Ethnicity, Identity, and the Development of Nationalism in Iran: Book Review

ethnicity-iranEthnicity, Identity, and the Development of Nationalism in Iran. By David N. Yaghoubian. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. xxxiv, 420. ISBN: 9780815633594.

This book, by associate professor of history at California State University in San Bernardino David Yaghoubian, discusses how nationalism in Iran could be a factor in uniting the minority and majority ethnic groups to suppress any possibility of foreign threats to the nation. This argument had been given more attention during the George W. Bush presidency, when the question of whether the United States would launch a military strike against Iran in order to destroy its nuclear facilities arose.

Looking at the history of Iran and its diverse population of those with royalist, secular nationalist, or Islamic ideological orientations, we can notice that Iran hosts a majority Persian-speaking population with a mix of other linguistic minorities who have historic and cultural ties to bordering regions, such as Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris, Armenians, Arabs, Turkmen, etc. Iran also holds a population with various religious beliefs, not only the majority Shia Muslims but also Sunni Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, etc. One may wonder how this diverse population under modern Iranian regimes could sustain loyalty through the wars, invasions, coups, and revolutions over the course of history. In addressing this concern, the author uses Vali Nasr’s argument (page xiv). According to Nasr, Iran is an old country, similar to European countries such as France or Germany, and its citizens are just as nationalistic as any other countries’ citizens. He further emphasizes that the status of minorities and ethnicity has always been a challenge to the national and political stability of all countries around the world.

In his book, Yaghoubian explores the history of nationalism in Iran and the degree of loyalty of Iranian minorities within the unique status they had in the country. The leading goal of his book is to illustrate the resonance within Iran’s diverse population and how with only a 55% Persian-speaking population, the Iranian minorities have contributed to the development of Iranian nationalism and are strongly connected to their land and feel allegiance to its political regimes. The book documents how the minorities, side by side with the majority in Iran, have gone through sacrifices of all types in successive crises. It tries to show what makes Iran so different from its neighbor countries when it comes to nationalism. And in doing so, Yaghoubian argues this is a topic that cannot be explored by focusing only on the dominant linguistic and religious majority but on the diverse population of minorities in Iran. In his research he uses the example of the Armenian-Iranian minority and portrays their lives in Iran. He believes that the inclusive and collaborative characteristics of the diverse ethnic minorities in Iran play a major role in making the notion of nationalism in Iran so durable.

Yaghoubian starts his discussion using Richard Cottom’s 1964 analysis of Iran’s nationalism. According to Cottom, the primary loyalty to the Iranian nation given by different minority groups is directly related to the religious and linguistic proximity they have to the predominant religion and language in Iran, which is Shi’a Islam and Persian, respectively. He illustrated his thesis by comparing Iranian Armenians and Iranian Kurds. Cottom assumed that Armenian nationalism felt by Iranian-Armenians, with their rich culture, was so deep and strong that it would prevent them from embracing Iranian nationalism. This, however, proved to be wrong, as the author shows, relying on Armenian Iranians’ perspectives and bringing examples from throughout the political history of Iran from the Pahlavi regime to the Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war.

In conclusion, the author emphasizes that socio-biographical research should be the essential component of an inquiry such as this. Only in this way could one could discover and understand how the lives of minority individuals and their national identity are affected by the agenda and projects of elites in their country. Moreover, it reveals how these individuals actually constitute and shape the nation and its nationalism developments by their active presence and participation in daily events of their communities and nation.

The book is a perfect book for the collection of any academic and research libraries. It is a well-investigated work and introduces a new perspective in analyzing Iranian nationalism from minorities’ point of view, such as Armenians who grew up in Iran and have witnessed political turbulence over the course of Iran’s history. It has reliable bibliographic sources and images that are related to the content and history laid out in it.

Shahrzad Khosrowpour
Chapman University