The Iranian Mosaic: The Struggle of Minorities for Pluralism and Federalism in Iran






On May 16, Hudson Institute and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization hosted a panel discussion with representatives of Iran’s Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Ahwazi, and Baloch populations who are working peacefully for federalism and pluralism. The panelists discussed the status of minorities inside the Islamic Republic, and their hopes and aspirations for a better future inside Iran.


Speakers from different  pro federalism political groups from  Azerbaijani, Kurd, Ahwazi, and Baloch were the speakers in this event and they shared their vision for the future of Iran with the participants and orgenizers .

Dr. Karim Abdian Speaker (Senior Advisor of Democratic Solidarity Party of Alahwaz)

Nasser Boladai Speaker (Balochistan People’s Party)

Mauri Esfandiari Speaker(Komala Party)

Arash Saleh Speaker (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan)

Habib Azarsina Speaker(South Azerbaijan Alliance)

Eric B. Brown Moderator (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute)


Below is Dr.Karim Abdian speech in the event .


A quick glance at the current crisis in the Middle East invariably shows that the causes of such crises lay in the disenfranchisement, marginalization, oppression, and exclusion of non-dominant nationalities. It’s true in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Turkey-  

I believe a similar crisis, not unlike Syria, is looming on the horizon in Iran. So it is in this context that we offer a multi-ethnic-federalism as a crisis management tool and as a model for managing the Diversity in Iran. 

Like most countries in the region, Iran is a multiethnic or multinational country. Indeed, Iran is the most diverse country in the region. But this diversity is in a state of tension and due to insistence on building a nation-state, dominated by only of ethnic group; it is in fact threating the territorial integrity of the very state that they are trying to preserve.

This  “nation-building” attempt began in the 20th century to create a monolithic “Iranian nation” by suppressing ethnic diversity and imposing a Persian identity on non-Persian nationalities -it was a failure as it has been constantly challenged by non-Persian nationalities.

Iran is comprised of six major nationalities, including Arabs, Baluchis, Kurds, Persians, Turks, Turkmen, and smaller groups of other ethnic, linguistic, and tribal groups. No one ethnic group has a numerical majority. Iran is also home to Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Bahis, Manadis, and others. These ethnic and religious groups compose at least 50 percent and, by some estimates, two-thirds of the population. Yet these groups have not been accorded equal citizenship – their ethnicity and their religion are not being officially acknowledged. 

According to Mr. Hajbabaei, the former education minister under Ahmadinejad, only 30 percent of Iranian students entering first grade speak Farsi. In addition, about a third of the population is Sunni, yet constitutionally, Persian is the sole official language, and Jafari Shiais is the officially sanctioned religion. All others are ignored, negated or, at best, marginalized. 

The new revolutionary regime, like its predecessor, uses Shia theology and Persian literature, history, language, and education to deliberately privilege one ethnic group over others, thus creating socio-economic inequality, exclusion, and oppression, thereby stifling any chance for democratic transformation.
The non-Persian nationalities actively participated in the revolution against the Shah's regime. These nationalities aspired to gain their rights under a new regime that called for the values of Islam based on justice, equality, and rights for all peoples regardless of their race, ethnicity, or origin.

However, what happened was the opposite. The new Islamic regime launched a massive campaign against the Ahwazi-Arabs, Kurds, Turks, and Turkmen, who demanded self-rule – executing thousands. 

In the past 38 years, all demands for autonomy and the acknowledgment of non-Persian minorities have been brutally repressed by the regime.


Ahwazi-Arabs, as one of the five non-Persian constituencies, reside mainly in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan or, called by its indigenous name, eghlim Al-Ahwaz or Arabistan. Ahwazi-Arabs are an ethnic, national, and linguistic minority in Iran. They are caught between unfortunate phenomenon; they are subjected to racism due to historical Persian-Arab animosity. - Economically, they are among the most oppressed, ranking at the bottom – estimated to be between five and seven million, or about 10 percent of the population.  As part of forces assimilation, the regime changed their province from Arabistan to Khuzestan to deny their Arab identity.

