Iran’s Wages of Fanaticism


As the world community ponders reluctantly what to do with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the mullah regime is facing a little-noticed domestic challenge that may ultimately prove to be its undoing. Last week, Iranian blogers reported a tribal uprising and heavy fighting with regime forces in the Semirom region of Isfahan province. The government-controlled media acknowledged armed clashes and numerous casualties but blamed them on drug smugglers and criminals. Reliable information is scant, but it is worth noting that regime opponents are invariably labeled “criminal elements” and that the Ghashghai and Bakhtiari tribes reportedly involved in the uprising, engaged in armed resistance to the Islamic regime for several years in the early 1980s.

Whatever the truth in this particular case, there is little doubt that as Iran continues its aggressive saber-rattling internationally, it is finding itself facing rapidly widening fissures internally that could ultimately threaten not only the clerical regime but the territorial integrity of the state itself if not resolved.

None is more serious than the escalating tensions between Iran’s numerous ethnic and religious minorities and the mullah regime. Despite that, most Iranians and many foreign observers have considered the subject too sensitive to even discuss and neither the magnitude of the problem nor its causes or likely solutions are well understood.

There are a number of causal factors that have converged of late to make this an increasingly intractable problem. Iran is, to begin with, made up of half a dozen major ethnic groups of which the Persians, as the largest one, barely constitute a majority. Most of the non-Persians have their own distinctive cultures, customs and languages and, what’s particularly significant, often belong to larger ethnic groups and nations outside Iranian borders. Historically, these groups have been, by and large, loyal to the Iranian state for a simple compelling reason. Until the Khomeini revolution, they were better off politically and economically than their co-ethnics across the border, most of whom lived under oppressive dictatorships in the Soviet Union or in Saddam Husein’s Iraq.

This changed dramatically, as the relatively liberal Shah regime was replaced by the harshly oppressive clerical dictatorship in 1979. While all Iranians suffered equally from the religious obscurantism and political repression of the mullahs, the non-Persians were subject to additional oppressive and discriminatory cultural, linguistic and religious policies. They also suffered more than the Persians from poor economic development prospects and opportunities due to the highly centralized and corrupt system of economic spoils and patronage instituted by the clerics that disadvantaged the ethnic regions to a much greater extent. Resentment of the regime became ever more palpable and grew into open discontent and increasingly into armed resistance in places like Kurdistan and Baluchistan.

In the meantime, in another major change, the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially the American overthrow of the Saddam regime in Iraq, resulted in a dramatic improvement of the political and economic prospects of the Azeris, Kurds and Shiite Arabs that live just across the border from their Iranian cousins, in stark contrast to the latter’s increasingly unhappy predicament. The political implications of this historical reversal of fortunes will not be long in manifesting themselves.

All of these trends have accelerated for the worse since the coming to power of Ahmadinezhad and the unfolding of the acute political and economic crisis he has precipitated.

And so, today we have Baluchis in the southeast, Ahvaz Arabs in Khuzestan, Kurds in the west and Azeris in the north, as well as a number of tribes, seething with resentment or already in armed rebellion against the regime. As the existential crisis gripping Iran deepens, it will only get worse and as violence and repression grow so will the fault lines that could ultimately render the Iranian state asunder.

It is fairly obvious what needs to be done to prevent such an unfortunate denouement. A democratic federation with wide-ranging political and cultural autonomy for the major ethnic regions installed in place of the current Islamofascist regime would certainly arrest these destructive trends. But time is short.

History has not been kind to nations that have submitted to fanatics for long. Germany paid for the genocidal fury of the Nazis with one third of its territory, fifteen percent of its population killed and millions of Germans expelled from their ancestral homes in Eastern Europe. Russia’s infatuation with communist totalitarianism cost it its empire, tens of millions of lives, and a ruined economy. What’s left is a second-rate power beset by ineluctable socio-economic problems and a demographic meltdown from which it is unlikely to recover. Last but not least, the murderous great-Serbian fantasies of Slobodan Milosevic not only led to the collapse of Yugoslavia but the dismemberment of Serbia itself.

And this could also be the fate of Iran – the heir of an ancient civilization without equals in the Middle East and few outside of it – unless the Iranian people find a way to get rid of the madmen ruling them before long. Such are the wages of fanaticism.

* Center for Security Policy

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