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Kurds in Iran: Waiting for Change Through Existing Channels

Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan Fanack HH Large1024px
A young recruit and the symbols of the “Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan” in a camp of the exiled organisation in northern Iraq. Photo Laif/HH.

While developments in Turkish, Syrian, and, to a lesser extent, Iraqi Kurdistan are moving so fast it’s difficult to keep pace, in Iranian Kurdistan there is scarcely any news. In the big picture spanning decades, any new development is little more than a ripple in the strong currents of history. As Abbas Vali, an Iranian Kurdish professor at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, said in an interview with Fanack in April 2016; “Iranian Kurds know very well that the regime isn’t going to fall any time soon.”

The first Kurdish state, the Mahabad Republic, was founded in the mid-1940s on Persian soil, but three-quarters of a century later, Kurds in Iran are still waiting for recognition of their very identity. They try to achieve that by supporting Iranian reformist voices, but the tactic seems to lead nowhere; they’re never rewarded for their support. Another tactic, a campaign of violence against those in power in Tehran, has lost its appeal, if it ever had any.

The Kurds seem trapped in a system that discriminates strongly against them. They are, it is often said, in double trouble. They not only have a different ethnicity and language from most Iranians, but a different religion as well; most are Sunni, not Shia. This makes them more vulnerable than other Iranian citizens to the human rights abuses that are common in Iran. Kurds are arrested and prosecuted for political reasons more than average and are more likely to be sentenced to death. According to Amnesty International, this is because the state distrusts their loyalty to the country. This doesn’t affect only Kurds but also Baluchis, another Sunni-majority ethnic minority, living mostly in southeastern Iran.

In the last general elections held in Iran, on 26 February 2016, the majority of Kurds voted for reformist candidates, and the turnout in the Kurdish regions was the second highest in the country. Abbas Vali, who teaches modern social and political theory in the Sociology Department of Bosphorus University, explains, “For Kurds, elections are the only way they can express their existence, by voting for reformist candidates.”

That hasn’t helped them much in the past. The so-called Green Revolution in the summer of 2009 was supported by Kurds, although they didn’t actively take part on a large scale. When Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013, the Kurds expected something in return for their long-running support for reformists. Again, nothing happened, despite Rouhani’s promises. Why do Kurds keep believing in change via politics, which are so restricted in Iran? Abbas Vali says, “They know that the Iranian regime won’t fall anytime soon, so they have no choice but to operate within the system.”

What has inspired the Kurds recently, Vali adds, is the electoral success of the HDP, the party originating in the Kurdish movement in Turkey, and especially its co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş: “Demirtaş has become an iconic figure for Iranian Kurds. He and the HDP set an example in civil resistance. What they learned from the HDP is that Kurdish politics must place itself in a wider picture, meaning that they have to cross ethnic and linguistic lines. Only that way can they achieve something, even though things go slowly.”

And, as representatives of a Sunni minority in a Shia dominated country, will they be able to bridge the religious divide? Abbas Vali: “It’s the government that has tried to build a religious wall, but it has not been successful. Most Shiite Iranians don’t believe in using that difference politically, and the Kurds and Baluchis also refuse to play that game.”

Several web sites that publish news from Iranian Kurdistan have reported that the peshmerga (fighters) of one of the Iranian Kurdish parties, the KDP-I, have returned to Iran, suggesting the armed struggle might gain ground. The headquarters of the party—of which there are two branches, after a schism—have been located in Iraqi Kurdistan since the early 1980s and try to influence Iranian and Kurdish politics in their homeland. Besides the KDP-I, there is another party, the leftist Komala—also divided into two parties—in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Even the PJAK, the Iranian affiliate of the Kurdish party PKK in Turkey, withdrew its troops to the Qandil mountains, on the Iraqi side of the border, after a large Iranian army offensive against them in 2011, in which hundreds died.

What does it mean that the KDP-I peshmerga are returning to Iran? Abbas Vali doesn’t see much significance in it and explains the situation of the Kurdish-Iranian parties in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan: “They found a safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1982 and have been protected by the government of the de facto Autonomous Kurdistan Region since it was established in 1991. But their stay there is not unconditional: they are not to carry out any military actions against Iran, because the Iranian regime would retaliate against the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is the last thing the KRG needs. This has seriously diminished the importance of armed struggle for the Iranian Kurdish parties.”

He goes a step further: “These political parties operating outside of Iran have lost their connections to the realities and the communities in their home regions. They see the success of the Kurds in Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] and are inspired, but they do not seem to have accepted that the population in Rojhelat [the Kurdish name for Iranian Kurdistan] doesn’t see the point of armed struggle.”

The parties in exile for twenty or twenty five years, concludes Vali, have failed to catch up with developments, “and, because of their shaky position and their subsequent lack of self-confidence, they are opposed to using the existing channels in Iran. The Rojhelati organizations have basically gone into retirement.”

So any civil resistance in Rojhelat is now often isolated and short lived, such as the small uprising in May 2015, which happened when a young Kurdish woman, Farinaz Khosravani, died after falling from the fourth floor of the hotel where she worked as a chambermaid, after reportedly having been sexually harassed by a government official in the hotel. Protestors set the hotel on fire, but the uprising soon fizzled out.

Such protests are scattered, says Prof. Abbas Vali, never organized or interconnected. “It’s often individuals who resist, and people use other ways to express their resistance. They try to give lectures, they publish through the limited channels that are available, there are literary events, and there are poetry readings. Especially at election time, such activities are used to get messages and ideas out there.”