The Kurds in Iran: a history of the present

15 July 2004 - By Said Shams
  Below is the speech given by Said Shams, a researcher and political analyst, at a public meeting held on Wednesday, 14 July, at the House of Commons titled "The Kurds in Iran: A forgotten struggle."

Ladies and gentlemen, 15 years ago, 13th of July 1989, I was shocked and stunned when I heard the news that Dr Qasemlo, the leader of KDPI, had been assassinated under “unknown circumstances’’ in Austria. We all know now what those “unknown circumstances” were. He was assassinated while having a meeting with a delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was a well planned execution, and clear example of state terrorism. Dr Qasemlo was one of the greatest leaders of the Kurdish national movement. At the same time, he established diplomatic ties with international progressive forces, particularly the social democratic movement, and this earned him a noticeable popularity among European political leaders and journalists. Thus, his assassination generated a widespread condemnation worldwide. However, despite condemnations of the assassination of Dr Qasemlo, nothing has been done to bring those who committed this crime on European soil to justice.

The assassination of Dr Qasemlo and other Kurdish prominent leaders is part of a long campaign of violence against the Kurdish nation. I shall attempt to analyse this violence by focusing of three interrelated issues. First is the nature of the repressive policy of the Islamic regime towards the Kurdish population in Iranian Kurdistan, and the political resistance that this repression has generated. Second is the reflection of this issue within the international community and the Western media. Third is the current political predicament in Iraq, which has created a rather ironic situation; that is to say, whereas the political future of the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan is on the political agenda of USA and Britain, the plight of the Kurds in other parts of Kurdistan, in particular the Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan, is being ignored.

Let us start with the nature of the repressive policy of the Iranian state vis-à-vis the Kurds. I have to take you through a very brief historical journey; for without a historical review one can hardly comprehend and understand the Iranian state’s repressive policy towards the Kurds.

During the 20th Century a constant struggle has been going on between the centralisation policy of Persian nationalism and the Kurdish people’s fight for their national rights in Iranian Kurdistan. It is, in fact, a conflict between two nationalisms - one that has achieved state power and the other that struggles for self-government and eventually statehood. The scope of this constant struggle can be understood if we examine the circumstances under which Persian nationalism emerged.

The discourse of Iranian nationhood emerged during the constitutional movement. The first constitution was written in 1906, which contained the elements of a democratic polity. The discourse of separation of powers and popular sovereignty formed an integral part of the Constitution, and in this way it provided a basis for the definition of the Iranian nation and regarded it as the source of political legitimacy. Although the Constitution acknowledged the equality of the population of Iran before the law, it was silent on the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of Iranian society. However the constitutional revolution and movement had failed and its failure had a great impact on the development of what has been termed ‘Iranian official nationalism’. The objective of this kind of nationalism was the construction of a modern nation-state out of a multiethnic country. The Persian ethnic group, which constituted no more than 50 per sent of the population, formed the cultural, linguistic and religious foundation and identity of this ‘nation-state’.

In 1925 Reza Pahlavi seized power and the so-called Pahlavi era began. This era is by now known as an authoritative king’s attempt to modernize and nationalize the country. The newly established Pahlavi regime turned the silence of the Constitution on the ethnic diversity of Iranian society into a denial of the existence of non-Persian ethnic and national communities in Iran. As far as the Kurds were concerned, Pahlvi’s nation-building strategy was based on the conviction that Kurds did not exist as a distinct ‘people’. However, since the Kurds existence a distinct people proved to be difficult to deny, the strategy shifted to Persianize the Kurds by suppressing their linguistic and cultural identity. In fact, the Pahlavi regime(s) conducted genocide, ethnocide and linguicide in order Presianize the Kurds.

The Shah’s power was built on a strong, British and then US-backed, military and secret police; therefore, it was successful in executing its repressive policy towards the Kurds without any international objection. After Reza Shah’s abdication, despotism was relatively moderated between 1941 and 1953. It was under this condition that the Azerbaijanis and Kurds established their autonomous governments in 1946. However, the official notion of nation-building strategy was pursued. As a result, having maintained the support of the United States and Britain, the Iranian Army succeeded to crush the Kurdistan Republic that had been declared in Mahabad in 1946. The Pahalvi Regime continued its repressive policy until its fall in 1979.

