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How Stable Is Iran?

Walter Russell Mead

In a reminder of the ethnic tensions lurking below the surface in Iran, large numbers of Azeris have taken to the streets to protest a children’s television station that broadcast a racial slur. Radio Free Europe reports:

The popular children’s program Fitilehha has been cancelled amid the controversy it caused when it aired an episode on November 6 depicting an ethnic Azeri brushing his teeth with a toilet brush.

But the outcry has continued to grow, with members of the country’s large Azeri minority staging large street protests on November 9 in the northwestern cities of Tabriz, Urmia (Orumieh), and Zanjan.

Many people overestimate Iran’s stability—they believe that it is somehow exempt from the ethnic and sectarian tensions ripping the rest of the region apart. In fact, restive minorities loom large (Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, and others make up almost half the population), and Iran is one of the multi-ethnic multi-confessional states whose implosion has been one of the principal features of world history for the last 150 years. The makeup of Iran means that the country’s leaders actually have good reason to believe that the loss of centralized power would imperil the state’s stability, and it can help explain why the mullahs hold tightly on to the theocratic basis of the state: More Iranians are Shi’a than are ethnically Persian.

We aren’t predicting a sudden collapse of the Ayatollah. But the potential for unrest is worth noting because, contrary to what some in Washington seem to expect, it would make regime change more likely to be messy and destabilizing than to be liberalizing and democratic.

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