Future options of the Kurds

 University of Sulaimani 9 – 10 October 2018

Iran and the Kurds Ahmad Eskandari

Forty years ago, exactly at these days, I was among those millions of demonstrators who participated in the revolution against the Shah’s regime in Iran. In Kurdistan, we never repeated the religious slogan “Independence, Freedom, an Islamic Republic”! We demanded instead Equality, Fraternity and a democratic republic. The Kurds were very hopeful to get their national rights recognised in the way of the revolution and after only 10 days, took part in the first negotiation with representatives of the new regime. Kurdistan did not participate in the referendum for Islamic Republic in April 1979 due to ambiguities about the content of the eventual constitution, and the rest of the story is well-known.

The huge demonstration in Tehran 8th of March 1979, on the occasion of the International women’s day, less than one month after the revolution and then the bloody Newroz [New Year is 21st of March], in Sanandaj, the capital city of Kurdistan was warning indications to be aware of the route that the new rulers would take.

However, not many intellectuals and political analysts could foresee the political, economic and social developments that followed. Forty years later, the women’s issue and the Kurdish question along with many other democratic freedoms, for workers, students, teachers, journalists, writers, artists and so on are still unresolved, alongside with deep economic and political crisis which has made life very difficult for the majority Iranians. Added to this is the fact the regime in Tehran is on a collision course with many countries in the region.

Safavid dynasty 1501- 1736

In order to understand the core of the current Islamic regime in Iran, we need to go back to the Safavid dynasty. It was Shah Ismail I the founder of the Safavid dynasty who at the beginning of 16th century, to confront the rival Ottoman empire, transformed the country into a Shia majority kingdom and proclaimed Twelver Shi’ism to be the official and compulsory religion of Iran. When some commanders reminded him of eventual dangerous consequences, the King replied, as Roger M Savory, indicates in ‘Safavid Persia’: “In this job, God and Imams will support us, and if people want to make the slightest resistance, we will answer with the sword!”[1]. Subsequently they dissolved Sunni Brotherhoods and executed anyone who refused to comply to the newly implemented Shi’ism.[2] 

The Othoman Sunni Muslims were following the progress of the Safavids and were apprehensive about a growing Shiite power that might put their authority in danger in the eastern part of their empire. After a series of wars in which Shah Ismail achieved considerable victories, the Safavid king suffered a major defeat by the army of Sultan Selim I in the battle of Chaldiran in 1514. For the Kurds, this date is considered to be the first division of Kurdistan between the two empires. For the rulers of the Safavid dynasty, two factors were important: Shi’ism and greatness of their empire. When allocating main roles and responsibilities in the administration and the army, it was important to choose people with Shi’it allegiance. This is true even in today’s Iran and is still very evident in Kurdistan.

The Safavids reigned for more than two hundred years until 1736. However, their political and cultural impact persisted throughout the dynasties that followed them until 1979 revolution in Iran in which the Islamic Republic of Iran came to power. The new regime transformed the Shi’ism and greatness of Safavid, into Shi’ism and an expansionist Iranian nationalism.

The Sykes – Picot agreement

The Sykes – Picot agreement of 1916 did not have any effect on territories of Iranian Kurdistan since it was aimed at dividing the spoils of the Ottoman empire. However, fragmentation of that empire was good news for Iran since it resulted among other things in the dissolution of a powerful and aggressive adversary neighbour, creation of a weak government in neighbouring Iraq and partition of Kurdistan. Even if at that time, the ruling Qajar dynasty was disappearing, the way was paved for a new strong man, Reza Shah who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 and ruled the country with iron hands until his forced abdication in 1941 following the occupation of Iran by allied powers Great Britain & Soviet Union. His son Mohamad Reza replaced him.

 With the exception of the short period of the Kurdish Republic of 1946 in Mahabad, the situation did not change for the Kurds under the Shah. The Kurdish people participated actively in the revolution of 1979 hoping to embrace democracy and an end to national oppression.