The revolution of 1978-79 and the fall of the monarchy and soon after the formation of the Islamic Republic, thoroughly transformed the political landscape of Iran. The Iranian revolution in 1979 was the most important revolution in modern history. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile he was welcomed by massive demonstrations and celebrations. People expected him to bring Iran out of international dependency and establish social justice and democratic participation. Soon after the Islamic revolution the monarchy was declared to be non-Islamic and the establishment of an Islamic state was demanded.

During the revolutionary process of 1978-79 the anti-monarchist movement in Kurdistan was mainly secular. By the end of 1979 two religious leaders had emerged: first, Shiekh Ezzaddin Hoseini in Mehabad, and second, Ahmad Moftizadeh in Sanandaj. The former, a cleric with a history of nationalist struggle, called for the formation of a secular and democratic state with autonomy for the Kurds. The latter, a religious but non-clerical person, advocated for an Islamic state. The Islamic regime have tried to set up an Islamic foothold in Kurdistan, and therefore relied on Moftizadeh’s line as an alternative to weaken the radical, secular and democratic tendencies of the autonomous Kurdish movement. Although Moftizadeh enjoyed support from some sections of Kurdish people in Sanandaj, the majority of the Kurds throughout Kurdistan supported the secular and democratic politics of the national parties and personalities such as Shekh Azzddin and Moftizadeh’s became marginalised. Following bloody clashes between the Kurdish forces and the regime in March 1979, the regime prepared a full-scale attack on Kurdistan.

This was in line with the context of reconstructing the Iranian political structure following the fall of monarchy in Iran. To put it briefly, it was a reconstruction of Persian nationalism based on a specifically Shiite foundation. The dispute between the Islamic regime and the Kurdish national movement was the inevitable war of two visions, the conflict between Persian nationalism with a strong fundamentalist tone and Kurdish nationalism with a secular and democratic outlook. In inheriting the administrative machinery of the Iranian state the newly established Islamic regime both transformed and reconstructed the official Iranian nationalism. Once again the very existence of the Kurds was seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the Iranian state and its new Islamic character. Therefore for the Islamic discourse the future and stability of the Islamic system was only possible at the expense of suppressing the Kurdish claim to self-rule. Therefore soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the regime resorted to the politics of confrontation and violence rather negotiation and compromise with the Kurdish national movement.

In line with this development, in the summer of 1979 the regime launched an anti-Kurdish campaign. Following the clashes of Paveh and Mirwan on 19 August of 1979, Khomeini declared himself commander-in-chief of the armed forces and ordered the army and air force to attack Kurdistan. It is interesting to recall that the August offensive was staged on the opening of the Assembly of Experts, which was assigned with the task of drafting the Islamic constitution. The full scale war against the Kurdish nation in Iran continued until mid-1985 which left many casualties, destructions and unbearable sufferings for the Kurdish people. By the end of 1985 the Islamic regime had won the military war and managed to recapture the areas previously controlled by the Kurdish Pishmargas.

The Kurdish nation is the only stateless nation that throughout the modern history of the Middle East has been subject to campaigns of ethnic cleansing because of its claim to self-rule and statehood. Following the fall of the monarchy, the Western media paid attention to the Kurdish struggle in Iran. The image of the Kurdish fighters resisting a powerful military machine of an Islamic state was an available commodity for sale. Therefore there was some coverage of the Kurdish struggle in Iran but soon the whole issue was forgotten. In recent years, the international community and world media have not only kept silent on Iran’s treatment of the Kurds, but they have also applauded the reformists in Iran.

The European countries, and among them the British government, that have been pre-occupied with maintaining their economies and enhancing their power in the region, have launched a so-called constructive dialogue with the Iranian government. This policy aims at maintaining the European countries interest at the expense of an ethical policy to which they tend to pay lip service now and then. Once again the Kurds in Iran have become the victims of the interplay of regional geopolitics and economics interests of the big powers.

Whereas the Kurdish cause in Iranian Kurdistan has been ignored, the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan are being regarded as ‘allies’ of the USA and Britain. America and her allies, as they approach the current situation in the Middle East, need a theme around which to construct their policies and roles. They had once the Cold War theme and now they have the “War on terror.” But as we know now, there is a tension between the emphasis on democratisation and the “War on terror.” The definition and need for organising themes tells us much more about the American ethos than about the Middle East. Let us not forget the fact whatever the usefulness or relevance of the emphasis on democratisation, it does seem likely to be rhetoric rather than a real strategy. So there remains the theme of “War on terror”.

