Rahman Ghassemlou, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Iranian
Kurdistan (PDKI), was born on 22 December 1930 in Ourmiah, Kurdistan.
He went to university in Paris and later Czechoslovakia, had a Doctorate
in economics and was an associate professor, having taught in Prague and
In 1941, the Allies invaded Iran in a 'bridge of victory" operation
that inevitably brought about the downfall of Reza Shah because of his relations
with the Axis powers. A major political change was to take shape in the
country. In Iranian Kurdistan the national movement came back to life
and the PDKI founded on 16 August 1945, attracted young people in its masses.
One of them was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou - not yet 15 years old. On 22 January
1946 the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad came into existence by proclamation,
but in December of the same year the imperial army with the help of the
Western forces entered the city, and the killing and arrests that followed
were as cruel as they were indiscriminate. The Republic had fallen; its
President, Qazi Mohammad, and his close followers were taken prisoner, and
then put to death on 30 March 1947.
Little by little the Kurdish people re-gathered their strength. The
Republic of Mahabad may have been short-lived but in the collective memory
it did not die. Running unlimited risks, the Kurdish leaders set about the
vast task of protecting, educating and organising the population. Back from
Europe in 1952, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou devoted his energies to these clandestine
activities for several years. In the next decade, he split his time between
Europe and Kurdistan working in double harness: his university career and
his repeated missions to Kurdistan.
In 1959, the regional context appeared to
be more hopeful; in neighbouring Iraq, the monarchy had been overthrown,
and Molla Mostafa Barzani (leader of the Democratic Party of Iraqi Kurdistan)
had returned to his country after eleven years of exile in former USSR.
The government in Baghdad accepted the principle of autonomy for the Kurdish
population of Iraq.
On the other side of the frontier, the PDKI steeled itself to renew the
struggle. In 1968-69, the armed conflict was rife in Iranian Kurdistan
and the period ended in a bath of blood with the massacre of the Kurdish
leaders - and yet, even then, Kurdish resistance managed to raise its
head again.The vice-like grip in which the Shah's armies were trying to
hold it had to be broken. At the third Congress of the PDKI (1973), Abdul
Rahman Ghassemlou was elected Secretary-general and at those that followed
he was invariably returned to office.
During the years that followed, the prestige of the Pahlavi monarchy continued
to wane. The White Revolution was questioned by experts in international
affairs; the greedy demands and extravagant behaviour of the court were
criticised in the press, and the SAVAK was active throughout the country
with no social class being spared its baneful attentions. Clearly, the
regime was doomed. If that happened, what should be the position
of PDKI ? In view of the complex nature of the problems in the region
that position had to be clear-cut. The Party had to reply unambiguously
to a number of questions about its identity, its allegiances, its aspirations
and its options. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou and his aides drew up as coherent
and realistic a programme as they could which may be summarised, in essence,
as follows :
- We are Kurds, we belong to a people that
the vicissitudes of history have scattered over five states. A bond of
brotherhood binds us, and will continue to bind us, to all other Kurds,
wherever they live.
- We are the descendants of one of the oldest
Indo-European civilisations. Our identity is defined by the fact that
we have our own language and our own culture.
- We are the citizens of a country called
Iran - on the same basis of the other peoples living on the Iranian territory
: the Baluchs, Persians, Azeris, Arabs, Turkmens and so on.
- We are ardent defenders of the Declaration
of Human Rights and the right of peoples as defined by the United Nations.
- We are for the freedom of worship and we
respect all religions practiced by our co-citizens. Faith is an inviolable
right. However, being resolutely modern in our outlook, we feel that a
separation between the religious institutions and the state is desirable.
A lay state is not, on that account, opposed to the faith or to those
that serve it.
- For the living conditions of all to be improved,
and customs from long ages past condemning women to a state of inferiority
to be ended.
- To accelerate development in our country,
it is necessary to establish a system providing free education of uniform
quality throughout the country. A special effort should be made in the
peripheral areas (Kurdistan, for example) that are clearly a long way
- No attempt to leave poverty behind will
succeed without the active participation of the people themselves. To
feel concerned - so we believe - they have to feel free. Freedom of movement
for goods and persons, freedom of association and freedom to form political
parties or unions and to belong to such organisations are the indispensable
preconditions for economic and cultural development. - For there to be
trust between the population and the central authority, large-scale decentralisation
- In Kurdistan's case, that decentralisation
has to comprise a charter of autonomy for the region whose boundaries
would need to be precisely defined. Within this Kurdish space, the administrative
languages should be Kurdish and Farsi, which would both be official languages
of the regional and local authorities. Primary education should be in
Kurdish whereas the two official languages should be routine practice
in secondary school. Lastly, after so many years of violence, the Kurdish
people could not accept a police force that was not manned by Kurds. It
is only on these conditions that there would be any chance of lasting
peace in Iranian Kurdistan.
