Ethno-Nationalist Conflict in Iran?

A guest post by Nils-Christian Bormann.


On a recent Daily Show episode, former FBI special agent Ali Soufan discussed Iranian internal politics with regard to its ethno-nationalist minorities and their linkages in the wider Middle Eastern & Caucasian region. Manuel Vogt, Lars-Erik Cederman and I have discussed the challenge of ethno-nationalism in the context of the Arab Spring in a new NCCR working paper. Our analysis of ethnic group conflict risk takes into consideration factors such as government inclusion of ethnic elites, a recent downgrade in power status, ethnic group size, a prior history of conflict, GDP and population size. Our model predicts that most groups in Iran have a conflict probability that is above the sample median (the sample average of all conflict probabilities is heavily influenced by actual conflicts – our model predicts an almost 100% Probability of insurgency for the Kurds within the decade from 2010-2019 – and Kurdish rebels were actually fighting the Iranian government in 2010). Interestingly enough, the Azeris – the Turkic group that Soufan is talking about the most have a much smaller conflict probability than most of Iran’s minorities (about a third). This is due to fact that in our data set Azerian elites are coded as having access to executive power in Iran and the Azeris have never experienced a civil war with the Iranian government. However, if Azeri elites were denied to the Iranian government in, for example, 2014 their 10-year cumulative probability of civil war onset would rise to 34% – a rather high probability in civil war studies. The probabilities underline that it is not ethno-nationalism per se that increase the likelihood of civil war but its meaning in the political system. Put differently, when a government can accommodate ethnic elites by offering them de facto access to executive positions, civil war risk is greatly reduced.

Soufan, however, refers explicitly to regional dynamics and ethno-national linkages of Turkic groups in the Middle East, the Caucusus and all the way to China. I therefore estimated a new model with a different sample (including the Middle East and the Caucasus but no Northern African countries) and three new dummy variables that indicate whether an ethnic group has any kin group in a neighboring country that has access to governmental power, that is excluded from executive power, or that is currently fighting a war (these data were just collected by Seraina Ruegger at ETH Zurich but are not yet published). The model (figure below) again underlines the importance of ethnic politics and its dynamic changes in explaining civil war onset. Moreover, having a kin group that is excluded from government power in the region is likely to increase conflict risk while having a kin group that is included does not (at least not significantly). Having a kin group that is involved in conflict raises the risk of civil war as well. The cases doing most of the work here will be the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Indeed, if the Kurds are dropped from the sample, the excluded kin and conflict parameters turn out to be insignificant and the included kin variable raises the risk of conflict as Soufan suggested they would for Turkish kin groups.

However, neither model 1 nor 2 predict a higher risk of civil war in Iran. Arabs and Baloch along with the Kurds are still quite likely to be involved in a civil war in the next decade but Azeris and other Iranian minorities actually have a lower risk of conflict onset in these models. Model 2 does not change the dynamics in Iran very much. Indeed, the Turkish Kin connection hardly affects the conflict risk for Azeris in Iran. Even in the counterfactual case of a domestic war in which one of the Turkish kin groups of the Azeri were involved, conflict risk would not rise to levels that the Iranian leadership would have to worry about much according to the model.

All of these results have to be taken with a grain of salt. The current coding of the kin connection is solely based on ethnic affinity (shared language or religious adherence would result in a kin link) and does not capture Turkey’s geo-strategic interests. Moreover, it is also not geared towards prediction. However, it is suggestive of the fact that domestic ethnic power relations seem to play a bigger role than international linkages. Very different dynamics could open up if Iran’s army was involved in a costly conflict with Israel and opportunities for rebellion would open up. However, as long as Iranian Azeri elites have de facto executive access, a domestic uprising seems unlikely.

How to Study Things that Can Go Around in Circles

Two voters plus three voters makes five voters. If a party that used to hold four ministries loses one, it still controls three ministries. For many phenomena that we analyze in political science this linear world view seems appropriate or at least an acceptable simplification. But for many it does not. If terrorists used to attack at around 11pm, but now these attacks tend to happen two hours later, this means that they occur at 1am. If political candidates compete on a circular issue space, then a candidate moving far enough to the left will eventually end up at the extreme right. We measure such phenomena on circular scales: the 24-hour clock, compass direction, or calendar measurement. They do not have an origin, since the endpoints are connected.

Although examples for political events measured on circular scales abound, we still lack appropriate methodological tools to analyse this type of data. In an article recently published in Political Analysis, Jeff Gill and Dominik Hangartner start filling this gap. One of their applications analyzes the direction of party movements. This relates to a post by Romain Lachat (“Which Way from Left to Right“), where he conceptualized political competition in the Zurich municipal elections as taking place on a circle. The figure below shows the direction in which parties moved from 2002 to 2006. Most parties shifted to what many would call the economic right.


Figure: Directions of party movements in Europe from 2002 to 2006. Source: Gill and Hangartner 2010 (working paper version)

Another application contributes to research on violent conflict. Experts estimate the number of civilian fatalities in Iraq since the beginning of the Second Iraq War to exceed 80’000 deaths. An analysis of the time at which these incidents occurred (table 1), measured on the 24-hour clock, suggests that fatalities due to gunfire or mortar rounds happen on average earlier during the day than incidents due to bomb attacks, which form the reference category.

Table: Results for timing of attacks involving civilian fatalities in Iraq


While the signs of the coefficients indicate the direction of the relationships between the predictors and the time of incident, interpreting their size requires some trigonometric computations which the article describes in detail. The results suggest that gunfire casualties happen on average about one hour earlier than bombings. Moreover, their timing has shifted over the years. Directly after U.S. forces had invaded Iraq in 2003, bomb attacks used to occur Saturdays shortly before 8am on average. Such attacks now happen later during the day. The annual shift equals about one hour on average. I look forward to seeing papers that analyze circular data in political science!

Agent and structure

A guest post by Lutz F. Krebs:

The “elite manipulation” school of thought is prominent in conflict research. Proponents such as Jack Snyder and Philip Gagnon argue that political leaders conjure up an outside threat when their hold on power is at risk. This “diversion” allows them to portray themselves as the defender of their people, thereby increasing their chances at the polls.

Of course, this outside threat is not a complete work of fiction. But as the name suggests, the public is manipulated into worrying about a subject that they did not consider relevant before. Gagnon’s detailed study of the Yugoslav break-up contains references to polls done in the late 1980s showing that the majority of Yugoslavs did not consider members of other ethnic groups to be a threat.

However, a re-examination of the evidence suggests that there may not be a diversion at all.

Continue reading

A bird’s eye perspective of ethnicity and conflict

Most of the contemporary literature on civil war regards explanations rooted in political and economic grievances with considerable suspicion. Applying statistical tools to the problem, some of the most influential research, including studies by Paul Collier and his team at Oxford University, and James Fearon and David Laitin at Stanford University, draws the conclusion that ethnic groups’ frustrations do not drive patterns of political violence. This research has had a strong impact well beyond academic circles.

In a nutshell, these researchers argue that ethnic frustrations are too widespread to be linked to internal conflict. Continue reading