Ethnic Diversity and Iranian National Identity

The most important political development affecting the Middle East toward the beginning of the twentieth century was the collapse of the Ottoman and Tsarist Russian empires and subsequent emergence of a number of state nations in their place. Lying to the south of these two empires was Iran which included a number of ethnic cultures. While attempting to fit together the pieces of its ethnic jigsaw, one of Iran’s primary concerns was preservation of its territorial integrity. In the absence of a strong centralised state, one might well have expected that post-World War I Iran would not succeed in avoiding the fate that had befallen the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, by the end of the War, the territorial integrity of Iran was still intact.

Nevertheless, in the world coming out of the Cold War, the international political setting has been altered. On the other side of Iran’s northern frontiers, instead of a great Tsarist/Soviet power, a number of small independent states have emerged. Some of these newly independent states accommodate a majority population whose corresponding ethno-linguistic group live within Iranian territory. Occasional appeals are heard for the unification of the people who share a common language, although not necessarily a common political destiny, and yet live under different national flags. However, the question that still remains to be answered is: Can the Iranian traditional sense of territorial and national identity overcome these diverse tendencies? And will its borders remain intact?

That Iran has so far been able to avoid the destiny of the great empires of the twentieth century is undeniable. For, various Iranian ethnic communities have coexisted without serious interruptions throughout this period. Today, however, to maintain the country’s territorial and ethnic integrity there must be a serious effort to reform Iran’s political structure substantially. Such a transformation must also be accompanied by a determination to respect the right of all ethnic minorities including their right to preserve and promote their respective cultures and languages.

Only with such developments may one be sure of the continued stability of Iran’s borders.


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