THE KURDISH STRUGGLE IN IRAN: POWER DYNAMICS AND THE QUEST FOR AUTONOMY

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Summary by News About Turkey (NAT): 

The Clingendael article titled “The Kurdish Struggle in Iran: Power Dynamics and the Quest for Autonomy” delves into the ongoing fight for autonomy by the Iranian Kurds amidst the broader socio-political turmoil in the nation, particularly during the protests of 2022-2023.

It explores the historical and contemporary state repression faced by the Kurdish people in Iran, as well as their economic marginalisation. It also examines the role of Kurdish political movements in this struggle.Furthermore, it highlights how the Iranian regime has systematically undermined Kurdish demands by portraying them as separatist threats to the country’s territorial integrity. Despite internal and external challenges, the Kurdish people’s quest for greater rights and autonomy remains a persistent struggle.

Read more below.


Editor’s introduction

In September 2022, the death of Mahsa Jina Amini marked a major turning point for Iran. The event sparked nationwide protests that rapidly evolved from calls to discard controversial hijab regulations to calls to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government responded with repression, killing over 400 protesters in late 2022 and early 2023, according to human rights groups. 

The Clingendael blog series ‘Iran in transition’ explores power dynamics in four critical dimensions that have shaped the country’s transformation since: state-society relations, intra-elite dynamics, the economy, and foreign relations. This blog post analyzes the Kurdish struggle for greater autonomy and local self-governance in the context of the 2022/2023 protests. 

The Kurdish angle to ‘woman-life-freedom’

The “woman-life-freedom” uprising marked a historic moment for the relations between Iran’s Kurds and other parts of the population. For the first time in Iran, protests that began in Kurdish regions resonated across the country, slogans included. In addition to protesting repression and a lack of civil liberties tout court, the ‘woman-life-freedom’ moment also provided a rare opportunity for the Iranian people to challenge the government’s long-standing anti-Kurdish policy of ‘institutional securitization’. Initiated by the Pahlavi regime, this policy securitized Kurdish ethnic demands, i.e. portrayed them as a threat to the state that should be suppressed with extraordinary measures, and was continued after 1979. In the course of time, this policy became a standard state narrative as well as an unwritten enforcement regime that resulted in widespread discrimination against Iranian Kurds. Yet, the opportunity for all Iranians to express disagreement with this regime – and build an alliance linking Kurdish and non-Kurdish opposition groups – faded quickly once the government foregrounded its time-tested narrative about the sanctity of Iran’s territorial integrity. However, none of Iran’s Kurdish political parties’ actually advocates for separation. Instead, their party programs outline a vision for a federal Iran in which Kurds have self-governing rights. In brief, the regime turned a distorted version of Kurdish demands against them, labelled this group as separatist and divided the broader Iranian opposition against their fellow Kurdish citizens with an appeal on patriotism.

Patriotism as bulwark against ethnic minorities

When Iran turned from empire into nation-state in the 1920s, its mosaics of ethnic identities and groups that lived on a relatively equal footing gradually came to be dominated by Persian and Shi’a identities under the Pahlavi Monarchy. The political and social rights that ethnic minorities claimed were increasingly defined as threat to national security and Iran’s territorial integrity. The Islamic revolutionary regime maintained this view and applied it with particular fervor to Iran’s Kurds because it viewed ethnic identity as going against Islamic ideology. For instance, in his first speech in Qum in 1979, Khomenei called the leaders of the Kurds as the “evil of the earth”. In the fall of 1979, he labelled ethnic minorities and their alliance with the left as a major threat to the emergent Islamic Republic. In short, neither democracy nor minority rights were on the agenda of the freshly minted government of the Islamic Republic. In reaction, Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, and Baluchis staged revolts. They were quickly put down except for the Kurds.

Iran’s Kurds initially supported the Islamic revolution in the hope that it would help improve their living conditions and establish their right to self-rule. Hence, they did not accept the imposition of a centralized Islamic regime. By boycotting the 1979 referendum, they rejected the new order and advocated instead for a secular and democratic government that would guarantee Kurdish autonomy. In response, Khomeini ordered a military attack on Kurdish opposition groups and individuals while negotiations between Kurdish representatives and representatives of the revolutionary government were still ongoing. He even declared “jihad” against Iran’s Kurds on 19 August 1979 after having labelled them as infidels. Political tactics played a major role in these moves as the new government could establish its authority and rally the masses by labelling Kurds as ‘enemies of the state’.  

