A Kurdish Awakening in Iran

In recent years, the Shi’ite Kurds have become increasingly politicized. This was evidenced in the role they played in the ‘Green Revolution’ of 2009.

Ofra Bengio
Ofra Bengio
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Ofra Bengio
Ofra Bengio

The "Kurdish spring" that has affected three parts of Kurdistan - in Iraq, Turkey and Syria - may appear to have bypassed the Kurds of Iran. But in fact, since the brutal suppression of their uprising during the early years of the Islamic Republic (1979-1983 ), Iran's Kurds, estimated today to be seven million in number, never stopped opposing the country's successive governments. And even though they have appeared to be politically dormant in recent years, they have the potential of becoming an impetus for profound changes in Iran itself - as well as in the Kurdish regions where change is already under way. They are only waiting for the trigger.

This suggestion is based on several historical and sociopolitical factors. Iran was home to the first Kurdish republic in the history of that people. Established at the end of World War II, the Republic of Mahabad survived for less than one year. Still, more than six decades later, it remains a symbol and a model for all Kurds. Similarly, the country's first important Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran, was established in August 1945, and played an important role in the Republic of Mahabad. The Kurds of Iraq, Turkey and Syria followed suit and established sister parties to the KDPI.

As the leaders of an important national movement, the Kurds of Iran had double identity conflict with the central government in Tehran: Ethnically speaking, despite certain cultural affinities with the Persians, the Kurds are a distinct nation. As to their religious affiliation, the majority of Iran's Kurds are Sunnis, which certainly deepened their alienation from the state under the Islamic Republic. Indeed, even though the Kurds participated in the popular uprising against the Shah in 1978, they immediately turned against the Khomeini regime, in an uprising that lasted for a few years.

The Islamic Republic sought to weaken the Kurds by, among other methods, appealing to the Shi'ites among them, who constitute some 30 percent of the total Kurdish population. Historically speaking, Shi'ite Kurds remained aloof from the Kurdish national movement, because their shared religious affinity with the country's Persian rulers took precedence over their ethnic identity, because they were in the geographical periphery of the movement, and because Sunni Kurds excluded them from the movement. For their part, harping on their religious affinity to Shi'ism and employing the well-known strategy of divide and rule, successive Iranian governments managed to distance the Shi'ite Kurds from the Kurdish national movement, and from anti-regime political activities in general.

In recent years, however, the Shi'ite Kurds have become increasingly politicized. This was evidenced in the role they played in the "Green Revolution" of June 2009, protesting the disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections. The change can be attributed to the economic crisis in Iran, which hampered the government's ability to buy their goodwill with economic benefits; with new media, which brought the mounting wave of Kurdish nationalism to the youth; and the inspiring developments in other parts of Kurdistan, especially in Syria.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, in sheer numbers, the Kurds of Iran outnumber those in Iraq and far outnumber those of Syria. They also have great potential on the intellectual-scientific front, as attested by the large number of Kurdish intellectuals in the diaspora. On the whole, a large number of the latter are active in the Kurdish national movement, providing it with indispensable organizational links with the outside world.

The Iranian Kurdish parties also benefit from the pan-Kurdish spirit that exists nowadays in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG ) in Iraq. As a quasi-independent state, the KRG has provided safe haven for various Kurdish Iranian groupings such as Komala and the KDPI. These and other smaller parties benefit from the freedom to organize, train and establish links with the Kurds in Iran. This past August, KDPI and Komala, which had been at each other's throats for a long time, signed an agreement calling for the toppling of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the establishment of a federal system in Iran and the separation of religion from the state.

Important as these parties are, the most visible force at present is the Free Life Party of Kurdistan - better known by its initials, PJAK. Established in 2004 and based in the Qandil Mountains in the KRG, it has managed to capture the attention of the world with its guerrilla actions against the Iranian regime. PJAK is considered an offshoot of the militant Turkish group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK ), and, like it, has a leftist, nationalist and egalitarian (in terms of gender ) ideology. Some sources claim that PJAK even benefits from American assistance, thanks to its activities against the Islamic Republic.

Iran is extremely troubled by the upheavals in the region - especially in Syria - not only because it stands to lose its most important ally, but also because of the possible repercussions for Iran in general, and the Kurds in particular, should Assad's regime collapse. Should the upheavals reach Iran, the Kurds in that country will be the pioneer for change because of the double repression under the Islamic republic, the synergy of cooperation with the other parts of Kurdistan, and the nationalist fervor among organizations in the diaspora.

Prof. Ofra Bengio is head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, and author of: "The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State."

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