Federalism for Iran: Arguments for and Against



After years of debate over federalism, autonomy, and self-governance among Iranian activists and politicians, the former President Mohammad Khatami resurrected the debate among all political activists, especially among those who still take the reformers seriously. “The most appropriate way of governing the people is the federal government, but our constitution does not let us be federative,” he said. The statement was made in a meeting with the Tehran City Council members.
It later fostered a bipolar discussion between political thinkers inside and outside Iran. Of course, federalism issues raised by a reformist whose ideas in the political sphere have largely failed surprised a lot of people, but the key point is that this discussion shows even some former and incumbent leaders of the system are not hopeful that the Islamic Republic can tackle Iran’s current challenges or modify existing political structures.
Two facts should be mentioned before any further discussion: firstly, the existing Iranian political system  is not a federal system in any aspect of this concept, and both the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic have been staunchly against it.
What is interesting about this two-way debate is that agreement or opposition to federalism is not based on the old political schisms of  secularism vs Islamism, democracy vs authoritarianism, reformism vs fundamentalism, capitalism vs socialism, and statism vs civil society. Some Iranian secularists and democrats oppose federalism as much as Islamists and authoritarians. This is why the federalism debate  has been and will be independently raised in Iran.
The significance of this  discussion on  federalism at this point of time in Iran can be linked to three issues: 1) the weakness and inefficiency of the central government in providing basic services to people living in border provinces and marginal areas; 2) the strong tendency among some ethnic and linguistic minorities to be self-governed or independent; and (3) the permanent suppression of these minorities and the violation of their fundamental rights, such as education in their mother tongue or the election of local officials.

Arguments for Federalism

Iranian federalists have sought to prove the efficiency, correctness, and legitimacy of federalism from a variety of cultural, political, and economic angles. Here are five of their main  arguments:

  1. Federalism in the long run is the best way to preserve Iran’s integrity. Due to Iran’s demographic diversity, a system that does not provide maximum political participation to its citizens cannot strengthen and achieve national unity.  The lines of separation between provinces in a  federal system  which some see as the conduit for state breakdown, are geographical and regional, not necessarily ethnic, linguistic, or religious. Federalism is for all of Iran, not just for some areas.

Those who view federalism as a route to state collapse must look at the successful experiences of this system. India, Canada, Germany, the United States, and many other countries are federally governed and have a much larger diverse population than Iran, but have not disintegrated. These countries have communities with different backgrounds, histories, and religions, but the federal system has been successful in maintaining state cohesion.

  1. Decentralization via federalism challenges corruption. One of the main reasons for  corruption in Iran is the concentration of resources in the hands of a few groups of people. Even if these people are democratically elected (and they are not), putting enormous power and wealth into their hands is a prescription for corruption.
  2. Federal systems are more efficient in dealing with local challenges. Federalism is not a political ideology but an efficient way of solving regional problems. For nearly nine decades, the appointment of managers from Tehran to lead progress all over the country has been a failed management model. Regional and local management have been the victim of this centralized system. In addition, national policymaking in a country with environmental diversity, various resources of wealth and a large population has not been very effective.
  3. The current non-federal system is in turmoil. The current centralized system does not believe in the sovereignty of regions and cities over their resources. This is why some provincial water, mining materials, and oil resources are transferred and spent in other provinces without profits returning  to the source  province. This has caused hostility and enmity among the people of the country.
  4. Except for the contemporary era, Iran in its history has always either been ruled by dispersed governments or imperial ones. The different parts of the empire were also governed by some form of local autonomy. The Shah of Iran was called the Shahanshah or the king of the kings because there were various local rulers who were not appointed by the king but used to pay certain amounts of ransom or taxes to the imperial leaders.

Arguments Against Federalism

Iranians  who are against federalism are as enthusiastic in their opposition to this form of political system as those  who advocate  it in their discussions. Here are five of their main arguments:

  1. Federalism in a country like Iran, where dissent is high in some areas would lead to a national rupture as well as civil and ethnic warfare. It is true that Kurds, Baluchis, and Turks in various parts of Iran often express their wishes for autonomy or self-governance, but if they are given the opportunity and the political and security pressures diminish, their tendency for independence is not low. Many parties and groups in various parts of Iran are openly secessionist. Many call themselves a nation, not an ethnicity. Federalism is against national interests and a prelude to the breakup of the country.
  2. There have been no plans to do so in Iran for the last 150 years. The federalization of the country in a society that has not practiced it would lead to chaos. Federalism is against expediency. The federalists themselves have not said what their plan is to move from a centralized system to a federal one. Town and village councils have very limited powers, and their experience in governance is limited, whereas in federalism, local governments having much broader powers. The political elite and the Iranian people are not ready for this.
  3. 3. What federalism in Iran is supposed to accomplish (such as local governance and efficiency) can be done via the empowerment of civil institutions and the institutionalization of national democracy. So instead of focusing on federalism, it is better to strengthen democratic and civil institutions.
  4. 4. Federalism has been a plan for the integration of fragmented and fractured nation-states, not a plan for the management of monolithic states. Iran has a unified identity and we do not need to build it from zero to embrace federalism.

The Islamic Republic and the Political Management of the Country

The Islamic Republic of Iran has opposed any form of autonomy, self-governance, and federalism from day one. This system has nothing to do with the arguments of the two sides of this issue but it centralizes  legislation, policy and decision-making in the hands of a political elite. Therefore, as long as the Islamic Republic of Iran exists, federalism in Iran is impossible. Therefore, the opponents of federalism have a natural and powerful ally in today’s Iranian government.

Editorial Team