During the Kurdistan War from 1979 to 1983, many Kurdish villages and towns were destroyed and approximately 10,000 Iranian Kurds killed, including 1,200 political prisoners. Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, who was appointed by Khomeini as the Head of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Kurdistan – infamously known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ – sentenced thousands of Kurds to death in mass executions after summary trials. Such repression did not cease after the defeat of the Kurdish revolt. In its 1997 annual report, Human Rights Watch stated that “more than 271 Iranian Kurdish villages were destroyed and depopulated between 1980 and 1992.” Moreover, yet another military campaign against Iran’s Kurds took place between July and December 1993, during which 113 villages were bombed and Iranian Kurdistan was put under military rule by means of the permanent presence of c. 200,000 troops.

The legacy of post-revolutionary repression

The suppression of the Kurdish revolt also provided newly minted IRGC members with an opportunity to distinguish themselves in combat similar to the Iran-Iraq war that broke out in 1980. Wartime service propelled many to senior positions within Iran’s military and administration where they were instrumental in maintaining the frame that Iran’s Kurds are a security threat that has to be dealt with ruthlessly. For instance, Qassem Soleimani – 23 years old at the time – became commander of a volunteer force from his home province of Kerman in 1980. This force became known as the 41st Tharallah Division of the IRGC and was initially deployed to Iran’s Kurdish region. It gave Soleimani first-hand experience of war and he started to build his reputation by quelling the Kurdish uprising. 

The Kurdistan region of Iran has faced economic underdevelopment, political marginalization and extensive militarization ever since the revolt. Data from the Iranian Statistics Center indicates that the region had Iran’s highest unemployment rate at 13.8% in the fall of 2022. Kermanshah, a Kurdish province, even recorded the highest unemployment rate of the country at 17.4% in the same year (the national average was 8.2%). Limited job opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices maintained high unemployment and caused correspondingly poor economic prospects. The government’s 2019-2020 report on employment statistics notes that 66.8% of employment in Kurdistan province is in the informal sector, which typically lacks insurance and retirement benefits. The high level of informal employment points to ineffective decentralization as well as it reflects limited private sector growth due to inadequate investment and a poor rule of law climate. Many Kurds have no choice but to migrate to Tehran, to next door Iraq or to engage in ‘kolbari’, i.e. transporting goods across the border under strenuous conditions (carrying 30 kilogram loads through the mountains earns 1.5 million tomans a trip (approximately 24 US dollars). Because such individuals – often women – can make only one trip a week, their families must live on this income for the entire period while they themselves face the constant threat of being shot by border forces and other injuries. According to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, at least 13 kolbars were killed or injured at the borders of Iran in May 2024. Notably, 92% of these incidents were caused by direct gunfire from the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces. The economic situation in the Kurdish territories was so poor that neither the partial removal of international sanctions in 2015 nor the reimposition of them by the US in 2018 had a major impact. The region also has the highest number of political prisoners and executions in Iran. According to a report by Javaid Rehman, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, nearly half of Iran’s political prisoners are ethnic Kurds who face execution at a disproportionately higher rate than other ethnic groups. Kurdish political prisoners are also charged with national security offenses more often.

Much talk, no action

Reformist president Mohammad Khatami was the first senior politician to acknowledge the exclusion of Iran’s Kurds from political and economic power. His promise to address these issues attracted the largest number of Kurdish voters in the history of the Islamic regime. However, during elections for Khatami’s second term, Kurdish turnout declined from c. 79% during his first term to c. 53% due to his failure to fulfill these promises. Since then, promises to address ethnic discrimination have become a common strategy for presidential candidates to gain votes. But they typically fail to fulfill these promises once they enter office. For instance, Rouhani pledged to allow ethnic minority mother tongues – such as Azeri, Kurdish, and Arabic – to be taught in Iranian schools during his 2013 election campaign (which, incidentally, would merely have brought educational policy in compliance with Article 15 of the Constitution). Despite this promise and securing an electoral win due to ethnic minority support, Rouhani did not deliver.

