Atabaki started the discussion by outlining the historical experience of Iran with its neighbours, highlighting the dramatic change in the 1990s from neighbouring the Soviet Union to neighbouring multiple independent republics. In this context, he underlined the importance of transnational activism in fuelling identity-based politics both in Iran and the region. For example, in 2005, Iranian Kurds showed significant support for [Iraqi Kurd] President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, and in 2014, Iranian Kurds showed vocal support for [Syrian Kurd] city of Kobane. Clearly, Kurdish politics is transnational in scope, and—similar to Azeri politics before it—this transnational identity-politics is viewed with concern by the Iranian government.

Indeed, there is now a diffuse and broad body of change agents throughout Iranian society. In particular, Atabaki highlighted the increased role of NGOs in Iran and the increased importance of gender, labour and civil rights issues for activists in Iran. Atabaki conceptualised a new ‘dual threat’ to the status quo in Iran; ‘civil rights and individualism’.

In so highlighting individualism in Iran, though, Atabaki argued that Iran was not at threat from ethnic dismemberment. He argued that Iranians are more concerned with individualisation—and its component focus on individual rights—than with ethnic identities. In short, one’s ethnic identity is part of a wider, Iranian, identity which does not compel separatist politics.

Similarly, Atabaki emphasised the role that ‘multi-ethnic mega-cities’ play in complicating separatist narratives; there are more Azeris in Tehran than Tabriz! These cities also play important roles as economic drivers; Atabaki recalled conversations he had with Azeri merchants in Iran who consciously chose to move to Iran in order to access the larger Iranian market.

Ultimately, democracy is the only way to fully address any growing discontent. The multiple identities of Iran’s people cannot be homogenised without repercussions, and both Iranian policy-makers and analysts elsewhere would do well to remember the “other Iranians”.

The discussion was moderated by Sharan Tabari, Legatum Fellow.


The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.