Considering the current political impasse in Iraq and the unintended consequences of the Iraqi occupation, I do not think that there is any need to talk in detail about this campaign of War on terror. My understanding is that this is more a campaign of breaking up the current structure of authority and enforcing a new order in the region based on maintaining USA dominance in the region rather than a sincere war on terror. How the Kurdish agenda in general, and the Kurdish cause in Iranian Kurdistan in particular, can ‘fit’ to this development remains to be seen.

Resolving the Kurdish issue in all parts of Kurdistan is, however, of strategic importance for the prospects of democracy and stability in the future of the Middle East. The people of Kurdistan deserve fair settlement which allows all of them to live together on a basis of freedom and equality. As it seems now, however, there is a contradiction in the policies of USA and its allies towards Kurdish movements in the respective parts of Kurdistan; as I said earlier, the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan are regarded as ‘allies’ in War on terror, whereas the political demands of the Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan are being ignored. And there is, furthermore, the attempt to deligitimze the Kurdish movement in Turkey by labelling it as ‘terrorist’. We have, in other words, ‘good Kurds’ on the one side, ‘bad Kurds’ on the other, and in between we have the Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan that are being ignored. This three-strand policy indicates the USA and its allies are aware the significant role of the Kurdish movements but at the same time it is a matter of ‘fitting’ them within the wider picture of enforcing a new order in the region. This is not a new scenario. Many of these questions also emerged in the early 1970s when there was a strong Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq. In fact, the Nixton-Kissinger administration supported the armed Iraqi Kurdish movement because the Shah of Iran wanted to bring Saddam Hussain to the bargaining table over the Shatt al-Arab. When they secured the deal the Kurdish movement was left alone. I am not suggesting that the same scenario will necessary occur in the Iraqi Kurdistan. Rather I am arguing the concept of the Bad Kurds and the Good Kurds has been constructed to justify contradicting policies of the big powers toward the Kurds.

What are most disturbing in this current climate are the very notions of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ Kurds, respectively. The notion of ‘bad Kurds’ is indirectly referring to the Kurdish armed struggle. Simply a ‘good Kurd’ is someone that does and says what West wants him/her to do. A ‘good Kurd’ is, moreover, someone who does not disturb the stability of an allied regime in the region. A ‘good Kurd’ is someone who remains silent when the geopolitical interests of the big powers dictate so. Such as logic can justify the silence over unprecedented violence against the Kurds in Iran including the criminal act of assassinating Dr Qaesmlo. Armed struggle has always been a salient issue within the Kurdish movement. But despite the fact the Kurdish nation has been subject of intense campaigns of atrocities, massacres and ethnocide in the past 80 years; it is amazing that for the Kurdish national movements armed struggle has always been a measure of last resort. In fact, a brief survey of the history of Kurdish nationalism indicates in most cases that the Kurdish leaders were against the use of violence. This is an issue that is taken for granted by many people. I personally do not know any other national liberation movements that so uniquely have kept its distance from violence while suffering from the worst possible state terror and military suppression.

Ladies and gentlemen, we gathered here this evening to pay respect to the memory of Dr Qasemlo who was brutally assassinated by Iranian agents in a European country. Dr Qasemlo’s political priority for most of his life was to advance the cause of his oppressed people. The assassination of Dr Qasemlo as a prominent Kurdish leader is not so much a confirmation of the ‘success’ of the Iranian state in its violent campaign against Kurdish nationalism, but rather a tragic testimony of the failure of ‘nation’ building’ in Iran. Nation-building in Iran is doomed to failure as long as it is based on the idea of imposing Persian ethnicity on other ethnic and national groups.

It is, against that background, most unlikely to bring about a democratic order in Iran based on the rule of law, without accommodating the Kurdish nation’s political and territorial rights. Such a vision, for which Dr Qasemlo gave his life, needs above all international support. This meeting is a way to pay respect to his memory, as well as to all those who scarified their lives for the rights of the Kurdish nation.

Allow me, by way of a conclusion, to emphasis that the Kurdish question in all parts of Kurdistan is the struggle of a nation that is deprived of its right to self-determination. Any viable solution to the Kurdish question should be based on recognition of this right of self-determination. In other words, the Kurdish question can not be resolved on the basis of the politics of ‘tolerance’; nor can it be reduced to solely a humanitarian issue. My hope is that this kind of meetings shall pave the way for serious efforts to put the Kurdish issue in Iranian Kurdistan on the international political agenda.
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