- Ethnic Identity and the State in Iran by Alam Saleh
Ethnic Identity and the State in Iran seeks to reframe discussion about Iran’s national security away from the traditional foreign threats and power politics arguments, and toward the internal dynamics in the country. The book’s main thesis is that intranational ethnic tensions pose a greater security challenge to Iran’s national security than those presented by regional and global military threats. The challenge does not come necessarily due to Iran’s multiethnic composition, but through the increasingly politicized nature of ethnic issues in the country. Using a theoretical framework based on Ted Robert Gurr’s “relative deprivation” theory and the “societal security” concept, Saleh argues that the failure of both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the preceding monarchical regime in addressing the sociocultural demands of the country’s ethnic groups has created the insecurity dilemma for the government of Iran.
The development of ethnic nationalism, or at least its politicized variety in Iran, must be seen within the broader context of the country’s journey toward modern, territory-based nationalism. The Russo-Persian War of 1804, which resulted in Iran’s loss of vast tracts of land in the Caucasus to tsarist Russia, was a defining moment for the development of Iranian nationalism based on the image of unity among the country’s constituent parts and groups. Iranian officials as well as intellectuals began to develop a new concept of Iranian identity away from its long-established cultural construct and more towards a land-based, territorially-focused, and Persianized concept of nationhood. This concept of “Iranianness” constituted an important element of the Pahlavi monarchy’s nation-building program for most of the twentieth century.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the monarchy and established an Islamic system in Iran downplayed nationalism based on cultural and territorial variables. Instead, it sought to create a new identity among Iran’s multiethnic mosaic by reviving the concept of the Islamic umma as the centripetal force unifying the country’s diverse population. In the end, the Islamic Republic, like its predecessor, failed to create an encompassing notion of “Iranianness,” albeit based on the concept of Islamic unity. Thus, as author Alam Saleh explains, Iran’s national identity problem has persisted, adding to the country’s security dilemma.
The nationalities’ predicament in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been so much the product of ethnic identity formation, but the result of the securitization of ethnic issues. States that frame the presence of nationalities and ethnic demands in terms of security tend to adopt repressive policies towards these groups as they increasingly view the recognition of ethnic rights or autonomy as tantamount to secession. As [End Page 324] Saleh clearly demonstrates, the so-called “ethnic problem” in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been first and foremost the product of the state’s policies that have consistently securitized ethnic issues and failed to institute a de-securitized approach to nationality issues since the Islamic Revolution. In addition, the author looks at Iran’s fractured ideological and political map, and analyzes how domestic factors interact with regional and international variables to enhance security threats to the country. In particular, he identifies the role played by external actors in both framing and influencing Iran’s ethnic question. In so doing, Saleh explains the irredentist impact of transnational ethnic groups on Iran’s foreign policy.
All in all, this study is a welcome addition to the literature on the evolving issues of ethnicity in the Middle East, in general, and Iran, in particular.
Nader Entessar is Professor and Chair of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama.