Shifty Lines: The Persosphere

I’ve often likened 21st-century American policy toward southern Asia to a game of darts, with Iran rightly wondering if it’s supposed to be the bullseye located directly between Afghanistan (invaded 2001) and Iraq (1990 and then 2003).  Both invasions are the multi-generational clusterfucks that they are in large part because they proceeded without a clear knowledge of the forces at work in the region and of the historical legacy that set up, and continues to set up, the endemic strife of the land between the Mediterranean and India.  With the United States insistent on rattling sabers at Iran even while recognizing that attacking the Shia theocracy would be an even worse idea than its 2001 Leroy-Jenkins-charge into the “graveyard of empires,”  it seems prudent to have a look at the on-the-ground reality of the Persosphere.  This level of realism hasn’t been lost on professional analysts of the region, including the one who produced this impressive map of what the Asian Middle East might look like if its borders more closely reflected ethnic and cultural realities.  Hilariously, various conspiracy-minded peoplefrom throughout the Middle East now harbor the delusion that the United States has the partitioning of their states among its objectives, thanks to this speculative map.

Here is the Persosphere as it currently stands, with relevant Turkic-majority states in blue.
Here is the linguistic Persosphere, showing the distribution of the Iranian languages:
And here is the famous “conspiracy map,” showing a version of southwestern Asia with more sensible borders:

Like the Slavic states and other similar units, the Persosphere is a region of the world characterized by speakers of closely related (sometimes nearly identical) languages, all in close geographic proximity.  As with many such language groups, the Iranian languages owe their similarities to an ancient empire that once spanned much of that territory, and whose linguistic and cultural tendrils still extend deep into regions now characterized by distantly- or unrelated Turkic, Semitic, and Indo-Aryan languages.  At its greatest extent under the Achaemenid dynasty, imperial Persia spanned from what is now Bulgaria and Egypt to the eastern edges of modern Tibet and Xinjiang in China, and possibly further.  It is not a coincidence that numerous countries in the area, ethnically Iranian and otherwise, bear the Old Persian suffix stan.  At other times, the Persian Empire faced conquest, most notably by Alyssa the Great’s Macedonian Greeks, but the cultural sophistication of the Persians caused many of these empires to adopt Persian administrative styles, Persian local governors, and even the Persian language.  This affectation for Persian norms helped the Persian identity persist through numerous dynasties and conquests.

That identity also contributed to the specifics of the Islamization process that followed the seventh-century Arab conquest.  Adoption of Islam was slow in Persia, partly due to the Arab-centric racism of the Umayyad caliphate, but in time Persia emerged as a distinct Islamic culture, and the long historical, literary, and scientific tradition of Persia became the core of what would be known as the Islamic Golden Age.  The insights of the Golden Age, including the preservation of Greek knowledge, would later pull Europe out of its own Dark Ages even as the Persian holdings fragmented into various Turkic, Arab, and Mongol territories and Islam penetrated further into India and Central Asia.  Persia seemed likely to fall apart and become a series of small states ripe for European conquest, but another dynasty, the Safavids, emerged to bring the Persian core again into prominence, and theocratically impose Shia Islam in the process.  Through a cunning series of alliances and conquests, the Safavids were able to regain control over Persia, expand it to the edge of the Mughal dominion in the Indian subcontinent, and become major rivals to Ottoman, British, and Portuguese control in the Arab world, Anatolia, and the Caucasus.
The next major phase in the Persosphere’s evolution was the encroachment of the Russian Empire on Persia’s periphery.  In the 19th century, Russia conquered Central Asia and the Caucasus, splitting the territory of the former Azeri khanate with Iran in the Treaty of Turkmenchay.  Between the Russian and Ottoman conquests, the acquisition of India by the British, and the independence of Afghanistan during the Safavid period, Persia assumed its current borders.  The replacement of the Safavid monarch with the theocratic regime that would transform imperial Persia into the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ascent of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the partitioning of India to create Pakistan, would complete the formation of the modern Persosphere.

Conflicts Assured

Just as the extent of the Persosphere itself was determined by the advance of various empires, the borders of the Persosphere’s independent nations were determined by the edges of the Safavid, Mughal/British, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, not by the boundaries between different peoples.  This has created a number of specific flashpoints of strife and unrest that has prevented this region from re-attaining the cultural prominence it once had, even without taking into account the anti-humanist, theocratic and/or authoritarian regimes that currently dominate the space between Mesopotamia and the Indian partition line.
This discussion proceeds in a vague geographic order, discussing the ethnic groups most disenfranchised by the current national borders and their homelands.


