities and against the ideological identity of the central government. The authorities are determined to eliminate pluralism and exploit a skewed conception of citizenship and equal rights and responsibilities that the regime has advocated since it was established.

One thing is clear. The crisis of enraged nations in the peripheries of Iran has turned these areas into a genuine geopolitical curse that threatens the central authorities. The latter is reassessing its national and ideological unifying role after having overused its slogans, which have lost their capacity to convince the nations of Iran that they share a national identity and are part of the same nation-state.

That is why it is now faced with an insurrection against its racist policies and security tactics aimed at demographic engineering and systemic oppression, which has undermined citizenship as a concept for both individuals and communities. Moreover, the nature and makeup of the regime, which we could call centralized confessional-nationalism, has been imposed as an identity on all the members of what the regime calls the “Iranian nation.” This conception of the nation is incompatible with citizenship, which demands that everyone share in making decisions equally.

As the protests persist and the regime continues to resort to the arbitrary use of violence against national minorities, especially the Kurds and Balochis, the relationship between the central authorities and the peripheries continues to deteriorate. This deterioration in the relationship could have repercussions on the domestic security of Iran’s neighbors because these neighbors have shared ethnic and religious identities with the ethnic groups in Iran living on their borders. It would not be so difficult to imagine the Iranian regime during a critical moment in which it feels the cohesion of the state is under threat, pushing the crisis in its peripheries to neighboring countries.

This is a weapon the regime uses to threaten foreign rivals it accuses of interfering in its domestic affairs by inciting national communities in the periphery. One example is the areas along the border with Azerbaijan, the historical heartland of the Azerbaijani nation, which has a strong presence in the Iranian state and its apparatuses. Another is the areas of Balochistan, a stronghold of the Balochistan liberation movement that operates on Pakistani territory. This threat has pushed Baku and Islamabad to take precautions against Tehran mobilizing its ideological proxy groups, such as the Followers of Zainab Brigade in Pakistan and the Followers of Hussein Brigade in Azerbaijan, to incite sectarian and ethnic strife in the two countries.

This comes at a time when the prospect of the regime igniting a foreign war - most probably against Azerbaijan or northern Iraq- is no longer far-fetched. Indeed, there are many signs that it may do so in the hope of distracting the Iranian people and getting the domestic situation in order.

The tensions between the central authorities and the nations of Iran have pushed questions of identity out in the open. The dilemma for the regime is that its answers are no longer convincing. This is especially true since it exploited its ideological identity and opted to militarize this identity in the hope of uniting the nation after sensing that it had become fragile.

However, the events of the past few years and the current protests exposed the fact that its ideological and militarized identity is no longer a factor for unity for the nations of Iran, which are now suggesting they could abandon their common identity in favor of their sub identities.

Accelerating this process is the fierce debate raging among the Iranian elites loyal to the regime and the opposition. They cannot agree on how to define their national identity after the confessional-nationalism phase, as well as the influence peripheral areas home to national groups should have on the central authorities.