Why Iran Will Not Go the Way of the USSR

by Shireen T. Hunter                           

Since the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, articles have appeared in the West arguing that, sooner or later, Iran’s ethnic and linguistic diversity will lead it to go the way of the USSR and dissolve into several states. Moreover, subscribers to this theory believe that the United States should encourage such a disintegrative process by further isolating Iran economically and politically, while also supporting its separatist elements.

Others, meanwhile, talk about a wholesale rearranging of Middle East/West Asia borders along ethnic and sectarian lines. One such article was “Blood Borders” by Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters, published in The Armed Forces Journal. Now that the Trump administration has again put regime change in Iran on the US agenda, similar articles have again proliferated.

Of course, the risk of disintegration exists for all nations and not just Iran. From the UK to Spain, Italy, and potentially even France, devolutionary forces might emerge. For example, if Catalonia becomes independent, Occitania in France might try to follow suit. And if Occitania, why not Brittany, the Basque area, Corsica, and so on? Italy might split between north and south, and the United Kingdom might fracture into Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man.

Of course, none of these events will occur because, unlike in some Middle Eastern countries, no regional or great power will help such separatist movements.

But there are other reasons why it is unlikely that Iran will go the way of the USSR. These reasons relate to the real causes of the USSR’s break up and the nature of the Iranian nation and state.

Ethnic Revolt Was Not the Cause of Soviet Collapse

What led to the Soviet Union’s demise was not ethnic revolts. Rather, deep differences emerged within the Soviet leadership following Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. The eruption of nationalist movements in the USSR from 1989 onwards was partly encouraged by these competing factions: first by Gorbachev’s opponents to demonstrate the dangers of perestroika (restructuring) and then by Gorbachev himself to show that without it the Union could not hold. Later, supporters of Boris Yeltsin encouraged centrifugal tendencies. Famously, Yeltsin called on the USSR’s ethnic minorities, including Chechens, to take as much sovereignty as they could.

Even so, the Union’s coup de grace was not delivered by ethnic minorities but by Yeltsin and the Russian Federation. Once it declared independence in early December 1991, clearly the Union could not hold, even in a reformed and liberalized form. This decision of the Russian Federation stunned the heads of other republics. For example, in utter astonishment, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, reportedly asked, “from whom Russia wants to separate,” since the USSR without Russia would not exist.

Regarding intra-regime differences, there are some similarities between Iran and the USSR. However, in Iran neither the hardliners nor the reformists would go so far as fomenting ethnic unrest to advance their interests because their interest is bound with Iran within its current borders. There is no Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin in Iran.

Unlike the USSR, Iran is not a colonial empire. During its long history, Iran has lost territory rather than incorporating other lands. Some of Iran’s ethnic and linguistic minorities, such as the Arabs and the Turkic-speaking inhabitants of Azerbaijan, are remnants of the Arab and Turko-Mongol invasion of Iran. Thus, any past colonialization in Iran has been by Arabs and Turks and not vice versa. Therefore, the logic of the inevitable dissolution of colonial empires does not apply to Iran.

Misunderstanding the Issue of Iran’s Ethnic Composition

One reason for exaggerating the likelihood of Iran’s disintegration along ethnic lines is the conflation of Iranian and Persian. From the beginning of Iran’s recorded history, the word Iranian encompassed more than only the Persians and included the Medes, the Sarmatians, and other groups, some of which no longer exist. This fact is clear from the way Darius I, the Achaemenid Emperor, described himself: “I am Darius, the son of Vishtasp. My clan is Achaemenid, my tribe is Persian, and my nation is Aryan” (the latter didn’t possess negative connotations at the time).

After Alexander the Great conquered Iran, the Greeks and later all Westerners referred to Iran as Persia. For Iranians, however, Iran was always far more than Persia and the Persians. The Sassanids (205-651 A.D.) referred to their country as Eranshahr. Even at the time of the Qajars (1785 to 1925), Iranians called their country Iran. Contrary to a belief in the United States, Reza Shah Pahlavi did not change Iran’s name from Persia to Iran. He only insisted that foreign governments refer to it by its proper name and not Persia, which is only a province in Iran.

In today’s Iran, Kurds, Lurs, and the Baluch are Iranian peoples. Despite their linguistic Turkification, the percentage of Turkic blood in Azerbaijanis is no more than that in the average Iranian. The Kurdish and Baluch languages are Iranian languages. Kurdish is actually closer to the pre-Arab invasion Persian than to the Persian spoken in today’s Tehran.

The regions of Sistan and Baluchistan, where many of those who would like to see separatist movements erupt, are among the most important places where the post-Arab invasion Persian national revival began.

