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Would Iranians rally ‘round the flag?

EDWARD N. LUTTWAK is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

THERE MAY BE good reasons to oppose an air attack on Iran’s nuclear installations at this time, but one of the arguments that is advanced most often is seriously flawed.

The argument is based on a familiar axiom that ruling regimes, even unpopular ones, are strengthened by such attacks because the bombarded nation rallies around its rulers. But this does not apply to Iran. It’s true that when Germans, Japanese and Serbs, among others, were bombed, they did indeed support their leaders all the more because the attacks increased their sense of national solidarity.

Iran, however, is not a nation-state but rather a multinational empire dominated by Persians, much as the Soviet Union was once dominated by Russians. Except that in this case, the Persians only account for just over half the population of Iran (making them a smaller proportion than the Russians were even in the final days of the Soviet Union).

No scholar who studies Iran would dispute that there is a very strong Persian identity and pride of ownership in ruling Iran among the Persians, but only a very weak sense of Iranian participation among non-Persians. Iran is not like Lebanon, where the different communities often fight each other. Instead, Iran’s minorities each resist the Persian-dominated central government. Just in the last month, guerrillas of Baluch nationality kidnapped soldiers in southeast Iran. Arabs of Khuzistan province next to Iraq detonated bombs in Ahwaz, and Kurds clashed with the rural police.

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To the extent that the different nationalities each have their own identities and oppose the essentially Persian regime, they are likely to applaud external attacks on the nuclear installations rather than rally to the defense of their rulers.

So how does factional solidarity in Iran break down?

The Kurds, who account for about 9% of the population, have been encouraged by the example of virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq next door. Their demands for autonomy are becoming more forceful, and something of an insurgency seems to have started. Very few Kurds are likely to rally around their Persian overlords.

Smaller nationalities that are known to be disaffected because of recent examples of violent resistance include the Arabs at 3% of Iran’s population and the Baluch at 2%. Little is known of the intensity of the national sentiments of the Turkmen and Lurs (2% each), and still less of the Gilaki and Mazandarani (8% in all), who may be politically more assimilated simply because they speak Persian dialects.

Along with the Kurds, all the smaller nationalities amount to only a quarter of Iran’s population; but Turkic-speaking Azeris add another 24% all by themselves. Many Azeri families in Tehran especially are believed to be thoroughly assimilated, but the more numerous Azeris farther north are not, and national revival and separatist groups have become increasingly active among them. Since Azerbaijan just across the border gained its independence from the Soviet Union, the Azeris have a national home of their own, and it is not Iran.

The religious extremism of Iran’s regime has further fractured the nation’s solidarity by discriminating not only against the non-Muslim Bahais, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who amount to only 2% of the total population, and are of yet smaller political significance, but also against the 9% or more who are Sunnis (who are not even allowed to have their own mosque in Tehran, where 1 million of them live).

So, all in all, at least half the population is unlikely to be motivated by feelings of solidarity with their rulers. Only among the Persians are many likely to react to an attack as the axiom prescribes; others might welcome the humiliation of their oppressors. The bombing of Iran’s nuclear installations may still be a bad idea for other reasons, but not because it would strengthen the hold of its rulers. One may hope that Iran’s rulers are not misled by their own propaganda and will therefore accept a diplomatic solution rather than gamble all on an irrelevant axiom.


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