Iran News

Pluralism Is the Only Way Forward for Iranian Democracy

Iran's diverse society struggles with recognition of non-Persian ethnicities like Kurds, Azeris, and Arabs. The authoritarian rule of the Shah and the Islamic Republic prioritized Persian identity, suppressing others. To establish a functional democracy, Iranians must reject Persian imperialism and ensure representation and autonomy for all ethnic groups.

3d rendering: a large group of people gathered together as a map of Iran © GoldPanter /

June 16, 2023 22:25 EDT

For over a century, there has been a prevailing myth that Iran is solely represented by Persians, perpetuating the idea that Persia encompasses the entirety of the country. It is crucial to acknowledge that Iran is diverse and multinational in composition. It extends far beyond the Farsi-speaking Persian people of the Iranian plateau, encompassing Kurdish, Baloch, Ahwazi, and Azeri peoples who have been sidelined and suppressed.

When these non-Persian Iranians speak of the need for the entrenchment and recognition of inclusivity in the linguistic, economic, and political spheres of life in Iran as a necessary condition for democratization, they are often accused of being separatists. They are told that Iran is one nation and that its territorial integrity is a red line that is not up for discussion.

Persian identity, Iranian identity

This notion in the debate about Iran’s identity is championed by Reza Pahlavi but is also echoed in statements made by other Iranian figures like Nazanin Boniadi, Golshifteh Farahani, Shirin Ebadi, and activists Masih Alinejad and Hamed Esmaeilion.

The assertion and emphasis on territorial integrity as a response to demands for inclusivity as a precursor for democratization is a political tactic that is not only anti-democratic but also undermines the very democratic principles that many of these figures claim to be supporting. It is designed to reinforce the Iranian state’s forced assimilation  policy against the Kurds, Baloch, Ahwaz, and Azeri people. 

For over a hundred years, the Iranian state has attempted to assimilate non-Persian nations into a national Iranian identity that is purely Persian. The state has used repressive tactics, from poisoning, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, capital punishment, and threatening families to militarization, linguicide, and economic impoverishment, as part of its forced assimilation policy. These efforts have been partially successful given the decline in the use of non-Farsi languages in Iran. However, a sense of distinctiveness, and the political manifestation of this distinctiveness, has only grown stronger among non-Persian peoples, as evidenced by the protests ignited by the death of Jina Amini in September 2022 at the hands of the morality police and past political agitations for change in areas inhabited by non-Persian people.

These demands for inclusivity and autonomy existed under the Pahlavi dynasty and have persisted for decades under the Islamic Republic. This is despite claims by Khomeini and his successors that the Shia government does not discriminate against any ethnicity or religious group. Scholar Sabah Mofidi analyzed numerous speeches, interviews and written texts of Persian and Kurdish nationalists and found that the “Persian nationalists use Islamic brotherhood and unity to reinforce Islamic identity over Kurdish identity in order to marginalize the Kurdish nationalist movement, as well as to mobilize ordinary people against the Kurdish forces.” Similarly, secular Persian nationalists use this rhetoric of Iranian brotherhood to delegitimize or negate Kurdish nationalist demands.

“Conversely,” continues Mofidi, “the Kurdish nationalists resist, and demand equality.” For instance, in a recent BBC Persian interview, journalist Ranya Rahamnpour asked the Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, Mustafa Hijri, whether Kurdish political parties are separatists—an accusation that the Islamic Republic often cites to justify its attacks against Kurds in Iran and members of Kurdish political parties. In response to this question, Hijri stated that repeatedly asking this question is an insult to all Kurds and to his party, which has been advocating for “democracy for Iran and autonomy for Kurdistan.” He goes on to say that “the separatists are not Kurds or Baloch, but those who have violated the rights of all of the Iranian nationalities, created a difference between the periphery and the center, and used their power to bring nothing but misfortune to these national groups.”

These skirmishes are part of a deliberation inside and outside Iran on how to achieve a democratic opposition that can help topple the Islamist regime and bring about a democratic Iran. Many of these forces have failed to unite mainly because of the refusal of some parties to acknowledge Iran’s multinational character. 

What has become increasingly clear since the death of Jina Amini and subsequent events is that Iran is a deeply divided society. The failure to find working solutions for managing such diversity and division has allowed the Islamic Republic to rule with impunity and repress dissenting voices, especially among the Kurdish population and other non-Persian populations, such as the Baloch, Ahwaz and Azeris.