“Rustam” the mythical Iranian Hercules and the hero of Shahnameh, the Persian national epic, was from Sistan. Recently, there has been a revival in reading Shahnameh in the region and elsewhere in Iran. The Kurd’s culture and historical memory began with their appropriation of Kaveh, who restored Iran’s legitimate monarchy during the time of the Achaemenids, and his banner Derafsh e Kaviani” (“the standard of the kings”) is based on Iranian history and historical memory. Even if they wanted to, the Kurds could not escape their Iranian heritage without greatly impoverishing themselves.

Iran as a Historical and Cultural Nation

Another reason for arguing against Iran’s disintegration, certainly in the absence of a massive military attack, is that Iran is a historical and cultural rather than an ethnic-based nation. What unites Iranians is not ethnicity, but rather shared history, culture, and to a great extent religion. In fact, given how many conquerors Iran has had, its survival within more or less its ancient borders is nothing short of a miracle. Its culture and traditions, instead of being obliterated by its invaders, has seduced and absorbed its conquerors. The best example of Iranian culture’s seductive nature can be seen in Mughal India and to some extent in the Ottoman Empire.

The USSR never achieved such an attractive and all-embracing culture. Its project of creating a Homo Sovieticus failed miserably.

In addition, Iran’s minorities have no attractive alternatives. A Kurdish state is still a mirage. For Kurds, joining Turkey or Iraq is no alternative. For Iran’s Azerbaijanis, life under Ilham Aliev, president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, would be no picnic. Pakistan’s Baluch are much worse off than those of Iran.

Additionally, internal strife in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen—just to mention a few—are a sobering reminder for all Iranians that they should avoid similar situations. In short, looked at with a sober eye, remaining within Iran is the best bet for all its citizens.

Considering these facts, the best option for the United States is to try promoting positive change within Iran through constructive engagement, including in the economic area, rather than seek regime change by force or even the country’s disintegration. Indeed, that would be a sure way to guarantee that virtually all Iranians would pull together to protect the integrity of their nation and state. Had America chosen constructive engagement in the 1990s, Iran would today look very different and most likely would enjoy non-hostile relations with the United States.

Picture: ethnic map of Iran (Wikimedia Commons)

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. We believe, the author should have concluded by the following note to take home: In case American-stupidity against Iran, recognises no limit. That the very Iranian-Baluchis, Iranian-Arabs, Iranian-Azeris, and of course, the Iranian-Kurds. The very minorities inside the country, that the Pentagon and the CIA, are pinning their hopes-on to revolt and ultimately, leading the country to disintegration. But, we tell those delusional Americans, just like the centuries gone by, these minorities are our people; a collective force of our nation. As and when you [the Americans] shall find out, they shall exact a lasting but agonising humiliation on the enemy; should the moment arrive and “the Mad General’s prophecy” were to be turned into an American reality.

  2. Procivic, I believe the closest we will come was under Obama. Would be nice if the US once again regained their senses but it is a long shot.

  3. Thank you professor Shireen Hunter for a nice explanation of yours and my heritage!
    1. If I may add to your comment regarding the possibility of any country can break up you didn’t include Mr Putin’s wish to see the US breaking apart just like his own country of Soviets! In fact several states in the US have already expressed their desire to succeed from the union!
    2. You didn’t elaborate on the original and the tipping point for the Soviets. The soviets hollow system was exposed following their invasion of Afghanistan and the war in that country pushed the Soviets to the cliff and Reagan pushed them off the cliff! Then of course as you said the drunken and farting Yeltsin took over the union and while he was drunk he encouraged the breakups!
    3. I believe you need to write another article focusing on stupidity of those nation states in where the difference between ethnicity and patriotism of the people living in other nation state is not well recognized!
    Differences in beliefs such as the case of Ireland and England have nothing to do with patriotism and only a tool for fighting injustices! So their model can be applied to Shias vs Sunnis which is independent of the states!
    Ethnic peoples living in Iran are Iranians first and then Kurd, Lur, Baluch, Turk, Arab and so on each with their own separate and beautiful dialects and cultures as you said.

  4. Unless real, meaningful democratic reforms take place in Iran to move it away from a theocracy and into a governing democracy, things will never improve. That–more than anything else–needs to be the global focus. This means redoing the Iran nuclear deal to finally address related issues such as ballistic missiles, terror support and human rights..

  5. Thank you Dr. Hunter for an explanation I wholeheartedly agree with, but if I may offer one small critique, I was dismayed that you would refer to Darius the Great who built the empire which Alexander conquered by attacking it at it’s weakest moment as “Darius I”. To be clear, the reason for my discontent is that you then refer to the boy whose main claim to fame was sitting on the throne of Cyrus and Darius as “Alexander the Great”. Is Iran’s history not ignored and denigrated enough by Westerners, and their own conquerors such as Alexander not magnified enough, that they need Iranians to join in their efforts? Please consider this next time you mentioned those whom Alexander himself considered his greatest heroes and role-models.

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