Finding themselves amid a range of strategic, economic and regional interests, Iranians in a post-regime future will have to deftly maneuver their country toward a peaceful, constitutional state. Bahram Farrokhi writes about the good, the bad and the worst-case scenarios.
Three months of mass protests against Iran's clerical regime last year, while brutally put down, raised hopes among millions of Iranians for an end to the Islamic Republic's stifling 40-year rule. They also raised fears of chaos and speculations about what might follow — the good, the bad and the worst-case scenarios — if the iron-fisted regime were to end.
Let's consider what some of these scenarios may look like.
1. Separatism and dismemberment, with parts of Iran merging with neighboring states
Turkmen-inhabited regions in north-eastern Iran might join with Turkmenistan. The Arab-inhabited, south-western province of Khuzestan might join Iraq, while the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, the home of most Azeri Iranians, with the Republic of Azerbaijan to the north.
These scenarios would not happen without bitter fighting — if not wars —with untold casualties and unpredictable effects on all countries involved. Iraq might itself fall apart if it went to war with Iran a second time.
2. Separatism leading to the formation of new states
The restive province of Sistan-Baluchestan might seek to form a Baluchi state, sandwiched between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kurdish regions might fight to forge a Kurdish state with the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey and Syria, though again, not without war and large-scale killings in all these states, which would also lose territory. No regional state could accept such a scenario.
Nationalist sentiments are firmly rooted among the Kurds.
These are theoretical and extremely costly possibilities that would leave the region, and not just Iran, in ruins and provoke displacements akin to those seen after the First World War or in Syria's civil war. Nationalist sentiments are more firmly rooted among the Kurds, but as seen with Iraq's Kurdish referendum of September 25, 2017, no regional, or even foreign, power wants an independent Kurdish state.
3. Western-style federal democracy
This is the vision of a number of Iranian opponents to the Islamic Republic, in spite of some immediate obstacles.
Democracy has firstly to take root in Iran, with its long history, even in modern times, of centralizing, authoritarian government.
Secondly there is no precise, internal delineation of regions in terms of ethnicity: Kurds, Persians, Baluchis and Azeris live all over the country, even if particular groups tend to concentrate in certain parts. Certain districts of the Western Azerbaijan province have been home to Persians, Kurds and Armenians — living together in peace — for several hundred years. In parts of the Mazandaran province by the Caspian Sea, the population is a mix of Kurds and Turkmens.
Moves to separate ethnic groups would plausibly provoke violence, and entail long-term, nationwide instability. Even now some of the Islamic Republic's decisions on provincial delineations have caused discontent.
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4. A parliamentary democracy or constitutional monarchy
A parliamentary democracy or constitutional monarchy, with strong parliamentary rule and a weak, or symbolic, role for the head of state: This might involve a weakening of central government authority, and enhanced provincial or local powers in certain cultural, linguistic, administrative and economic matters, in line with regional needs. The Persian language would remain the national language to be used in education, business and bureaucracy, to assure the population equal rights of participation in public affairs, and as a unifying element.
Legislative work might be shared between a national parliament and provincial assemblies, always within the bounds of relevant laws and the constitution. This would be a complementary division to help reduce the developmental gap between big cities and the provinces, and curb the over-centralization of powers and resources.
5. An authoritarian, centralizing state with militaristic traits
This would safeguard Iran's territorial integrity while striking at the unity of its people, and the Revolutionary guards are the natural candidates in that scenario. Indeed, they are already running the country much along those lines.
These scenarios are mostly problematic rather than promising, and Iran's strategic position, immense wealth and resources and proximity to threatening states like Russia are barely helpful. There is an overwhelming concern in the West for stability in this part of the world, which the Islamic Republic has exploited for over 40 years. Most Iranians, one might fairly claim, prefer the fourth option — of living in a free country, perhaps with devolved powers — but is that also what the great powers want?