Widely identified as the largest stateless group that isn’t Tibetans, the Kurds very nearly had a Kurdistan carved out of the Kurdish-majority Ottoman territories after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  However, when the resurgent Turks re-conquered Anatolia, the British and French abandoned their promise to establish a Europe-sponsored Kurdistan among the empire’s successor states and instead divided the “Arab world” into the fractious, competing units in evidence today.  The Kurdish lands ended up split between modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and agitation for an independent Kurdish state has not stopped since.
Turkey, in the spirit of its famous nationalism, set about to redefine the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and sought to extinguish the Kurdish culture and language via punitive rules regarding both.  The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has served both as a political organization campaigning for cultural recognition and autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds and as a revolutionary organization using violence for the same goal.  Since the PKK’s armed wing, the HPG, has engaged in drug trafficking, assassinations, and kidnapping in the service of its mission and at one time routinely targeted Kurdish civilians in its effort to drum up opposition to the Turkish regime, its designation as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, NATO, and the United States may not be misplaced.  Much as various sovereigntist movements in the region (Palestine, Chechnya) have damaged wider approval of their cause with violence against civilians, so has the PKK.  The PKK also cooperates with Kurdish independence and autonomy movements in neighboring Syria, Iraq, and Iran.
In Iraq, the most peaceful and economically successful part of the post-Baathist state is the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.  Where Saddam Hussein had tried to exterminate the Iraqi Kurds as part of his quest for an all-Arab Iraq, this persecuted minority is now in ascension and the rest of Iraq is divided and restive.  Indeed, in an effort to keep Iraq from fragmenting altogether, Kurdish was added as to Arabic an official language.  The example of Iraqi Kurdistan has emboldened Kurdish partisans elsewhere in the region, in Syria in particular, where even now they fight to establish a similar region and perhaps even unite with their Iraqi kin once the Syrian civil war quiets.
Iran’s Kurds are a somewhat more complicated picture.  Iranian Kurds are somewhat more integrated into the Iranian mainstream than their counterparts in Turkey and the Arab world, and some of the dynasties of Iran (such as the recent Safavids) are more Kurdish and Azeri than they are Persian.  The Islamic regime has been suspicious of the Kurds as a group, seeing their trans-border identity as a source for divided loyalties.  Efforts to suppress the Kurds have not been dissimilar from those in Iraq, though arguably these have more to do with the Sunni faith of many Kurds rather than their Kurdishness per se.


I initially declined to include the Armenians, an anomalous non-Iranian Indo-European people living in the South Caucasus between Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.  But on further reflection, I realized their story is as iconic to the Persosphere as any other.  Armenians were once widespread in Anatolia (the peninsula, also known as Asia Minor, that is now Turkey), and maintained a heartland of sorts near modern Turkey’s borders with Georgia and Iran, near and intermingled with the Kurdish population centers.  At previous times, they lived on Turkey’s southern shores, facing Cyprus.  All of that changed during World War I, when the declining Ottoman Empire  embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing, seeking to fill Anatolia with Turks until the border with the Russian and Persian Empires.  With their distinctive alphabet, additional Greek influences, and Orthodox Christian faith, Armenians received even harsher treatment than Kurds.  Where the revolutionary Turks (within a few years of turning the Ottoman Empire into Turkey) were often (but not always) content with attempting to enforce the cultural assimilation of the Kurds, they subjected the Armenians to targeted assassinations of their leaders, the disarmament of Armenians in the Ottoman/Turkish army, and the mass deportation of Armenians to concentration camps in the Turkish interior, to the Arab world, and to Persia.  Via drowning, poison gas, and death marches into the deep deserts of northern Arabia in particular, several million Armenians were killed, along with Assyrians and members of other minorities.  Despicably, Kurds also participated in the depopulation, perhaps convinced that removing the Armenians from eastern Turkey would hasten their own dominion over the region they also claimed.The Armenian Genocide was so thorough that Armenians are a negligible fraction of modern Turkey’s population, concentrated near Istanbul at the opposite end of the country.  Modern Armenia, likewise, consists of the Armenian population center that was under Russian dominion during the Genocide, a tiny and landlocked fraction of what was once a much larger region with a Black Sea coast.  The Armenian diaspora, dispersed worldwide, now outnumbers the Armenians still living in either Armenia or Turkey.  The Armenian Genocide enabled Turkey to render its expansion to the Russian and Persian borders into a fait accompli, much as the accidental and deliberate genocide of the American aboriginals made the Americas’ 50 modern states possible.  And as with the American aboriginals and the Jews of Europe, returning to Armenians their original territory is most likely impossible thanks to the substantial Turkish colonization of that region and the highly reduced numbers of modern Armenians.  Perhaps if the Genocide had not transpired, a peaceable solution to Armenia’s fight with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh might have appeared much earlier, since the Armenians there would have had much less to lose.