Iranian revolution and expectations

The establishing of Islamic Republic in Iran proved definitely that the Kurds could not expect a better situation under the new rulers. Encounters erupted very soon between a people who had just participated in bringing down the brutal regime of the Shah, and a new authoritarian regime which proved to be even more brutal than the former one. However, the new rulers came into conflict even with other social groups of Iranian society. The freedom loving people and organisations were severely crushed among others through mass executions in the 1980s. The Iran – Iraq war with all its catastrophic and devastating consequences for the human resources, infrastructure and whole political life and economy of the country, had also severe impact on the democratic movement. The war was used as an excuse to exterminate all potential opposition forces and show that no alternative to this regime had a chance.

Kurdistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran

Despite very early peaceful political initiatives, meeting with delegations of the provisional Iranian government in Kurdistan as well as in Tehran, clashes erupted very soon and just about one month after the revolution. Even negotiating with the person of Ayatollah Khomeini, the prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and other officials – by the spiritual leader of the Kurds, Sheikh Ezzedin Hosseini and KDPI leader Dr A R Ghassemlou, did not lead to any settlement.

On 19 August 1979, Khomeini ordered a holy war (Jihad) against the people of Kurdistan and a full scale war was launched. The Kurdish movement resisted and after three months Khomeini asked for negotiated settlement; all Kurdish political parties answered positively, a cease-fire was declared and the ‘Delegation of the Representatives of Kurdish People’ was formed.[3] Neither this body nor other forms of peace-seeking efforts were fruitful. The aggressive operations of the Iranian armed forces restarted in April 1980 and with the Iran – Iraq war, Kurdistan became the theatre of two destructive wars. Up to this day, no cease-fire has been announced in Iranian Kurdistan.

Political parties and leaders of Kurdistan were accused of being warmongering and having tried to breakdown the negotiation process. There are a lot of evidences that prove the opposite, but I made a simple search on Khomeini’s official internet site called “Sahife-ye Imam Khomeini” and picked up just three passages. This is relevant even with regards to the recent rocket attacks on the KDP & KDPI headquarters as well as an Iranian Kurdish refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Koya town.

  1. On 19 August 1979: “I have just received the news stating that. . . The army and its organisations have been surrounded and if no help arrives, all weapons will be confiscated. Besides, our women have been kidnapped and taken to the main Mosque of Sanandaj, . . I order all forces to move towards Kurdistan immediately. ”[4]
  2. On 17 November 1979: “I ask the special good-will delegation [of the provisional government] to go on with the negotiation with religious and political and national personalities . . . in order to remove all cultural, economic and political discrimination on the layers of the nation.(Sic!) . .”[5]
  3. On 20th July 1980: “The day they wanted to go to Kurdistan for negotiations, I warned them if you want to negotiate, you have to do it from a position of power. First, let the armed forces surround them, encircle them, then you go and talk to them. But negligence prevailed.”[6]

Needless to say, both the governor of Kurdistan province appointed by the interior minister and the representative of Khomeini there, had at the time sent telegrams denying any unusual armed activities or kidnapping in Sanandaj.

Well, we had to wait until 2004 to read the version of Iranian officials and Khomeini’s representatives who participated in the negotiations, reciting the events of those years, to understand that we were right! A special number of a publication in Tehran, “Cheshmandaz-e Iran, special number on Kurdistan”[7] interviews those officials and they tell very interesting stories unheard from authorised sources in Iran. Among others, these persons say explicitly that they never wanted to negotiate with the Kurdish political parties, they intended to take Sheikh Ezzedin to Qom in order to put him under house arrest. An army general says that Iranian army started the war in Kurdistan and one of the main negotiators states that he would rather have his fingers cut than sign a document that would give the Kurds autonomy![8]

According to their standpoint, no national oppression of the Kurds exists and therefore they do not deserve any rights related to something that is non-existence. Any efforts or demands for democratic changes by the Kurdish women, students, workers, writers and so on is alleged to be secessionist. At the same time the authorities and official media – and even nationalistic tendencies abroad – try to influence the Iranian public opinion by stating the country will be partitioned if the Kurds get any national rights. They warned about the catastrophic consequences of the failed revolutions of the Arab spring countries. Even religion in Kurdistan is under pressure since the majority are Sunni Muslims.

Khomeini used to say that all Muslims are equal in Iran and the oppression of the past has affected everybody in the same way. What he said in the name of Islam, is now repeated by officials and even by nationalists inside and outside Iran who claim that the Kurds need no more rights than other Iranian citizen. Hence they deny national rights for the Kurds and other nationalities and ethnic groups in Iran. This idea implies that everybody in Iran is freely opting for a secondary position regarding language, culture, religion and so on. They do not see the collectives and deny any wrong doing by present and previous regimes. Following the tradition of the Safavid dynasty, the high positions in the administration and the army in Iran are not accessible to non-Shi’ite and in many cases ethnic affiliation is a negative aspect for a qualified person. Obviously, this attitude is harmful to the peaceful coexistence of different peoples in a country that is multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

Amir Hassanpour observed that: “criminalization of Kurdish culture created antagonism between Turkish and Kurdish peoples and their cultures.”[9] The question of territorial integrity and unity of the country is taken to school classes. Evidence of such an attitude is what Mohammad Bathaei, Iranian education minister stated in a visit to Fars province, last July. “In some areas, we have seen teaching in local languages, which is a very dangerous matter. Schools are the only place that can promote the Persian language as a red line of the unity of Iran”, the minister said.[10] The comical here is that the minister happens to contradict Article 15th of Iranian Constitution. [11]

Armed struggle: a choice or a compulsion?

The question of recourse to weapon has always been a controversial one, not for the Kurds, but for those who support the indoctrination of the Iranian authorities. Ever since the first armed clashes in Kurdistan, there are abundant evidence to show that the Iranian armed forces have provoked and initiated the hostilities. Yes, there were many arms in the hands of young people in Kurdistan just after the revolution, but this was a phenomenon that could be seen in the capital Tehran and many other cities throughout Iran.

Military activities started very early against the Kurds. Only one month after the revolution, the phantom jets of the new regime flew over Kurdistan and broke the sound barrier causing a sonic boom that frightened the population over a very large area. Indeed, what happened was that the Kurdish militants had just resisted that aggression and due to the atrocities of the security and armed forces, they had to be on the defensive and thus take up weapon.

Iran, a new regional power

The downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan created a golden opportunity for the Islamic Regime in Iran. The leaders of the country who had been very careful not to provoke the US and its allies, observed and benefited from the chaos generated in Iraq. Progressively and with help from its allies in Baghdad and elsewhere in the adjacent countries, Iran became a powerful player in the region. In addition, they used all means they had to put pressure on Kurdistan Regional Government and in this respect they had to take even Turkey into consideration.

The regional ambitions of the Iranian rulers have come to a great cost for the people. While they provided political, military and economic assistance in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, the economy of the country could not afford that ambition and the population ended up in misery. The controversial presidential election of 2009 and the Green Movement that followed shook the country and at the same time it revealed internal weakness of the political system in Iran. A lot of activists throughout Iran asked why the movement had no repercussion in Kurdistan. The reason was clear. While the Kurds welcomed all engagements aiming to promote democracy in Iran, they could not support the Green Movement when its leaders and representatives had never mentioned Kurdistan and the Kurdish issue. Besides, when the democratic movement was active in Kurdistan and the activists were persecuted and executed, these so called leaders then in position of power, chose to be silent.

The Nuclear Deal of July 2015 in Vienna between 5+1 and Iran was supposed to change the situation radically. The reformists tried to persuade the people that this would generate hope for change in Iran and optimism for the future. The result however, even before the withdrawal of Trump administration was not encouraging for the Iranian people and the Deal did not change anything in their daily life. In order to dissuade people from taking action against the regime, the complimentary media and intellectuals try to intimidate Iranians by presenting the chaotic and catastrophic situation in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and so on. In other words, the difficulties and shortages are accepted, but they claim that no one can do the job better, and if this regime disappears then chaos and partition of Iran is what the dissident people can expect to get.