Two theories for managing ethnic divides

For many, the number of political forces at play and the diversity of demands and peoples in Iran, as well as in the diaspora, has made it quite difficult to understand what the debate is about in Iran and where the country might or should be headed. There are two theories on how to manage divided societies like Iran and institutionally design an inclusive democratic system given the many social and political cleavages along ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. These two theories are centripetalism and consociationalism.

Centripetalism and consociationalism are two theories of political engineering for managing social cleavage in ethnically diverse societies. Centripetalism is a theory developed from the ideas of US scholar Donald L. Horowitz, who specializes in the study of ethnic conflict and has worked to help divided societies reduce ethnic conflict through democratic means. According to Benjamin Reilly, centripetalism aims to promote cooperation, accommodation and integration across ethnic divides, seeking to depoliticize ethnicity and minimize the role of ethnic identities. It emphasizes the importance of institutions that encourage intercommunal moderation, such as multi-ethnic political parties, cross-cutting electoral incentives, and intergroup accommodation.

Consociationalism, however, relies on elite cooperation between leaders of different communities. It recognizes ethnicity as primordially rooted and seeks to protect and maximize the rights of ethnonational groups. Consociationalism promotes mechanisms that maintain interethnic harmony, such as grand coalition cabinets, proportional representation, minority veto powers, and communal autonomy. It aims to achieve a significant degree of autonomy for each ethnic polity and ensure fair representation in governance.

Which of the two theories provides the best prescriptions for democratically governing divided societies is a subject of great debate among scholars. Nevertheless, they all agree that the two theories are crucial in designing a working democracy in ethnically polarized polities.

Embracing pluralism is a prerequisite for democracy

While democracy in Iran has had periods of temporary existence, democratic movements have yet to establish a working democracy in Iran. Given the multinational character and diversity of the Iranian populace, the establishment and future of democracy in Iran require serious discussion, debate, and planning based on centripetalist and consociationalist theories, institutions, and practices.

The arguments of Iranian political parties and personalities that often take the side of the Iranian state in response to demands for inclusive government can be conceived of as a sort of centripetalist prescription of governance. In theory, centripetalism advocates for institutions and governing arrangements that seek to depoliticize ethnicity or ethnic demands and identities. This theory and arrangement of governance may be viewed as preferable or even ideal, given that it seeks to enhance cooperation between groups despite their ethnic, linguistic, or religious differences. However, many of the Iranian political forces as well as the Iranian state, both currently and historically, use centripetalist notions not to depoliticize ethnicity and create a more level playing field between ethnic groups but to deny non-Persian nations in Iran their linguistic, political, economic, and cultural rights.

While centripetalism may seek to depoliticize ethnicity, what has happened in the last hundred years of Iran’s history has been a further politicization of ethnicity and criminalization of ethnicity, particularly for non-ethnically Persian people in Iran. This is clearly illustrated in the inestimable number of Kurdish teachers and activists who are either languishing away in Avin prison or who have been executed over the years, both under the Pahlavi regime and under the Islamic Republic. The treatment of other non-ethnically-Persian people like the Baloch, Ahwaz, and Azeri has been similarly harsh.

The demise of the Islamic Republic does not begin with some outside power but with the unity of effort and goals among Iran’s ethnonational groups. Iranians need to recognize their diversity not as a threat but as a necessary ingredient for creating a pluralistic and tolerant democratic system that can provide representation and self-governance to each national group.

The lack of vision and clarity for a democratically inclusive governance system for Iran has led to a lack of unity of purpose, both in Iran and among Iranian opposition groups in the diaspora. For democratic forces inside and outside Iran to inflict significant damage on the clerical grip on power, there must be agreement, organization, and coordination among opposition groups, both internal and external. This can only happen when we find a clearly laid-out system of governance that can bring us all together as equals with an equal say and an equal share of power in the system, regardless of our identity, religion, native language, or gender. I believe that consociationalist theory, or a mix of consociationalism and centripetalist prescriptions and institutional arrangements of governance, can provide the necessary vision and model of governance that can allow us to flourish in our distinct communities as well as a part of a broader community that is Iran.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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