Any legitimate demands of the Ahwazi and other minorities are often labeled as “separatist” or “secessionist.” They are called “stooges of foreign
countries” or a “danger to security and territorial integrity.”
Ahwazi-Arab historical lands account for over 80 percent of Iran’s oil and wealth, yet these people live in abject poverty.
A legislative bill to allocate 1.5% of oil export to the province has been submitted in 4 sessions of the Majlis, about 20 years, repeatedly has been defeated.
Ahwazi-Arabs endure human development indicators that fall well below the Iranian national average. Illiteracy among Ahwazis is double and
unemployment is 4 times the national average -
More than 450,000 hectares of land owned by Ahwazi-Arab farmers have been confiscated since the 1979 Revolution and given to the government-sponsored cooperatives.
In a visit to Khuzestan in July 2005, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari. He said: “when you visit Ahwaz…there are thousands of people living with open sewers, no sanitation, no regular access to water, electricity and no gas connections… why is that? We drove outside the city about 20 km and we visited the areas where large development projects are coming up – sugar cane plantations and other projects along Karoon river – the estimate we received is that between 200,000 – 250,000 Arab people are being displaced from their villages because of these projects alone”

In this Arab-majority province the governor general and all other provinces’ political, military, and security commanders, officers, mayors, and all other high and mid-level government officials have consistently been chosen from non-Arabs. They are treated as 2nd and 3rd class citizens with unequal sharing of economic and political resources- 

Added to this are the lingering effects of the Iran-Iraq War, Arab cities and towns destroyed during war remain untouched or at best rebut by 20-30% - with landmines continuing to kill and maim Arab farmers and contamination from chemical weapons leading to high rates of birth deformities

Institutional racism has recently escalated into full-scale ethnic cleansing and violent repression against an awakened. Ahwazi-Arab nation. This is more or less true in The Baloch, Kurdish and other minority areas- it is this situation in Iran is indeed explosive. 


To avert a crisis like the current one in Syria, the right of self-determination can be presented as the solution, and as a tool for crisis management  - and transform the existing diversity through a non-violent struggle into unity to establish a just, democratic, and pluralistic society, like the Swiss, Indians, Canadians, Americans and others have.


In UN literature, the right to self-determination is defined as the right of a particular group of people to freely determine and control their political, economic, or socio-cultural destinies. 

Article 2 of UN Resolution 1514 of 1960 states that: “All peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of economic, social and cultural development.” However, the concept of self-determination is problematically rigid regarding the shifting of borders, secession or separation. and the borders drawn by Sykes-Picot are still scared and no international or regional support for separatism.

But UN experts during the 1998 UN Conference in Barcelona on the “Implementation of Self-Determination: As a Contribution to Conflict Prevention.”  Presented two types of self-determination, internal and external. 

By internal self-determination, they meant the right to decide the identity and the form of a governing body by the whole population of a state and the right of a particular group within the state to participate in decision-making at the State level, as well as the right to exercise cultural, linguistic, religious, or territorial political autonomy within the boundaries of the existing state. It says that, politically, internal self-determination can take the form of participatory democracy, federalism, confederalism, local government, and self-government within the existing state.


The Solution: A Multi-national Federalism

In countries that face violence between different territorially concentrated groups, federalism has been used to ensure autonomy for the different groups and their inclusion through power-sharing mechanisms in central government and on regional level - without breaking up the state.

Federalism unites peoples that differ in race, background, language, culture, geography, and history. It explicitly rejects the integrationist and/or assimilationist objectives of the ultra-nationalist in Iran – It meets the needs of national minorities that hold the key to stability and unity and prevent civil war. –  It enables them to control their own affairs, protect their land rights, and an opportunity to develop their respective cultures.

Bosnia offers a particularly useful example because the federal system has been working for more than 20 years. Heavy international involvement meant that it became a key case of democratization – Ethiopia is another recent example.


Federalism: a tactic and an Strategy: tactically, demand for building a federal-democratic state is accepted and can unite ALL non-dominant, non-Persian nationalities for removal of the regime through non-violent means. Statically, can for in the devolution of power and thus prevent emergence of dictatorship.


What is the alternative to federalism? Status qo, or …unknown..  Separatism and cession? 

Arguments against federalism:
Ultra-nationalists equate the demands of the national minorities for a federal system with separatism. This fear, of course, is unfounded, as there is no international or regional support for separatism. The regime in Tehran invokes separatism as a reason to justify its violent suppression of political organizations representing minorities.
Moreover, the separatist charge is not so much motivated by concern over the territorial disintegration of Iran. Rather, it serves as a pretext for preserving the existing balance of power, that is, the uneven distribution of political power and socioeconomic resources.
The notion that Iran would balkanize with the introduction of a federal democratic constitution is based on the supposition that Iran’s minorities are inherently disloyal and that the ambitions of region-based ethnic minorities should be forever repressed to ensure the integrity of the Iranian state. 

Lastly, increased oppression and continued social and economic marginalization of the Ahwazi-Arabs and other minorities will generate the kind of extremist backlash seen elsewhere in the region and will lead many desperate youths to support complete independence from Iran, thereby entering an endless quagmire.

link to the video :