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Can Iran Hold Together Long Term?

Walter Russell Mead

The New York Times offers a telling snapshot of Ahvaz, a majority Arab Iranian city near the Iraqi border, where a growing protest movement has lately been shut down by security forces:

Days of protests over dust storms, power failures and government mismanagement in one of Iran’s most oil-rich cities subsided on Sunday after security forces declared all demonstrations illegal.

Residents of Ahvaz, a city with a majority Arab population near the border with Iraq, had been protesting for five days in increasingly large gatherings, shown in cellphone video clips shared on social media.

The region around Ahvaz is a center of oil production in Iran, and since economic sanctions were lifted, Iran’s government has been hoping for foreign investment in the area to update refineries and power stations and fix deepening ecological problems.

The cellphone clips show protesters calling for the resignation of the local governor. And as the number of demonstrators grew, the demands started to include a call for top officials from the capital, Tehran, to come to Ahvaz to see the problems for themselves. […]

Locals said they felt ignored and had had enough. “We feel as if we live in a special zone, where the government only makes money from,” said Mobin Ataee, a local student. “It seems they would prefer people to leave so they can turn this whole area into an oil-business-only region.”

These protests may not seem like much, and it is important not to over-interpret the significance of one regional movement. As the Arab Spring most recently taught us, the Western press — not to mention the past two U.S. presidents — have long indulged in premature predictions about the transformative impact of democratic movements in the Middle East, while underestimating the ability of autocratic regimes to clamp down on dissent and cling on to their power.

Still, the Ahvaz story does offer a glimpse of the simmering regional and ethnic tensions that pose long-term problems for the elite in Tehran. The biggest trend in politics for the last 150 years has been the break-up of multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic states into smaller and more homogenous units as people demand more control over their own lives. And Iran is one of the world’s most vulnerable states to this trend, with Azeris, Kurds, Balochs, and many other minority groups under the corrupt, heavy-handed and often not-very-effective rule of the mullahs.

If it is true that the era of Sykes-Picot is coming to an end in the Middle East and that states like Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are going to have their boundaries redrawn, it is hard to see how this process can be stopped at the Iran-Iraq border. The Iranian Kurds want independence, and many of Iran’s Arabs would gladly join with their Shi’a Arab brethren (and fellow tribesmen in many cases) across the boundary. Iran’s own meddling has played a major role in the breakdown of order across the region and the enflamed identity politics now plunging country after country into terrible wars. Can the mullahs play with fire and not be burned?

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