Considering Kurdistan: Another Way to Stop Iran

By Bernstam, Michael S. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Considering Kurdistan: Another Way to Stop Iran

Bernstam, Michael S., Harvard International Review

There is a simple way to stop Iran from its nuclear ambitions, a way less costly than war and more effective than sanctions. It is by the creation of Kurdistan. Even a mere non-binding declaration by the US Congress to consider an option to create Kurdistan should stop the Iranian regime in its nuclear tracks, forcing it to refocus its attention on its internal survival. As an added benefit, the Kurdistan option would have a similar disabling effect on Syria. Iran and Syria might then cease to be political entities. The possible downside of this development is that it might destabilize and potentially break up Iraq and Turkey. This is a serious risk, but it could also open up new opportunities. Iraq and Turkey would face an added urgency in reaching mutually beneficial accords with their Kurdish enclaves. Their equitable resolution of the Kurdish problem would actually strengthen rather than weaken their national integrity.


This proposal represents the most equitable scenario that benefits all sides except the Iranian and Syrian regimes. If Iranian and Syrian Kurdish areas separate from their current states, they could join Iraqi Kurdistan in what would then become, in effect, an Arab-Kurdish confederation in Iraq. Iraq could become more stable, as Kurdistan has demonstrated its unifying influence on both the Shi'a and Sunni factions in the last several years and especially in the recent months during a governmental crisis. In general, since the new resulting borders in the region would better align the existing ethnic areas with their national statehood, the probability of inter-ethnic and internal civil conflicts in this volatile region should diminish. As for Turkey, under domestic pressures for a comprehensive and mutually beneficial Kurdish accord, the government would have to re-evaluate and reverse its drift away from its hard-won secular democracy allied with the West. Altogether, these developments would constitute a win-win situation both locally and globally, averting a military conflict with the West and improving human conditions in the region.

Background Facts on Iran

Contrary to the incessant pronouncements of its leaders, Iran is not a firm and stable nation-state, but rather a hodgepodge of disharmonious ethnic groups and religious denominations. Moreover, it is a hierarchical country with one dominant ethnicity and several subordinate ones. The politically dominant group, the Persians, barely holds its demographic majority status. According to recent data, of the 64.5 million people in Iran, the Persians make up 51 percent; the second largest ethnic group, the Azeris, constitute 24 percent; the Kurdish people make up 7 percent; about 5 percent are the Mazandarani people; Arabs take 3 percent; and the remaining 10 percent represent other minorities. These ethnic groups are largely concentrated in their own homogeneous regions of the country.

The Azeris seem to be better integrated than other ethnicities in Iran and even supply top leaders. This situation is not necessarily stable. The second largest ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the Ukrainians and the Croats respectively, may offer precedents. They were the first to share power in their multi-ethnic states and also among the first to split when the time was ripe. Along religious lines, the Sunni Muslims in Iran have been subjected to systematic legal and political discrimination from the dominant Shi'a Muslim denomination since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. For example, the Sunnis are banned from having their mosques in Tehran. Recent documents by the United Nations and Amnesty International point to increasing legal, cultural, and economic suppression of the non-Persian minorities, including the Azeris, in addition to the long-brutalized Kurds. Reports enumerate land and property confiscations, employment and education discrimination, movement restrictions, and other civil rights violations. …

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