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July 18, 2016
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August 11, 2016

The Kurdish Genie in the Iranian Bottle

By and large, Iranian Kurds have been relatively remote from the vortex of Kurdish armed struggle for independence in spite of the fact that modern Kurdish nationalism owes its own expression to the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad formed in 1946 in Northwestern Iran. Despite experiencing disenfranchisement, marginalization, hostility and active suppression at the hands of successive Iranian governments as their brethren in Iraq, Syria and Turkey and notwithstanding their intermittent armed and political resistance, Iranian Kurds have not been as passionate about a complete independence as witnessed in neighboring countries. It seems, ethnic pride and the desire for equal and respectful treatment have not yet transformed into a full-blown secessionist mentality. On top of this, the recent geopolitical wind gathered with the replacement of Saddam Hussein Ba’athist regime by a Shiites dominated new Iraqi government and the emergence of Islamic State (ISIS) has been blowing against their sail.

However, the above observation must be bracketed with the notification that the almost seven million Iranian Kurds have never been happy with their status and they have been showing it in different forms. For instance, “in May 2015, the death of a 25-year-old Kurdish woman, Farinaz Khosrawani, who fell from the 4th floor of a hotel in the historical Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad while allegedly trying to escape sexual assault by an Iranian military officer, triggered waves of protests in the city and across Iranian Kurdistan against the government. Supported by similar protests in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, these protests soon gained a political and national character. The Iranian government had to deploy forces in other Iranian Kurdish cities – Bukan, Mariwan, Saqez and Sanandaj – to prevent these protests getting out of control.”[1]

After the brutal crackdown in the wake of the first Gulf War, which left over ten thousand Kurds dead, the armed wing of the Kurdish resistance in Iran has been, for all intents and purposes, rendered nonexistent. Iran’s support for Iraqi Kurds in their fight against Saddam Hussein had garnered political dividend for the former. The Iraqi Kurds had dissuaded their brethren in Iran not to antagonize their benefactor and prevented their territories from being used as a launching pad for the Iranian Kurdish armed movements.[2]  Iran’s backyard was made more secure when a Shiite-dominated Iran-friendly government was installed in Iraq and Kurdish factions sympathetic to Tehran formed the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq following the American invasion in 2003.

The sudden burst of ISIS on the international stage has effected a radical displacement of the geo-political plates of the Middle East and it has proved to be a blessing in disguise for Tehran. In addition to showing its ideological nemesis, radical Sunni, in a bad light, the rise of the Islamic State has facilitated a rapprochement between Iran and various Kurdish armed movements. In the wake of ISIS advance in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iran began to provide military aid in the form of weapons and technical advisers to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, thereby strengthening its hands and thwarting any potential threat, Kurdish or otherwise, emanating from Iraq.[3] This marriage of convenience in the face of a common enemy has ameliorated Tehran’s image in the eyes of the Kurds. To an extent, it has shared the credit for halting and weakening ISIS advance with the Kurd fighters. In addition to this, Iranian officials have been on a charm offensive to win the hearts and minds of the Iranian Kurds. President Hassan Rouhani for instance had visited the Kurdish region and promised improvement in infrastructure.[4] Reading too much strategic importance into this tactical alliance and taking their cue from the rhetorical sweet-talking of Iranian officials, some pundits predict that the Iranian-Kurdish alliance will over stay the tactical considerations that underlie it. Making too much of the temporal relationship is, however, to be blind of the deeper dynamics of the historical tension that characterizes the Iranian-Kurdish relationship. It is clear that both parties can’t be good bedfellows. And there are profound reasons for this and troubling signs are already on the offing.