Civil disobedience in Kurdistan; mass strike

The consequences of national oppression in Kurdistan appear in different areas of political, social, economic and cultural life. Politically the recent mass strike throughout Kurdistan on 12th September 2018, showed that the people triggered by national repression, executions of political activists and stand by the Kurdish opposition parties. Civil disobedience has been the answer of the Kurds to terrorising political activists, rockets shelling against civil targets including headquarters of KDP and KDPI in Koye [Iraqi Kurdistan], putting pressure and killing environmental campaigners who resist among others, destruction of forests.

The enmity of this regime and economic difficulties it has created in Kurdistan is displayed very harshly in the border areas where cross-border porters known as Kolbar have systematically been under fire, shot dead and wounded in the border areas between Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan. These are young and elder people, sometimes with university degrees, from villages and towns in the border areas having no source of income, often the only bread-winners of their families.

Women are considered as the driving force in the future of Iran and Kurdistan. They have been very present in the society appearing as gender equality activists, students, teachers, writers, artist and organisers of events promoting democratic values for the whole society. In Kurdistan the women are on occasion presented just as Peshmarga or guerrilla fighters where they have been very active and have played important roles. However, sometimes Kurdish women’s activities look like crawling through a minefield to rescue victims of violence, since they have to be very careful not to take a single wrong step that might provoke a patriarchal system, and religious or traditional norms.

What Prospects for political parties in Kurdistan and Iran?

The recent mass strike had a very important message for the Kurdish political parties too, that the civil society is ready to participate in the struggle and asks for a common political platform with defined goals. At the same time the Iranian state acts to destroy any eventual alternative force or anyone that might pave the way for an eventual alternative to the regime. To the regime, the Kurdish political organisations are considered as a great obstacle that need to be undermined. The authorities use both Islamic rhetoric and Iranian nationalism to challenge the Kurdish movement. They would like to provoke military confrontation and as a result any peaceful and democratic attempt by the Kurdish activists, let it be environmental, egalitarian concerning women or workers will be stopped.

The same is not true for Iran, where no political party is represented the way we see in Kurdistan. Despite the fact that conservative – reformist camps continue to play on the political stage in Iran, clear signs indicate that the people are fed up with their promises and claims to change. Corruption and repression is present more than ever.

Never happened before in Iran

The events of December 2017 during which demonstrators chanted “Reformist! Conservative! The game is up”, pointing an accusing finger at the entire political system. Unrest expanded to more than 100 cities and towns where people asked for radical political changes. Challenging the expansionist aspirations of the regime, slogans like “Leave Syria alone, think about us!” and “No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life for Iran” were very popular.

Not only demonstrators, but even people like the former mayor of Tehran, who in a speech delivered in Isfahan to support the second term for president Rohani last April, said: “Yes, I also wish that in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, peace is established, the oppressed protected and the Shia Muslims there strengthened. But can all these goals only be achieved through cash payments, delivery of arms, killings and beatings?”[12] And at almost the same time, a brave student at Tabriz University challenged the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ theoretician Hassan Abbasi and said: “Your ideology is the ideology of terrorism and fear, of sending weapons to the bloodthirsty dictator Bashar al-Assad, and of supporting him. Your ideology is to play with the nationalistic and religious beliefs of the people, defending non-existent shrines in Homs and Idlib. Your ideology places the budget of Iran in the bank account of Hezbollah in Lebanon. By Hasan Nasrallah’s own admission, their weapons, their daily livelihood, their food, and even their underwear are provided through the budget of the Iranian people. My final word is that we shall never forgive or forget your treachery and your crimes.”[13]

 While the renewed sanctions by US is accelerating the crisis, corruption is on the rise, strikes among workers and many sectors of society is increasing, the flow of information reaches everybody in Iran and the social media networks have made it almost impossible for the regime to hide the problems.