- Lastly, the "kurdification" of
the administrative and 'production structures would demand major investment
in the training of senior officials and staff and also - it goes without
saying - a multidisciplinary university on Kurdish land.
In other words, what the leaders of the PDKI
demand is genuine and effective autonomy. Unfortunately, as everyone knows,
dictatorships hide behind pyramid-shape structures excluding all horizontal
communication. Feeling themselves perpetually threatened (as indeed they
are), they seek the support of foreign powers which, in the end, become
their masters. Dictators are not free and they abuse the freedom of others.
So the autonomy of Iranian Kurdistan would be utopian unless Iran made the
change to democracy. Without democracy in Iran there could be no guarantee
for autonomy in Kurdistan.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou saw that these two concepts were inseparable and
so they became the watchword of the PDKI: Democracy for Iran, autonomy
This policy statement in which chauvinism and sectarianism had no part
won the PDKI the firm friendship of Third World countries and modern democracies
alike. During his many trips abroad, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was always
sure of a warm welcome. Many humanitarian organisations offered him help,
eminent figures on the world stage in political and university life thought
highly of him and human rights and religions militants encouraged him throughout
his life. It was thanks to him that the Iranian Kurds were able to emerge
from their isolation and make their voice heard in the international fora.
Some of these sympathisers were surprised that the Iranian Kurds had "such
modest" demands after such a bitter struggle. "It is really
autonomy you want - nothing more ?" was a not uncommon reaction.
No secret clause was ever planned or hidden in this blueprint for autonomy
because it was the fruit of long and profound thought about the world political
context following World War Il. The Kurdish leaders took the view that major
changes to frontiers were ruled out and that the general trend was towards
the formation of large groupings rather that the fragmentation of existing
units. In any case, once peace was restored, it would surely be natural
for countries with common borders to seek to develop trade and cultural
exchange. Therefore, in the long term, the existence of big Kurdish
communities in various parts of the Middle East could be a positive factor
in inter-regional relations. Everyone would stand to gain. It is well known
that the big exporting countries pay considerable attention to the ethnic
minorities, which often act as bridgeheads or relay stations in campaigns
to win a foothold in new markets.
In short, the Kurdish thinkers concluded that only the short-sighted could
see ethnic, linguistic or religious diversity as an obstacle to development.
In the future the big middle-eastern house would derive its energy from
the many different elements of which it was built. This pattern was particularly
true of Iran itself with its 45 million inhabitants of which only 40 % were
of Persian origin. (Today Iran has over sixty million inhabitants). At that
time, towards 1975, this type of thinking sounded at least advanced, not
to say fanciful. The Kurds were still under the heel of the Shah, but nothing
is eternal, dictators included.
One day in February 1979 Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
finally gave up the throne. At that time the PDKI had a solid base and
a real impact in Iranian Kurdistan. However, to run the territory properly
and control its administration the police had to be removed and the army
thrown out down to the very last man. This was the task of the "peshmergas"
or partisans, who attacked army barracks and seized large stocks of arms
and ammunition. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was then able to claim that,
in a large part of Kurdistan, the Kurds were their own masters.
It was reasonable to hope that the Iranian revolution would have brought
men to power able to realise that the interests of the central authority
and those of the Kurds were compatible. Elections were planned and a new
constitution was being written for the country.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was elected to the Assembly of experts and made
ready to carry to the capital the message of the Kurds - a simple message:
there is room for all in this country where everything needs doing or
re-doing. Imam Khomeini, unfortunately, saw things differently,
he labelled the newly elected representative of the Kurds an "enemy
of God" and declared a "holy war" on Kurdistan. This was
in 1979. Sudden though it was, this call to arms was, in retrospect, not
surprising. How, after all, could this grim gerontocrat with the cruelty
of another age be prepared to give his attention to the history and wants
of the Kurds ? How could Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou be expected to stay silent
at the hostage-taking, occupation of foreign embassies and other terrorist
activities launched in 1979 by an Imam who had recently returned from
Neauphle-le-Château to sow the seeds of hate and insanity.