In the last one year and half, the armed wing of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), known as Peshmerga forces, has been intensifying its activities in Western Iran. On many occasions it has dispatched teams of fighters and political cadres to secretly mobilize disaffected Iranian Kurds to its ranks. The military buildup came to a head when, after two decades of a unilateral ceasefire with Iran, the Peshmerga forces elicited a series of clashes with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Azerbaijan province from its base in Iraq by the end of last June resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides.[5]

There are certain indications that the latest heavy fighting between the Iranian Kurds and the Iranian government is not merely an anecdotal skirmish. Since it is the expression of long-standing and deep causes, it will likely continue to simmer. The PDKI secretary-general, Mustafa Hijri, for example, told the Al-Monitor that his movement will transform its traditional defensive strategy to a head-long proactive offensive strategy. He explains that the change in strategy is necessitated by the stepped up oppression of the Iranian government on the Kurds and the lack of any meaningful civic and political space via which grievances can be voiced and addressed.[6]

There are enduring and immediate causes to the recent outburst of conflict between Tehran and the Iranian Kurds. Despite some cosmetic overtures, the Islamic Republic continues to be as harsh as ever against its Kurdish citizens. Many as Kurdish dissidents continued to be publicly hanged by the Iranian state. Iranian security forces are blamed for assassinating Kurdish opposition leaders. The heavy-handed responses of the Iranian government to Kurdish protests continue to produce an “embittered sense of occupation.”[7] This sense of occupation is also aggravated by the fact that the Iranian state is a Shiite theocracy while the Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The second cause for Kurdish discontent in Iran is the glaring economic marginalization and under-investment they are subjected to. Kurds struggle to get jobs in government and even in the public sector, causing widespread unemployment particularly among the youth.[8] The economic and social services are very poor and infrastructure is generally under-developed in the Kurdish region. The third long-term cause is the constant cultural oppression which, inter alia, includes the absence of Kurdish language and literature in higher education.

Some analyst blame the recent flare up between Iran and the PDKI on “internal Kurdish dynamics.” [9] Mamand Roja, a Kurdish researcher and analyst, for example claims that there is a competition between the PDKI and other groups such as the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). The PJAK has clashed with Iranian forces on numerous occasions, most recently on June 13, trying to make a name for itself as the sole advancer and protector of Kurdish interests in Iran. Therefore, the recent PDKI engagement with Iranian forces was aimed to take the wind out of rival Kurdish parties and regain status as the sole defender of Kurdish interests.[10]

In spite of unfavorable geopolitical configuration, which has largely tied the hands of Iranian Kurds, Kurdish resistance against the Iranian state will no doubt continue as far as the long-standing and profound causes of discontent remain unsolved. For some time, Iran might succeed in keeping the Kurdish genie in its bottle. But, as in the ancient stories of the Middle East, the genie can potentially get out of its bottle and wreak havoc.

[1] Dally, G (2015), Where do Iranian Kurds Fit in Iran’s Kurdish Policy, Huffington Post, retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galip-dalay/iranian-kurds-policy_b_8006488.html

[2] Neuhof, F (2016), Iran’s Forgotten Kurds Step up the Struggle, The National, retrieved from: http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/irans-forgotten-kurds-step-up-the-struggle

[3] Dally, G (2015), op. cit.

[4]  Ibid

[5] Vehdat, A (2016), Iranian Forces clash with Kurdish separatists, killing five, AP, retrieved from: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/3b85a9abc02b4f10a5a201c581c7e683/state-media-iranian-forces-clash-kurdish-separatists

[6] Al-Monitor (2016), Why Iranian Kurdish party is stepping up fight against Tehran, retrieved from: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/07/iran-kurdish-party-attack-irgc.html

[7] O’Ragan, K (2015), Inside the Zagros Mountains, the forgotten region of ​Iranian Kurdistan, The Guardian, retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/oct/29/iran-kurdistan-zagros-mountains-travel

[8] Neuhof, F (2016), op. cit.

[9] Al Monitor (2016), op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

Joe Hammoura
Joe Hammoura
Joe Hammoura is a specialist in Middle Eastern and Turkish affairs and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in International Relations at Kocaeli University in Turkey. He holds a Masters in International Relations with Honors from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik – Lebanon (2015), and a BA in Political and Administrative Sciences from the Lebanese University (2008). His work focuses on the internal Turkish policies, foreign affairs and its direct and indirect implications on the Middle East. He is a fellow researcher in Turkish Affairs in the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS) based in Lebanon. Additionally he writes in different magazines, newspapers and websites about Middle Eastern affairs.