In such a situation, any single incident in Kurdistan is amplified and attention is paid to the territorial integrity and danger to the unity of Iran. A woman activist working for gender equality in Kurdistan, unlike her equivalent in Tehran who puts forward the same arguments, is considered as a separatist affiliated to a Kurdish political organisation. As if demanding independence is not the right of the Kurdish nation. In the case of shelling KDP and KDPI headquarters in Koye, the repercussions among nationalistic tendencies inside and outside Iran was very meagre.

What prospect for Iran and Kurds?

Due to the geopolitical importance of the country and the latest developments in the Middle East, Iran has been demanding more and more of the cake while challenging not only US and its allies, but also Russian and Turkish interests in the region. From this viewpoint, the Iranian leaders assess their policies vis-à-vis the Kurds. The Kurds on the other hand have to take a conciliatory attitude and a balanced policy in order to be able to face the realities on the ground and have control over their country.

The KRG has a large border with Iran, just as it has with Turkey, and especially in the present political sphere of Iraq where Islamic Republic of Iran is omnipresent, a policy of pacific coexistence is essential. It is irresponsible and unrealistic to ask for unconditional support by KRG to other parties of Kurdistan. At the same time, demanding the parties of Iranian Kurdistan, to support unconditionally the political establishment of southern Kurdistan and KRG will lead all parts towards a weak and vulnerable position vis-à-vis Iran, and is detrimental to the Kurdish nation’s cause in the region. While Iran is defending Shia Muslims wherever in the world, it is more than natural for the KRG to defend human rights of the Kurds in general regardless of geography. This is completely different from the armed struggle of this or that organisation using or not using the borders with KRG territories. This issue can be discussed separately.

Iran has its own policies towards Rojava and the PKK or its affiliated organisations. In the case of Rojava where the West considers them only as good fighters against Daesh, neglecting the political aspects of their struggle, Iran is putting pressure on them in order to make conciliatory actions towards Damascus, ignoring national repression of the Kurds and atrocities perpetuated by the Assad regime.  

The political parties in Iranian Kurdistan are in a precarious situation. Even if they can count on support from inside Kurdistan, as we saw in the case of the recent mass strike, they had no other choice than to stay in areas under KRG protection. This has created difficulties for their organisation, members, families and their daily activities. Using persuasion and intimidation, the Islamic Republic of Iran wants to silence them and/or expel them from their present headquarters and looks forward to see them disappear! This will never happen as the history of at least the last 100 years of Kurdistan tells us. There is no military solution to the Kurdish issue. Nonetheless, regional conflicts with other states in the region and the big powers can have a bad influence on Iranian Kurdish parties present in the KRG areas.

But one thing should be clear. As long as these parties are not demanding independence for Kurdistan, and not one part of an overall organisation for all Iran, then they might enter into negotiation for a settlement with whoever in power in Tehran. No Kurdish political organisation can topple the central government in Iran alone. Just as no regime can ever eradicate the Kurdish movement. This might sound like a dilemma. On the one hand this regime is not ready to accept any rights for the Kurdish people, not even those very small details mentioned in the Constitution. On the other hand, the security apparatus and military machinery of the regime cannot be ignored.

As far as the Iranian trends are concerned, different reformists, nationalists and even some tendencies on the left, in Iran or abroad, are against a revolution! The question then is how such an ideological, authoritarian and military power can be deprived from its capabilities and be changed through peaceful demonstration?

Apart from the well-known political parties in Kurdistan, there are groups and trends who represent political Islam, forces that should not to be neglected. In some periods in the past they could carry out activities inside Iranian Kurdistan without being interfered with. They were tolerated to some extent by the regime hoping this can deter young people from joining the political parties of Kurdistan.

Taking into consideration the political map of Kurdistan and the diversity of the people surrounding it, the alternative of HDP in Bakur [Turkey] and the experience of Rojava might be very useful to follow even if not agreeing with them totally.

