Would Iranians rally to the flag?

By Edward N. Luttwak Published:

By Edward N. Luttwak

There may be good reasons to oppose an air attack on Irans 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 attacks because the bombarded nation rallies around its rulers.

But this does not apply to Iran. Its 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 once was dominated by Russians. In this case, the Persians 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, Irans minorities resist the Persian-dominated central government. 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.

To the extent that the different nationalities have their own identities and oppose the 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 percent 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, disaffected because of recent examples of violent resistance, include the Arabs at 3 percent of Irans population and the Baluch at 2 percent. Little is known of the intensity of the national sentiments of the Turkmen and Lurs (2 percent each), and still less of the Gilaki and Mazandarani (8 percent 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 Irans population, but Turkic-speaking Azeris add another 24 percent all by themselves. Many Azeri families in Tehran especially are believed to be assimilated, but the more numerous Azeris farther north are not, and national revival and separatist groups have become increasingly active among them. Since Azerbaijan 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 Irans regime has further fractured the nations solidarity by discriminating not only against non-Muslim Bahais, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who amount to only 2 percent of the total population and are of yet smaller political significance, but also against the 9 percent or more who are Sunnis (who are not allowed to have their own mosque in Tehran, where 1 million of them live).

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 Irans 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 Irans rulers are not misled by their own propaganda and will accept a diplomatic solution rather than gamble all on an irrelevant axiom.

(Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.)

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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