The Gulf War broke out the following September.
Perhaps these unsubdued Kurds would be forgotten during this conflict
between Iran and Iraq (1980-88). On the contrary, in fact, it cost them
dearly, for their villages lay on either side of the frontier where the
fighting was at its fiercest. They were accused, too, of being anti-patriotic
: their settlements were destroyed and the people living there reduced
to a wandering existence. The ultimate purpose of these crimes against
humanity was obvious : to use the war as an excuse for exterminating a
people whose authenticity was denied as strongly as it was proclaimed
by the Kurds.
Iran came out of the war with Iraq exhausted and the Imam at death's door.
The facts had to be faced and Tehran had to find a compromise in Kurdistan.
For his part, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou had been saying for years that the
fighting had been imposed on him, that neither side would ever lose or
win and that, sooner or later, the Kurdish problem would have to be solved
across the negotiating table. After flying a few kites, Tehran issued
a concrete proposal for a meeting in Vienna on 28 December 1988 and the
PDKI accepted. The talks lasted two days, 28 and 30 December and
the results must have been promising because it was agreed to hold another
meeting the following January. On 20 January, at the end of the first
round of negotiations, the representatives of Tehran were fully acquainted
with the Kurdish demands. The principle of autonomy seemed to have been
agreed. The details of how it was to be put into effect had yet to be
Six months later, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou returned to Europe to attend
a congress of the Socialist International. Tehran tried to contact him
again in order, he was told, to pursue the negotiations that had begun
the previous winter. The PDKI accepted the offer sent to it. The meeting
took place on 12 July 1989 in Vienna. The Tehran delegation was as before,
namely Mohammed Jafar Sahraroudi and Hadji Moustafawi, except that this
time there was also a third member : Amir Mansur Bozorgian whose function
was that of bodyguard. The Kurds also had a three-man delegation : Abdul
Rahman Ghassemlou, his aide Abdullah Ghaderi-Azar (member of the PDKI
Central Committee) and Fadhil Rassoul, an Iraqi university professor who
had acted as a mediator.
The next day, 13 July 1989, in the very room where the negotiation took
place Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was killed by three bullets fired at very
close range. His assistant Abdullah Ghaderi-Azar was hit by eleven bullets
and Fadhil Rassoul by five. Hadji Moustafawi succeeded in escaping. Mohammad
Jafar Sahraroudi received minor injuries and was taken to hospital, questioned
and allowed to go. Amir Mansur Bozorgian was released after 24 hours in
police custody and took refuge in the Iranian Embassy.
Indignation was at its height. How, in this age, in the heart of
Europe, could it happen for the representatives of a member country of
the United Nations to open fire at point blank range on the representatives
of a country with whom it was at war and had entered into peace negotiations?
On 19 July two representatives of the political bureau of PDKI came to
Paris to attend the funeral. At a press conference they announced, among
other things, that the higher authorities of the PDKI had appointed Sadegh
Charafkandi to perform the duties of Secretary-general. Sadegh
Sharafkandi (who was also assassinated on 17 September 1992 by the
Iranian terrorists) was in his fifties and had a doctorate in industrial
chemistry from Paris University. He was Deputy Secretary-general of the
Party up to the death of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou .
The two murdered men of the PDKI were buried on 20 July in Paris in the
presence of a throng of some two thousand people from all parts : Kurds
and Armenians, Azeris and Turks, Persians and Europeans, poets and doctors,
ministers and workpeople, representatives of humanitarian organisations
and members of parliament. Leading the funeral procession, the peshmergas
in their Kurdish resistance fighters' uniform advanced with difficulty
in the torrid heat of the Parisian summer. They were all there, all that
had been able to travel on their crutches and in their wheelchairs, having
come from the various capitals of Europe where they were recovering, as
best they could, from the wounds received in the conflict. Tehran denied
all connection with this triple murder and told Austria to look for clues
in other directions than Iran. But the findings of the ballistics experts
In late November 1989 the Austrian courts issued a warrant for the arrest
of the three Iranian representatives and the Austrian Government expressly
accused the Iranian Government as having instigated the attack on Abdul
Rahman Ghassemlou and the two other Kurds.
Thus died this man who was no warmonger but a man of letters, master of
several languages and persuasive speaker. Overflowing with enthusiasm
and energy, he was an intellectual of his time, this end of the twentieth
century when the triumph of democracy seems really within reach.