The Azeri or Azerbaijani people are a Turkic rather than an Iranian group, close kin to the Turks of Turkey as well as the Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz people of Central Asia and any of various smaller groups in the Russian Federation.  Like other Turkic peoples, they had existed as an independent khanate for generations.  Nevertheless, their territory was divided between the Persian and Russian Empires in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, which was also partly responsible for Russian dominion over neighboring Armenia.  While the Azeris of the Russian Empire were subjected to the same system of Russification as the rest of Russia’s conquered peoples, to the point that their surnames now include Russian suffixes, in Iran the Azeris quickly rose to prominence.  The Safavid dynasty was largely Azeri by ethnicity, and the current Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, is half Azeri, half Persian.  Azeris form an important core of Iran’s government and business elite, unlike more marginalized groups.
All the same, Azeris in Iran are made to know that they are not the majority and that their loyalties are often suspect.  Some suspect the Azeris of rigging the system of Iran in their favor while convincing the rest of the country that they are a persecuted minority, in a curious mirror to American rhetoric about “welfare queens.”
Amidst all of these complications, a low-level movement exists to reunite the Azeri people, galvanized by the 1991 independence of former Russian Azerbaijan.  Such a union would have the additional benefit of making the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan contiguous with the rest of the Azeri lands.  It would also bring the problems of forming a cohesive whole out of one part of a country that spend decades under the thumb of an officially atheistic, Communist regime and which is currently a modern,  secular republic, and another, larger piece which has been ruled by a Shia theocracy.  The two parts do not even use the same writing system.  Such a union would also damage Azerbaijan’s credentials for its desired European Union accession, since by then the majority of its territory would be unambiguously in Asia.


The Arab and Persian people are entangled enough in their history, and the Arab presence in what is now Iran goes back far enough, that much of Persia’s Arab population is assimilated into the Persian majority, scarcely distinguishable except in the occasional surname.   Parts of western Iran, on the other hand, harbor significant, self-identified Arabic-speaking Arab populations.  Like other non-Persian ethnic groups in Iran, Iranian Arabs face a certain measure of discrimination, in this case mitigated by Iranian Arabs’ Shiite faith.  If Iran were to partition, it is likely that Iran’s Arabs might throw in their lot with the Shia-majority states near the Iranian Arab population centers, such as Iraq and the Gulf states.


After the Kurds, the Balochis are the poster children of southern Asia’s story of being carved up between empires without regard for natural borders.  Long divided between the Persians and the Mughals, and then the Persians and British India, Balochistan is currently divided between Iran and Pakistan.  Like the Kurds, the Balochis have agitated for independence from both Iran and Pakistan, seeing themselves as part of neither and unimpressed with the religious arguments for Iranian and Pakistani unity.  Unlike Iran’s other important ethnic minorities, the Balochi people are a tiny fraction of Iran’s population and have not achieved the kind of success within either Iran or Pakistan that the Azeris and Kurds have managed within Iran and Iraq.

Afghans / Pashtuns

Afghanistan has existed as an independent country on-and-off for millennia.  Indeed, Afghanistan has long been known as the “graveyard of empires,” and numerous empires have fallen in the effort to seize and hold on to the people known as Afghans or Pashtuns.  Nonetheless, both Iran and Pakistan contain large Afghan-majority regions, which in Pakistan’s case motivate a great deal of the extremism that increasingly characterizes this poorly-conceived state.  The Afghan people’s problems are compounded by the violent, extremist, anti-modern form of Islam that has taken root in Afghanistan, and which is proving quite difficult for the neighboring states and world powers to manage. Afghanistan’s situation is complicated by substantial Uzbek, Tajik, and other populations and will be dealt with in more detail in a future Shifty Lines installment.

Looking Forward

The states currently hosting underrepresented or marginalized groups in the Persosphere are powerful, and are unlikely to quietly accept the departure of resource-rich areas whose people desire self-determination.  Indeed, if they were prepared to do that, Kurdistan, Balochistan, greater Afghanistan, and greater Azerbaijan would already be marked on world maps, and Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan would be much smaller states than they are, if Pakistan continued to exist at all.  (But then what happens to Pakistan’s nukes?)
More likely, the situation for the suppressed people of the Persosphere will not change unless Iran receives a war it is unlikely to win.  If the central government of Iran is seriously threatened, such as with a popular uprising against its autocratic, theocratic tendencies, the space will be created for Iranian Kurds, Iranian Arabs, Azeris, Balochis, and Afghans to section off their homelands and play for independence or fusion with their neighbors, much as Syrian Kurds are now attempting.  Such a move would put major pressure on Turkey regarding Turkey’s Kurds, which may finally give Turkish Kurds justice.  Perhaps this would even lead to some sliver of lost Armenia being appended to the Armenian rump state, giving the tiny country access to the sea and greater economic prospects.  Taken together, these minorities comprise 20% or more of Iran’s and Turkey’s population, so the ramifications are serious.
Either way, the “conspiracy map” is little more than a pipe dream, but what if it wasn’t?  Now THAT would be an interesting world.
Shifty Lines: The Persosphere

2 thoughts on “Shifty Lines: The Persosphere

  1. 1

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    In time for the pan-Iranic holiday of Norwuz comes an informative look at the legacy of Persian civilization in Western and Central Asia.

Comments are closed.