The events this week in the Mahabad area of Iran’s Western Azerbaijan province cast light on the difficult situation faced by one of the region’s least-noticed minorities – the Kurds of Iran.
The apparent attempt by an intelligence officer in Mahabad to rape an Iranian-Kurdish hotel worker, 25-year-old Farinaz Khosrawani, and the latter’s subsequent suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor window, led to furious protests by Kurds in both Mahabad and beyond.
The hotel was burned by protesters; authorities responded heavy-handedly, using rubber bullets and tear gas.
There is currently a media and social media blackout from the area, but word-of-mouth reports suggest the situation remains tense.
Soran Khedri, a former official of the Iranian-Kurdish Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) organization, told The Jerusalem Post that at least one demonstrator has died, and that in the last 48 hours, PJAK guerrillas had attacked an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps checkpoint in the area, killing two IRGC personnel.
The Kurds of Iraq and Syria have become highly significant and visible players on the regional stage over the last decade. Turkey’s Kurds, of course, have long been noted internationally – because of the insurgency of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) against a succession of governments in Ankara.
But the Kurds of Iran have been the most silent of Kurdish populations.
Numbering around 8 million in total, they are mainly resident in the Kordestan province of western Iran (adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan), one of the country’s most impoverished regions; Kurdish populations are also to be found in Western Azerbaijan, Ilam and Kermanshah. Unemployment in Kordestan Province stands at 28 percent; there is little local industry.
The Iranian Kurds were not always politically silent.
Mahabad was the location of the short-lived Mahabad Republic – the only example of full Kurdish sovereignty in the 20th century. The republic was declared in January 1946, and destroyed by the Iranians in December of that year.
But under the Islamic Republic, the Kurds have faced repression of the most severe kind. A largescale revolt against the new regime, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (PDKI), was crushed with great severity in the period immediately following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The IRGC killed over 10,000 Kurds as it fought to destroy the nascent Kurdish independence movement; the insurgency was largely defeated by 1983.
The suppression of any hint of Kurdish separatism has remained in place ever since. Education in Kurdish remains forbidden; any sign of attempts at political organization is ruthlessly suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards.
The hostility of the Iranian regime to the slightest hint of separatism derives not solely or mainly from ethnic tensions between Persians and Kurds. Even the most modest Kurdish demands for greater local autonomy raise the specter for the regime of ethnic separatism. Iran is a divided society ethnically, with only 49 percent of the population consisting of ethnic Persians; the rest are a mixture of Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds and Arabs.
Thus, the brutal and total repression of Kurdish demands is an indication not of the regime’s strength, but of its potential weakness. Tehran fears that were the demands of one minority ethnicity to be accommodated – even partially – this would risk opening the floodgates for other demands.
In 2004, a new Iranian Kurdish insurgency began.
This was led by PJAK, PKK’s franchise among the Iranian Kurds. From the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, PJAK sought to strike at the Iranian authorities while its cadres worked among the population, seeking to build clandestine support.
A shaky, on/off cease-fire has persisted between PJAK and the Iranian authorities since 2011, after a large-scale incursion by the IRGC into Iraqi Kurdistan led to fierce battles. But PJAK remains armed and deployed along the border, able to exploit any breakdown of regime control in the Kurdish areas.
Alongside PJAK, the PDKI remains active, as do a number of parties claiming the mantle of the Komala Movement, a once-influential leftist force among the Iranian Kurds.
Severe repression, divided politics and a long period of apparent quiescence were followed by sudden, unexpected anger precipitated by an unforeseen event. This is what is currently taking place in Iranian Kurdistan; it sounds, in all particulars, a familiar story in the Middle East of the last half-decade.
So, are the events in Mahabad a prelude to some larger movement or unrest among the Iranian Kurds? An Iranian-Kurdish lawyer with good connections in the Mahabad area told the Post that the current wave of acrimony looked set to “ebb away.” He noted that the protests “in support of Mahabad spread only to a few other cities, like Sardasht and Mariwan.”
Nevertheless, he also asserted that the protests were an indicator of “vast anti-regime sentiments” among Iran’s Kurdish population.
As of now, the Mahabad situation appears to have been contained by the Iranian authorities, yet the events are an indication of the inner fragility of the Iranian regime. Even as Tehran invests in spreading its influence across the region, Mahabad is a reminder that its position at home is by no means secure, or consolidated.
Rather, it rules over large swathes of the Iranian population by force and coercion alone. It is therefore vulnerable to internal subversion – and the more it spreads its assets thinly, by involvement in ever-more regional arenas, the fewer resources it will have available for dealing with internal unrest.
Rodi Hevian, a Kurdish journalist at the online Kurdish Daily News, likened the Mahabad events to the short-lived uprising by Syrian Kurds in the city of al-Qamishli in 2004. Though quickly (and bloodily) repressed by the Assad regime, the Qamishli events were in retrospect a first tremor for what was to come in Syria.
“It could also be a wake-up call for the Iranian regime interfering in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” Hevian told the Post, “namely, gaining ground in other countries can lead to losing ground at home.”
Of course, for the Iranians to begin paying a price of this kind, it is necessary that the Iranian Kurds and other minorities begin to receive the attention and support of regional enemies of Iran, and of the West.
For this to happen, in turn, there needs to be a recognition of the urgent necessity of containing and turning back Iranian regional ambitions; no such awareness currently exists in Western capitals.
Following June 30 – at the conclusion of Tehran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1 world powers – the pressure on the Iranians may be vastly reduced. Abandonment of sanctions would enable the regime to begin to channel greater resources to areas of instability, and to seek to buy off discontent.
Still, in Middle Eastern capitals, both the Iranian threat and the Iranian vulnerability do not go unnoticed.
The mullahs and the IRGC are not all-powerful; the tremor in Mahabad indeed reveals just how notably shallow their rule is.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post