How a federal system could make sense in Iran - Prof. Dawud Gholamasad writes on two possible principles of a future democratization of Iran and why he recommends to favor a federal system in contrast to regional Ethnocracies replacing the current Theocracy.

Ethnic diversity in Iran - Why Federalism based on the "Principle of Subsidiarity" is a central aspect of the democratization of Iran and might be the better choice than replacing the current Theocracy by regional Ethnocracies[1]

In this article, I would like to discuss the need for decentralization of the state organization in the sense of federalism according to the "principle of subsidiarity" as an indispensable aspect of the democratization of Iran. The decentralization and democratization of decision-making-  and compulsive authority should promote not only the effectiveness of the state organization but also the national solidarity of the Iranians. The promotion of this sense of belonging helps if their ethnic diversity is recognized and appreciated as an aspect of cultural wealth of the country, to overcome the current tendency towards an ethnicization of social conflicts. The aim is to strike a more stable balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces, which as the fear and wish images of the people involved have until now, stood in the way of an overcoming of the territorial disparity of the social and political development.

What does federalism mean according to the "Principle of Subsidiarity"?

As a rule, democratization is equated with one of the aspects of its institutional forms. It is reduced to the institutionalization of the parliamentarism of a democracy based on political parties, which is supposed to guarantee people's sovereignty with the separation of powers. This reduction not only neglects the functional and social habitual or personal aspects of their creation and maintenance, which I have discussed in other articles. The relevance of the territorial aspect of institutional democratization is also not adequately assessed. Taking this aspect of democratization into account is particularly crucial in the multi-ethnic state societies, which have found their more or less stable form of a solution in Europe through the federal organization of the state based on the principle of subsidiarity. For federalism is one of the indispensable aspects of the democratization of modernized states such as Iran, which have originated as a result of the disintegration and dissolution of the former integration units such as tribes and village communities in the course of the modernization processes. As a complementary process to the state-building of the nomadic stamped society, the democratization of centralized state-societies runs only through its federal reorganization. In doing so, the principle of subsidiarity makes ethnicizing the problem-solving of social conflicts obsolete, which sees people rather as ethnical collective members than individual citizens of certain ethnic origin in the territorial democratization of the state. 

Because a "Federal Ethnocracy" is a kind of political structure in which regionally dominant ethnic groups control the state apparatus to promote their interests, power, and status resources. This is why ethnocratic regimes typically have a "thin" democratic facade that hides a deeper ethnic structure in which ethnicity rather than citizenship becomes the key to securing power and status. Such an ethnocratic replacement of the currently prevailing theocracy or hierocracy in Iran would, therefore, be sham democratization. Such an institutionalized structure of power would even rather exacerbate ethnic conflicts than abolish them. This "Federative Ethnocracy" would be highly counterproductive because it would promote cementing the lagging effect of the social habits of the people involved rather than democratizing it.

How does the striving for "Ethnic Federalism" come about?

The modernization of society goes hand in hand with social differentiation, which above all dissolves with the increasing division of labor in society, the previously prevailing forms of social integration of people such as tribes and village communities. However, this disintegration of earlier integration units, which is increasingly associated with the urbanization of people's lives, does not mean their emotional detachment from it. Their sense of ethnicity, therefore, continues to determine the balance of their I-We identity, in favor of their former identity as tribesmen, as long as they are not democratically integrated as equal citizens. This lagging effect of their social habits prevents the multi-level social integration of uprooted people, which with the apparent regional disparity of socio-economic development, exacerbates the ethnicization of social conflicts. 

However, as a side effect of this kind of the centralized modern state-building process and the resulting lagging effect of the emotional integration of former "subjects" with different ethnic origins, this neglect of development at the regional level will be experienced as their ethnic discrimination. By the ethnicization of the neglecting central power as a "Persian," an equally oppressed group appears to them as their established oppressor. This ethnicized perception of the central power by the group marginalized intensifies the ethnicization of their democratic struggle for the federal autonomy of the ethnically dominated regions. In doing so, they construct a reality of inappropriate oppressors.

What does federalism mean according to the "Principle of Subsidiarity"?

It is, yet, the undemocratic and extremely centralized state that combats any protest against the territorial disparity of development and any relative regional autonomy in the sense of a democratic integration of the citizens as separatism. This reinforces the ethnicization of social conflicts, which, as they escalate, will enormously increase the risk of territorial disintegration processes. A problem that can be solved productively and effectively by decentralizing the state according to the Principle of Subsidiarity

The Principle of Subsidiarity states that tasks relating to the production and operation of general reproduction conditions of society - known as "infrastructure measures" - should be carried out by the smallest possible units in a multi-stage integration unit of the state-society. Higher-level units should only intervene if the lower units cannot perform. According to this, higher-level units only offer support services, which, however, the central government often experiences and fights at because of an emotionally intolerable loss of function. For this reason, such a democratic reorganization of the state presupposes an understanding of the need to decentralize the establishment and operation of the general reproduction conditions of society. Accordingly, a higher state or social unit may only intervene in a helping manner and take on functions if the resources of the subordinate units are not sufficient to perform these functions

This decentralization based on the "Principle of Subsidiarity" is therefore carried out by a delegation of government tasks downwards so that they are carried out as far as possible by the lower level or smaller units. This principle is, therefore, not only limited to the state administrative tasks delegated by the central government - as provided for in the pre- and post-revolutionary constitutions - and implemented more poorly than rightly under central control. It includes all the functions necessary for the fabrication and operation of the general conditions of reproduction of society, such as "primary care" and the legal system in its instances of the judicial process, and in the field of "social law" replacing alms. 

The "primary care" or "existence precaution" include the "basic services" of citizens known as public services. It outlines the state's task of providing the goods and services deemed necessary for human existence. This includes, as part of the "service management," the provision of public facilities for the general public, i.e., transport and transportation, gas, water and electricity supply, garbage disposal, sewage disposal, educational and cultural institutions, hospitals, cemeteries, swimming pools, fire brigades, etc. ("infrastructure"). Most of these are activities that are usually carried out by municipal businesses. Especially, competence areas that are particularly important for the ethnic groups in Iran, like education and training, are also part of the "federal cultural sovereignty" of the lower instances of a regional democratized state. However, this cultural sovereignty is subject to the prohibition of discrimination, protection of minorities and respect for human and civil rights. This limitation results not least from the increasing social and geographic mobility of people in the modernization process. All this serves, in the sense of solidarity, from a liberal perspective, the social, territorial, and economic cohesion of people as citizens in a normatively modernized nation-state. 

This democratically structured social integration of people differs fundamentally from a "Ethnocracy." Any ethnocracy, contrary to democracy, such as traditional endeavors to achieve "ethnical autonomy," is thus prevented. In other words,  territorial integration of ethnic groups will be obsolete, where ethnic outsiders inevitably come under assimilation pressure. In order to avoid assimilation of people to an ethnically dominant group with the abandonment of their own cultural assets in a nationwide organized society, the citizens do not have to be organized as 'ethnic members', but as ‘individual-legal-subjects’.

Hannover, 11.5. 2020

[1] This is a translation of the German contribution: „Warum ist der auf dem "Subsidiaritätsprinzip" beruhende Föderalismus ein zentraler Aspekt der Demokratisierung des Iran, anstatt dass regionale Ethnokratien die Theokratie ersetzen?“ Hannover, 07.07.2019,