Federalism in Iran

By David L. Phillips
Thursday, April 14, 2022

Iranian Kurds support a federal, democratic republic for Iran, to advance reforms and catalyze Iran’s integration into the international community. However, US officials refuse to even meet with Iranian Kurdish leaders. They fear that their support for minorities would provoke the regime and undermine efforts to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama-era nuclear accord that released frozen assets in exchange for a verifiable suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities.

Iranian Kurds are united in their support for federalism, as the most effective system for power-sharing and establishing the rule of law. Federalism is an agreement between groups, enshrined through a constitutional arrangement, who band together because their interests are enhanced through common action. Federal power-sharing defines the relations of Iran’s minority groups to one another and the State. Though ethnic Persians represent less than half of Iran’s population, they control the government and security services that oppress Kurds and other minorities -- Arabs, Turks, and Baluchis.
Not every group seeks the same measures to protect and promote their rights. Asymmetrical power-sharing manages center-periphery relations. It also individuates power-sharing when groups have different aspirations. Federalism is different from autonomy, which is bestowed by the central government and can be revoked unilaterally.
Iranian Kurds are developing plans for self-governing institutions -- a local executive, assembly, and judiciary, as well as police and security structures upholding the administration of justice and reflecting the communities they serve. 
They are developing an agenda to enshrine cultural rights in the form of education, language, media, cultural festivals, and cultural symbols.
They have also promulgated a plan to promote economic development, enabling greater local control of natural resources, property and land management, and hiring preferences. 
Why is the US nervous about working with Iranian Kurds?
The Biden administration is focused on restoring the JCPOA, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and canceled by Donald J. Trump, who called it “The worst deal ever.” Trump withdrew the US from the accord and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran. Other countries that participated in mediation criticized Trump, condemning US unilateralism and calling for measures to reactivate the agreement. The sticking point is Iran’s insistence that the US remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.   
Critics of negotiations with Iran believe that a new security agreement would normalize relations with it, thereby releasing frozen assets that Tehran could use to support terror groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. They are also concerned that a new agreement would undermine Iranian reformers who champion democracy and minority rights, thereby betraying minority groups who demand power-sharing.
Instead of a new nuclear accord, the US should focus on promoting political reform including a bill of rights that would benefit all Iranian citizens, as well as power-sharing that would empower national minorities through greater self-government.
Both President Joe Biden and Secretary Antony Blinken have a long history of cooperation with Kurds. At their core, Biden and Blinken are strong champions of human rights and minority rights. 
Iranian Kurds are leading demands for decentralization. The US should support their efforts by embracing federalism that would take power from the mullahs and strengthen the forces of reform. A new nuclear accord will flounder without reform of Iran’s tyrannical politics.
Mr. Phillips is the Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University and a former Senior Adviser to the State Department. He has worked on Kurdish issues extensively for more than three decades.