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 The Kurdish question in contemporary Iranian political development

 Opinion — Analysis 
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The Kurdish question in contemporary Iranian political development  1.6.2010  
By Dr Asso Hassan Zadeh 

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June 1, 2010

The status of the Kurdish issue in Iran is the outcome of a game between two seemingly simple paradigms which, nonetheless, are essential for the understanding of the Kurdish question in Iran. On one hand, I want to refer to the Kurdish dimension, or as we could say, the ‘Kurdistani’ dimension of the struggle (i.e. the territorial aspect of the Kurdish issue). We are indeed witnessing a people’s struggle to achieve their national rights, but a people who is only a part of an overall nation divided over several States. On the other hand, I would like to refer to the Iranian dimension of the Kurdish struggle. Although the Kurdish movement in Iran is politically centrifugal (a peripheral nationalism as some would say), the Kurds of Iran are not separatists and in that sense, their struggle is inscribed in the general framework of the fight for democratization of Iran.

This dual dimension of the Iranian Kurds’ struggle - both Kurdish and Iranian or both national and democratic at the same time – generates conflicting consequences, in both political and identity terms. For the ruling elite in Iran, it is often a source of distrust towards the Kurds, and sometimes, it raises doubts among the Kurds themselves as regards to their allegiance to Iran.

Of all the minorities in Iran (if indeed one can speak of "minorities" in a country where non dominant peoples constitute at least over half of the population), Kurds have the highest political consciousness about their ethnicity. Without mentioning the demographic factors (such as the size: the Kurds are the third largest ethnic group in Iran, or the compactness of the population inhabiting historically a territory called Kurdistan), I would like to evoke two factors in support of my previous statement:

The first factor is the long and rich history of Iranian Kurds’ quest for freedom. We can trace the first Kurdish revolts back to the 16th century, following the first partition of Kurdistan, even if national movements in the modern sense only appeared during the 1880s and 1920s, sometimes concurrently and linked with revolts led in other parts of Kurdistan. But the highlight of the modern history of the Iranian Kurds is the creation in 1946 in Mahabad of the only Kurdish Republic in history. Although the Kurdish Republic was abolished by the Iranian central government before it celebrated its first anniversary and its leaders were hanged, its existence is considered the most significant event in the history and imaginary of all nationalist Kurds.

During the decades following the abolition of the Kurdish Republic, Kurdish resistance to the oppression continued, but the Kurds had to wait until the 1979 Revolution to taste freedom again. Insofar as the demands of the Kurds were inherently incompatible with the anti-democratic and reactionary nature of the newly established clerical power, the respite was short-lived. Combining military means worthy of an international conflict with the massacre of civilians, the Iranian armed forces implemented the fatwa (religious order) decreed by the Ayatollah Khomeini against the Kurds. This forced the Kurdish opposition into armed resistance until the mid-nineties. Even if armed resistance is now suspended, everyone agrees that amongst all Iranian opposition groups, the Kurdish forces are the most organized and most entrenched among the population.

The second factor explaining the high degree of national consciousness and political organization of the Iranian Kurds, - and this is where I come to the point of the double dimension of the struggle - is the existence of two fields of identification and interaction relevant to the political behavior of the Iranian Kurds. There is indeed a Kurdish national identity that transcends territorial division and links of various nature unite Kurds across borders. The Kurds of Iran are far from being indifferent to what happens in other parts of Kurdistan, they are very interested in the democratization processes in other countries where Kurds live and their organizations sometimes adopt strategies taking into consideration the situation existant in other parts of Kurdistan.

However, this sense of solidarity among the Kurds of Iran and those of other parts of Kurdistan has no radicdal political consequences. Indeed, while feeling they belong to an overall nation - namely the Kurdish Nation-, the Iranian Kurds’ political interaction is mainly with the Iranian central power or more generally with Iran’s political elite. Paradoxically, while the reference to the Kurdish Nation is common among Kurdish elites, including those of Iran, the Iranian Kurds’ political discourse is the least based on the concept of self-determination, due to the independence related connotations of this idea.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the most important forces of the Kurdish movement in Iran, as in other parts of Kurdistan, have been fighting for the political and constitutional recognition of the Kurdish rights, be it in the form of autonomy or federalism, but in any case without questioning Iran’s territorial integrity. The Kurds of Iran have, in fact, never given up adopting constructive methods and integrationist approaches by participating, whenever they could,
www.ekurd.netin the political process and by always preferring political means to military ones. However, the election of their true representatives has mostly been invalidated and their political parties were declared illegal, not to mention the fate experienced by some of their leaders (e.g. Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou) on the path of peaceful settlement.

While from the Kurdish point of view, the recognition of nationalities in Iran, their equal participation in the decision-making process and decentralization of power are the best guarantee for a lasting democracy in this country, these legitimate requests are still perceived by Iran’s political elites (not only in power but also in large parts of the so-called democratic opposition) as a threat to national cohesion. A national cohesion that has been in the making for more than eightie years - albeit borrowing different ideological referents depending on successive political regimes in Iran - by always following the same ‘Jacobian’ pattern clumsily copied and imported from abroad. It consists of building a nation state in which political institutions reflect a dominant culture. Instead of relying on the historical realities of Iranian society and the Iranians peoples’ will to live together, this enterprise has always been dependent on an iron fist, hence its failure.

Today, the conservatives’ hold on the political process in Iran and the impossibility of reforming the Islamic Republic has made life unbearable for Iranian Kurds, the oppression being intensified under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ( The same man who in all likelihood has been part of the team responsible for the assassination of Ghassemlou). The prohibition of Kurdish language in the public sphere continues. Despite the existence of natural resources in the Kurdish region in Iran, the area is deliberately left in a state of underdevelopment. The tense security climate is always tangible in Iranian Kurdistan, the only region in Iran heavily militarized where political executions continue to take place (For example, four of the five activists hanged two weeks ago in Evin prison in Tehran were Kurds). Not a day passes by without villagers living in frontier areas being shot or activists being arrested.

Currently, more than a dozen Kurdish prisoners are sentenced to death and dozens of others serving, often under torture, lengthy prison sentences. In the past, we used to say that the central government imposed on us the violent method. For a few years and especially since the post-election protests, the Kurds, like the rest of liberty-loving Iranian people, have been trying by all means to impose on the regime the non-violent method. And yet the response of the Islamic Republic is still fire and bloodshed: imagine, Farzad Kamangar, who has just been hanged was simply a primary school teacher.

Because of the policy of silencing and denial adopted by the Islamic regime and because of an unfavorable international context (especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq war), the Kurdish conflict in Iran is currently quite neglected in the international fora. Furthermore, the lack of unity and firmness of the international community towards the Islamic Republic is also a factor in the continued suffering of the Iranians. Not only the ideal of human rights, but also long-term European interests require the adoption of a much more courageous policy towards a regime that turned Iran into a prison for its own people and a hot-bed for spreading violence all over the world. In saying this, I’m not calling for an armed intervention. Between military intervention and the status quo, which is as dangerous to Iranians as to Westerners, there is a third way worth exploring: that is to completely isolate the Islamic Republic and to assist concretely the democratic forces in Iran.

This redefinition of the international community’s attitude towards Iran can only be productive in the long term if at the same time the multi-national and multi-ethnic reality of the Iranian society are fully taken into account. Genuine democratic institutions must reflect the structural forces that make up the society. In Iranian society, the most important structural forces are the nationalities of this country. The best way to end a century of comings and goings of democracy and highjacking of power in Iran is to make these structural forces the very basic pillars of the future Iranian democratic design, a design in line with its own people and in harmony with the international community. 
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