Internal conflict and civil society

Considering the very sad history of armed conflicts among Kurdish organisations in all parts of Kurdistan, it is of great importance for them to ban any resort to arms in any challenging situation. All sides should abide by the principle of dialog and peaceful settlement.

No democratic progress would be possible if there is no active civil society which is kept outside the influence of political parties. Civil society should not be considered as political territories to be conquered by rival organisations.

This would be possible only if the political parties cooperate on a minimum common platform and abandon any eventual hostility which can be easily used by unfriendly powers. It is obvious that respecting democratic rules within the Kurdish society is of great importance. Fighting against tyranny does not automatically mean that dictatorship is replaced by democracy. Abolition of national repression has to bring about transparency, prosperity, equal rights for all citizens, gender equality, tolerance, and freedom of speech.  As Kamran Matin rightly observed: “Kurdistan is the weakest link of Iranian state’s semi-fascistic rule. The same circumstance marks other parts of Kurdistan vis-à-vis their ruling states: Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. This is also why Kurdistan and Kurds are, and remain, the most determined and progressive force in the struggle for radical democracy, social justice and gender equality in the region.[14]

The Kurds who expect achieving their national rights in this turbulent part of the world, have to keep in mind that: A – live democratically side by side with other nations in a region saturated by different kinds of conflicts and, B – cooperate with parties in other parts of Kurdistan based on mutual interests and respect.


People in Iran are disappointed with Rohani and disillusioned with reformists who cannot bring about any considerable change. Angry people are present everywhere in Iranian society: they have access to social media and are no longer dependent on mainstream propaganda mechanism.

Internationally, US puts pressure more and more on Iran even if they do not articulate regime change! A regime change in Iran will bring about a very strong political earthquake in the whole West Asia with unpredictable consequences not only for Iran, but for the whole region with important repercussion in Kurdistan. The question is if the international community and the regional actors are ready for such a change? Given the chaotic political theatre of the region and the severe position of Russia and China as well as reluctance of EU to operate as Trump administration wishes, the future is by no means certain. The Kurdish political organisations should be aware of these realities, be very careful to keep their own independent political agenda. Alignments in political cooperation should only be made if it is clear that one is not becoming a card in the game of other powers. Ahmad Eskandari

[1] Roger Mervyn Savory, in “Safavid Persia”. Cambridge University Press,

[2] Cleveland, William L. “A History of the Modern Middle East” page 52 (Westview Press, 2013).

[3] ‘Delegation of the Representatives of Kurdish People’ was formed in which Sheikh Ezzedin was chief, the late Dr Ghasemlou from KDPI was spokesman, with Komala and the Kurdistan branch of the Fedaiyn as members of this negotiating body.

[4] Sahife-ye Imam, Volume 9, pp 306. http://en.imam-khomeini.ir/en/c5_3240/Book/English/SAHIFEH-YE_IMAM_Volume_1_

[5] Sahife-ye Imam, Volume 11, pp 55.

[6] Sahife-ye Imam, Volume 13, pp 46-47

[7] Cheshmandaz-e Iran special nr on Kurdistan 2004. http://www.meisami.net/

[8] A detailed article analysing these interviews in Persian by Ahmad Eskandari, August 2018; http://www.hellwest.com/fa/home-2-2/

[9]  Wanderings in Adalar Sahilinde by Amir Hassanpour


[10] https://www.farsnews.com/ Persian language is our red line in our school education.

[11] Article 15: Persian is the official and common language and script of the people of Iran. However, use of regional and ethnic languages in the press, the mass media, and the teaching of their literature at schools, alongside the Persian language, is freely permitted. http://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/ir/ir001en.pdf

[12] http://www.bbc.com/persian/iran-39777618

[13] http://www.mei.edu/content/io/iranian-student-rare-video-blasts-regime-repression-home-and-foreign-wars

[14] Kamran Matin, senior lecturer at university of Sussex, https://theregion.org/article/13107-rojhelat-rises-reflections-on-general-strike-iranian-kurdistan