Ethiopia is facing an existential crisis. Just over a year ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sparked a war against the northern Tigray state when, angered by the local government’s refusal to delay the elections, he sent the army. He believed it would be fun and, indeed, he quickly captured the state capital, Mekelle. Abiy, who like many Ethiopians resented the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (TPLF) for previous abuses of power and human rights violations, sought to settle old scores. In practice, this meant targeting and killing TPLF leaders and old guard like Seyoum Mesfin, the 71-year-old and well-respected former Ethiopian foreign minister. The problem with this strategy is that, while the older TPLF leaders were once part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and therefore embraced Ethiopian nationalism, young Tigrayans have little interest in being part of Ethiopia; many would prefer independence. It might be a moot concern if Abiy had won, but the Tigray Defense Forces retreated into the countryside and then staged a counterattack that routed the Ethiopian army. The Tigrayans – and a few temporary allies of appeasement among Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups – are now threatening the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
Abiy both imposed an information blackout – barely a sign of confidence – and subjected the Tigrayans in the capital to collective punishment. It is doubtful that he will be able to regain control but, even if he does, he has irreparably damaged the Ethiopian tissue. Abiy and other analysts may lament that former Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi embraced ethnic federalism in the 1994 constitution, but the reality is that Ethiopia can now disintegrate into its constituent ethnic units. Eritrea’s independence in 1993 broke the precedent of maintaining established borders not only in Africa in general, but in Ethiopia in particular. Prepare for the Republic of Tigray, Oromia, and maybe one or two other new African states.
With Ethiopia on the brink of dissolution, some in the American political community (and perhaps also in Israel) believe Iran could follow suit. Certainly, there are similarities between Ethiopia and Iran. Both were ancient empires with a history almost contiguous to the present day. European powers attacked both states, but Ethiopia and Iran managed to resist formal colonialism. The two countries are also multiethnic and multisectary. Until a few decades ago, the CIA estimated that ethnic Persians were only a slim majority in Iran, although their Book of facts about the world their proportion was subsequently increased to around 60 per cent. Academics such as Brenda Shaffer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy question this convincingly, although she in turn may inadvertently exaggerate minority populations and be too quick to confuse ethnicity with identity. .
Either way, Iran shares with Ethiopia a problem of leadership detached from reality. In both countries, transitions are looming. In Ethiopia’s case, it could be a military defeat; In the case of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it will be death. The question then is whether Iran is following the path of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Ethiopia in the 2020s, or if it will remain a cohesive whole.
The reality is that Iran as a whole is more resilient than its regime. History matters. Beyond the erosion of Iran’s borders by Russia and Britain during the 19th century, the country also has a long history of ethnic or regional secessionist movements. There was the Jangal movement in Gilan province from 1915 to 1921, although scholars now wonder if its leader Mirza Kuchek Khan was a secessionist. In 1924, there was an Arab revolt led by Sheikh Khazal of Mohammerah, the current Khorramshahr; Today, many Iranian Arabs believe they would have been better off if the shah hadn’t crushed the revolt in their oil-rich region. Decades after Sheikh Khazal’s revolt, the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used these sentiments to justify his invasion of Iran in 1980 in part to liberate “Arabia” as he called the Iranian province of Khuzestan. Soviet sponsorship of separatism in Iranian Azerbaijan led to the first real crisis of the Cold War. Simultaneously, the Kurds took advantage of Iranian weakness to declare the Republic of Mahabad, which lasted until 1946 before the central government regained control. In recent years, Baluch separatists have staged repeated attacks in the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochistan.
None of this, however, means that the dissolution of Iran along ethnic lines is inevitable, if not likely. The Iranians are after a strong central authority – both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran suffered a dictatorship – and many outlying provinces are taking advantage of a weak central government to strengthen their own autonomy. This same pattern has occurred throughout Iranian history, especially in the context of pre-20th century fiscal farming: Governors calculated that if the shah was too weak to force the levy of their annual tax quota, they could simply challenge central authority, keep the money, and rule the province as their own stronghold.
While Shaffer sets out the fullest and most persuasive case for asserting that ethnic minorities seek autonomy if not freedom from the Iranian state, arguments which are kryptonite to many in the Iranian studies community, she and his intellectual colleagues travelers in the political community who did not go to Iran exaggerate ethnic solidarity. Iran (or Persia, as it was called before 1935) predated the rise of ethno-nationalist states by more than a millennium. The identity and pride of Iranian nationalism, even if it is not sympathetic to the Islamic Republic, remains an important component of the Iranian patchwork. While the Islamic Republic has cracked down on both the Kurds and the Baloch, it is as much, if not more, the result of sectarian mistrust as it is of ethnic animosity. Members of other ethnicities have reached senior positions in the Iranian political hierarchy. Khamenei and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard leader Yahya Rahim-Safavi, for example, are both of Azerbaijani origin. The late head of the judiciary Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was Arab. In any post-chaos civil conflict, members of the Revolutionary Guards and other centralizing forces are as likely to belong to minority groups as to ethnic Persians. It is a mistake to assume that ethnic solidarity permeates ethnic groups. The Azerbaijani dictatorship is also unwilling to absorb Iranian Azerbaijanis whose incorporation into the Republic of Azerbaijan could triple its population. Azerbaijani secularism can be attractive to Iranians; its dictatorship and its corruption are not.
For those who seek to thwart the ambitions of the Islamic Republic, the ethnic map is just bad politics. As with any embrace of the al-Khalq Mujahedin, a group that ordinary Iranians despise, the result of playing the ethnic card and threatening the nation itself would allow the Ayatollahs to wrap themselves in the Iranian flag. Just as Saddam’s invasion snatched defeat from the clutches of victory by allowing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to consolidate his Islamic Republic at a time when it was on the brink, the promotion of Azeri or Arab nationalism in Iran would be a gift for Ebrahim Raisi. The Iranians may hate their regime, but they don’t hate their country. Iran is resilient. There is a reason why no ethnic movement has succeeded. The denouement that is currently taking place in Ethiopia will not come to Iran, despite Iranian diversity.
Michael Rubin is a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey and the wider Middle East. He also regularly gives courses at sea on conflict, culture, terrorism and the Horn of Africa in the Middle East to deployed units of the Navy and the United States Navy. You can follow him on Twitter: @ mrubin1971.