Painting the Kurds as disloyal Iranians once more 

During the woman-life-freedom protests, the regime once more sought to rally public sentiment against the Kurdistan region to obscure its repressive methods and mitigate the impact of the unrest. For example, the regime evacuated all military and government forces from the Kurdish town of Oshnavieh for around 36 hours in the expectation that the local population would request Iraq-based Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga forces to enter the town and take control. Had this happened, it would have given the regime reason to attack on the pretext of fighting separatism. It would also have allowed Tehran to portray itself as fighting ‘terrorist groups’ in defense of the sanctity of its borders with the additional benefit of discrediting the uprising as a whole. However, Kurdish opposition parties decided to maintain their longstanding policy of fighting their struggle by civic means and did not send for the Peshmerga. The context here is that Iran’s Kurdish political opposition parties, which are primarily based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), agreed in 1996 with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq that they would not use the KRI as launch path for militant activities in Iran. This strategic shift allowed Iran’s Kurdish opposition parties to concentrate on civil society initiatives and wage their struggle in Iran itself rather than from Iraq.

Due to this strategy of civic resistance, the Kurdistan region was home to the strongest opposition against the regime in 2022. The geographic position of Iran’s Kurdish regions – bordering Iraq – and their well-established networks of local leaders and organizations, enabled them to act as central hub for broader opposition movements in Iran. However, Tehran was quick to revert to painting its Kurdish population as internal enemy to unite the rest of the country. For instance, the regime accused the Kurds of having beheaded Iranian soldiers during the Kurdish War without providing any evidence. Such frames divided Iranians against the Kurds and even diaspora opposition groups did not distance themselves from the regime’s narrative. Instead, it happened that they attacked Kurdish opposition groups and their demands. The denial of Kurdish rights of self-rule quickly put an end to Kurdish opposition and other opposition groups joining forces. On the upside, small non-Kurdish opposition groups collaborate with Kurdish parties in the new ‘Solidarity for Freedom and Equality in Iran‘ movement that advocates for ethnic rights in Iran’s diverse society.

Other obstacles the Kurdish opposition must overcome 

Iran’s Kurds are the country’s third-largest ethnic group after the Persians and Azeris, with a population of between 8 million and 12 million. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, which sets them apart from Iran’s predominantly Shi’a Persian and Azeri populations. Nevertheless, Kurds in Iran also practice other faiths, including Shi’a, Yarsan, Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian. Despite this religious diversity, Kurds prioritize their ethnic identity over their religious identity. Kurdish nationalism based on ethnic identity has emerged for the first time among Iran’s Kurds. Several academic studies in Iran show that awareness of Kurdish ethnicity and associated demands is growing. Iran’s Kurds receive little support from other Kurdish groups and entities outside of Iran, let alone from other states.

For instance, Azeris, who coexist with Kurds in mixed cities such as Urmia, receive support from Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan in their opposition to both the Iranian regime and the Kurdish cause. Although some Azeri opposition members, like those from the Democrat Party of Azerbaijan (formerly known as Birlik), are open to cooperate with Iran’s Kurds, their influence is limited. Moreover, Azeris have historically been integral to the military, economic, and political power structures of Persian and Iranian regimes, dating back to the Safavid Empire of 400-600 years ago when they were even dominant. Finally, the Azeri political stance towards the regime is mixed, which divides this ethnic group. Together with a lack of internal organization, this has rendered their opposition less effective.

In conclusion, while Iran’s Kurds will persist in their struggle for greater ethnic rights, they do so against the odds and in the face of opposition from the Iranian government as well as various non-Kurdish opposition groups in Iran and the diaspora. The Catch-22 is that Iran’s ruling elites view ethnic demands as threats to Iran’s integrity in the short-term even though addressing ethnic issues is a requirement for maintaining political stability in the long-run. In 1979, it was possible for religious fervor to suppress ethnic identities and unify various revolutionary forces under an Islamic regime. The 2022/2023 protests indicate that ethnic identities not only remain but that ethnic claims and grievances have accumulated. Should this situation persist, Iran risks disintegration the day that repression fails and pent-up ethnic grievances come to dominate political thinking and action.

By: Shukriya Bradost

Source: Clingendael

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